Florence's cry meets Gabriel's ears not as his sisters voice, but as the voice of any number of sinners, including his own, when crying out for God's mercy. In the silence following her cry, Gabriel is transported back to the days before he was saved.
Gabriel's mother refused to die until she saw the last of her children saved. Sometimes, Deborah would sit with Gabriel's mother, and she and his mother would watch in silence as Gabriel got ready to go out drinking. He felt guilty about what he was doing, but did it nonetheless.
Coming home from a night spent with a woman from out of town and having drunk too much whiskey, Gabriel felt that all the world stood still to look at his sins and see him cast away from God. He fell against a nearby tree, calling for mercy, but felt that he had sinned for too long and that God had turned away from him. Suddenly, he heard his mother singing for him. He praised God, turned from sin, and felt himself reborn.
Gabriel began to preach, and Deborah began to look after him following his mother's death. She cooked his meals, did his laundry, and encouraged him with her praise of his sermons. Deborah had no husband nor even any suitors. The memory of her rape was a barrier between her and the community. She was perfectly suited to take care of the sick and dying, but no respectable man would dream of making her his wife. Still, she was a pillar of strength for Gabriel by helping him through his new life and vocation as minister.
Gabriel was asked that summer to preach at the Twenty-Four Elders Revival Meeting. There he would preach with distinguished ministers. Gabriel was honored and nervous about his performance, and he and Deborah prayed and fasted before he was to speak. On the appointed night, Gabriel and Deborah went together to the revival, and Gabriel asked Deborah to sit where he could see her. He mounted the pulpit, asked Deborah to read a passage from the Bible for him, and then began his sermon — a lecture on sin and salvation and the mercy of Jesus. At the conclusion of Gabriel's sermon, a young man knelt on the altar weeping, seeking forgiveness. Gabriel felt that the Lord had spoken through him, and he saw that the elders approved of his sermon.
The Sunday of the great dinner came, and Gabriel was uncomfortable around these men of faith. He found them too worldly and too well fed. He discovered that they all had a repertoire of sermons that no longer really came from their hearts and so felt that they were not giving God his full due. Deborah served the ministers that night, and after her departure from the room, one of the elders joked about her rape. Enraged, Gabriel rebuked the ministers for their laughter. Gabriel believed that the others were shamed by his purity, and he saw himself sitting by the right hand of God. Suddenly, he questioned God's plan concerning his relationship with Deborah. Perhaps it was God's will that the two of them should wed. Because Deborah helped him to stand as a man, now he could erase her shame and raise her to a place of honor as a woman. No longer would she be the girl who was raped, the girl looked at with a mixture of lust and repugnance; instead, she would be the esteemed wife of Reverend Grimes. Through her, Gabriel thought, he would sire his line of holy children. He decided to pray and to ask the Lord's will.
That night while walking her home, Gabriel asked Deborah to pray to help him to discover God's will over a matter that God had placed upon Gabriel's heart. Later that night, Gabriel had two dreams, which he interpreted to mean that God did intend for Gabriel to marry Deborah. Gabriel proposed the next day, and Deborah accepted.
Cries from Elisha, who is overcome by God's power, interrupt Gabriel's reverie. For a moment, Gabriel fears that the cries come from John. Then he becomes angry that his own sons are not present and have never been saved. One son (Royal) is long dead, and the other (Roy) is at home, wounded and angry with his father. Because Royal was a bastard, Gabriel thinks, it is understandable that he should be lost to sin, but his second son, Roy, was conceived in marriage and, therefore, should be saved. Gabriel is sure that Roy is not being punished for Gabriel's sins, so he concludes that Roy is being punished because of sins for which Roy's mother, Elizabeth, has not fully repented.
After Gabriel's marriage to Elizabeth, Elizabeth insisted that they not treat John differently than any of their other children, but Gabriel believes that there is a difference between John, a child who is not biologically his, and the children he sired. In Gabriel's eyes, John is the child of a "weak, proud woman and some careless boy," while Roy is the son God had promised Gabriel to carry on his name and to do the Lord's work. Gabriel has repented the death of Ester, the mother of his first son (Royal), and the death of Royal himself as a young man.
Ester moved into town soon after Gabriel's marriage to Deborah and worked for the same family that Gabriel worked for. She had many boyfriends and, like her mother and stepfather, rarely went to church. One afternoon, Gabriel invited Ester to hear him preach. Ester arrived at the church with her mother. After preaching a sermon that was remembered for years to come, Gabriel called for sinners to come forth and be saved. When Ester did not rise, Gabriel was filled with rage. Not long afterwards, Gabriel and Ester had an affair that lasted for only nine days before Gabriel ended it. By this time, however, Ester was pregnant.
