James Baldwin addresses a congregation in a New Orleans church, circa 1963.
Credit...Steve Schapiro/Corbis, via Getty Images

T Book Club

What the Church Meant for James Baldwin

Although he ultimately rejected Pentecostalism, the writer captured its pathos and ability to bear witness to Blackness in America in his first novel.

James Baldwin addresses a congregation in a New Orleans church, circa 1963.Credit...Steve Schapiro/Corbis, via Getty Images

This essay is part of T’s Book Club, a series of articles and events dedicated to classic works of American literature. Click here to R.S.V.P. to a virtual conversation, led by Ayana Mathis, about “Go Tell It on the Mountain” on Dec. 17.

Like John Grimes, the 14-year-old protagonist of James Baldwin’s 1953 debut novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” I was raised in the heat and fervor of the Pentecostal church. My family and I had given our souls and hearts to Jesus. We prayed for those who did not know Christ, and for our own souls that we would not lose our hard-won faith. We did not dance or listen to secular music. We did not play cards. We did not drink alcohol or go to movies. We went to church twice on Sundays. Between the morning and evening services there was a Sunday afternoon feast — I recall these as among the finest meals I have ever eaten — that left us drowsy and contented. On Wednesdays we went to prayer meeting, and on Thursdays to Bible study. Every day, there were prayers before bed and prayers when we rose in the morning and Family Radio always murmuring in the background.

When I read “Go Tell It on the Mountain” at 19, I discovered that Baldwin had written an accounting of my young life. Baldwin was himself raised in the Pentecostal faith and was a preacher until the age of 17, when he left the church to become the man he was destined to be. I grew up in Philadelphia in the 1980s, many decades and hundreds of miles from the 1930s Harlem dwelling of the Grimes family, but in Baldwin’s pages I found my every inarticulable anger, my chafing at the limitations of that church life, my shame and my pride — all illuminated in his pages. I found, too, the strangeness of my family’s religion — this sense that sin was all around, crowding in on us like an enemy at the gates. There was an urgency about our faith, and a joy, too. We were in a relationship of fierce belonging to one another. It was an extraordinary existence. Baldwin’s sentences leapt off the page, as though I were huddled in a quiet corner with him, whispering about things only he and I could know. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is, in other words, among my beloveds.

ImageMembers of the Pentecostal church in Chicago in April 1941.
Credit...Russell Lee, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

THE NOVEL RECOUNTS the 24 hours of John Grimes’s 14th birthday in March 1935. The Harlem of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is a difficult place, riddled with dangers — the white cop, the pool hall, the knife fight — that might overtake a young Black person. It is difficult to describe the book by means of the usual play-by-play of plot because the happenings are significant but few. It is a novel about subjugation to racism and to religion. It is about salvation from whiteness and from sin. It is about race shame and class shame. It is about its protagonist’s struggle with these realities, and about the possibility of a measured triumph over them. It is about prideful belonging to a community, which in John’s case is his church: The Temple of the Fire Baptized.

When we meet young John, he is on a precipice. He is entering an age of accountability; the choices he must make will shape the rest of his life. The novel’s opening line reads, “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.” To make matters more pressing, it isn’t just his soul that hangs in the balance. His body, too, is endangered, this young Black body around which coheres such antagonism and violence. His family, like so many Black families, look at their beloved children and fear the world will kill them. The Grimes believe the surest, and perhaps the only, weapon against destruction is the narrow way of the Lord. John must follow this path, fully and resolutely. The Holy Ghost will save his soul, and the months and years spent in the pews will save his body, too.

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Credit...Courtesy of Penguin Random House and Penguin Modern Classics

On the morning of his birthday, John’s mother gifts him with the bit of pocket change that she can spare. The boy heads downtown on foot through Central Park. Baldwin writes:

Before him, then, the slope stretched upward, and above it the brilliant sky …. He did not know why, but there arose in him an exultation and a sense of power, and he ran up the hill like an engine, or a madman, willing to throw himself headlong into the city that glowed before him.

It is a glorious moment — listen to Baldwin’s exuberant and dexterous prose! — but underneath swells limitation, futility and rage. That power, John soon remembers, is not for him: “For him there was the back door, and the dark stairs, and the kitchen or the basement.” Baldwin’s genius as a craftsman of fiction renders young John both an affecting character and a cipher for the physical — and psychic — brutality of white supremacy. Thus, John becomes a surrogate for legions of endangered Black boys throughout our American history.

Allow me an analogous story from my own childhood: When I was a little girl, I played a secret game. In this game, I would bobby pin one of my grandmother’s yellow towels over my own hair. I would swing the towel and flick it over my shoulders, my lovely blond mane. How much better I was as a little white girl than my Black self could ever be. Somehow, at the age of 8, I already understood that the white world, which was then for me the whole world outside of the confines of my family, thought my life less valuable, less precious, than that of my blond, blue-eyed alter ego. I was ashamed of this reality, though certainly I had no fault in it. Black children play games of race shame and race-switching to this day, I imagine. Little brown children, young and innocent, already beset by a sense of unworthiness they cannot name.

