"Godliness" is a tale in four parts telling of the disintegration of the Bentley family. Jesse Bentley, the family patriarch, has, through hard work and thrift, become a wealthy and successful leader in the community. As the years have passed, however, Jesse, once a devout man, has come to confuse amassing wealth with serving God. Thus we again have the distortion of something good into something warped and grotesque.
Part One of the story traces the history of Jesse's family, how Tom Bentley and his four burly, hard-drinking sons wrested the farm from frontier wildness. When the four sons are killed in the Civil War, Tom has to ask his fifth son, Jesse, to give up his studies for the ministry and come home to take care of the farm. To everyone's surprise, the frail Jesse manages the farm very successfully after his father dies. He makes everyone on the farm work long hours and although there is no joy on the place, the farm does prosper. Jesse, therefore, begins to be proud, and when his wife is about to have a child he prays to God that the baby will be a boy, to "be called David and . . . help me to pluck at last all of these lands out of the hands of the Philistines."
Part Two begins about thirty years later and concerns David Hardy, the grandson of Jesse. We learn that Jesse had only one child, Louise, whose mother died when the baby was born. The farmhouse has been a rather sad, drab place, filled with maiden aunts, hired hands, and servants, but repressed by Jesse's obsession for more land. The atmosphere is less repressive, however, after the twelve-year-old David comes to live there; even the aged Jesse begins to mellow. Unfortunately, however, as the result of an incident one summer day, a misunderstanding breaks the bond that is growing between Jesse and his grandson. Jesse has taken David into the woods and, looking up at the sky, begins to shout to God, "Come down to me out of the sky and make Thy presence known to me." The youth is so frightened at this strange action that he runs away, falls, and cuts his head. Jesse is thus convinced that God disapproves of His servant Jesse.
Part Three reverts back in time to tell the story of Louise Bentley, "a silent, moody child, wanting love more than anything else in the world and not getting it." At fifteen, she left the farm to live with the Hardy family in town so that she could attend school. When the two Hardy daughters reject her, she feels that "between herself and all the other people in the world, a wall had been built up." In desperation, she slips a note under the door of John's room. "I want someone to love me and I want to love someone," her note reads. John interprets this message as George Willard interprets Louise Trunnion's message in "Nobody Knows"; Louise Bentley and John Hardy become lovers and thinking that Louise is pregnant, they get married. After David is born, Louise is often cruel to him but she excuses herself saying, "It is a man child and will get what it wants anyway."
The feeling of isolation is even more apparent in Louise's story than it is in that of Jesse Bentley or David Hardy. Louise has grown up knowing that her father wanted a son, not a daughter. The motherless girl hoped to find fun and friendship in town; instead, sexual promiscuity trapped her into marriage. She becomes a bitter, neurotic woman, frequently hateful to her husband and son, often drunk and staying in her locked room alone for days. This is what David escaped from when his grandfather asked him to live on the farm.
In this chronologically jumbled story, Part Four tells about Jesse's taking fifteen-year-old David into the woods again. This time Jesse intends to sacrifice a lamb to God in thanks for a bountiful harvest, but he does not bother to explain this to David. When the boy sees his wild-eyed grandfather with a knife in his hand approaching him and the lamb, David is again frightened and flees. Jesse pursues and David hits him with a small rock fired from his slingshot. Seeing his grandfather fall, David thinks that the old man is dead and he runs away from Winesburg, never to return.
In shooting Jesse with a slingshot, David is obviously reenacting the David-Goliath story, but, here, Goliath is not the rather pitiful figure of Jesse Bentley; instead, Goliath is the greedy materialism and fanatic religion which Jesse represents. Jesse personifies America's puritan heritage, a heritage that has fostered in American citizens such desirable qualities as thrift and industry, but has often caused pride, narrow-mindedness, coldness of heart, and greed. Jesse has not only ruled his own family and servants without love, he has scorned his neighbors as Philistines and has coveted their land.
Anderson claims in this story that Jesse is typical of his times. He says of Jesse Bentley, "The old brutal ignorance that had in it a kind of beautiful childlike innocence" changed when he "like all men of his time" was "touched by the deep influences that were at work in the country during those years when modern industrialization was being born." Anderson describes this period as "the most materialistic age in the history of the world" and laments that "beauty is well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions." Jesse Bentley welcomes the new machinery that is being manufactured for it enables him to farm more efficiently and with fewer hired hands; yet as Anderson shows us, Jesse is not happy. He is a lonely old man who has killed his wife by overwork, has rejected his daughter, and has frightened away his grandson.