Go Tell It on the Mountain (novel)

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Go Tell It on the Mountain
First edition
AuthorJames Baldwin
CountryUnited States
GenreSemi-autobiographical novel
Publication date
May 18, 1953[1]
ISBN0-440-33007-6 (Paperback edition)
LC ClassPS3552 .A5 G6

Go Tell It on the Mountain is a 1953 semi-autobiographical novel by James Baldwin. It tells the story of John Grimes, an intelligent teenager in 1930s Harlem, and his relationship with his family and his church. The novel also reveals the back stories of John's mother, his biological father, and his violent, fanatically religious stepfather, Gabriel Grimes. The novel focuses on the role of the Pentecostal Church in the lives of African Americans, both as a negative source of repression and moral hypocrisy and a positive source of inspiration and community. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Go Tell It on the Mountain 39th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time Magazine included the novel on its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[2]


While the US was involving itself into three different wars, Korean, Cold, and Second Red Scare, The Dial Press was publishing "Go Tell It On The Mountain" in 1953. Baldwin decided to use art, literature, and the culture expansion of his hometown of Harlem for inspiration for the novel, despite all of the day to day war media. [3] He applied the previous African American Great Migration to his character backgrounds and to allow for contrasting views. James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain also reflects elements of African-American folklore, similar to the ones found in West Africa. Things like sermons, music, and spirituality in the novel took inspiration from African-American culture, but also the Wolof ethnic group of West Africa. This parallel is seen as a interpretation to Baldwin's relationship with Africa.[4]

Plot summary[edit]

Go Tell It on the Mountain is an emotional story that contains time gaps throughout seventy years. The novel allows its reader to peek into the minds of multiple characters; however, the story takes place during one twenty-four hour period. The book explores several controversial topics in the history of the United States, including racism in New York's Harlem and the South, poverty, and the anger that racism stimulated. Baldwin's novel tells the story of John Grimes who desires to be nothing like his father Gabriel. Gabriel is the pastor of what he considers the best Pentecostal church in Harlem. The audience reads different voices from the Pentecostal Church throughout the novel hearing stories from John, his father Gabriel, his aunt Florence, and his mother Elizabeth. The protagonist John deals with many internal conflicts that result in external conflicts between his father, church members, and his family. Baldwin uses multiple religious motifs to forward the issues that boil within the church and Grimes family.


Go Tell It on the Mountain is structured in a nonlinear structure. The novel is in a narrative voice that shifts between characters perspectives. Scenes also tend to veer off into reveries. The novel is broken down into: "Part One: The Seventh Day," "Part Two: The Prayer of the Saints-Florence's Prayer," "Part Two: The Prayer of the Saints-Gabriel's Prayer," "Part two: The Prayer of the Saints-Elizabeth's Prayer," and, finally, "Part Three: The Threshing-Floor". [5]


