As Florence weeps, Gabriel “talks to the Lord.” Listening to Florence, he doesn’t hear his sister but “the cry of the sinner when he is taken in his sin.” In his righteousness, Gabriel yells out, “Have your way, Lord! Have your way!” and the entire congregation falls quiet. Not even Mother Washington utters a prayer, and the “silence” envelopes the church.
Baldwin’s language here reflects America’s sexist society. At the sound of Florence’s cries, Gabriel hears “the cry of the sinner when he is taken in his sin.” Gabriel is referring to his sister, yet his language is exclusive and specifically geared toward men.
The “silence” takes Gabriel back to before his “birth in Christ,” before he was saved. Everything before that point is “wrapped in darkness” for Gabriel, and the dark deeds he committed there are “not now counted against him” because he is “redeemed.” The quiet of the church reminds Gabriel of the “silence of the early morning” when he was young and would return home “from the harlot’s house.” In the silence of those mornings, his mother, Rachel, had waited for him, not just to return home after a night out, but to finally come to the Lord.
God may not hold Gabriel’s sins against him now that he is redeemed, but others in his life surely will. Florence counts his sins against him, and so did Deborah before she died. Gabriel’s children certainly don’t think him redeemed for his abuse of them, and Elizabeth is just as tortured. Gabriel is so concerned with the next life that he has neglected to attend to the one he is living now.
Rachel had once been “impatient” and “violent” waiting for Gabriel to come to the Lord. She had “shouted and contended like a man” but then grew silent. She “contended only, and with the last measure of her strength, with God. And this, too, she did like a man.” She had “faith” in God and knew Gabriel would finally come to his senses. So, she waited quietly, and “her eyes, even when she closed her lids to sleep, would follow [Gabriel] everywhere.”
While women behaving like men is generally a bad thing and viewed as sinful in the novel, here it is seen as a compliment. It requires faith and strength for Rachel to wait for Gabriel to come to the Lord, and here it is implied that men are better suited for this task than women. Thus, Rachel contends “like a man,” and Gabriel eventually sees the light.
Gabriel wanted the “power” known only to “God’s anointed,” but he took his time coming to God. Deborah would often visit Rachel, and she looked at Gabriel “with eyes that were no less patient and reproachful” than his mother’s. He would leave each night, to feed his “lust” and drink, and Gabriel would feel his “mother’s eyes” on him, “like fiery tongs.” It made him angry, and when he went “to the harlot,” he went “to her in rage” and “left her in vain sorrow,” feeling guilty for spending “his holy seed in a forbidden darkness where it could only die.”
Here, Gabriel takes his anger at his mother out on “the harlot.” When he goes to her in a “rage,” he is presumably abusive of her. This, too, reflects Gabriel’s misogyny. He resents his mother for having power over him and seeks to recover some of that power by abusing another woman. Gabriel feels guilty afterward but not for how he treats the woman. He feels guilty for himself and his “holy seed” because he believes that he is a sinner.
One morning on his way home, Gabriel passed the tree that marked the small mountain beyond which was Rachel’s cabin. He thought “of all the mornings he had mounted here and passed this tree, caught for a moment between sins committed and sins to be committed,” and when he reached out and touched the tree, he cried: “Oh, Lord, have mercy! Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!” He “wept like a little child” and prayed for God to “save” him. There, “in that valley where his mother had told him he would find himself,” Gabriel found the Lord. Gabriel always swears that he heard a song afterward. “I heard my mother singing,” he claims, “like she knew if she just called Him, the Lord would come.”
The small mountain is symbolic of the difficult path of the holy life. At the top of the mountain is Rachel’s cabin and a righteous life, and at the bottom is the “harlot” and the whiskey. Being holy is an uphill battle—it would be easier for Gabriel to go down the hill, toward sin, as there is much less resistance, but that will not, according to Gabriel, lead to life everlasting. The song Gabriel hears afterward again reflects the importance of music in religion. Even though Rachel wasn’t there, Gabriel still claimed to have heard her singing—music and religion are so intimately linked that Gabriel hears it as he is saved.
