The story revolves around a character named John who turns out to be a chosen preacher. The story begins with how John wakes up on his birthday and leads his normal life. Then the story deepens and connects the dots through descriptions about his Father, Mother and Aunt’s past lives. In the end, he decides to become a priest.
The story begins with John Grimes waking up on the morning of his birthday. He lives with his father, Gabriel; his mother, Elizabeth; his brother, Roy and his sisters, Sarah and Ruth. They are expecting another sibling on its way. When he wakes up on his birthday morning, he regrets about masturbating inside the school lavatory. John is a good student who excels in his studies and uses this trait to overshadow the impact of his father’s mental and physical tyranny. He comes into the kitchen to have his breakfast only to find his brother and mother quarrelling about how Gabriel’s ways of judgement and physical abuse are to be looked upon. Elizabeth defends Gabriel. John then turns his concentration to cleaning the front room and furniture. He soon starts cleaning the mantelpiece where he notices an old picture and starts thinking to himself about how to win his father’s heart. Soon after he is done with cleaning, his mother gifts him some money whit which to buy a gift for himself and speaks some words of love and encouragement. After that, John takes a walk in the park and makes a promise to himself about planning on doing something big. He starts hovering over judging the whites. John then proceeds to a movie theatre where he fears to be seen by the Church people. During the movie, a character reminds him of Hell. Late that afternoon, his family and Florence tend to Roy’s injuries from a knife fight. Gabriel warns John about the whites from Roy’s incident and whips him later. Next, John goes to church and his mood lightens up after interacting with Elisha.
Florence enters her brother’s church for the first time in her life. She looks at her brother and finds him overjoyed. She then realizes that the happiness in her brother’s face is not because of her first visit. She remembers about how her mother first brought her to the Church ever. She then remembers how Gabriel’s first wife, Deborah, was raped by a group of white men. Soon after this, she starts thinking about how her mother used to interweave her life with the Bible. Then she remembers when her father had left her mother for the North. She soon goes into a flashback about her youth. Their mother, despite his unwillingness to study and his wild nature, always gave Gabriel priority over Florence in every case possible. She was denied any sort of schooling at all. Gabriel was beaten to improve despite being a sinful man and a drunkard. Thus, she left the house after her mother had left the world in 1900 and headed up to the North. She had always been extremely jealous of Gabriel’s facilities. The story then again shifts to John as he surveys the church and its attendants. It then shifts back to Florence and Frank, her husband. Frank was a drunkard and an impractical guy who Florence had tried to fix but ultimately she failed. Next, she remembers of a latter that might be presented to Gabriel to ruin his day.
Next, it is the turn of Gabriel to narrate his past memories in the form of flashbacks. Soon, he begins to remember the eyes of his dying mother. Then he is brought to the day when he returned home intoxicated but still somehow managed to not lose the faith the Lord has in him. He started giving sermons that turned out to be good. He even married Deborah after she was raped, as a sign of God’s blessings. Brother Elisha brings him back from the reminiscences of the past. He looks at John but does not like his progress. This is because John is Elizabeth’s illegitimate child. The qualities he wanted to see in his own son, Roy, are all present in John. Roy is as young, energetic and wild as Gabriel was in his youth. Then he remembers Esther, the mother of his first deceased son, Royal. He remembers how they had worked in the same house; during the family’s absence, they maintained their illegitimate relationship until Esther confirmed her pregnancy to Gabriel. He stole some money from his parents and sent her away with her child along with the stolen money. Afterwards, she died giving birth to his son, Royal. Soon after this incident, Royal is found dead from a knife fight. When Deborah was on her death bed, she asked Gabriel about whether the kid named “Royal” was actually his son or not. He agreed to the fact with tears pouring down his face. Deborah started crying too after hearing this and enquires after the reason he had never told her about the kid and states that she would have accepted the boy since she was barren. Meanwhile, at present timeline, the hatred for Gabriel slowly starts to grow inside John.
The next person up for a flashback is Elizabeth regarding her past life. She still remembers how her mother had died only when she was eight years old. She remembers how her aunt had taken her away from her father, an act for which she still resents her aunt. Elizabeth had pride inside her for which she was threatened of being punished by God. She met Richard, a grocery clerk with no faith in God at all, in 1919. She fell badly in love with this man who hated the South. So, she decided to shift to New York where she could live with Richard the way she wanted to but she recollects regretting not telling him about her pregnancy. At that time, she had done this in order to avoid burdening him with marriage. Soon afterwards, Richard had died after escorting her home and falling with the wrong crowd. A group of black store-looters had boarded the train with him and when the police caught him with them, they beat him but soon released him. However, the damage they did to his self-esteem made him commit suicide. Elizabeth met Florence in a Wall Street office while they worked as cleaning ladies. They even became good friends despite the age gap. Not long after they became friends, she came to meet Gabriel. He gave her hope by bringing back her faith in the Lord. Thus, for the first time in a long time, she gained back the hope inside her after Gabriel reassured her that he would like to raise her unborn child like it is his own child. She still remembers the day John was born to her. Suddenly his cry from when he was a child becomes a second reality as he starts to wrench on the church floor in front of her.
The last chapter is all about how John ends up being a priest in the story. Soon after his mother’s flashback, John quickly falls into a hallucinatory experience that he considers to be his spiritual rebirth. He struggles with his anger for his father; he struggles with his doubts and his sins. He gets a series of vivid imaginations. A whole night passes by with the church people and his family by his bedside. He wakes up in morning. The church people begin to consider him the chosen one as the right preacher. Everyone is happy and John cries. Only Gabriel is not happy at all about John’s vision of God. Gabriel still tries to be sceptical by stating that merely claiming to have seen God does not prove anything. He wants to see John preach with his own eyes. Regardless, the congregation proceeds with jolliness in all of their eyes, heading out during dawn. Before leaving, they congratulate Elizabeth for her son’s vision. She cries with emotions but the peers wrongly interpret the emotions inside her. They think that she is crying as she is glad but she is crying because her tears of bitterness have been relieved. Then, Florence walks in with Gabriel. His face is full of resentment and disappointment since John has had the vision instead of his own son, Roy. Florence enquires after the reason behind his anger. She asks him whether he had considered the fact that not only Elizabeth might have to pay for her sins but also him, Gabriel, for his bastard son, Roy. Then she passes on Deborah’s letter to Gabriel. She also mocks him by asking whether God had not taught him patience. John finally reads out the letter as Elisha backs him up. Afterwards, Elisha leaves the church after watching his father unhappy, and his mother happy.