Bowen’s avowedly Christian debut shows a young black minister struggling in the early 1960s to balance romance, church politics, and spiritual uprightness.
Before beginning his seminary training in Atlanta, Theophilus Henry Simmons formed an unfortunate liaison with the dangerously passionate Glodean Benson, who can only be described as a clerical groupie. As the story begins, newly graduated Theophilus finds that his first ministerial assignment is at the Greater Hope Gospel United Church of Memphis, the very church Glodean’s family attends. Fortunately, he soon meets Essie Lee Lane, a cook at Pompey’s Rib Joint. She may be less educated and cultured than other women pursuing Theophilus, but Essie Lee has a sterling character and good legs, the two attributes Theophilus requires in a wife. Once they marry, Bowen doesn’t hold back on showing the minister’s happy sex life with his bride in order to remind us that the gifted preacher is also a man with strong needs. Meanwhile, although Theophilus makes references to the civil rights struggles in his sermons, most of his energy is directed toward fighting enemies within his denomination, particularly a band of sleazy ministers and bishops whose thievery and lasciviousness are rendered in great detail. The split in power within the Gospel United Church between the righteous and the evil comes to a head at the Triennial Conference, where Theophilus’s allies uncover a brothel set up in a parishioner’s funeral home specifically to service visiting ministers. As one might expect, the forces of good prevail, though it’s to Bowen’s credit that she realistically shows their victory as incomplete.
A blend of sermons and romantically veiled sex, spiced up with some violence, that will probably please churchgoing readers. Others may find the self-righteousness an annoying yawn.