Thus, began Gabriel’s life “as a man.” At only twenty-one, he began preaching. He moved to a room in town and married Deborah later that year. After Rachel had died, Deborah “looked after him,” cooking his meals and washing his clothes. He “never intended to marry her.” To Gabriel, Deborah was Florence’s “older” friend and Rachel’s “faithful visitor.” She was “severe” and “sexless,” and placed “on earth to visit the sick.”
Gabriel’s feelings toward Deborah never change, and if anything, he just grows to hate her more. He continues to think of her as “severe” and “sexless,” and he later calls her “black and bony.” Gabriel has little respect for his wife, beyond what spiritual and religious benefits she brings him.
There was also Deborah’s “legend, her history,” which was enough to turn Gabriel off, and she was “wholly unattractive.” Combined, these put her beyond “any honorable man’s desire.” Deborah had only her “shame,” and she lived as a “woman mysteriously visited by God, like a terrible example of humility, or like a holy fool.” But for Gabriel, “she sustained him most beautifully in his new condition.”
Ironically, Gabriel thinks of himself as the “honorable” one here—clearly, Deborah is the only one with any honor. Gabriel holds Deborah’s rape against her like a sin she committed, and her shame is surely worsened because men like Gabriel continue to associate her only with her “legend, her history.”
Before Gabriel had married Deborah, he was asked to preach at the Twenty-Four Elders Revival Meeting, a summer revival that boasted the best preachers from Florida to Chicago. He preached in the middle of the revival, on the twelfth night, and Deborah went with him to the lodge hall. “Sister Deborah, you sit where I can see you?” he asked. Deborah, as always, sat at the front, and, crying out to praise Jesus, supported Gabriel through the greatest sermon of his career.
Deborah is constantly supporting Gabriel. She cooks and cleans for him, mends his clothes, and cheers him on as he preaches. Still, Gabriel never manages to look past Deborah’s rape, and he treats her badly. He looks at her with scorn, refers to her as ugly, and then cheats on her with Esther. Gabriel does not deserve the support Deborah gives him, the book implies, which is further evidence of Deborah’s morality and another mark against Gabriel’s.
Later that week, Gabriel sat with the other preachers at Sunday dinner, where Deborah was a “serving woman.” Gabriel “was not comfortable” with the other preachers. He considered them too “lax” and not like the “holy prophets” they should have been. He even thought of them as “highly paid circus-performers.” After Deborah served the food and left the room, one of the preachers looked at her and laughed. “There is a holy woman, all right!” he said. Deborah had been “choked so early on white men’s milk,” he claimed, that “it remained so sour in her belly” and she would never “find a [n_____] who would let her taste his richer, sweeter substance.”
Deborah’s treatment by the preacher is awful, and the fact that he is preacher and should treat people better only makes it worse. Deborah is made to continually suffer because of her rape. Not only did she suffer through the initial rape itself, but she is forced to keep reliving it through the disgusting and crass comments that the men around her make. The preacher considered her ruined by the white men but not because she was sexually violated; he implies that the white men ruined her for other black men, not that they simply violated her and ruined her sense of autonomy and self.
As the preachers laughed at Deborah’s expense, Gabriel grew angry. “That woman,” he said, “is my sister in the Lord.” The men continued to laugh. “Now, you know,” one preacher said, “you ain’t fixing to make that woman your wife or nothing like that—so ain’t no need to get all worked up and spoil our little gathering.” At that moment, Gabriel realized that “the Lord had given him Deborah, to help him stand,” so he decided to “raise her up, to release her from that dishonor which was hers in the eyes of men.” He would marry her—and “their marriage bed would be holy, and their children would continue in the line of the faithful, a royal line.”
Gabriel’s thoughts about Deborah tell of his sexism and misogyny. God didn’t “give” Deborah to him—Baldwin suggests that Deborah is an independent woman who cannot be given to anyone—however, Gabriel sees her as a pet project or something to fix, not because he wants to help her, but because she “helps him to stand.” Gabriel assumes that he is superior to Deborah and that he alone, a man, can “raise her up” and “release her dishonor.”
