The book opens by introducing us to the Grimes family as they prepare to go to church. They always show up late, thanks to, according to the father Gabriel, their mother's inability to get them out of the door on time. Their walk to church typically involves the audience of men and women walking back home after their Saturday revels. John and Roy experience different reactions to seeing them and knowing the things that went on in the bars and behind closed doors: John shame and embarrassment, Roy with amusement.
The Temple of Fire Baptized is always full on Sundays. When they arrive, the family usually separates to their different Sunday Schools. John and Roy attend the Intermediate Sunday School, taught by Brother Elisha (to whom 14-year-old John is somewhat attracted). His attraction to Elisha and the growing pressures of adulthood teach John to pay attention to the lesson. John, as opposed to Roy, is expected to be a good example.
After Sunday school, they return and begin the service by singing. The singing is what makes John believe in the Bible, more than any experience he's had of God: the way the people changed visibly when under the power of the Holy Spirit. It elevates them from mere men and women into spiritual beings literally singing and dancing before the Lord. Baldwin details how Brother Elisha is taken by the Power.
Father James uncovers sin in the congregation. Elisha and Ella Mae have been "walking disorderly," spending time with each other alone. Though they hadn't slept together yet, Father James publicly and sternly reprimands them. Though John is curious as to the temptation the two experienced, he realizes that the holy life is waiting for him.
John wakes up on the day of his fourteenth birthday feeling an ominous foreboding, as though something had changed. The house is eerily quiet as no one was up yet, making him feel like he could believe everyone had been raptured except he, who had sinned. He had masturbated, alone in the lavatory, and he feels guilty and spiritually depressed over it. He dreams of leaving his father and having another life, perhaps rooted in the mental acuity both his black and white teachers told him he possessed. He is proud of his intelligence, considering it the thing that keeps Gabriel from being the victor over him, and is waiting for the day Gabriel is on his deathbed so he can curse him. John's heart is described as being hardened toward his father, whom he considers an ambassador for God. Accordingly, his heart is hardened toward God as well.
John, who had fallen asleep during his ponderings, wakes up again wondering how he was left to sleep so long. He goes to breakfast, finding his mother and brother Roy having an argument about their father Gabriel. Roy resents Gabriel deeply for his strictness, rules, and beatings, but his mother tells Roy that Gabriel beats him because he loves him and because he wants Roy to improve. John, to his own amazement, asks his mother if his father is a good man. Though his mother is surprised by the question (and John fearfully intuits that there is much his mother is not saying, and she is bitter about it), she tells them that they are privileged to have a father who worries about them and provides for them. Roy is having none of it, even when his mother tells him the only safety is in walking humbly before the Lord. Roy's mood changes, and he begins joking that his mother will be there to pick him up when he is in trouble. The moment passes, and Elizabeth assigns chores to Roy (to clean the woodwork in the dining room) and John (to sweep and dust the front room).
John is disappointed because it seems as though his mother has forgotten about his birthday, which she has done before. He starts his chores, which he hates doing because he never seems to make any progress in actually cleaning and driving the dust away. He sees his reflection in the mirror and is surprised to see that he looks the same as he always had, vindictive (remembering his father's words about him having a face like Satan's) and, he suspects, ugly.
The pictures John dusts on the mantelpiece reveal the nature of John's character and other characters. John is the only Grimes child to have a photograph of himself naked as a baby. He feels shamed by it and is accordingly sullen when visitors who see the picture try to make friends with him (leading them to dismiss him as a funny child who dislikes them). In these photos, we meet John's Aunt Florence, Gabriel's sister, as a beautiful young woman and Deborah, Gabriel's long-dead first wife. John is very curious about her, wishing he could ask her how to make his father love him (not knowing, as Florence does, that Gabriel didn't love him because he wasn't his son by blood).
After he finishes his chores, John rests in his father's chair and watches the boys playing outside the window, wishing furiously he could be like them, playing outside and unthinking. His mother calls him and gives him money to get himself a birthday present. John is oddly touched by the gesture, hoping she knows how much he loves her. As she encourages him to follow the Lord, who will reveal in good time all that He wants John to know (and, she reminds him, all things work together for good to those that love the Lord), he knows she is referring to his trouble. He's conscious somehow that they both have a trouble together, even though she wouldn't tell him what it is.
He decides to go to the city. Thinking all the while about the glamour of the city and the cold callousness of the people who lived in sin there without God, he decides to go to the theater, which is completely forbidden. The book then goes into a long exploration of the Broad Way and the Narrow Way as he walks about the city. He thinks about being black, too - about how his father distrusts all white people, and how he would find out as he grew older how evil white people are. Once at the theater, he enters without looking back, afraid all the while of God coming down and punishing him while he is in there.
The movie is about a blonde white woman, ill with tuberculosis. Proud and vitriolic, she does whatever she pleases. At first, John is impressed by and sympathetic toward her, seeing in her story what he wants to do to his father. There is no way the woman would ever think about repentance - until she is on her deathbed. She dies alone, facing her Maker unprepared. John feels like God may have brought him to the theater so he could see the wages of sin, and realizes again that the narrow path is waiting, almost cruelly, for him.
