Cather based her novel upon the events of the lives of Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Joseph Projectus Machebeauf. As an author, Cather is known for writing about real life events in a way that compels her readers to humanize historical figures. She uses their experiences to help people recognize the present implications of historical events. Death Comes for the Archbishop is composed of a series of stories that chronicle the travels of two friends from Ohio to New Mexico as one, Latour, has been commissioned to be diocese there.
Latour and Vaillant are friends who embark on a holy quest together. As men of the cloth, both are motivated by religion. They meet people along the way and try to behave as befits their positions in the service of God. Through the course of events, they prove their faithfulness and strength of character by the way they treat people and remain true to their morals. This moral fortitude is rewarded with new church appointments replacing men who have not set good examples as leaders of the church.
Cather's novel is written as a sort of legend. It includes heroes who defeat temptation and are rewarded for their moral uprightness. This is the sort of story that is read to children to encourage them to set high expectations for themselves and to strive to be like the great men of the tale. The heroes have their faults, but they remain committed to self-improvement.