John leaves Central Park and continues to 42nd Street, where he uses his pocket money to go to a movie. The film, though unnamed in the novel, is the 1934 production of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” starring Bette Davis. John can’t take his eyes off Davis — she is defiant to every concept of godliness and obedience that he has been taught to hold dear. Like the white people John passed on his way to the theater, the Davis character was, “in the world, and of the world, and their feet laid hold on Hell.” He is seduced and repulsed by whiteness. He witnesses its deepest truth, that it is at once powerful and corrupt.

After the film is over, young John returns to Harlem, weary and resigned, to find that catastrophe has struck. His parents, Gabriel and Elizabeth, as well as his Aunt Florence are gathered around the prone and moaning Roy, John’s younger brother, who has been stabbed. The event catalyzes a series of reckonings for every member of the family. We learn that each adult in the novel migrated from the South carrying some burden from the past. Young John is not Gabriel’s son — just as James Baldwin was not the son of the man, David Baldwin, who raised him. Gabriel is enraged that John, the child of a doomed love in Elizabeth’s youth, is hale and bound for a life in the church, while his biological son, Roy, is defiant and badly wounded. Young John knows nothing of his parents’ secrets, and even less about their Southern past. He has no idea of the importance of their journey here from the South, as part of the six million strong Great Migration that began in 1915 and lasted into the 1970s, and how it irrevocably transformed the United States artistically, culturally, politically. Without it we would never have had, among other things, the civil rights movement, jazz, Michelle Obama or Baldwin himself.

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Credit...Matt Herron/TakeStock/TopFoto

Once it is clear that Roy will survive his wounds, John heads off to the church, as he does every week, to mop the floors and polish the pews in preparation for the weekend’s services. There he encounters the handsome 17-year-old Elisha, John’s “big brother in the Lord,” to whom he is powerfully drawn in ways he cannot explain. By and by, his mother, father and aunt arrive to begin the Saturday evening prayer service. John is taken by “the power,” as the novel calls it, and spends the wee hours of the night prostrate before the Lord, caught in his own reckoning. By dawn, he is saved. On the penultimate page of the novel, flush with the spirit, John turns to Elisha and says, “No matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me … you remember — please remember — I was saved. I was there.”

Young John is prescient and brimming with longing for certain freedoms — racial, sexual, cultural — that will likely lead him away from the Temple of the Fire Baptized. Nonetheless, its congregants, his family included, are the people to whom he belongs, and they to him; they shaped him and their traditions are indelible to him. I have omitted something that Baldwin’s work always takes great care to spotlight: the mingled, pained beauty in all of this. Baldwin writes: “And [John] was filled with a joy, a joy unspeakable ….” Then, “Where joy was, there strength followed; where strength was, sorrow came — forever?”

THERE IS A phrase in the American Black church tradition: “Can I get a witness?” Its meanings are too numerous and shaded to detail here in their entirety. So I’ll tell you that in the church in which I grew up, that phrase would lead a parishioner to rise from the pew and tell some part of her life: the cancer in remission, the new job to replace the one that was lost, the son who had turned his back on God but who had lately found salvation. Testimonies to the glory and power of God.

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Credit...Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, gift of the Baldwin Family © James Baldwin Estate

Sometimes the person telling the story wept. Church was a place where Black people could speak their pain or their rage, free of the endless and violent scrutiny of whiteness. It was a place we could be ourselves; a place to be joyful and a place to mourn. The members of the congregation would lay hands on the testifying person and channel the power of the Lord through their bodies and into his. I did not understand until I left the church that it was the people’s own empathy, their own knowing, that was coming down from their hearts and out of their hands. It was many more years until I could begin to grasp the beauty of those Sundays of witnessing, our beleaguered community testifying to the singularity of our lives. Truth telling, in effect, about our personal woes and triumphs — but also about our lives as religious people and our lives as Black people in America, an existence rife with the dangers Baldwin describes in so much detail and complication in much of his work.

When I first conceived of this essay, I imagined it would be purely literary. Then, the presidential election arrived with all of its turmoil. I suddenly cared very little about aesthetics and the nuances of figurative language. I was at a loss until I remembered that much of Baldwin’s writing came to exist during moments of American crisis: the civil rights movement and its aftermath, the decimation of the Black Power movement, the rise of Reaganomics, the devastating AIDS epidemic. Baldwin was forged in the crucible of an America perpetually teetering on the edge of self-destruction, unwilling to heed the warnings of those who understood the immensity of the peril. The result of that heedlessness, as we’ve seen in these pandemic months, is quite literally death. It occurred to me, then, that John’s experience, and Baldwin’s novel as a whole, is an act of bearing witness to the bitter realities of his life as a young man — and to the Black church as a place of existential and spiritual nourishment, even as it was parochial and unyielding.

Perhaps Baldwin left the church because he knew he would not have survived its stifling rigors, and had little desire to try. Certainly the exacting and capricious God of his upbringing — these characteristics that, not coincidentally, also describe Gabriel Grimes — was anathema to him. And yet in his 1962 essay “Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin wrote of his vexing childhood religion: “In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare.” The church imprinted him with its music, its pathos, its soaring rhetoric, the stalwart and fragile souls of the faithful — these were dear to him and find full expression in “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” I am struck anew by the scope of this slim novel, at once an indictment of the faith Baldwin left and an enduring testimony to its power.