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Former brawler and womanizer Luke Fargo (Van Heflin) returns from the American Civil War to his Southern hometown a greatly changed man. Following his traumatic experience at the Battle of Vicksburg, he has become a minister, intent on rebuilding the town's only church. He is greeted with disbelief by his friends, including Matty (Nancy Kulp), and with outright hostility by the rest of the townsfolk, as he alone in his community had fought on the Union side. Particularly opposed to him is Yancey Huggins (Raymond Burr), who sees a threat to his iron-fisted control of the town.Fargo encounters two very different women from his past. Faded Southern belle Georgina Descrais (Allison Hayes), impoverished by the war, tries to revive their former romantic relationship, as does the local madam, Selma (an uncredited Jean Willes), but he rejects them both. Meanwhile, teenage orphan tomboy Lissy (Joanne Woodward), who had been living in the parsonage, takes a strong liking to him. She continues residing there, which causes Fargo a great deal of trouble, as the townspeople, aroused by Huggins, suspect him of falling back on his old scandalous ways. He does not help matters when he reluctantly gambles on a Sunday with prosperous businessman Albert Loomis (Philip Carey), winning a horse race and some lumber for the church, and is goaded into fighting Yancey's men.Finally, the bishop has to be called in to resolve the situation. He learns that Fargo, not knowing any better, had not been ordained. After hearing how much good Fargo has done in the community, the bishop makes him a real minister and then tries to get him to marry Lissy. When Fargo proves reluctant, the exasperated Lissy hands the bishop her rifle to prod the hesitant (though not unwilling) groom.