  • The Novel: The ambiguity of the title was intentional on Baldwin's part. He wanted it to symbolize the unity of The Old Testament and New Testament. The cry of "Go Tell it on the Mountain" is much more than the mere announcement of good news; it is a shout of faith. But with this faith, struggle and suffering is still present. Through the novel, the title becomes symbolic of the specific human situation when a costly break with the past has been made and a new road, beset with dangers but promising salvation, has been undertaken.
  • Bible References: Go Tell It on the Mountain is a novel with a lot of hidden symbolism, specifically religious symbolism. There have been many misconceptions about the novel because of Baldwin's use of Biblical allusion for symbolic expression.[6]
  • Music: To start, the title "Go Tell It" has an African American religious reference. It refers to the good news, or gospel that Jesus Christ is born, or the message of Moses to the People. Music plays a very big part in John's release as well at the Threshing Floor. He is able to build off of the music to reach his God-given revelation.
  • John's journey to manhood:This is a symbolization of the psychological step from dependence to a sense of self. Up to a certain point in John's life, he relies on the Pentecostal church for guidance. However, as he gets older, he realizes some things about himself, for example his homosexuality, and begins to go on a spiritual pilgrimage to figure himself out.[7]
  • Central Park: Baldwin calls this location John's "favorite hill". The hill at central park relates to John's journey as he is force his way out of his current state of poverty and "anger". This park represents a safe space outside the pressures of his home and the church. This is the first time within the novel that John feels powerful and confident. He wants to cry out a upon reaching the top of the hill. The hill represents the stark journey that he must press himself out of to get to that place of a chance for spiritual freedom. However, he soon realizes that this hill is not his only obstacle. He must now face the opposing racist forces in the better part of the city. Also, Central Park is the representation of a Mountain within New York City. It is a place where John can look at his past and future.
  • The Seventh Day: The seventh day is known for the day the Lord rests after he created the heavens and the earth.[8] In the section of the book, after John cleans the house he is able to go about his day with leisure. It also relates to the first part of the bible because after God's day of rest what follows is the events of the Bible. The resting of God is a form of resting for preparing the for the work that is ahead. This can also be said about John. He takes a day of leisure before he is set to go find his revelation at the threshing floor.
  • The Threshing Floor: There are 10 instances where the word threshing appears within the Bible. At least half of those appearances refer to an instrument. In Baldwin's novel, the threshing instrument of choice is the floor at the altar. Threshing is defined as a way to separate seed from a harvested plant.[9] As John experiences his spiritual encounter he is separating himself from Gabriel, whom he sees as a father. John is the artificial seed that has been produced by Gabriel, the harvested plant. Threshing is commonly used within the bible to show a sort of judgement before God. The floor can also be seen as a place that judgements from God are placed. This is why Gabriel is upset when John passes God's judgement at the threshing floor and is bestowed with revelation.


It is also interesting to note that, although it is obvious that the novel takes place in New York City, it is actually a tale of two cities. Baldwin displays two cities; the earthly and the heavenly. Together, this helps focus on some of the novels main points like father and son relations, individuality and community, and the holy and unholy. Go Tell It on the Mountain unfolds in 1935 within the city of Harlem, New York. This is years after Gabriel and Elizabeth, although separately, migrate to Harlem during The Great Migration. Despite the hope that life will be better , the novel still displays two distinct aspects which result from the migration. While John's family is a part of the church and decently well-off, drunkards and prostitutes fill the route to the doors of the church. The novel is able to showcase both the culture and the "urban nightmare" that the Harlem Renaissance conveyed.[10] Even though the majority of the novel takes place in Harlem, it is worth mentioning that in certain character's flashbacks, the deep South is also revealed. The novel's South stays true to history as Deborah is raped by multiple white men. Even though those tragedies aren't reflected in present day Harlem, the city is not without problems. Baldwin hints at Harlem's racial tensions in education, leisure, and social interactions. Despite the explorations of the city, majority of the novel is told within The Church of the Fire Baptized.


It is important to note that many of these characters only appear in flashbacks within the prayers of main characters.

