Tambourines to Glory is divided into thirty-six chapters, each a separate scene with its own title. The first, “Palm Sunday,” is the longest at six pages, and it introduces the main characters, the setting, and the idea that triggers the plot. On a Palm Sunday in Harlem, two friends are reminiscing over their younger days when they attended church occasionally. Essie Belle Johnson and her neighbor Laura Reed both grew up in the American South, and came to New York City as young adults, specifically to the African American section called Harlem. Both are about forty, living in oneroom kitchenette apartments in a run-down building, and barely getting by on welfare. Essie dreams of having enough money to bring her daughter Marietta up from Virginia to live; Laura thinks only of the next drink, the next bet on the numbers, and the next man. Playfully, they discuss opening a church and getting rich off the collection plate. As they sing a hymn they are uplifted for a moment, and Essie is moved to strengthen her relationship with God.
The next morning, Essie tells Laura that she really intends to start a church. She believes that God will answer their prayers, and that he has already touched her life. Laura is willing, though she sees the church only as a way to get money. They agree that when the weather is warm they will buy a Bible and a tambourine and start praising on the street corner. Laura will preach, Essie will sing, and they will use the tambourine to keep time and to gather collections.
With a tambourine from the Good Will Store, the Reed Sisters, as they call themselves, offer their first worship service at the corner of 126th Street and Lenox. The two dozen people who stop to hear them are moved enough to join in the singing, shout “Amen,” and throw some change in the tambourine. On their first night of preaching, the Reed Sisters take in $11.93. Although they had agreed that the first night’s collection would go toward purchasing a Bible, Laura takes out almost four dollars for liquor and a bet. Over the next several nights, Laura’s habit is to preach, divide the money, and go look for a man or a drink, but Essie stays to talk with the people in the crowd. They think she can help them, and she wonders whether it is true.
The church is a success. Laura tells the crowds that “since God took my hand, I have not wanted for nothing.” The Sisters have been able to pay the rent and eat regular meals. Laura urges the crowd to put money in the tambourine to help her stay on God’s path, and they do. One old woman, Birdie Lee, accepts salvation and takes a turn shaking the tambourine to God’s glory. She is so energetic and rhythmic that she draws in more people. Although Laura does not like sharing the spotlight, she sees that letting Birdie Lee stay with them is good for business. Like many chapters, this one is sprinkled with snatches of lyrics from the hymns sung by Essie, Laura, and Birdie Lee.
As autumn begins, Essie, Laura, and Birdie Lee find a three-room apartment to...