Faith and Religion
The central tension in Tambourines to Glory is between Essie, who sincerely believes in God and wants to help people find peace through faith, and Laura, who sees the church simply as a way to get money. The difference originates in their childhood: Essie’s mother insisted Essie attend church every week when she was a girl, but Laura “seldom went . . . and never regular.” Although neither woman has been to church in years, Essie has happy memories, especially of the music. And when the two are joking about starting a church and Laura sings, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on,” she starts to mean it. From the first, Essie and Laura expect different things from the church, and each finds what she is looking for. As the narrator explains, “Playing and singing and talking were the only things about their corner that interested Laura, but these were the least that interested Essie.” Essie wants to help the people who stop to hear them; Laura wants to help only herself. Essie finds a new engagement with her own life—a community, and a way to bring her daughter to live with her. Laura gets money, a fur coat, a Cadillac, and a handsome young man.

The question that repeatedly troubles Essie is one of the central questions of the novel: “Is we doing right?” Is the Tambourine Temple a force for good, although it originated as a scam? Does it matter that Laura’s motives, at least, are impure? The fact is, the church really is helping people change their lives. Chicken Crow-for-Day does stop his “Sniffing after women, tailing after sin, gambling on green tables,” and Birdie Lee gives up drinking. Essie finds the energy to get off her chair and shake off her lethargy. Marietta and C. J. will have a safe and comfortable—if a little dull—life together. And the Tambourine Temple, with Laura out of the picture, is going to open a day care center, a clubhouse, and a playground. Amused as he was by charlatan preachers who made themselves wealthy, Hughes could not ignore the contributions the churches made to their communities, and the changes a faith in God made in people’s lives. Ultimately, perhaps it does not matter whether the preacher is sincere or even whether God really exists, especially for people with so little else to believe in. As the narrator explains about one of the Reed Sisters’ songs, “For many there living in the tenements of Harlem, to believe in such wonder was worth every penny the tambourines collected.”

But in the end, Good triumphs over Evil. Laura and Buddy are punished for their faithlessness. Buddy loses his life. Laura loses her self-respect, her freedom, her Cadillac, and her partnership and friendship with Essie. Although Laura also gives up all of...

(The entire section is 1129 words.)