Later that night, Gabriel had a dream about the “demons” who haunted his previous life. He saw friends he drank and gambled with and the women “he had known.” The women “laughed” and “sighed,” and wanted him to come to them, but Gabriel refused. He had another dream that same night of a “cold” and “high” mountain, and after a mysterious voice told him to climb, he did. Gabriel climbed higher and higher until he was in a “peaceful field.” The voice again spoke. “Follow me,” it said. The very next day Gabriel asked Deborah to be his wife, and she wept.
Gabriel’s dream about the mountain symbolizes the hard work and sacrifice entailed in remaining holy, but here the mountain also seems to symbolize Gabriel’s marriage to Deborah. Marrying Deborah is not easy for Gabriel; he isn’t attracted to her in the slightest, and he is repulsed by her rape. Gabriel sees his marriage to Deborah as another reason why he is a good man, but the book suggests that it is actually yet another reason why he is cruel.
Back in the Harlem church, the silence is broken as Elisha cries out and falls backward onto the threshing-floor, “under the power of the Lord.” Gabriel opens his eyes, afraid that the sound is coming from John. Gabriel has two sons and neither are at the church tonight. One had been killed years ago in Chicago, and the other, Roy, is still at home recovering from being slashed. “Only the son of the bondwoman stands where the rightful heir should stand,” Gabriel thinks.
The threshing-floor symbolizes judgement in the novel. Here, when Elisha goes to the threshing-floor and falls under the power of the Lord, he has been judged and found to be righteous. Gabriel is afraid the sound is coming from John because he doesn’t want John to be saved before his real son, Roy, is saved. This is further proof of Gabriel’s despicable character.
As Elisha cries out, Gabriel thinks of his sons. Roy had cursed him when he called him a bastard, and Esther, the mother of Gabriel’s first son, Royal, had cursed him as well. This curse had “devoured” Royal—he was “begotten in sin, and he had perished in sin”—and Gabriel suddenly realizes that Roy “might be cursed for the sin of his mother, [Elizabeth,] whose sin had never been truly repented.” John, the “living proof” of Elizabeth’s sin, “stood between her soul and God,” like an “interloper among the saints.”
Gabriel repeatedly blames women for his troubles in life. Esther didn’t really curse him or Royal; Esther and Royal are both dead not because of a curse, but in large part because of Gabriel’s actions. Had he accepted them and not judged them, perhaps they would both be alive still. Furthermore, Roy isn’t cursed by Elizabeth’s choices either. If Roy is cursed, it is by Gabriel’s abuse.
Gabriel once asked Elizabeth if she had “truly repented.” She said she had, but Gabriel isn’t so sure. “Would you do it again?” he asked her. “I know you ain’t asking me to say I’m sorry I brought Johnny in the world. Is you?” She asked. Elizabeth refused to apologize for her son. “And listen, Gabriel. I ain’t going to let you make me sorry.” At the time, she was pregnant with Sarah, and they had already had Roy. “We is got two children,” Elizabeth had said, “and soon we’s going to have three; and I ain’t going to make no difference amongst them and you ain’t going to make none either.”
Elizabeth only believes her relationship with Richard and the birth of John to be sinful because Gabriel keeps telling her it is. He will never treat John like his own child (not that he treats his own much better), and this scenario is loosely based on Baldwin’s own life growing up. He, too, was raised by his stepfather, who was a preacher, and he treated Baldwin badly compared to his biological children as well.
Gabriel begins to think again of Esther. She is forever “associated in his mind with flame” and “the eternal fires of Hell.” She worked for the same white family Gabriel worked for, and she and her “sinful” parents never went to church. Gabriel always saw Esther with a different man, and concerned for her soul, he invited her to church to watch him preach.
Gabriel believes Esther and her parents to be sinners simply because they don’t go to church, and Baldwin implies that this isn’t an adequate measure of morality. Gabriel has no proof that Esther is a bad person or promiscuous; he simply assumes she is because she talks to men and doesn’t go to church. This speaks more to Gabriel’s closemindedness than it does to Esther’s morality.
