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Go Tell It on the Mountain | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Course Hero. "Go Tell It on the Mountain Study Guide." January 12, 2017. Accessed May 29, 2023.


Course Hero, "Go Tell It on the Mountain Study Guide," January 12, 2017, accessed May 29, 2023,

Go Tell It on the Mountain | Symbols



The church is a place where John feels he belongs as much as any other place. It provides him with friendship and encouragement as seen in his friendship with Elisha, and it represents a safety zone from Gabriel's rage at home. Church also provides a quiet retreat from the chaos of the city streets.

The church is the scene of John's transformation as well. The threshing floor, an image from the Bible, is a structure that functions to separate wheat grain from the chaff. This image becomes a metaphor for God's judgment in that God will bring the good wheat to heaven and send the bad chaff to burn. During John's salvation he rolls in the dust of the church floor as he fights his sinful nature, emerging victorious as a man of God.

City Streets

The streets of Harlem, and of New York in general, are filled with people going about activities John and his church regard as sinful. At the same time, the streets are filled with possibilities and points of fascination for John, as seen in his birthday odyssey through the city.

The city is incorporated into the metaphor of climbing up and falling from the mountain mentioned in the title hymn. When characters climb up they approach God, and when they fall they become separated from God. John climbs a hill in Central Park and feels powerful: "He felt like a long-awaited conqueror at whose feet flowers would be strewn, and before whom multitudes cried, Hosanna!" When John descends the hill, he heads toward the dangerous and sinful city. Yet he comforts himself, knowing, "I can climb back up. If it's wrong, I can always climb back up." The conflict epitomizes John's spiritual struggle at the novel's end. While he may be a saved man, he must live in a sinful world.


Hymns form the basis of any experience in the church. They serve as the impetus for "the Shout," or the overcoming of a person by the Holy Spirit: "Only the pounding feet and the clapping hands were heard; then another cry." The hymns also represent the presence of God and his judgment: "The music swept on again, like fire, or flood, or judgment." Those who are moved to shout are close to God, and those who are not have been judged unworthy in some way.

The hymns the church members sing literally unify them in song, and the themes of the verses bring them closer to God in praise. Most of the hymns are old, dating back to the congregants' enslaved ancestors, so singing also gives them a connection to their history and community: "Elisha began a song: 'This may be my last time,' and they began to sing."

Stylistically the italicized lyrics punctuate the text, creating sound imagery that brings the reader into the scene.

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