Once he gets home, he discovers his brother Roy has been stabbed. Gabriel, to whom Roy is the apple of his eye, is livid, blaming and warning Elizabeth, Florence, and John in turn. Florence, who has taken it upon herself to defend Elizabeth, keeps pointing out that it is only Roy's fault, because he is the one who went with his gang to the other side of the city to get into a fight. When Elizabeth backs her up, Gabriel slaps Elizabeth. Roy tells his father he will kill him if he raises a hand to Elizabeth again and Gabriel, furious and crying to God, beats Roy.
Afterwards, John goes to the church to open it for the Saturday night service. Elisha meets him there and after a bit of friendly roughhousing (in which John works off some of the anger he felt toward his father) they prepare for the saints to come. Elisha asks John to consider his soul - to get saved. Sister McCandless and Sister Price are the first to arrive, and they spend some time bantering before they begin the service, the four of them, with a song. John is shocked when his family walks in - with Aunt Florence, who never attends meeting. John realizes that the Lord had plans for meeting that night, and he is a bit afraid.
This opening section sets up some of the major elements and themes that will characterize the rest of the novel, starting with the rich plenty of biblical allusions Baldwin makes. Used liberally throughout the novel, they have the effect of blurring the lines between ordinary and spiritual life. It makes the characters themselves take on a larger-than-life significance, almost archetypal in their scope and significance. Most if not all of the references come from Revelations, the last book of the Bible, known for being apocalyptic in its description of the end of the world. The "Seventh Day" chapter opens on the title page with a reference from Revelations 22:17: "And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." As it relates to the book, the reference is an invitation meant to address the longings the reader/John feels about life, and their satisfaction (or lack of!) with it.
The following is a list of biblical references and where they are located:
Page 18, "the wages of sin was death" (Romans 6:23). It is relevant, in light of the rest of the book, to get the full quotation: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Page 22, "He who is filthy, let him be filthy still" (Revelation 22:11). This reference attains its full impact a little later in the book, when John is engaged in the never-ending task of cleaning the carpet. The impossibility of actually successfully cleaning the living room is itself a metaphor for John's life pre-conversion, particularly as it is described as "his impossible, lifelong task, his hard trial" (27). Over the course of the book, John realizes the "dirtiness" of his soul and the impossibility of cleaning it himself, of bringing it to the proper standard and keeping it there. It is particularly moving to contrast this to the final scene of John's vision at the end of the book, of crossing the river and being cleansed.
Page 28, "the serpent" and Page 29, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." The serpent is obviously a reference to the serpent in the garden who tempted Eve to sin, but also to the struggle inside John. John 3:16, arguably the most famous verse in the Bible, stands as a counterpoint.
Page 34, "Everything works together for good for them that love the Lord" (Romans 8:28). This verse explains much of the patience and longsuffering Elizabeth displays.
Page 34, "[set] thine house in order" (II Kings 20:1). This verse helps explain some of Gabriel's hardness and authoritarian voice.
Page 36, "the way that led to death was broad, and many could be found thereon; but narrow was the way that led to life eternal, and few there were who found it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
Page 61-62, "Communion Sunday." A reference to the Last Supper, where Jesus and his disciples broke bread and drank wine together before he was crucified. He tells them that his body (the bread) will be broken for them, and the wine (the blood) will be spilled for their sakes, in order that they might be saved.
Page 62, "...so that they could wash each other's feet, as Christ had commanded His disciples to do." In the gospels, Jesus washes his disciples feet as a sign of his deep love for them. Washing people's feet was the job of the lowest slaves, but here the King of Kings was cleaning their feet for them.
Page 63, "He that is faithful in little things shall be made chief over many" (from Matthew 25:14-30).
Page 64, "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" (Matthew 20:16).
Page 64, "I'm going to spit you out of my mouth" (from Revelation 3:15-17).
This chapter also sets up two of the book's major conflicts: that of Gabriel with his sons and John's decision between worldly success and spiritual success. For the former, Gabriel is a hard and stern man, feeling no compunction about beating his sons when they fail to do the right thing as he perceives it, and forbidding them the entertainments children of their age typically engage in. Though this ostensibly comes from his desire to train up his children in the way he should go, his children resent it. Though he justifies it as raising them up as the Lord would have him do it, Florence warns him that his children will then make sure not to raise their own that way (pg. 48). John's resentment of Gabriel spurs much of the turmoil he undergoes before conversion, and even after his conversion Gabriel makes no move to reconcile with his stepson (mostly because Gabriel resents the illegitimate son of Elizabeth fulfilling the prophecy for a son who follows in his footsteps as a holy man).
The second major conflict resides within John. Embittered as he is by his stepfather's treatment, John knows he's a bright young boy who could achieve worldly and financial success, but knows that it would take him away from what his mother desires for him and from what he suspects is the right way, even if he doesn't particularly want to be a part of it: the way of belief and Christianity. He doesn't want it because he worries that it will make him like Gabriel. As he goes through his threshing-floor experience later in the book, he realizes that that is not the case.
Finally, this chapter also initiates the theme of racism. Gabriel is deeply embittered toward white people, finding them absolutely untrustworthy, and constantly reminds his children of it. John is more skeptical. Having little experience with white people himself, he knows he will never be one of them but also knows that his intelligence can take him very far. White boys stab Roy after Roy goes to the west side looking to stir up trouble.