When Ester told him of her pregnancy, Gabriel questioned whether they baby was, indeed, his. Offended, Ester insisted that she had not been with so many men that she could be confused about the child's parentage. Then she suggested that the two of them run away. When Gabriel refused, Ester demanded money to go away by herself and threatened to tell that Gabriel was the father of her unborn baby if he refused her the money. That night, Gabriel stole money that Deborah had been saving and gave it to Ester. A week later, Ester left for Chicago, telling her parents that she was looking for a better life.
On the road again preaching, Gabriel did not find the peace he sought; in fact, he found just the opposite. He saw the suffering of others much more clearly and saw how far they had strayed from the word of God. He began to pray for Ester, and although he saw the bleakness in the lives of others, he found in himself a new faith and vowed never to wander into a life of sin again.
Ester died in childbirth, and Ester's mother brought her daughter's body and her grandson home. Gabriel and Deborah attended Ester's funeral, where Ester's stepfather held Gabriel's son, Royal. Still Gabriel did not claim the child. Deborah became more friendly with Ester's family and reported how the boy was loved and spoiled by his grandparents. Gabriel watched his son grow up and into the life of sin that Ester had led. Gabriel found that whenever Deborah spoke of Royal, he was afraid that she knew the truth, and he had often thought to confess and unburden his heart. He wanted to tell her that he was Royal's father and that he hated Deborah for her inability to have children.
Royal left town but returned inauspiciously soon after a black soldier had been found lynched just outside of town. Gabriel ran into Royal on the street that night and warned him of the danger of being out at that hour and advised Royal to find his way home. Royal, however, didn't share Gabriel's fear because, he said, the white's appetite for blood had been satisfied.
Back in the present, John tries to pray. He contemplates salvation and wonders why, if God can heal all troubles, his parents, who have been saved, are not happy. John waits for the time when God will reach down and raise him up, the time when he will no longer be Gabriel's son, but instead be a son of his Heavenly Father. When this happens, John thinks that Gabriel will be forced to treat him fairly and to love him. Strangely enough, John realizes that Gabriel's love is not what John really wants. He wants to be justified in his hatred of his father and is not willing now to trade in so many years of abuse for love. He wishes his father were dead so that he could laugh at his screams in hell.
Gabriel remembers the stormy day that Deborah told him that Royal had been killed in a barroom in Chicago. During this conversation, Deborah finally asked Gabriel if Royal was his son, and Gabriel admitted the truth. He was openly angry with Deborah for her inability to bear him a son, and she said that if he had confessed at Ester's funeral, she would have raised the dead woman's son as her own. She advises Gabriel to pray for forgiveness.
Back in the present, Gabriel stands over Elisha, who is lying on the floor. Gabriel remembers his marriage to Elizabeth, an event that he believed was a sign that God had forgiven him. He looks at his wife's son, John, who returns his stare. Gabriel believes it is the Devil who looks out of the boy's eyes and would have struck him if Elisha, who is now speaking in tongues, were not between the two.
Gabriel does not accept blame or take responsibility for his actions. He blames Ester for their affair, asserting that she tempted him. Ester believes that it was he who instigated the relationship. She later tells him, "That weren't no reverend looking at me them mornings in the yard." Remember that Gabriel reached out to Ester first that night in the kitchen and that Ester protested that they not have sex on the kitchen floor of their employer's home. Even after Ester tells him of her pregnancy, Gabriel denies the possibility that the child can be his. When Ester finally convinces him that the child is indeed his and asks what they should do, Gabriel councils her to "get one of these boys you been running around with to marry you. Because I can't go off with you nowhere." Only after she threatens to expose their affair to the townspeople does Gabriel agree to help her. He steals money from his wife, not to help his mistress, but to save his own reputation.
After the death of Ester and her son, Gabriel blames both tragedies on Deborah, implying that both could have been prevented if it were not for their marriage and his obligation to her. Even his refusal to claim his own motherless child he blames on Deborah, claiming that she never gave him an opportunity to tell the truth, a claim that is blatantly untrue. Deborah gave Gabriel the chance when she speculated about the father's identity and commented how much Royal reminded her of Gabriel at the same age. Deborah knew the truth, but she was waiting to hear it from Gabriel.
Here Gabriel distorts history to suit his own needs. He never intended to run off with Ester. Even had he not been married at the time of the affair, he still would not have made Ester his wife. Nor would he have accepted Royal as his son. Had he taken on the responsibility of raising his son, people would then have known that he, their reverend, had sinned, and he was unwilling to lose the esteem of his flock. Implying that he would have married the girl if not for his marriage to Deborah or that he would have claimed his son if he had only been given the opportunity are his ways of shifting responsibility away from himself and on to the shoulders of someone else, in this case to Deborah.