Esther came to church that night, but she was late. She sat near the back with her mother and wore a big blue hat and dark red dress. As Gabriel preached, he watched both Esther and Deborah, and he realized how “black,” “bony,” and “wholly undesirable” his wife was, and he “hated her.” As Gabriel preached, he asked the congregation if there was a soul among them who wanted to “say No to Satan and give their life to the Lord,” but Esther did not stand. She left immediately after his sermon, while the saints were still singing.
Esther’s ostentatious outfit—a big blue hat and red dress—identify her as an outsider, and her red dress even suggests sin and the fires of Hell. Gabriel is hoping that Esther will stand up and give her life to the Lord so that he can stop feeling guilty about being attracted to a sinner. Gabriel isn’t interested in saving Esther but in saving himself.
Soon after, Gabriel dropped the white people he worked for off to visit relatives for a few days, and when he returned to lock up their house, Esther was waiting on the front porch. She had been drinking whiskey, and Gabriel was “excited” to see her. He offered to walk her home as she accepted. As Gabriel went to secure the doors and windows, Esther waited for him in the kitchen, helping herself to more of the boss’s whiskey.
Gabriel assumes that Esther’s drinking is further proof her sinfulness, yet he is still “excited” to see her, which makes him appear hypocritical. The fact that the whiskey doesn’t belong to Esther is another strike against her. Not only is she drinking, she is stealing the whiskey from her boss.
“Girl,” Gabriel said finding Esther drinking in the kitchen, “don’t you believe in God? God don’t lie—and He says, plain as I’m talking to you, the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Esther laughed. She is a “grown woman,” she said, and “ain’t fixing to change.” She smiled at Gabriel. “Reverend,” she said. “I ain’t done nothing that I’m ashamed of, and I hope I don’t do nothing I’m ashamed of, ever.” When she said the word “Reverend,” Gabriel “wanted to strike her.”
Gabriel directly calls Esther a sinner here. She doesn’t consider her drinking a sin, but she eludes to the fact that Gabriel does (because he is ashamed of his own history with drinking). When she calls him “Reverend,” it reminds Gabriel of the vow he has taken to the Lord and he resents it, so he wants to “strike” Esther. Gabriel’s anger is misplaced, and it also reflects his misogyny—everything is a woman’s fault.
“Yes, you know,” Gabriel said as he approached Esther, “why I’m all the time worrying about you—why I’m all the time miserable when I look at you.” He ran his hands along her body and breasts. “You know,” he said. And just like that, Gabriel “had fallen.” Esther touched him as well, and loosened his collar, which “threatened to choke him,” and soon they were on the floor, “locked together.”
Gabriel doesn’t ask for Esther’s permission before touching her, he simply does it. This suggests that Gabriel doesn’t believe he needs her permission to approach her sexually, since, as Deborah says, men believe women are only to fill their own wicked desires. Gabriel’s collar, presumably a clerical collar, is a symbol of his religion and vows, and as he sins, the collar “chokes” him.
Gabriel’s affair with Esther lasted a mere nine days, and he isn’t sure exactly when Royal was conceived during that time. His guilt soon consumed him, and he refused to continue seeing her. It was “over.” Gabriel was “bruised and frightened,” and he “had lost the respect of Esther forever.” He prayed to God for forgiveness and the strength to never “fall” again. But Gabriel couldn’t help but think of all the women who “wanted him still,” and he tried to “wear out his visions” in his “marriage bed,” where he “struggled to awaken Deborah.” Gabriel’s contempt for his wife grew by the day.
This passage provides further proof of Gabriel’s misogyny: he precipitates the affair with Esther, but then he loses respect for her. Gabriel’s misogyny continues with Deborah. He tries to forget Esther by having sex with Deborah but isn’t attracted to her, meaning she isn’t beautiful enough for him, so he hates her.
“Gabriel,” Esther said one day at work. “I going to have a baby.” Gabriel was shocked. Esther “was going to have his baby—his baby?” he thought. Esther was “no better than a harlot,” and it was in her “womb” that the “seed of the prophet would be nourished.” Gabriel had asked how she was so sure that it was his baby. “I ain’t gone with so many men that I’m subject to get my mind confused,” she replied. “You know I got a wife to think about,” Gabriel said. Esther had hoped that since he “forgot about [Deborah] once,” he would be able to “forget her twice.”
