A Union soldier returns from the Civil War to become a parson in a southern town. He finds a teenager living in the parsonage and struggles to build a church and preach.
Two Confederates, Floyd Miller (Myron Healey) and Jake Miller, and the Union soldier Luke Fargo (Van Heflin) on foot admire some wild horses. Floyd is welcomed home by his wife Mattie (Nancy Kulp), but Luke finds the parsonage burned with “Luke Fargo traitor” painted on the chimney. Lissy (Joanne Woodward) fires a shotgun at him, but he takes it away from her. She says it is her place. Despite her hostility he asks her to watch his stuff while he goes into town for supplies.
In town Swallow (James Griffiths) uses a slingshot. Georgina Decrais (Allison Hayes) goes outside and whips him. Yancey Huggins (Raymond Burr) comes out and lectures her. She gets in her carriage driven by her Negro servant; but the horses were unhitched, and Swallow laughs. Luke says he wants to trade, but Yancey says no and has a man fight him. Luke beats him and says the war is over. Yancey tells Big (Richard Webb) to fight Luke, and they have a rough fist fight that Luke wins. Luke tells the Lord he is sorry. He takes a saddle and asks for help to rebuild the church. He says he is a preacher now and will have services on Sunday. He leaves his field-glasses in trade.
Luke sees Lissy going through his bag. She tells “Blue-legs” to get off the property, but he says he is the parson. Luke admits he broke a promise that he was done with fighting. Lissy says she shot the parson, but he knows she is lying. He says he will take half the house and let her have the rest for a while. She keeps the room with the stove. He objects to her using sermons to get the fire going. The Negro servant Colossus comes in and says Luke is summoned to Mrs. Decrais.
Luke finds Mrs. Decrais (Kathryn Givney) drinking. He says he does not drink anymore because he saw the Light at Vicksburg. He says he wanted to stop the killing and help people. So he decided to become a preacher. She says he has to lick more people. She suggests the bishop could arrange another parsonage. She says they have sunk below Mr. Huggins, who calls on the prettiest girls now. Outside Georgina offers to drive him back, and she says she thought of him while he was gone. She asks him to take her away from there. He suggests she work. Lissy points the shotgun at Luke, but he gets the sermons. Georgina complains to Yancey that he was not nice to her, and she kisses him.
In the morning Lissy comes back with a chicken, and she tells Luke to pluck it; but he stops her from smoking a cigar and tells her not to curse. He tells her to stay out of Selma’s place. He prays before they eat. She says she stole the chicken from Yancey’s henhouse. Luke says he is going to hunt for a horse, and Lissy tags along despite his discouraging her. He lassos a white horse. Later he rides back on the horse and orders her to wash in the stream.
Luke and Lissy take two horses to the Millers, and Mattie invites him to live with them. When he says no, she says tells Floyd he is living in sin. On Sunday the Millers attend Luke’s service outside and sing a hymn. Luke tries to preach, and from a tree Lissy tells him to talk about hell because he has been raising it. The Millers leave. Luke says he is going to town, and Lissy suggests he enter the horse races.
Albert Loomis (Phil Carey) urges Luke to race his horse. Luke sees girls go into a building. Luke asks Loomis for lumber from his sawmill for his church and parsonage. Luke decides to race for it and narrowly wins. Selma is glad to see Luke, and they kiss. Yancey asks a rebel why they let a Bluelegs race, and he hits Luke. At Selma’s he declines her nursing, and she offers to buy a him a black suit.
Lissy asks Luke who gave him the suit. She asks for her half of what he won on the races. Luke tears down the burnt wood, and Loomis arrives with a load of lumber donated by Selma. Lissy and Colossus help Luke with the building. Others join, and Yancey sees the church is almost finished.
Luke is summoned to Georgina, who says Huggins wants her to be his housekeeper, and she says she has to do it. Luke goes back and finds a fire of wood going. He blames Lizzie, and she says it was men. He tries to put it out with buckets of water, and the Millers come to help. Big arrives and says he was not in on it. Luke finds Swallow wounded, and they carry him into the parsonage. Lissy says Luke wanted to kill him, but he says he got over it.
In his suit Luke practices his sermon while Lissy tries to trim his hair. People arrive, including Yancey, who has his list of debtors read. Luke says they are dedicating the church, and Mattie sings “Rock of Ages.” Outside Yancey’s friends play banjo and harmonica. Floyd and Jake go out to fight them, and then Big goes out too. Selma arrives with a wagon full of women. Luke tries to stop the fighting. Mattie and the Millers leave. Selma apologizes, and Luke says she did not do anything wrong. Lissy says he can preach to her. Luke says he borrowed his sermon but that faith and understanding are missing in him. He packs, and Lissy calls him a quitter. He says she is going to live in the orphanage. She threatens them. Mrs. Swallow arrives, and Luke christens her little girl.
Swallow and others come to the church service. They sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” At home Mrs. Decrais is not able to stop Georgina from going. Yancey notes that she came after dark because people talk. He says she is not humble and slaps her.
Luke asks Lissy to spell words in the Bible, and she says she is ready to move on. Beaten Georgina comes in and says it was Yancey. She wants to stay there. Luke asks Lissy to go get the Decrais carriage, but she says she is leaving and rides off on his horse. Luke leaves, and Georgina sees Yancey come in. Selma makes Lissy leave her place. Luke returns, and Yancey says they caught him red-handed.
Yancey goes to the bishop (Robert Burton), and he accuses Luke. Mattie defends him but says he is a “woman-chasing man.” Georgina refuses to accuse Yancey and says she married him. The bishop learns Luke was living there with an 18-year-old girl.
Selma takes in Lissy, who returns to Luke in a fancy dress. The bishop talks to Lissy alone. She says what Luke taught her and admits she likes him. She says what happened when Georgina came. The bishop talks to Luke and asks who ordained him. Luke says he never thought about it. They go out, and the bishop tells the people that there will be services as usual. Lissy asks Luke if they have been living in sin, how come she does not know about it. The bishop tells them to come into the church.
This unusual western portrays a converted war veteran clashing with an obstreperous girl as they try to live together while he builds a church. Although he is not educated for the ministry, his sincerity enables him to overcome many obstacles. In the process the girl learns from him how to be civilized, and they overcome those opposing them.