Summary and Analysis
During the church service, the organist plays the Doxology with a new rhythm and faster tempo than usual, creating great musical confusion as the congregation persists in its older, slower rendition. Jean Louise suspects that the fault lies with Herbert Jemson, the church’s music director. After the song, a young minister named Mr. Stone preaches on a text from Isaiah 21: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, / Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”
Disturbed by the change in the Doxology, Jean Louise pays little attention to the sermon. After the benediction, she approaches Jemson to confront him, but Uncle Jack reaches him first with the same mission. Jemson explains that a music instructor from New Jersey ordered him to “pep up” the Doxology as well as do away with many of the “Southern hymns” and learn new hymns instead.
Uncle Jack condemns the New Jersey man’s advice as yet another example of the North trying to force its agenda onto the South. Jemson willingly agrees with Jack that the New Jersey man was “sort of a sissy” and that he won’t try to incorporate the man’s advice into their church’s music any longer.
Minister Stone’s choice of Isaiah 21 as a sermon text is significant because it serves as the source of the book’s title. However, the importance of the phrase “go set a watchman” within the novel does not become clear until much later. The brief excerpts of Stone’s sermon provided in the text simply serve to reiterate the tendency of religion to function as a way of regulating propriety. Using a technique common in the novel, Lee splices two unconnected thoughts together with an ellipsis to provide fresh insight on what is being said: “a Christian can rid himself of the frustrations of modern living by...coming to Family Night every Wednesday and bringing a covered dish.”
Despite Jean Louise’s general disinterest in and skepticism of religion, she still fiercely protects her church’s musical traditions. She has already observed several times to Hank that change is difficult for her. Yet Jean Louise does not object to the new music as vehemently as Uncle Jack, for whom the New Jersey man’s attempt to change Southern music is tantamount to a Northern attack on the Southern way of life.
Uncle Jack’s objection to Northern musical influence also becomes a subtle reference to racial tensions when he compares the new Doxology to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling: “Apparently our brethren in the Northland are not content merely with the Supreme Court’s activities. They are now trying to change our hymns on us.” His reaction to what he perceives as unreasonable Northern influence over the South provides insight into how he might perceive the legal battles over race relations at that time.
The seemingly insignificant conflict over the Doxology, then, becomes important to the story because it represents larger societal issues. The musical issue functions as a kind of synecdoche (a part of something that represents the whole), symbolically pointing to every issue that well-established Southerners feel Northern influence has intruded upon. Racial equality is by no means the only issue at stake here, but it is the issue that will become most important to the story and to Jean Louise.