Everyone says that John will one day grow up to be a preacher like his father, Gabriel, and John has heard this so many times that he has “come to believe it himself.” Indeed, John’s earliest memories are of his family and their church, the Temple of the Fire Baptized. The Pentecostal church, located on a “filthy” and “sinful” corner in Harlem, stands in stark contrast to the depravity surrounding it. John and his family pass “sinners” each Sunday on their way to church. The men and women spilling from whiskey joints and blues clubs embody sex and corruption, and they serve as a constant reminder to John to remain on the path of the righteous. John has not always approached his faith and religious education with the utmost seriousness and dedication, but now that he is nearing his fourteenth birthday, John feels the mounting pressure of both his family and his congregation to officially accept the Lord and renounce sin at the foot of the church’s altar, known as the threshing-floor, and be “saved.”
Focusing on the Lord is difficult for John, however. His life at home is complicated and often stressful—he has three siblings; his mother, Elizabeth, is pregnant again; and his father is abusive and cruel—and there is also Elisha. Elisha is John’s Sunday school teacher, and he is young, handsome, and a preacher. John is often distracted by Elisha’s “lean” body and “admires” how he looks in his suit. John is beginning to discover sex (he watches with his brother, Roy, as “sinners” have sex in an abandoned building), and he is beginning to discover his own sexuality as well. Even though John has been told it is a sin, he has recently masturbated in the bathroom at school, and when he did, he thought of boys. John is convinced he is a sinner, which makes his redemption and salvation even more pressing. When John wakes the morning after his sin in the school bathroom, which happens to be his fourteenth birthday, he feels as if he will “be bound in hell a thousand years.”
On the evening of John’s birthday, he goes to the Temple of the Fire Baptized to clean the church before the tarry service, where the church’s congregation, or the “saints,” come together to pray and wait for the Lord’s salvation. It is not long before Elisha arrives to help John. As the two ready the church, the saints begin to arrive, including Gabriel and Elizabeth, and Gabriel’s sister, Florence. Elisha begins the service at the piano, and the congregation comes together in song. John reluctantly sings, but he refuses to clap. He knows that the music moves the spirit of the saints, but John feels as if he has “no right to sing or rejoice.” In addition to his sins, John equates God and religion with his abusive father, and John can’t “bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father,” which he refuses to do.
Florence, too, has difficulty singing with the saints. She has never been inside this church before, and she hasn’t been inside any church for a very long time. At sixty years old, it is not faith that has brought Florence to God on this night, but her failing health and “fear.” She is reminded of Gabriel’s cherished saying: “Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live,” and she wants to get her own house in order, so to speak, before she dies. Years spent away from God have left Florence unsure of how to pray, so she sings the only hymn she knows, a song she remembers her mother, Rachel, singing in her childhood. Gabriel is glad to see his sister come to God, but not because he is glad to see her rejoice in the Lord. Florence’s presence in church means that she is “suffering,” and this fills Gabriel with a strange and cruel happiness.
Florence has always resented Gabriel. As children, he was given special treatment—better food, new clothes, and an education—simply because he was a boy and would someday become a man. Their mother considered this treatment “logic.” Since Florence would no doubt grow up and be someone’s wife, Gabriel needed these things more than she did, although he frequently squandered his privileges. Gabriel was a mischievous child and later, as a teenager and young man, he drank and womanized. Rachel would beat him to bring him to the Lord, and then pray over his abused body. By the time he was “saved,” Florence had already left their cabin in the South for the North. Florence “hates all men,” not just Gabriel, and she even resented her own husband, Frank. Frank, according to Florence, was “determined to live and die a common [n_____],” and he finally left her after ten years of contentious marriage. He lived for a while with another woman in town and then died in World War I. Nearly twenty years have passed since Frank’s death, and Florence considers it her “great mistake” to have loved him so “bitterly,” and now it appears as if she will die alone.
As the congregation sings, Gabriel also thinks of his past and his redemption. It took him some time to come to the Lord, but he has never wanted to turn back. He began preaching at just 21 years old, and he married his first wife, Deborah, a devoted and kind woman, that same year. Together, in their holy marriage bed, Gabriel hoped to produce a “royal” line of faithful servants to the Lord. Deborah, however, died “barren,” and Gabriel fathered a “bastard son” with Esther, a local woman whom Gabriel considered “a harlot.” Esther died not long after giving birth, and her son, Royal, was raised by her parents. Gabriel watched, estranged, as his son grew, until Royal was stabbed to death in Chicago as a young man. According to Gabriel, he has repented for his infidelity, and his treatment of Esther and Royal, and the Lord has forgiven him. Gabriel’s name is “written in the Book of Life,” he says, and he will live in eternal glory with the Lord.
As Gabriel thinks of his past, John is taken by the spirit and makes his way to the threshing-floor. The sound of John’s cries takes Elizabeth back to when he was born, and to the death of John’s biological father, Richard. Elizabeth and Richard were never married, and Richard committed suicide before John was born, leaving Elizabeth alone to bear the burden of her own “bastard son.” When she met Gabriel, he promised to love John like his own, but he has failed. He treats all their children badly, but especially John, and Elizabeth is sure that both she and John are being punished for her sin. She watches with pride as John gives himself to the Lord on the threshing-floor, through which he unburdens his sins to God and his redeemed. After his spiritual rebirth, John is filled with inexplicable joy, even though he knows this new holy path is a difficult and “narrow way” up a steep and treacherous mountain filled with sin and temptation. John is nevertheless committed to this path, and as he leaves the church with his family and walks into the bright morning light, he is “ready” for the challenge. “I’m coming,” John says, “I’m on my way.”