Much of Jonah’s Gourd Vine is focused on the character of John Pearson, perhaps the best portrayal of the black folk preacher in African American literature. John Pearson is depicted as a powerful preacher, called of God, but he is also shown in the human dimension, as a man subject to the same urges, weaknesses, and faults as ordinary men. It is this tension between the godlike qualities and the human elements around which the novel revolves.
For example, readers are presented with the central question, “How can a man propose to lead a Christian congregation when he is guilty of the same sins he preaches against in others?” This question puzzles John’s wife, Lucy, members of John’s congregation, and even John himself. As John’s philandering continues, his relationships with his wife, church, and community deteriorate. John Pearson is a powerful preacher, however, and when he is in this element, he and his congregation can enjoy, together, the ecstasy of the Holy Spirit. With his powerful singing and preaching voice, John is able to swell the membership of Zion Hope Baptist Church from fewer than three hundred to nearly one thousand members and to become the moderator of the Florida Baptist Convention, a high religious post that carries with it many luxuries.
John Pearson’s relationships with women are also central to the novel. For example, when he is in the presence of virtuous women—Lucy Potts and Sally Lovelace—John prospers. These women encourage him, and he strives; they motivate him, and he achieves; they design, and he builds; they support him, and he accomplishes. Conversely, in the absence of these women, John falters, as is clearly seen following Lucy’s death; he falls into a cycle of drinking, domestic violence, and social disintegration. Likewise, when John is separated from Sally toward the end of the novel, his weaknesses...
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