The Power and the Glory chronicles the plight of a Catholic priest who, for eight years, has continued to say Mass and administer the sacraments, even though Mexico’s revolutionary government has outlawed these practices. Knowing that he will be executed if he is caught, the priest moves from village to village carrying on the work of the Church. He is relentlessly pursued by a nameless young lieutenant of police, a revolutionary who believes that the new government can help mitigate poverty; the lieutenant despises the Church for ministering to spiritual needs while ignoring poverty. The priest, however, believes that faith in the Church’s teachings provides hope for the poor and oppressed. Because he considers himself a sinner, the priest empathizes with others who are weak, and feels compelled to fulfill his priestly duties despite the threat of execution. But the lieutenant sets traps for the priest by killing hostages in the villages where the priest has held Mass and by luring him with liquor. The inevitable confrontation between these two men brings the novel to a dramatic climax.
The story takes place during the 1930s, a time of totalitarian reign in Mexico. It is set south of Mexico City in the province of Tabasco. In his introduction to the 1962 edition of the book, Greene explains that he traveled in Mexico from 1937 to 1938 for the express purpose of writing a novel. Greene relates that the towns he visited are depicted in the novel: El Frontera, where the story opens; Tabasco, a prohibitionist town; Villahermosa, where he developed the character of the priest and discovered the prototype for the lieutenant; and Las Casas, where churches still stood although no priest was allowed to enter them.