Go Tell It on the Mountain is a 1953 semi-autobiographical novel by James Baldwin. The novel examines the role of the Christian Church in the lives of African-Americans, both as a source of repression and moral hypocrisy and as a source of inspiration and community. It also, more subtly, examines racism in the United States.
Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Florence's prayer tells her life story. She was born to a freed slave who chose to continue to work in the South for a white family. Her mother always favored Florence's younger brother Gabriel, causing Florence to feel a yearning need to escape from her life. Florence buys a one-way train ticket to New York and leaves her mother on her deathbed. In New York, Florence marries a dissolute man named Frank, resulting in a power struggle within their marriage which ends after ten years when Frank leaves one night and never returns. He later dies in France in World War I, but Florence only finds out from Frank's girlfriend.
Gabriel's prayer starts with a description of his drunken, womanizing ways as a teenager, before his rebirth in Christ and the start of his career as a preacher. After his conversion he forms a relationship with a childhood friend of Florence, a slightly older woman from his town named Deborah who was gang-raped as a teenager by a band of white men. Deborah is devout in her faith, and Gabriel uses her strength to become a successful Reverend himself. However, despite his religious convictions, Gabriel is unable to resist his physical attraction for a woman named Esther. He has a brief affair with her but then ends it out of guilt. When Esther finds herself pregnant, Gabriel steals his wife's savings and gives them to Esther to hush up the matter and allow Esther to go away to have her baby; she goes to Chicago but dies giving birth to their son, Royal. Royal knows his father but doesn't know of their relationship, and is eventually killed in a barroom fight in Chicago. Gabriel is powerless and unable to stop his son's murder. Deborah, who knew or suspected that Royal was her husband's son from the beginning, admonishes Gabriel before her death for abandoning Esther and his son.
Elizabeth's prayer, the shortest of the three, tells her story. As a young girl, Elizabeth was very close to her father, but when her mother dies, she is forced by a court order to live with an imperious and cold aunt, and then goes to live in New York with a friend of the aunt's who works as a medium. It turns out that Gabriel is not John's biological father. Elizabeth had gone to New York with her boyfriend, Richard, a self-educated "sinner" who did not believe in the Church and who never carried out his promise to marry Elizabeth. Richard is arrested for a robbery he didn't commit, and while he is acquitted at trial, the experience - including the abuse he takes at the hands of white police officers - leads him to commit suicide on his first night home. Elizabeth, then just a few months pregnant with John, takes a job, where she meets Florence. Florence introduces her to Gabriel, whom she marries.
The final chapter returns to the church, where John falls to the floor in a spiritual fit (unaffected). Curiously, he is overtaken by the spirit right after his friend Elisha is. He has a series of dreamlike visions, seeing visions of hell and heaven, life and death, and seeing Gabriel standing over him. When he awakes, he says that he is saved and that he has accepted Jesus. Yet even as the group leaves the church, old sins are revisited as Florence threatens to tell Elizabeth of Gabriel's sordid past.
This story is important for two reasons. Firstly, it was used as a Biblical justification of slavery and the explanation of the supposed inferiority of people of African descent because Ham’s sons migrated to Africa. John wonders about this interpretation briefly in the novel. Secondly, this story established the taboo of the nakedness of the patriarchy. John one day also saw Gabriel naked in the bath, when he was asked to help wash Gabriel's back and is revolted and angry by the experience. But he also sees Gabriel naked metaphorically. John sees him as a hypocrite. Because of this, the story of Ham is referenced often when Baldwin describes John’s crisis of faith.
Baldwin refers to several other people and stories from the Bible, at one point alluding to the story of Moses leading the Jews 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 draws heavily on the language of the Bible, particularly of the King James translation. Many of the passages use the patterns of repetition identified by scholars such as Robert Alter and others as being characteristic of Biblical poetry (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, Basic Books, 1987).
There are some hints of homosexual themes in Go Tell It On The Mountain; as for example John's fascination and attraction for Elisha.