The portrayal of African-American religion and the black church in James Baldwin's "Go Tell It On The Mountain "

Term Paper, 2006

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Short Biography of James Baldwin

3. Overview Pentecostalism and Black Church

4. Contents in Go Tell It On The Mountain

5. Religion within the novel
5.1 The Title
5.2 Part One
5.3 Part Two
5.3.1 Florence’s Prayer
5.3.2 Gabriel’s Prayer
5.3.3 Elizabeth’s Prayer
5.4 Part Three

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper deals with the religious aspects in James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On The Mountain. As this book is partly autobiographical, the first chapter delivers a short biography of the author James Baldwin. His life and (religious) experiences had a great influence on his writing and several common aspects between his own life and the one of the novel’s hero John Grimes can be identified.

Prior to treat the topic of religious aspects within the novel, the background and an overview of Pentecostal and Black Church belief in general are given.

After a short summary of the plot in chapter 4, the paper deals with the aspects of Afro-American Religion and the Black Church in the book, including the title and every single chapter of the book. At the end of this paper, there’s a short conclusion.

2. Short Biography of James Baldwin

James Arthur Baldwin was born to Emma Berdis Jones and an unknown father on August 2nd in 1924 in Harlem[1], New York. He never knew the identity of his biological father, which haunted him all his life. In 1927, Emma marries David Baldwin, a storefront church[2] preacher who has recently moved to Harlem from New Orleans. Both, Emma and David, were part of the “Great Migration” in 1919, coming from the South to the industrial North seeking better social conditions and economic opportunities. James Baldwin was the eldest of nine children and since his stepfather was a factory-worker and his mother had to work as a domestic to support the growing family, James was forced to assume a kind of maternal role towards his brothers and sisters. He desperately tried to receive love, but was constantly required to give it. His stern, distant and authoritarian stepfather insisted that his children devote as much spare time as they could to his views of Christian teachings. When elder, James sought compensation in reading and in writing (e.g. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and had the ambition to become an author.

At the age of fourteen, he experienced a profound religious crisis which broke down his previous opposition to becoming a preacher:

I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life afraid- afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without. (Baldwin quoted in Kinnamon 158)

He started to immerse himself in the study of the Bible and after morning school, he preached and taught as a minister at evening meetings and on Saturdays and Sundays.

At the age of seventeen, he abandoned preaching. Only six years later, in 1943, his stepfather David died of tuberculosis.

After having graduated, he left home in order to support his talent as a writer. In 1948, Baldwin left America for Paris, intending never to turn back (Kinnamon 203).

He stayed in Europe for nine years, mostly in France, but also in Switzerland. There he found enough distance from the American society he grew up in to write about it.

It was in Paris that Baldwin told in public that he was homosexual, and he was ready to immediately declare it to new acquaintances. He claimed that his life-long sexual orientation has never been a secret, but he had not felt it was necessary or “anybody’s business” to openly affirm it (Baldwin, Longman 276).

As a Negro and a homosexual he was doubly an outsider against whom dreadful injustices have been perpetrated (Bloom 61). This is the reason why he decided to speak out in public for so called minorities, in particular Black people.

After writing a number of pieces that were published in various magazines, Baldwin published Go Tell It On The Mountain in 1953. Throughout the rest of the decade, Baldwin moved from Paris to New York to Istanbul, writing his successful novel Giovanni’s Room and the Notes Of A Native Son.

His travels brought him even closer to social concerns of contemporary America, that’s why in the 1960’s he became an important Civil Rights Movement speaker, struggling for the dignity of the Negro[3] in the United States. Later, other successful novels like Another Country (1962), The Fire Next Time (1963) or Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone (1968) were published. He also wrote plays for the Broadway.

During the last ten years of his life Baldwin, again, produced a number of important works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. For his writings, he received many honours and awards.

On December 1st in 1987, he died because of gastric cancer in Saint Paul de Vence, in the South of France.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Perhaps no other Negro writer is as telling society just what it feels like to be a Negro in the United States.
(Baldwin quoted in Sonny’s Blues 5)

3. Overview Pentecostalism and Black Church

To the religious understanding of James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On The Mountain, the concept and history of Black Pentecostalism and the Black Church is of crucial importance.

