Go Tell it On the Mountain

Go Tell it On the Mountain Summary and Analysis of The Threshing Floor


This section deals with John's anguish as he experiences his personal dark night of the soul as he lies on the threshing-floor.

John, lying on the floor, tastes the clouds of dust raised by the feet on the saints. He knew he was on the floor without knowing how it happened. He is unable to move, but he feels something moving in him. He feels caught by power that fills him with unimaginable, unendurable anguish. He wants to get up, hearing a malicious voice insisting he do so, but is terrified to find himself unable to. He feels ill, prodded by the voice to get up lest he be like "all the other niggers" (pg. 220).

He feels himself sinking deeper and deeper into despair and darkness. In this darkness he remembers the cross and the salvation that awaits him through Jesus, but he only feels bitterness about his father and his desire for Elisha. He wonders where he is going down to - the depths of the sea? The bowels of the earth? Hell? He is afraid and struck again with terror. He was in the pit--and he couldn't look to his family for help, waiting above him. He doesn't even know if they want him as much as he wants them - even if they love him.

Suddenly he sees Gabriel, looking sad-eyed, angry, and prophetic. John is full of despair, finding no warmth for his father and finding himself going down even further as he remembers snippets of Gabriel's abuse and his hatred for Gabriel. He wonders if that sin of hatred was the reason he was so mired now.

In his vision, he next finds himself following Gabriel for days down a long, silent white street. A disfigured black woman passes by them. John is gratified and smug to find that she is more ugly than him or Elizabeth, though Gabriel is angered and surprised. He tells John that the devil's son follows after sin, and John responds that as the devil's son, he has seen what Gabriel does in the dark. Gabriel turns a knife on him, and John finds himself screaming. Then Gabriel is gone, but John knows that the vision isn't over yet. He realizes that he is searching for something there in the darkness, and if he does not find it he will never rejoin the living.

John again experiences despair. He fears he is lost to the darkness he now realizes has been present all throughout his life--but the darkness yet bears witness to the light (pg. 228). In the darkness he finds armies composed of the dead, but they provide no answers, and fill his heart with still more fear. He cries for help, but none can help him. He hears a voice telling him to go through the crowds, but he is too afraid. Even when he hears voices telling him to call on God to help him through, fear locks his tongue, but he knows he has to go through. He remembers the communion table, and sees the armies sitting at communion, weeping and wailing, their feet stained with the blood they drank. They then arise to wash each other’s feet, but the blood will not come off until they go to the river.

While there, John hears someone say: “Sinner, do you love my Lord?” (Pg. 232.) Suddenly, John catches a momentary vision of the Lord and his heart is set free. He calls on Jesus to take him through the crowd. John has come through his dark night of the soul, and wakes with joy and sweetness. He has become part of the saints of God, mirroring the armies of the dead he had seen in his vision. Together they are marching onward to eternity where no further harm can come to them; they are pilgrims on a long road through the world, following the words and trails of the pilgrims left before (the text includes dozens of references to Biblical characters in this section).

The saints in the church welcome him, calling him "Brother Johnny" now, and asking him to talk about what God had done. John rejoices to say that he is saved. They all greet him and rejoice with him, but he pauses when he gets to his mother. He understands now the significance and the depth of the human heart. Before Gabriel he also pauses, searching for something to say that would finally bridge the division between them. Gabriel is skeptical, telling him that he will be watching to see if the Lord is truly present in John's life and actions. John promises to serve the Lord.

As the saints disperse, still rejoicing, they discuss the power with which God had rocked their congregation and had saved Johnny. They rejoice particularly with Elizabeth, who finds herself remembering Richard again.

Florence and Gabriel have a final argument. Florence presses Gabriel about his life and the fruits of his holiness. She accuses him of causing sorrow for every person he had met, from their mother to Deborah to Esther to Elizabeth and more, and shows him the letter Deborah had sent years ago. He answers that God's way is not man's way, and he has done everything the Lord has required of him though he knows he is not a good man. He tells her that the Lord will raise up his son, but Florence tells him it will be ages before he sees Roy crying before the altar like John did that day. She accuses him of making Elizabeth and John carry the weight of his own sin so that Roy won't have to carry it, and threatens to tell Elizabeth about the letter so she knows she isn't the only sinner in the house, and John knows he isn't the only illegitimate child. She will be cut down, he argues, before it comes to pass. They separate.

John continues to revel in his new freedom as a child of God. Talking with Elisha, he brims over with a full heart, thanking Elisha for praying him through and asking him to keep praying. Elisha reassures him, sharing how glad he was to see Johnny lay his sins and life on the altar. He tells him to remember Jesus the Son of God, who paid the price for Johnny's life. He warns Johnny that his life is also the devil's price, and reminds him that only the love of God can make the darkness light. He stresses for him to remember, because the Devil will try hard to make him forget. Elisha walks him home, and together they revel in the joy of belonging irrevocably to God.


