When the Saints Go Marching In

Throughout the duration of my reading of Baldwin’s Go Tell it On The Mountain, I have been interested in how the narrative bases itself on James Baldwin’s autobiography, while also interacting Biblical symbolism in order to create a criticism of the Christian religion. I’ve been particularly in the themes of apocalypticism that run through the narratives of each major character in the text. Though the main characters (John, Elisha, Gabriel, Elizabeth, Deborah, etc.) are all seeking to grow in their faith in God, it seems as though their greatest motivation for being “saved” is just to avoid the eternal damnation they feel destined for. They do not show nearly as much interest in being with God in the afterlife as they do in fleeing Hell. This is shown through the “fire and brimstone” rhetoric that pervades the thoughts words of each character in John’s family. Shame seems to be the main motivating factor for this outlook on religion and faith.

            As this piece is based in Baldwin’s autobiography, I feel that Baldwin is making a criticism of the culture of the [Black] church, in its exploitation of human shame. We can see this through John’s redemption at the end of the text. Although John bears doubts about his religion and even hates religion because of its association with his father, he still seeks out peace in religious redemption. When John is saved and has his name written the Book of Life at the end of the narrative, he feels a sense of peace, or perhaps relief. He no longer feels that he has to run from Hell; no matter how much of a sinner he feels he is, he has escaped Hell. He gets to be in “that number” when the saints come marching into the pearly gates, but it may not be until the afterlife that he gets to fully accept and love himself.

            Still, John has doubts at the end of the work, the fear of damnation somehow still finding him taking over. He says to Elisha, “No matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember—please remember—I was saved. I was there.” (Baldwin 215). He cannot fully revel in the miracle of his salvation; he is too fearful that it might be taken away from him.

Florence is perhaps the only character who is not willing to compromise her true self for her the eternal life of her soul. We can see this through how she talks with her brother Gabriel on matters of “the heart”. She is well aware that Gabriel is a well-revered man in the church and seen as very faithful man of God, but she does not believe that intention alone will get Gabriel to march with the saints into heaven. This is why Gabriel hates Florence; he sees her as a threat to his own salvation.

Go Tell it on the Mountain tells the story of a collection of characters who find solace in religion not necessarily because they want to march with the saints into heaven’s gates, but because they want to escape the Hell that they feel their sin and shame promises them. It’s fascinating to see Baldwin’s criticism of religion jump out through these characters!