The Reverend Samuel D. Whitehead, ex-Marine, bricklayer, and recent seminary graduate, is ecstatic to receive his first “calling,” or assignment as Pastor of his own church. But the Church of the Redeemer in Wood Falls, Kansas, will prove a challenging assignment and nearly his undoing.
The trouble begins almost immediately after he drives into town with his family. A political rally connected with the upcoming mayoral campaign has erupted into a no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out brawl, which the sheriff will not stop. Sam attempts to intervene and succeeds only in getting struck in the face, so he drives on to see the church. There he learns that the church sorely needs major renovation, which has not been done in decades because the two founding families, the Sinclairs and the Greshams, have been running a feud for decades and cannot agree on the simplest decision that would benefit the church (or on anything else, either). Worse yet, Sam delivers his first sermon by preaching against physical violence—only to discover most of the brawlers in attendance, including one who blames him for making him vulnerable to someone else’s assault.
Thereafter Sam spends most of his time trying to improvise to provide for the church needs, speak out on various problems in the community, and, ever more frequently, to run interference between the Sinclair and Gresham families. Each of these endeavors brings him trouble. First, his project to secure a new organ for the church leads to a confrontation with the church board when two town gossips witness him obtaining the organ from a house of Burlesque. Sam’s brother-in-law, called “Bubba,” offers to help the caretaker repair the superannuated boiler—but unknown to Sam, the two men turn the boiler into a still and start producing raisin jack, a variety of moonshine. Next, he takes his children out of school after seeing the appalling conditions there—which prompts his Bishop to warn him not to interfere in town affairs. Finally, he performs a marriage between a Sinclair and a Gresham—and when the secret gets out at a church social (after “Bubba” spikes the church punch with some of his raisin jack), Sam must physically restrain the heads of the families from brawling in the church fellowship hall, and then send everyone home. Not long afterward, the Bishop informs him that he is removed from his pastorate.
In one final attempt to save his situation and the community, he persuades his one remaining friend, Attorney Art Shields, to run for mayor as a write-in candidate, with the election two days away. That leads to a confrontation along the main street among three different political parades, including Art’s. Then the church’s old boiler explodes, and the church burns down to its foundations as a result—and the attempt by the fire department to fight the fire turns pathetic when the fire hose springs multiple leaks. When the Sinclairs and the Greshams argue yet again about who was responsible for the faulty equipment, Sam roars at them to “go someplace else, yell your heads off, and let this poor church die in peace!”
The next day, the Whiteheads are moving out—when Art Shields joyously announces that he is trouncing the opposition in the election and will definitely be the next mayor. Art offers Sam a job with the town, but Sam declines, saying that he needs to find another church. But as he is about to leave town, Will Sinclair and Axel Gresham—reconciled at last, and at the head of a procession of building-material trucks—intercept him, tell him that they intend rebuilding the church, and beg him to stay on