Literature Study GuidesGo Tell It On The MountainPart 3 The Threshing Floor Summary

Go Tell It on the Mountain | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Go Tell It on the Mountain | Part 3, The Threshing Floor | Summary

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Summary

The threshing floor in the church is the name given to the space in front of the altar. John finds himself lying in that space, feeling a power that seems to have invaded his body and brought him to lie there, even though he did not feel himself fall. He hears a voice and rolls on the floor, confused by what is happening. He feels himself moving downward, into darkness. He thinks of the cross and the words on it, "Jesus saves," and he can see his family and Elisha above him, far away. He hears his father speaking to him and feels cast out of the church, then he hears another voice urging him not to let his father keep him down.

While on the threshing floor, John sees a series of terrible visions. He remembers he has sinned, like Noah's son, because he saw his father naked in the bathtub. He imagines his father coming to beat him, calling him the Devil's son, and he imagines himself standing up to his father, saying he knows what Gabriel does in the dark at night and what is under his white robes. John imagines the rest of his family members, and Deborah, in the dark pit with him. He sees a multitude of the downtrodden and abused generations that came before him, stained with blood that will not wash off in the baptismal waters of a river. He sees his mother overtaken, his father indifferent, and Roy dead. He whispers to God to have mercy on him, sees a fire before him, and hears a voice telling him to "go through." He asks God to take him through the fire, and then he sees the light of God and hears Elisha's voice praising God. He opens his eyes to see the multitude rejoicing for him, and then he comes out of the vision.

In the church John emerges from his vision to see Elisha telling him to rise up while the saints of the church surround him. One of the sisters sings, and John declares he is saved now. He greets his mother, who says she is proud of him. He says to his father, "Praise the Lord." His father replies with the same words, but he does nothing else. Unable to find words to bridge the gap between him and his father, John decides to testify about his experience. Everyone in the church praises and congratulates John, while his father remains skeptical, saying he wants to see John live the faith he now professes to have.

John's conversion seems to bring the service to an end, and the congregation leaves the church, moving into the street, chattering about the events of the service. The sisters ask Elizabeth about John's childhood, while Elizabeth remembers John's father, Richard, and the first time John met Gabriel. Florence confronts Gabriel about the letter from Deborah, telling her about Esther and the baby. Florence accuses her brother of bringing misery to everyone he meets, and he says he is following God's way and God sees his heart and soul. Florence asks him about the souls he has caused to fall and says he has nothing to show for his life. She promises to show Elizabeth the letter before she dies so Elizabeth will know she is not the only sinner in their house.

John walks down the avenue with the others feeling transformed, seeing the buildings and the street in a different light. He knows he will be teased in the streets again and will feel sadness and anger again, but he also feels free. He walks with Elisha, who tells him how long he was praying in the church, and Elisha says he is glad John has been saved. Elisha says the way is difficult but John must keep his faith in Jesus and sacrifice as Jesus did. Elisha declares himself John's brother in the Lord. Then they reach John's house, and the family parts from the rest of the group. Before going inside the house, John tells Elisha to remember he was there and that he was saved, no matter what happens to him or what people may say. As John sees the sun rise, he can feel where Elisha kissed him on his forehead and his stepfather standing behind him. When John faces Gabriel, John is smiling, but Gabriel is not. Then they go inside the house as John says, "I'm ready ... I'm coming. I'm on my way."

Analysis

John's Visions

The Temple of the Fire Baptized earns its name in John's harrowing conversion experience on the threshing floor, named as such after the surface on which wheat or corn grains are separated from the chaff—often using an instrument such as a flail. John is similarly punished by his visions of darkness and the menace of his father coming for him. The boy feels isolated from his family and his church, and he believes his sins are enormous. He fixates on the experience of seeing his father in the bathtub, comparing himself to Noah's son Ham. In Genesis, Ham is one of Noah's sons. When their father emerges from his bath, the other brothers avert their eyes and cover their father, but Ham looks at his father's body, and in strict interpretations the sight of another person's naked body is a sin in itself. As a result Ham's descendants, known as the Canaanites, are cursed by God to become slaves. Some older interpretations of this story were used as a biblical justification for slavery in the United States.

This curse leads to the second part of John's vision, where he sees his family and multitudes of ragged people, meant to represent the generations of slaves and servants that have come before him. They are, at one point, gruesome in appearance and stained with blood that will not wash off. John hears a sound of humming, a sound he has heard his entire life: "He had heard it everywhere, in prayer and in daily speech, and wherever the saints were gathered, and in the unbelieving streets ... It was a sound of rage and weeping which filled the grave, rage and weeping from time set free, but bound now in eternity." John's vision draws a line between his sin and the suffering that has come before his life and after. Only salvation, the act of going through the fire, can set him free from the rage and weeping. At the same time, the rage and weeping are justifiable responses to the bondage and brutality of centuries, and this vision connects John to the history of his family and of his people in ways he does not fully understand.

John's Road to Salvation

Even after John has been saved, and even after Florence has confronted Gabriel with evidence of his hypocrisy, Gabriel seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge his own flawed nature and soften his approach toward John. His response to John's emergence from his vision is curt and cold. Gabriel expresses no pride in John's accomplishment, even though helping others find salvation is supposed to be his life's calling and work. He does not encourage so much as threaten, saying "I want to see you live it" after John testifies of his newfound faith. While everyone else in the church encourages and congratulates John, Gabriel remains aloof, unwilling to forgive John for the sin surrounding his birth even at this moment of his rebirth.

When they speak privately, Gabriel tells Florence he means to make sure John follows the path, that he does not want John's blood on his hands, but his manner remains harsh to the end. The only justification he offers for his past and present actions is to say to Florence, essentially, that his actions don't matter because God's way is not man's way and God chose him. He responds to Florence's threats by saying, "I ain't never seen nothing but evil overtake the enemies of the Lord." In her response Florence hints at her true problem with faith. She says Deborah was nobody's enemy and "she didn't see nothing but evil." Gabriel claims his actions don't matter because he has faith, and Florence counters with Deborah's actions and faith that never brought her any benefit in this life.

John comes out of his experience on the threshing floor with a new sense of confidence and freedom. When he walks in the streets and thinks about the teasing he has experienced there, he believes he will be free of his old anger and hurt because he serves God now. He believes his salvation will protect him from the damage of day-to-day life. Yet John's comment to Elisha at the end, when he tells him to remember that this happened to him no matter what happens or what people say in the future, introduces some doubt in John that he will be able to hold to the path that is now before him. Those old conflicts are not entirely gone. John still wants his stepfather's approval and does not seem able to earn it, even now that he has been through the fire in his vision. John's final words, "I'm on my way," indicate his hope that he will be able to stick to the path of goodness. These statements taken together represent a kind of resolution to John's conflict between his different hopes for his life, that whatever else happens to him this did happen as well. He has been saved, and regardless of where he is on his way to, the salvation experience will shape the rest of his life.

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