(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Church Folk is a Christian romance novel that relates the story of the marriage of a young pastor, Theophilus Simmons, and his calling. Filled with fire to preach the Gospel, Theophilus Simmons is nonetheless dismayed by his first pastoral assignment. Greater Hope Church is in Memphis, and is the home church of Glodean Benson, whose exuberant sexuality held him in thrall during their college years. When their affair ended before he went off to seminary, an angry Glodean promised to “get” him someday—but only to become first lady of a congregation, not because she loved him. His rigorous studies enabled Theophilus to push away his treacherous images of Glodean during seminary years, but he is not so sure he can resist her in person.

He is being tested, the Reverend Murcheson James tells him—tested in the fiery furnace as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were long ago. Bishop Percy Jennings, their superior, has high hopes for Theophilus, but first he wants to make sure the young minister can resist the net of desire that Glodean still weaves around him. Theophilus, knowing his call to ministry means facing such tests, agrees to go to Greater Hope.

His first year as pastor there is a success. The church’s membership grows, the choir and usher boards’ performances are “spiffed up,” and the young pastor gains a reputation for brilliant preaching. He is sent as guest preacher to a revival in Mississippi. On his trip home, he stays overnight at a tiny Delta town with a locally renowned restaurant, Pompey’s Rib Joint. Although Theophilus avoids wild behavior—and thankfully has not seen Glodean since coming to Memphis—he decides to relax and slip out of his clerical role long enough to try Pompey’s barbecued rib-tip sandwiches and hot blues music.

At Pompey’s he meets Essie Lane, the cook. He is immediately attracted to her; she is just as drawn to him, but her basic seriousness and experience of life have made her cautious. When he asks her out, she counters with an invitation to lunch at her mother’s house. Their initial rapport survives the chaperonage and, later, the miles between Mississippi and Memphis. On Saturday nights, Theophilus calls Essie to seek inspiration for his next day’s sermon. Coral Thomas, a deaconess at Greater Hope Church, overhears enough of these calls to know the young pastor is smitten. She makes sure Essie can attend an upcoming annual...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bowen, Michele Andrea. Second Sunday. West Bloomfield, Mich.: Walk Worthy Press, 2003. Another absorbing novel of African American church life, this one set in 1970’s St. Louis.

Lewis, Lillian. Review of Church Folk. Booklist 97, no. 18 (May 15, 2001): 1730. A brief, descriptive review.

Mason, Felicia. Testimony. New York: Kensington, 2002. The story of a traveling black gospel music group and its struggle to carry the good news to far-flung audiences.

Raboteau, Albert J. Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Concise and perceptive history of religious experience and institutions in African American life.