Go Tell It on the Mountain is Baldwin's first major work as an author and skyrocketed him into literary stardom upon publication in 1952. Semi-autobiographical, the book mirrors the troubled relationship Baldwin had with his own stepfather; accordingly, troubled relationships, guilt, bitterness, racism, and (perhaps most important) religion are the major themes of the book. The book deals with 14-year-old John Grimes, whose intellect seems to him the way to escape the strictures of his unloving father (whom we later find out is his stepfather) Gabriel, a Pentecostal preacher. Like Baldwin, John experiences some homosexual urges, has to deal with family issues and abuse at home, and undergoes a radical transformation where he becomes a Christian.
In order to complete the book, Baldwin went to Switzerland and lived a fairly isolated life for three months, writing and revising material that had been taking shape in his mind since his early teens. Baldwin's novel was received exceedingly well by critics across the country, citing both the content and most particularly Baldwin's eloquent, lyrical writing. New York Times critic Donald Barr says, "Judicious men in their chairs may explain the sociology of guilt, and so explain Negro religion away. Mr. Baldwin will not have it away. In this beautiful, furious first novel, there are no such reductions." Douglas Field of The Guardian, reviewing the book in 2003, discusses the "radical sexualized spirituality" at the heart of the book, pulling out Baldwin's emphasis on the physicality of religion and pointing to it as a foreshadowing of Baldwin's later views both on religion and his developing sexual identity. Other critics identified influences of Dostoevsky, Faulkner, and other classic writers.