The Reverend John Ames is dying. This is not a surprising circumstance for a person who is seventy-six years old. Neither is it a depressing one, for Ames, the longtime pastor of the small Congregational church in Gilead, Iowa, has every hope of Heaven. However, Ames has a young wife and a six-year-old son, both of whom he adores and dreads to leave. Although there is little he can do to provide a financial inheritance for his small family, he does intend to leave a long letter of family history and moral instruction to guide his small son as he nears adulthood. His letter tells his life story, and the story of his family.
The Ames family’s history centers on Grandfather John Ames, a young man in 1830’s Maine who has a vision of Christ in chains, summoning him to Kansas to fight for abolition. Once there, grandfather, also a minister, rides with John Brown, preaches about just war—sometimes with a pistol in his belt—and being too old to fight, serves as a chaplain for the Union forces during the American Civil War. After the war, he shepherds a congregation composed almost entirely of women and children who have lost sons, husbands, and fathers in the war. Ames’s father, John Ames, is sickened by the militancy of Grandfather Ames, and rejects it. Father Ames becomes a pacifist and leaves grandfather’s church to worship with the Quakers.
Later, when John Ames (the future reverend) is only two years old, father becomes a minister in Gilead, and his now-widowed grandfather joins the family there. Gilead is important to the family for the role it had played prior to the Civil War as a haven for John Brown and his cohorts, and as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Ames’s childhood memories are colored by the uneasy peace brokered by his father and grandfather. However, as grandfather grows ever more eccentric, hard feelings persist and he returns to Kansas to live as an itinerant preacher. When word reaches the family that the old man has died, Ames, now twelve years old, and his father set out on a difficult journey to find and tend to the grave. It is a treacherous trip, during which father and son come close to starvation. In the hardscrabble territory of Kansas, though, Ames witnesses the peace father is finally able to make with the memory of grandfather.
Ames, now grown up, marries his childhood playmate Louisa, only to lose her and their newborn baby when he is just twenty-five years old. He continues as a bachelor for four decades, ministering to his parishioners but remaining quite lonely. Now sixty-seven years old, a mysterious, uneducated, thirty-two-year-old woman named Lila appears at the Pentecost Sunday service and quite unexpectedly captures his heart. He baptizes her, and she, finding no better way to thank him, proposes marriage. Lila’s inexplicable but obviously difficult past stands as an important reminder to Ames of the power of transforming grace. She and Ames become a devoted couple and the parents of a boy.
Robert Boughton is the minister of the Presbyterian church, and Ames’s closest friend. Though now a widower and in poor health as well, Boughton had enjoyed a long marriage. He is the father of eight children and has many grandchildren. Ames values this friendship highly but has struggled over the years with jealousy, at times finding it impossible to be in Boughton’s home, full of children. Boughton, sensitive to Ames’s pain, names his youngest son John Ames Boughton—for Ames—and asks him to be the boy’s godfather. Ames accepts, though the gesture...
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intensifies rather than soothes his sorrow. This child, nicknamed Jack, soon becomes a source of grief for his own family as well. He is a prankster and a thief and ultimately fathers an illegitimate child whom he abandons to poverty and death. He disappears from Gilead and rejects communication with his family for twenty years, but inexplicably returns during the summer of 1956.
Having been the subject of many of Jack’s often cruel cons, Ames cannot bring himself to trust Jack. His feelings intensify as Jack, who is the same age as Lila, begins to pay particular attention to her and their son. When Jack brings the boy a baseball and mitt and teaches him to play catch, something Ames is no longer well enough to do himself, Ames becomes jealous and fearful that Jack will take advantage of his family after his death. However, Jack’s return to Gilead has nothing to do with Ames’s family.
Jack has fallen in love with a black woman in St. Louis, Missouri, and has fathered a son with her. They are unable to legally marry, however, because of antimiscegenation laws. The woman has returned to her family in Memphis, Tennessee, and Jack is desperately searching for a community where he can make a home for them. Jack is disappointed to find that Gilead is no longer the bastion of racial equality it once was. When he confides all this to Ames, Ames is finally able to see the man that Jack has become and gives the blessing that Jack yearns for and which his own family cannot seem to supply.
As Ames remembers his past, he reevaluates it, considering his grandfather and father in the light of his own paternity. He wrestles his way to forgiveness as he encounters the threat that he perceives in Jack. He ponders theological questions as he considers his grandfather’s militancy and his father’s pacifism and the prodigal nature of his namesake, Jack. He finds grace in the care of his congregation but especially in the devotion of his wife. In the many ordinary moments of life—his son soaring on a rope swing; the cat, Soapy, stretching itself; the sun filling the church sanctuary at dawn—he finds beauty and wonder.