This section is fiercely metaphorical, full of figurative language because most of it takes place during the visions John experienced while on the threshing-floor. Baldwin weaves biblical imagery and metaphor together more tightly than he has yet, and bringing the novel to yet more elevated heights. Through his use of metaphor and allusion, Baldwin makes John's conversion experience sometimes despairing, sometimes euphoric--and always breath-taking, particularly as the Scriptural language and references used make the figurative language and visions of John's conversion an apocalyptic and archetypal event of coming face to face with the living God. What follows is a list of key metaphors used and biblical allusions made.

"He was like a rock, a dead man's body, a dying bird, fallen from an awful height; something that had no power of itself, any more, to turn. And something moved in John's body that was not John. He was invaded, set at naught, possessed. This power had struck John, in the head or in the heart; and, in a moment, wholly, filling him with an anguish that he could never in his life have imaged, that he surely could not endure, that even now he could not believe, had opened him up, had cracked him open, as wood beneath the axe cracks down the middle, as rocks break up; had ripped and felled him in a moment" (pg. 219). Note the language of nature, of falling, of losing control, and of being cracked open. The language poses John as a plaything, not in control of himself--but as we'll understand at the close of the visions, this is a profoundly moving and positive experience, as it allows him to experience the fullness of God without any control over the experience. A simile on the next page - he felt himself turning "as though God's toe had touched him lightly" - cements the idea.

Also note that his visions affect him physiologically as well. "John tried to laugh--John thought that he was laughing--but found, instead, that his mouth was filled with salt, his ears were full of burning water. Whatever was happening in his distant body now, he could not change or stop; his chest heaved, his laughter rose and bubbled at his mouth, like blood" (pg. 223). He has absolutely no control, either in the physical or metaphysical worlds.

"Whosoever loveth and maketh a lie" (pg. 222) is a reference to Revelations 22, which expresses that those who do not follow God's commandments are cast out of the Kingdom of Heaven. John knows he has sinned - he wonders if it was the sin of Noah's son who had looked at his father lying naked and drunk and was cursed because of it (Genesis 9). Some traditions hold that the curse was slavery - the cursed son was black (though this is not mentioned in the Bible), and John takes the curse to signify that.

Sin is personified on page 225 as an old black woman. "She was drunk, and dirty, and very old, and her mouth was bigger than his mother's mouth, or his own; her mouth was loose and wet, and he had never seen anyone so black. His father was astonished to see her, and beside himself with anger; but John was glad. He clapped his hands, and cried: "See! She's uglier than Mama! She's uglier than me!" Gabriel replies: "You see that? That's sin. That's what the Devil's son runs after."

On page 229, right in the heart of the conversion experience, Baldwin strings together one Biblical reference and allusion after another. In one page, Baldwin uses language from Revelations (the last book in the Bible). He references the book of the prophet Isaiah, who describes Jesus in Isaiah 53:5 in language almost identical to that used by Baldwin in this paragraph: "They were the despised and rejected, the wretched and the spat upon, the earth's offscouring; and he was in their company, and they would swallow up his soul. The stripes they had endured would scar his back, their punishment would be his, their portion his, his their humiliation, anguish, chains, their dungeon his, their death his."

Right afterwards, he has John take on the character of the Apostle Paul: "Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep...In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the seas, in perils among false brethren...In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness." All these things happened to Paul, and can be found throughout the book of Acts.

On page 231 there is a reenactment, in John's vision, of the Last Supper, which has already featured earlier in the book.

On page 233 there is another series of Biblical references: to Job, Abraham, Moses, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, David, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John, Judas, Thomas, Peter, Stephen, Paul. All these are key figures in different books of the Bible (Job, Exodus, Genesis, Daniel, I and II Samuel and Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the books of the prophets, and Acts). They are all organized in reference to the famous chapter 11 in Hebrews, known as "the hall of faith" for the list of faithful figures it refers to. At the bottom of the page, Baldwin writes, "[All these] looked unto Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith, running with patience the race He had set before them; they endured the cross, and they despised the shame, and waited to join Him, one day, in glory, and the right hand of the Father." That is a direct reference from Hebrews Chapter 12, which pulls out major lessons such as the vitality and dependability of faith and the coming glory of Heaven hinted at throughout the Hall of Faith chapter.

When Florence and Gabriel are arguing, Florence asks Gabriel a series of questions: Is [Esther's] name written in the Book of Life? And if you been but a stumbling-stone here below? Where are your branches? Where's your fruit? All these questions similarly come from scripture. The Book of Life is found in Revelation 20 and contains the names of the redeemed. 1 Peter 2:8 refers to a stone of stumbling. Branches and fruit refer to John 15, which is an extended metaphor of Christ being the vine and his followers being the branches. Unfruitful branches are cut out and burned. Gabriel's responses are similarly biblical, referring to Psalm 121 and 1 Samuel 16.

The concluding pages go back to John's point of view. Again, he refers to a number of Scriptures:

"Whom the Son sets free is free indeed" (pg. 247): John 8:36

"With the princes and powers of the air" (pg. 247): Ephesians 2:2

"The joy of the Lord is the strength of His people" (pg. 247): Nehemiah 8:10

"That heart, that breath, without which was not anything made which was made" (pg. 248): John 1:3

"Ezekiel's wheel, in the middle of the burning air forever" (pg. 248): Ezekiel 1