Gabriel blames Elizabeth for Roy's stabbing, implying that she is a bad mother because she cannot control the rebellious boy. He says that his own mother would have found a way to keep the child out of harm's way. Florence counters that even their mother could not stop Gabriel's wild ways and only "wore herself beating on you, just like you been wearing yourself out beating on this boy here." Gabriel cannot deny the truth in his sister's statement, but neither can he look at his own ways to find a solution to the problem. It does not occur to him that perhaps it is because he is a poor role model or that his parenting leaves much to be desired. He is a provider but not a real father, although the two terms are synonymous to him.
Gabriel hides behind his religious conversion and uses it to deflect responsibility. When people question his actions, he hides behind his Bible and position as preacher. His attitude, akin to "God has forgiven me so I don't need to answer to anyone else," shields him from feelings of guilt. The obstacle Gabriel must overcome to find salvation (his personal mountain, so to speak) is his struggle with sin, which manifests itself in arrogance. His very insistence on his personal innocence leads the reader to believe that unconsciously he is not so comfortable with the status of his soul. He repeats over and over that God has forgiven him, but he does not appear to have forgiven himself. Ester's words to Gabriel shortly before they have intercourse for the first time foreshadow Gabriel's predicament throughout the rest of the novel. She teased, "But I can't help it if you done things that you's ashamed of, Reverend."
People who have come to terms with past mistakes do not feel the need to make excuses for their actions the way that Gabriel does. Deborah sees that Gabriel is tormented by guilt the day that she tells him of Royal's death. When Gabriel argues that he could not have helped Ester because she would have led him to hell, Deborah counters that the dead woman "mighty near has." She knows that, if Gabriel does not find forgiveness, he will be forever in his own hell of guilt.
Gabriel believes that his marriage to Elizabeth is a sign that God has forgiven him, but it is obvious that he is still not comfortable with his past. If he were not still ashamed about his actions, he would have told Elizabeth about his first son. He has not. His guilt manifests itself in fury after Roy is stabbed. Elizabeth says that they should pray for God to change Roy's heart before he is stabbed again. Her unwitting allusion to the death of Gabriel's first son provokes such an avalanche of guilt that Gabriel strikes out at her. He cannot change the past, but he can punish anyone who reminds him of it.
Gabriel wants to be sure that Elizabeth has repented for her sin of having had a child (John) out of wedlock. It is a mistake that they have both made, but only Gabriel knows this; Elizabeth does not. Gabriel asks Elizabeth again and again if she is sorry for her actions because to know that she has fully repented for her sin and found forgiveness would make it easier for him to forgive himself. However, Gabriel realizes that Elizabeth would do nothing differently if she were able to relive her time with Richard (her first love and John's biological father) and that she refuses to be sorry that Richard's child was born. It is only after this realization that Gabriel begins to treat Elizabeth and John so poorly. Gabriel hates John not because he is another man's child or for anything that John himself has done, but because John is a constant reminder of his own sin for which he cannot forgive himself. Gabriel believes, as Florence says at the end of the novel, that if he can make Elizabeth and John pay enough for Elizabeth's sin, then Roy will not have to pay for Gabriel's.
Gabriel has, in the past, been able to overcome his shame about his actions. In the first dream he had before asking Deborah to be his wife, he revisited his past sinful life. In the next dream, he had to climb a steep mountain to reach heaven. That mountain was made of all his former sins piled one on top of the other, but Gabriel was able to overcome them. When he speaks of the sinful life he lived prior to his religious conversion, he is not proud of his actions, but he is able to talk about them. But the sin he committed after his conversion — his affair with Ester and the child that resulted from it — he cannot outwardly acknowledge. He has told no one of his link to Royal, and he admitted the truth to Deborah only when she confronted him.
Finally, the powerful image of the castrated African-American soldier in this section graphically illustrates the racism-in-America theme. Issues of sex and sexuality (usually taking the form of white fears and myths related to sex organs, interracial rape, and so on) have forever been linked to the issues of race in America, and they persist even into this new millennium.
Testimony public avowal, as of faith or of a religious experience.
Lord's Anointed a person chosen and blessed by God.
the throne God's throne; here a church altar.
the vow a promise to give up sinful ways and live life according to biblical precepts.
revival meeting a large church gathering often held during the summer, outside or in a tent, during which people publicly confess their sins and renew their faith.
mercy seat a place before the pulpit where a person kneels and asks for God's forgiveness.
bondwoman a woman bound to service without pay: a slave.
the war WWI.
speaking in tongues glossolalia, ecstatic utterance of usually unintelligible speechlike sounds, as in a religious assembly, viewed by some as a manifestation of deep religious experience.