When the first Africans reached the United States, they were baptized and most of them joined one of the two main Christian sects existing in the South: the Methodist or the Baptist. These two sects base most of their teachings on the Bible. The Negroes’ early participation in the new faith depended on a close study and interest on the Bible. As time went on, Negroes established their own churches, but with certain variations which could perhaps be traced to the Negroes’ African Background (Baldwin, Longman 256).

Some members of the Pentecostal Church are possessed by the “Spirit” and begin to “prophecy” and “testify” to the might and saving mercies of the Lord. The use of musical instruments, singing of Negro Spirituals, the clapping of hands, stamping of feet and rhythmic body movement play a major role during the sermons, which are usually very emotional. It can be described as an ecstasy of spiritual elation when the members start dancing and singing.

The members of the church consider themselves to be a family and address one another in family-terms, such as brother, sister, mother and father. Furthermore, the members regard themselves as “Saints” and all non-members as “the Sinners”.

The beginnings of the modern Pentecostal movement centered on the white Revolutionist Charles Parham. The pentecostal scene shifts to the West, to California, where in 1906 a black minister named W.J. Seymour arrived to preach a small Nazarene church. After three days of his preaching, the Spirit fell and “tongues” were heard on the West Coast (Sylvander 130).

The meeting quickly outgrew the small home and a former African Methodist Episcopal church building was rented on Azusa Street in the industrial part of the city. From here was to develop the revival church, sending the pentecostal experience around the world. It was called “Apostolic Faith Mission”.

The Pentecostal Experience may be defined as seeking and receiving the gift of speaking in tongues[4] as a sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In turn that baptism may be defined as the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the individual believer. Furthermore, the ability of healing and other charismatic gifts are considered to be the real aspects of the pentecostal belief.

The following sentence within the novel may serve as a real evidence for the link between the novel and the Pentecostals:

Their church was called the Temple Of The Fire Baptized. (Baldwin,Longman 4)

Among some new personal Pentecost churches was the so-called “Fire-Baptized Holiness Church Of God Of The Americans”, which leads to the assumption, that they are closely connected. Literally overnight, the majority of the ministers and churches in these groups were swept lock, stock and barrel into the Pentecostal Movement (

4. Contents in Go Tell It On The Mountain

Go Tell It On The Mountain is mainly the story of the 14- year- old boy John Grimes, who grew up in poverty in Harlem, New York. John is a sensitive and brooding boy, who is troubled with the questions of sin and identity. Furthermore, he’s got the desire to see the world and break free from the boundaries of his life in the poor ghetto. His family is one of the mainstays of the Pentecostal store front church, of which John’s stepfather Gabriel is a deacon. The latter always expects his family to follow his religious path. The first sentence points out the fact, which other members of the family and the Pentecostal community expect John to be in the future:

Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.

It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late (Baldwin,Longman 3).


[1] Harlem is situated in the north- central part of Manhattan Island, one of the main sections in New York City. In the 1960s, over half a million Negroes lived there and Harlem has become the largest urban Negro community in the United States.

[2] Storefront churches are churches,which hold their services in disused stores and shops.

[3] The word „Negro“ probably derives from the Latin word „Niger“, meaning black. In America, it describes anyone who descendend from the original black slaves brought from Africa to the United States.

[4] Speaking in tongues means, that speaking or praying is done in a language, that the speaker doesn’t know. According to a Christian religious belief, the prayers are convinced that this skill is a sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The portrayal of African-American religion and the black church in James Baldwin's "Go Tell It On The Mountain "
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Amerikanistik, Anglistik und Anglophonie)
Religion in American Literature and Culture
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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African-American, James, Baldwin, Tell, Mountain, Religion, American, Literature, Culture
Quote paper
Meike Krause (Author), 2006, The portrayal of African-American religion and the black church in James Baldwin's "Go Tell It On The Mountain ", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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