Again, Gabriel assumes Esther is promiscuous and has slept with many men. His low opinion of her reflects his low opinion of women in general, and he immediately decides that her womb is not fit to carry his “see.” Esther doesn’t love Gabriel, but she still hopes he will leave Deborah for her. She knows that society will shun her if she gives birth out of wedlock, and she wants to avoid this fate.
Esther told Gabriel that Deborah would never “make him happy,” and “she ain’t never going to have no children,” she added. “I ain’t never told you I wanted to leave my wife,” Gabriel said. “It’s your baby,” Esther told him, “and ain’t no way in the world to get around that.” Gabriel agreed. He was “tempted” and “fell,” and he isn’t the first man to fall to “a wicked woman,” he told her. “You be careful how you talk to me,” Esther answered, “I ain’t the first girl’s been ruined by a holy man, neither.” She threatened to tell Deborah and Gabriel’s congregation about the baby and their affair.
Presumably, Deborah’s rape has also robbed her of the ability to have children, and she dies “barren.” This makes her attack seem worse, if that is even possible. Again, Gabriel is misogynistic and refuses to take any responsibility when there is a woman available to blame. By referring to himself as “a man” who fell “to a wicked woman,” Gabriel implies that he is the victim in their relationship, not Deborah, and that he deserves sympathy and she deserves what she gets—to be shunned and die alone miles away from her home and family.
“I can’t marry you,” Gabriel told Esther, “you know that. Now, what you want me to do?” Esther did know that Gabriel wouldn’t marry her. She knew she was “just for the night, for the dark,” where no one would know Gabriel was getting his “holy self all dirtied up” with a “whore.” She didn’t want him either. She wanted to go North and have her baby away from him and his church. She needed only money. “I ain’t got no money,” Gabriel said. “Well,” Esther told him, “you damn well better find some.”
Again, Gabriel assumes that Esther is a sinner simply because he thinks she’s a “whore.” There is no evidence that Esther is a bad person, and her worst offense is helping herself to whiskey that didn’t belong to her. There is, however, plenty of evidence that Gabriel is a sinner, which makes him and his religion hypocritical.
That night, Gabriel took the money Deborah had been saving since they were married. He sent Esther to Chicago and took a preaching assignment in another state for three months. When he came home, he replaced the money, and tried to “begin his life again.” One day, he received a letter from Esther from Chicago. She said she had made a “mistake” messing around with him, and she was “paying for it.” Gabriel would pay one day too, she said. “I ain’t holy like you are,” Esther wrote, “but I know right from wrong.” She was going to raise her son to “be a man,” she said, and if he grows up to do nothing but drink “moonshine all his natural days he be a better man than his Daddy.”
Here, Gabriel sins to coverup his sin. He cheats on Deborah with Esther, and then he steals from Deborah to try to fix the trouble that came from his affair. Deborah is doubly cheated, and it is later revealed that she knew all along. Esther’s letter in which she claims she doesn’t need religion to know right from wrong seems to be one of Baldwin’s primary arguments. Gabriel is the definite sinner in this situation, yet it is Esther who is made to pay. This again reflects the hypocrisy of religion as well as the misogyny present in society.
That summer, Gabriel again preached out of town. He couldn’t stand being at home with Deborah, going to his own church every day. As he preached at distant churches, he saw “in this wandering, how far his people had wandered from God.” They worshipped “idols of gold and silver,” and their music was not of saints but of “gin-heavy dance halls.”
Gabriel’s “wandering” is another reference to Sister Tharpe’s gospel song, and through it, Baldwin seems to imply that Gabriel has wandered very far from God. Worshipping gold and dancing in gin joints pales in comparison to Gabriel’s sins.
When Gabriel returned that winter, “Esther came home too,” in a wooden box with “her living son.” Esther’s parents took to raising the boy, who was named Royal, and Gabriel “watched his son grow up, a stranger to his father and a stranger to God.” After Royal came to live with his grandparents, Deborah became “friendly” with them and frequently bought Gabriel news of the young boy’s life.