  • John Grimes: The novel's protagonist. John is confused about religion due to the lack of compassion that his father, Gabriel, shows. However, it is revealed later within the novel that Gabriel is actually John's stepfather. John is a smart 14 year old boy that likes to explore things that are condemned by the church. As he navigates the novel, Baldwin hints at a homosexual undertone.
  • Gabriel: John’s stepfather and the church's pastor. He is very controlling and physically abusive to his family. Despite his strong faith, he was involved in an extramarital affair as a young man. Gabriel's first son, Royal, is the product of this relationship, and John is also associated with the sins of premarital sex. As a result Gabriel rejects them both.
  • Elizabeth: The wife to Gabriel and mother to John and his siblings. John's father was Richard who died before John was born. Since Richard and Elizabeth were not married, Gabriel agrees to marry her and take John in as his own son. She lives an austere Christian lifestyle. She wants John to give his life to God and the church.
  • Esther: The woman who works with Gabriel who he has a short lived affair with while married to Deborah. He pays her off to not tell anyone about the affair and she disappears out of his life. She has Gabriel's first son, Royal , who later is killed. When Gabriel receives word that his son Royal has died, he grieves for his child while learning that Deborah knew of Royal's existence all along.
  • Florence: Gabriel's sister, who has an antagonistic relationship with him, after leaving Gabriel to care for their dying mother. Florence reveals many of the sins that Gabriel has committed before he came to know God. She is sick and dying from an illness and threatens to reveal her knowledge of Gabriel's sin with Royal's mother.
  • Frank: Frank was Florence's husband who left her. However, in WWI he died.
  • Sister McDonald: She was Esther's mother.
  • Deborah: Florence's friend who became Gabriel's first wife.
  • Roy: John's younger brother, product of Gabriel and Elizabeth's marriage.
  • Elisha: A young layperson at Gabriel's church and mentor to John.
  • The Saints: These are the saved members of what is known as the Grimeses' Church, Temple of the Fire Baptized. ie. Father James, Deacon Braithwaite, Ella Mae, Praying Mother Washington, and Sister McCandless.
  • Ella Mae: The girl Elisha flirts with and meets at the park on Saturday. After Pastor James warns against them having premarital sex, in front of the entire congregation, their meetings conclude.
  • Elizabeth's Aunt: This was the sister of Elizabeth's mother. After Elizabeth's mother passed, she took Elizabeth from her father. Elizabeth went to live with her aunt in Maryland.
  • Rachel: This was Gabriel's and Florence's mother who lived through the time of slavery. Throughout the novel, we learn that she lost several of her children.

References to other works[edit]

Baldwin makes several references to the Bible in Go Tell It on the Mountain, most importantly to the story of Ham, Noah’s son who saw his father naked one day. Noah consequently cursed Ham’s son Canaan to become the servant of Noah’s other sons.

Baldwin refers to several other people and stories from the Bible, at one point alluding to the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, and drawing a parallel to that exodus and the need for a similar exodus for African-Americans out of their subservient role in which whites have kept them. John's wrestling with Elisha evokes the story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious supernatural being in Genesis.

The rhythm and language of the story draw heavily on the language of the Bible, particularly of the King James Version. Many of the passages use the patterns of repetition identified by scholars such as Robert Alter and others as being characteristic of Biblical poetry.[11]

Major themes[edit]

James Baldwin grew up in Harlem and never knew his biological father. His Baptist minister stepfather was "Brooding, silent, tyrannical ... and physically abusive, he was also a storefront preacher of morbid intensity."[12] Also like John, Baldwin underwent a religious awakening at the age of 14, when Baldwin became a Pentecostal preacher. His later novels expressed his growing disillusionment with church life, and they also feature homosexual and bisexual themes.[12]

John is a confused adolescent boy. He cannot look at anything without having it painted in the light of the church. According to the church, he is committing sin because of his own nature, which is the cause of his confusion.

The story includes racial injustice, both as a background theme, and in one flashback sequence which led to the suicide of Richard, John's biological father. Richard had been wrongly imprisoned and beaten, despite having proclaimed his innocence.

Sex and Mortality[edit]

Sex and morality also seem to be an important theme in the novel. The novel expresses that sin and sex go hand in hand. Sex is always something that is tempting the characters in the novel. A good example of this would be when John masturbates and literally calls it "sinning his hand". Deborah, is also haunted by her past. She was raped violently and was forced into sex, however, she is seen as "a living reproach". In the novel, John is threatened by a religion that labels sex as evil. This theme of sexuality is represented with terms like " the natural man" and "the old Adam". Both Gabriel and the church use these terms negatively in condemnation of man's sexual nature. They see this natural human nature of lust as sinful. These kind of negative stigmas surrounding sexuality pressed in him by the church and his father, altered John's perspective on sexuality. [13] John's sexualities and his feelings toward his sexuality also may be a reflection of Baldwin and his feelings toward his own sexuality. James Baldwin is one of the major writers who were daring enough to write about gay black men from a black perspective. Baldwin search for an identity as a black homosexual writer is reflected in his writing.[14] John and his feelings of needing to suppress his sexuality and hide it were probably feelings Baldwin had before he finally came out. Baldwin himself was also brought up in the Pentecostal church and was even a preacher until the age of 17. Just like John, he left that life to become the man he was destined to be.

