Born in 1880 in Kansas, John has spent most of his 77 years in Gilead, Iowa. Early in his youth, he suffered the loss of his wife and daughter and spent many years alone before meeting his second wife, Lila. After his loss, his friend Robert Boughton named his son Jack after John, which made John covet his friend's happiness. John was never able to forgive Jack for squandering his fatherhood, something that John so desperately wanted. Now that John finally has a son, Jack has returned to town. This return is disruptive of the peace John hopes for as he faces his final days on earth. But, he realizes it is necessary for him to come to terms with his complex feelings about Jack and forgive him with the unconditional love and grace of God before he can find his eternal peace in heaven.
Jack, in his 40s at the time of the novel, is named after John, a surprise "blessing" that only prejudiced John against Jack. Jack calls John "Papa," but the two have never been particularly close. When Jack was in college, he impregnated a girl and abandoned his daughter, an act of "meanness" for which John has never been able to forgive him. Jack later moved to St. Louis and began a relationship with a black woman, Della, with whom he has a son. He has returned to Gilead with the hopes of maybe being able to bring his wife and child home, but is afraid his revelation might kill his fragile father. He finally goes to John for advice and receives John's forgiveness and his blessing.
Boughton has also lived his whole life in Gilead. Whereas John lived much of his life lonely, Boughton's house was full of children and happiness. His son Jack was a source of sorrow for him, especially in regard to his granddaughter, but he forgave his beloved son unreservedly. Boughton is also experiencing failing health and continues to be worried about Jack.
John alludes to the fact Lila had a difficult past before she met John and started coming to his church. She is uneducated and unschooled in religion. John describes her as serious and concerned about his failing health. She was the one who proposed they marry, which he might not have considered despite his passion for her, because of the great difference in their ages. Lila dotes on their son.