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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 27 | Summary



Less than three weeks before the execution, Reverend Mose Ambrose comes to Grant Wiggins and asks for his help in saving Jefferson's soul. Jefferson listens to Grant, Reverend Ambrose admits, but when Grant says their work is separate, the minister implies Grant is being selfish. Grant looks out at the field and fantasizes about vanishing in the rows. Reverend Ambrose asks for help preparing Jefferson "for that better world." Grant admits he believes in God, "every day of [his] life," but does not believe in "that other world." Without the other world, Reverend Ambrose asks Grant, "how could they go on?"

Reverend Ambrose tells Grant he is the one who is truly educated, because Grant's education taught him nothing about himself or his people. He says there was only grief until "He rose" and promised an end to grief "across yon river, and she believed, and there was relief from grief." Palpably angry, he says he will prevent Grant from "send[ing] that boy's soul to hell." Grant says he will stop working with Jefferson if it's what Reverend Ambrose wants, but the pastor insists he owes it to Miss Emma and "all the others." Disclaiming his responsibility to anyone, Grant turns away.

Reverend Ambrose grabs Grant. Emma will die soon after Jefferson, and the minister needs Grant's help so Emma can believe she will be reunited with Jefferson in heaven. Grant must tell Jefferson to "fall down on his knees 'fore he walk to that chair." Grant objects: he wants Jefferson to stand, not kneel. The reverend says a man can both stand and kneel. He asks how Grant would handle Jefferson's spiritual inquiries, and Grant says he won't lie to Jefferson, "no matter what." Reverend Ambrose says he knows Grant doesn't respect him, because he lies out of the necessity "to relieve pain." He knows his people, how they routinely cheat and lie to themselves and each other, "hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and relieve the pain."


Reverend Ambrose presents lying as a moral obligation. It is a survival mechanism for the black community, one used since the days of slavery. He implies that whether the story and promises of Christianity are true or not is irrelevant, because what is powerful is belief in those promises. He wants Grant Wiggins to put aside his intellectual pride for Miss Emma's sake and lie to Jefferson, saying Grant believes in the promises of Christianity. Grant's unwillingness to lie thus becomes an immoral rather than a moral position.

The motif of standing and kneeling reappears in their conversation. While the minister sees kneeling as the physical manifestation of a person accepting God's grace, Grant sees kneeling as an expression of passivity in the face of subjugation. For Grant, standing and kneeling are mutually exclusive, but Reverend Ambrose claims, paradoxically, a person can both stand and kneel at the same time. The subtext implies the very act of kneeling before God gives a person the strength to stand up in the world of men.

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