Religious Symbolism[edit]

In her article, Shirley Allen reinforces the importance of race in the novel ″Go Tell it on the Mountain″. She writes that the issue runs deeper than white vs black. The issue is within the heart of an individual. The problem within the novel is said to be a universal one. It deals with youth finding maturity and religion. [15]

Black Holiness[edit]

Douglas Field argues that "Go Tell it on the Mountain" has a strong central focus on Black Holiness. In fact, he states that the black church demands for re-examination to take place. This re-examination must take place between theology and politics. Black Holiness drives the novel according to Field.[16] Additionally, the story is full of both biblical and black spiritual illusions. Barbara Olson suggests that Pentecostal worship is prevalent throughout both the play and the novel. The idea of the 'anointed' offspring concerns both Gabriel and Margaret. The offspring will follow in their footsteps.[17]

Self Realization[edit]

In the novel, a number of the characters seem to have moments of self realization. The first one that comes to mind is John. At the end of the novel, in his moment of "salvation", John is knocked to the ground by the Holy Ghost. He then hears a voice that tells him to rise and leave the temple and go see the world for himself. This ironic voice is basically telling John to take charge of his own life; to stop being a people pleaser, and at this moment he has self realization. In this moment he realizes that he no longer has to believe what Gabriel says. John's father, by the implication, God-the-Father are judgmental forces that should be defied. At the very end, the voice says " Get up, John, Get up boy. Don't let him keep you there. You got everything your Daddy got". This voice was the last push John needed to really realize and fully take control of his life and be sure about it. [18]

Holiness vs Worldlines[edit]

Warren shares that the novel is not a representation of Christianity itself.[19] However, it is a battle between the two opposing forces that Christianity focuses on. While John is faced with doing his daily duties in church, he is also faced with how to conduct himself outside of church. This can be the cause of his conflicting emotions for masturbating. He enjoyed it enough to perform a worldly activity but then On his birthday, he attends the movie theater in a nicer part of town. Yet, the lavish areas are often associate with sin and this conflicts John. John is also aware of the sins that the mind can commit. When Elisha is condemned in front of the church for flirting with Ella Mae, John's mind makes the comparison between someone such as Elisha sinning. Baldwin also plays on these opposites as he describes Elisha's praise to readers. "head thrown back, eyes closed, sweat standing on his brow", "stiffened and trembles", "cried out. Jesus, Jesus, oh Lord Jesus!", "face congested", and "his body could not contain this passion" are all excerpts from the novel that can carry a sexual undertone. Gabriel and his position at the church are another example of these two concepts. At home his is abusive to his family despite providing for them all, yet, the church uplifts the man he chooses to show at the pulpit. Florence is aware of this and antagonizes Gabriel about his two sides.


Florence's Prayer[edit]

Florence’s prayer in the novel discusses her reputation as a woman in a patriarchal environment. Florence’s prayer provides insight into her childhood with her brother Gabriel and the events that lead to her hatred towards him. Although Florence is five years older than her brother Gabriel, he was given the education and respected that Florence desired. In a patriarchal environment, Gabriel’s future matters more than Florence’s. Thus, their mother motivated Gabriel’s education and dismissed Florence’s wish to attend school. Their mother's favoritism towards Gabriel caused Florence to loathe her brother. Florence also possesses characteristics that fuel feminist ideals. She did not want to live under her brother's reputationFrom the time Gabriel was born, Florence is expected to live an ordinary housewife's life. Her mother wanted her to cook, clean, marry and have a family. However, Florence believes that she will live a better life in the north. Florence is a strong-willed and independent woman. She moved on her own to achieve a better life for herself. Florence's guilt for leaving and “abandoning” her family is unjustified. She moves after an employee pursues sexual advances with her in the workplace. Thus, Florence's guilt for leaving her family indeed points towards the patriarchal environment that she grew up in.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

The Public Broadcasting Service produced a made-for-television movie based on Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1984. Stan Lathan directed the film, with Paul Winfield starring as Gabriel in his adulthood and Ving Rhames playing Gabriel in his youth.[20] Baldwin was pleased with the adaptation, saying in an interview with The New York Times, "I am very, very happy about it [...] It did not betray the book."[21]

The work was translated into French in 1957 by Henri Hell and Maud Vidal under the title Les Élus du Seigneur.