Deborah becomes friendly with Royal’s people because she knows that he is Gabriel’s son. Deborah is a good woman, and she later tells Gabriel that she would have raised Royal after Esther’s death. Deborah’s interest in Royal’s life is proof that she cares and that her words aren’t empty like Gabriel’s.
“I wonder,” Deborah said to Gabriel one day, “why [Esther] called him Royal? You reckon that his daddy’s name?” Gabriel pretended not to know, but he did. He had told Esther that he wanted to name his first son Royal, “because the line of the faithful was a royal line—his son would be a royal child.” Esther had “mocked him” by naming their son Royal. “She had died, then,” he knew, “hating him,” and “she had carried into eternity a curse on him and his.”
Since Gabriel told Esther about his desire to name his first son Royal, it is likely that he told Deborah—his wife—as well. When she asks Gabriel why he thinks Esther named her baby Royal, she probably already knows the answer. Gabriel’s desire to name his first son Royal seems like common knowledge—he names his next son Royal (“Roy”) too—and thus it seems that Deborah is trying to tell him that she knows.
Meanwhile, in the Harlem church, John tries to pray. He can hear the other saints praying but doesn’t know where to start. “Salvation is real,” a mysterious voice says. “God is real. Death may come soon or late, why do you hesitate?” John knows that if he prays and is saved, Gabriel will “no longer be is father,” and John will instead be “the son of his Heavenly Father, the King.” Then, John and Gabriel will “be equals,” and Gabriel will “not beat him any more, or despise him any more, or mock him any more.” But John doesn’t want this; he wants his father to “die!” In John’s view, death and “Hell, everlasting” is the only punishment fit for Gabriel.
Gabriel hears a mysterious voice the morning he is saved near the tree, and John is hearing a voice as well. Here, the voice seems to encourage him and keep him on the holy path, but it later tells him to leave the church and go out into the world, presumably to sin, so it is difficult to say who, or what, the mysterious voice is. If it is God, surely it wouldn’t tempt John to sin. Ironically, Gabriel isn’t technically John’s father now, even before he is saved. Baldwin seems to suggest that John doesn’t need religion to be free of Gabriel.
The morning that Gabriel learned of Royal’s death, Deborah was sick in bed as she often was. “I hear some mighty bad news today,” Deborah had told him. Royal had gone off to Chicago and “some of them northern [n_____s]” had “stabbed him in the throat.” Gabriel immediately broke down and wept. “Gabriel…that Royal…he were your flesh and blood, weren’t he?” Gabriel admitted it, and Deborah finally told him she knew all about his affair with Esther and Royal’s birth.
Even Deborah uses derogatory language here. She implies that the black men living in the North aren’t as good as those in the South, and as such, she refers to them using a racial slur.
“I asked my God to forgive me,” Gabriel told Deborah. “But I didn’t want no harlot’s son.” Deborah was quiet. “Esther weren’t no harlot,” she said. Deborah told Gabriel that she would have “raised [Royal] like [her] own,” and maybe he would still be living. “Honey,” Deborah said, “you better pray God to forgive you. You better not let go until He make know you been forgiven.” As Deborah spoke, the sky opened, and it began to rain. Gabriel looked to the sky. “Listen,” he said. “God is talking.”
Inside the Temple of the Fire Baptized, Gabriel rises with the rest of the congregation and stands over Elisha on the threshing-floor. John, too, rises and joins them. Suddenly, Elisha begins “to speak in a tongue of fire, under the power of the Holy Ghost.” Gabriel looks to John, who has the “eyes of Satan,” and stares “in wrath and horror at Elizabeth’s presumptuous bastard boy.” Gabriel wants to “strike him,” but instead he silently mouths: “Kneel down.” John turns and kneels before the alter.
Here, Gabriel orders John to the altar; he doesn’t go of his own accord. Although John is later taken by the Lord, this passage makes it clear that he is initially resistant to go. This suggests that without Gabriel, perhaps John would not have gone to the threshing-floor. Gabriel believes that John is inherently evil and must repent because he is a “bastard,” which Baldwin implies is ridiculous.