(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Set in 1956 in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, Gilead takes the form of a letter written by the minister John Ames to his young son. In his seventies and dying of heart disease, Ames reflects on his forefathers, looking back roughly a hundred years, beginning with the founder of the three generations of Ames preachers who have presided over the Congregationalist church in Gilead. Guided by his religious convictions, the first John Ames rode in Kansas with the radical abolitionist John Brown, lost an eye during the Civil War, and remained militant to the end of his days. The ferocious moral certainty of the first John Ames stayed firm even in the face of the tragic bloodshed of the Civil War; in his later years he was not above thievery or virtual personal bankruptcy in his mission to provide for the poor and the vulnerable. Refusing to attend his own church because of his son’s pacifist sermons, he relocated to Kansas and died alone.

The tension between father and son is replicated in the next generation when the second John Ames must face the defection of his son Edward, who identifies himself as a modern atheist; he persuades his father to retire to Florida and to adopt his views to a degree. It is only the narrator, the second John Ames’s other son, who has remained in Gilead as the next Ames pastor. Like his father, he is a pacifist, his convictions reinforced by the influenza epidemic during World War I, which he felt was a judgment on America’s participation in the war; for Ames, the battlefields of the twentieth century represent a modern world hostile to Christianity. Neither the eccentricity nor the militancy of the first Ames minister is passed on to the succeeding generations. The third John Ames, an Eisenhower Republican, admits that he and his father failed to carry on his grandfather’s activism and that as a result he cannot help but feel a little diminished in comparison to the old firebrand abolitionist.

A widower for some years, Ames III has remarried late in life to a much younger woman named Lila, to whom life has not been kind but who is now devoted to her invalid husband and to their young son. Grateful for the happy turn his...

(The entire section is 894 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 991 words.)