Religion is at the center of James Baldwin’s semiautobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. The book’s title is a reference to a popular African American spiritual song about the birth of Jesus, and many of Baldwin’s characters carry biblical connotations and parallels. The novel follows protagonist John—so named for Saint John the Baptist—and his evolution from an adolescent sinner to a saved man of God. Like the Christian Bible, which includes the Old Testament and the New Testament, Go Tell It on the Mountain examines both the wrath of God against sin and God’s grace towards those who sin and repent. Despite this deeply religious message, however, Baldwin does not exactly portray religion in a positive way. Religion is often associated with violence in the novel, and it is primarily a source of fear and internal anguish and struggle. While Go Tell It on the Mountain doesn’t deny that faith in God can be a source of comfort and salvation in a world full of hardship and pain, the book is also openly critical of Christianity, which Baldwin implies is often corrupted and used to justify terrible atrocities.
John’s father, Gabriel, is a preacher in a Harlem church, and he serves as the personification of Christianity in the novel. Baldwin describes Gabriel as “God’s minister” and “the ambassador of the King of Heaven,” and John can’t “bow before [God’s] throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.” In this way, Gabriel is the official gatekeeper of God, and John can only access God’s salvation through his father. John, however, hates his father. He claims his father’s face is “always awful,” and he likens Gabriel’s outbursts of “daily anger” to a “prophetic wrath.” Gabriel beats his sons and “fondles” his daughter and is generally portrayed as a thoroughly horrible man. Gabriel supposedly lives a life of religious piety, yet he is abusive and mean, and this reflects badly on his professed religion. In addition to the poor treatment of his family, Gabriel has major skeletons in his closet and has a history of drinking and womanizing. According to Gabriel’s sister, Florence, Gabriel “ain’t got no right to be a preacher. He ain’t no better’n nobody else.” This rather negative portrayal of Gabriel, whom Baldwin also describes as “the anointed one,” has the effect of making Christianity appear not only violent and cruel, but also hypocritical.
The negative portrayal of religion continues as Baldwin explore how religion is often used as justification for inexcusable behavior and past events. As a child, Gabriel was reluctant to be baptized, and he frequently got into trouble. Gabriel’s mother, Rachel, took to beating him with a switch from a tree: she often beat her son in the name of God (a tradition Gabriel continues with his own sons), and then prayed over his abused body when he could no longer stand. Baldwin exposes this behavior for what it really is—child abuse masquerading as religious devotion and spiritual discipline. Gabriel also tries to justify his actions through Christianity: as a young man, Gabriel had an affair with Esther, a local “harlot,” and fathered her child. Gabriel, a married preacher, sent her away to spare his religious standing in the community. Esther died alone during childbirth; which Florence believes makes Gabriel “a murderer.” Gabriel turned his back on Esther and their child, Royal, because of his religion, and Baldwin implies that this is a poor excuse. Baldwin also references the biblical curse of Ham, which is frequently cited to justify slavery in America. As the story goes, Noah was drunk and passed out in a tent when his son, Ham, gazed upon his father’s naked body. As punishment for Ham’s decision, Noah cursed Ham’s son, Canaan, and all his descendants to slavery. “Ah, that son of Noah’s had been cursed,” Baldwin writes, “down to the present groaning generation: A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” In referencing the story of Ham, Baldwin argues that slavery, a particularly shameful stain on America, cannot be justified with what amounts to a few lines of biblical text.
Regardless of this negative depiction of religion, faith in God remains an essential part of many of the characters’ lives. Baldwin’s characters must endure the unrelenting pain of slavery and segregation, and their faith in God’s salvation is the proverbial light at the end of a very dark tunnel. This belief is reflected in the climax of the novel, when John is saved at the altar of his Harlem church. “Elisha,” John says to his friend after his spiritual transformation, “no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember—please remember—I was saved. I was there.” John knows his life will be difficult—his father will still beat him, and he will always be subjected to the discrimination of Jim Crow—but he has faith that he will spend eternity in glory with God.