Go Tell It On the Mountain has frequently been the center of controversy.

In 1988, a teacher in Prince William County, Virginia offered the book as a ninth-grade summer reading option. Parents challenged the book because it is "rife with profanity and explicit sex."[22]

In 1994, the book was challenged in Hudson Falls, New York after a teacher had assigned the book as required reading. Parents challenged the book because of "recurring themes of rape, masturbation, violence, and degrading treatment of women."[22]


  1. ^ "Books Published Today". The New York Times: 19. May 18, 1953.
  2. ^ "All-Time 100 Novels". Time. October 16, 2005. Archived from the original on October 21, 2005.
  3. ^ Pickoff, Dave. "Harlem—Born and Bred". National Museum of African American History and Culture. Smithsonian. Retrieved April 12, 2021.
  4. ^ Henderson, Carol E. (2004). James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain: Historical and Critical Essays. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. p. 41. ISBN 9780820481586.
  5. ^ Bransford, Nathan (2019). "Why it works:Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin". nathanbransford.com. Retrieved April 12, 2021.
  6. ^ Allen, Shirley S. (1975). ""Religious Symbolism and Psychic Reality in Baldwin's 'Go Tell It on the Mountain'"". CLA Journal. 19 (2): 173–199.
  7. ^ Lundén, Rolf (1981). ""The progress of a Pilgim: Jamees Baldwin's 'Go Tell It on the Mountain'"". Studia Neophilologica. 53: 113–126. doi:10.1080/00393278108587803.
  8. ^ Genesis 2:2
  9. ^ "Thresh". Merriam Webster.
  10. ^ Scruggs, Charles (1980). ""The Tale of Two Cities in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on The Mountain"". American Literature. 52 (1): 1–17. doi:10.2307/2925184. JSTOR 2925184.
  11. ^ Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, Basic Books, 1987
  12. ^ a b Anderson, Michael (March 29, 1998). "Trapped Inside James Baldwin". The New York Times. Retrieved September 6, 2015.
  13. ^ Giles, James R. (1974). ""Religious Alienation and Homosexual Consciousness in "City of Night" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain""". College English. 36 (3): 369–380. doi:10.2307/374856. JSTOR 374856.
  14. ^ Fattah, Nadia (1996). "Janes Baldwin's Search for a Homosexual Identity in his Novels". Dissertations and Theses. Portland State University. doi:10.15760/etd.7103.
  15. ^ Allen, Shirley S. (1975). "Religious Symbolism and Psychic Reality in Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain"". Cla Journal. 19 (2): 173–199. JSTOR 44324679.
  16. ^ Field, Douglas (2007). "James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain: Historical and Critical Essays, and: James Baldwin's God: Sex, Hope, and Crisis in Black Holiness Culture (Review)". Callaloo. 30 (2): 665–669. doi:10.1353/cal.2007.0207. S2CID 162345448.
  17. ^ Olson, Barbara (1997). ""Come-to-Jesus Stuff" in James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain and the Amen Corner". African American Review. 31 (2): 295–301. doi:10.2307/3042466. JSTOR 3042466.
  18. ^ Mootry, Maria (1985). "Baldwin's ″GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN″". 41 (2): 50. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  19. ^ Warren, Nagueyalti (1992). "The Substance of Things Hoped for: Faith in "Go Tell It on the Mountain and Just Above My Head"". Obsidian II. 7 (1–2): 19–32. JSTOR 44485299.
  20. ^ Internet Movie Database
  21. ^ Bennetts, Leslie (January 10, 1985). "James Baldwin Reflects On 'Go Tell It' PBS Film". The New York Times. Retrieved February 13, 2018.
  22. ^ a b Office of Intellectual Freedom (March 26, 2013). "Banned & Challenged Classics". Advocacy, Legislation & Issues. Retrieved June 20, 2021.