The Preachers: Father Divine, god to millions.
(Image Source: NewsWorks)
I first heard the name “Father Divine” as a child from my mom, musing over her grandmother’s occasional penchant for following (via correspondence, radio or TV) some rather interesting ministerial leaders. Her mom, my Nana, was no stranger to church hopping. She was a “spiritual seeker” decades before it became a thing. Raised Baptist, Nana left and checked out Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholicism and even Christian Scientists before settling on Holiness Pentecostal. BUT… Father Divine was way too much for her, and scoffed at her mom’s interest in a man who would deign himself the Lord God incarnate. She needn’t had worried; my great-grandmother’s attention quickly flamed out for Reverend Major Jealous Divine.
More recently, I came across Divine’s name last month when his widow, Mother Divine, passed away at the age of 91. The NY Times euologized:
t came as a bolt from the blue. On Aug. 7, 1946, Father Divine, the charismatic leader of the International Peace Mission Movement, introduced his new wife as “the Spotless Virgin Bride” to a gathering of stunned followers at a Philadelphia banquet.
The Rev. Major Jealous Divine, regarded as God incarnate by his disciples, had further news. Sweet Angel, as his 21-year-old former stenographer was known to the movement, had taken into herself the spirit of Father Divine’s first wife, Peninnah, or Sister Penny, who had died in 1943. The two women were one and the same, he announced. Moreover, his union with the woman henceforth known as Mother Divine would be chaste — a marriage in name only, he said — because “God is not married.”
“When Father married me, he symbolically married everyone else,” Mother Divine told Newsday in 2005. “It’s not a personal marriage. It’s Christ married to his church.”
Mother Divine was a mysterious figure. Little is known about her early life. She was born Edna Rose Ritchings on April 4, 1925, in Vancouver, where her father, Charles, ran the Strathcona Floral Company, a nursery and flower shop. Her mother was the former Mabel Farr.
At 15, she became fascinated by Father Divine and his religion, which preached a gospel of self-help, abstinence, economic independence and social equality. By providing cheap meals and social services during the Depression, he attracted a large following in Harlem, where he maintained his headquarters, and through his many missions, known as heavens, elsewhere in the United States.
The revelation came to her, she wrote in Ebony magazine in 1950, “that Father Divine is God Almighty personified in a beautiful, holy body.”
Mother Divine, version 2.0, with Father Divine, in 1953. (Image via NYT Obit)
Just last week, while reading “The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones & The Peoples Temple” by Jeff Guinn for the first part of this series on notorious preachers, there was that name again, popping up repeatedly as Jones had sought out Father Divine’s tutelage while seeking to continue to grow his own ministry. From “The Road to Jonestown”:
In late 1956 or early 1957, Jim Jones requested a meeting with Father Divine at Woodmont. With a large mixed-race church in a major U.S. city, Jones’s credentials were sufficiently impressive for Divine to agree. His initial visit to Woodmont was a revelation for Jones. He was particularly struck by the staff of worshipful women in the mansion who were eager to act on their leader’s behalf. Here was a leader who was appreciated. Jones undoubtedly told Divine about Peoples Temple programs, free food and clothing and well-maintained nursing homes. But he’d come to learn rather than brag. Like many older, accomplished men, Father Divine enjoyed describing his achievements to an up-and-comer who clearly hung on every word. Jones wanted to know how this communal housing worked, and how Movement businesses provided jobs for followers. There was also the Promised Land farm project— the concept of a social ministry feeding itself was fascinating. Divine was flattered; Jones’s visit extended for an entire day.
It was the first of many. (Kindle Locations 1482-1490).
God incarnated as a black boy born to former slaves in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. in the late 1800’s, who grew up to have a mixed-race, international following of millions at a time when Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” was a deadly reality for thousands? And Jim Jones wanted to crib from him??? You know I had to learn more.
I picked up the Kindle edition of “God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story” by Jill Watts, and will share some of the deets here.
Father Divine’s mother’s death made the papers, but for all the wrong reasons.
[I]n May 1897 the local white newspaper took notice of the death of Nancy Baker, a resident of Monkey Run. The paper reported that when Nancy Baker passed away, she was five feet tall and weighed 480 pounds. Her body lay in her home for almost two days as a local carpenter rushed to build a coffin large enough to accommodate her. On the day of her funeral, the coffin could not be removed until the door of her home had been cut away. Ten pallbearers carried Nancy Baker to her final resting place in a black Rockville cemetery. She left behind a husband and several children, including a teenage son, George Baker, Jr., who would become the evangelist Father Divine. (100-104).
Mother Divine, version 1.0, and Father Divine. (Image via Peace Mission.info)
Divine initially lived with followers in Harlem, but chose to hightail it to a quiet, relatively tony suburb of Long Island. Why? Too much temptation in those clubs and speakeasies?
Undoubtedly Father Divine considered many aspects of the Harlem Renaissance destructive and immoral. Alarmed by the worldliness of the Renaissance, Father Divine discouraged followers from associating with members of the black community. He stayed on the fringe of the Renaissance and participated only through his attempt to spread his theology among Harlem’s residents. Although its contributions were limited during this phase, Father Divine’s vine’s small sect represented a faction of the working-class component of the Renaissance and would eventually benefit from the expansion of cultural pride and black assertiveness.
Not far from vibrant Harlem lay the sleepy village of Sayville in Suffolk County, Long Island. In many ways Sayville, a summer retreat from the heat and congestion of New York City, resembled Father Divine’s hometown.
On October 27, 1919, Father and Mother Divine signed the deed for the property at 72 Macon Street and became Sayville’s first African-American homeowners.’
The isolation of this resort town seventy miles from New York City gave Father Divine more control over his disciples. In Brooklyn, Father Divine not only competed against worldly seductions like sex, alcohol, and drugs, but also, according to sociologist Kenneth Burnham, fought off other religious sects’ attempts to steal his disciples. By distancing his disciples from other religious orders, familiar surroundings, and previous companions, Father Divine eliminated many of the temptations luring away converts and increased creased his followers’ allegiance to and dependence on him.(704-721)
Although Divine’s ministry was arguably at it’s zenith during the lows of The Great Depression, it began gaining steam during the monetary high times of the 1920’s, with it’s proto-Prosperity Gospel message.
This era of prosperity drove Americans to ideologies like New Thought that outlined formulas for the acquisition and retention of wealth. At least some of the preoccupation with mind-power and God’s inner presence stemmed from the contradictions that surfaced during the Roaring Twenties. While the poor puzzled over the route to riches, affluent Christians tried to reconcile their desire for wealth with their abhorrence of greed. The New Thought formula rationalized moneymaking and prosperity within a Christian context. (793-795)
Divine was the subject of a Suffolk County District Attorney sting operation. More than a few people were alarmed that a Black man, with a substantial amount of money, could wield so much authority over people… especially White people.
On Thursday, April 10, 1930, the evening’s Holy Communion banquet began as usual.
In the middle of the pandemonium, the doorbell rang. Joseph Gabriel left his seat and returned with an attractive black woman in a tattered dress. Gabriel introduced the young woman, Susan Hadley, to Father and Mother Divine, who warmly invited her to join them for dinner. Surprised by the generosity of her hosts, she tentatively filled her plate, surveyed the devotionals, and listened carefully to Father Divine’s sermon. No one suspected that the pretty young waif had been recruited by Suffolk County’s district attorney to infiltrate Father Divine’s sect.’
Hadley discovered that the followers led an almost monastic existence, constantly strove for spiritual purity, and strictly abstained from sexual activity. All disciples subscribed to Father Divine’s teaching that sex was a sin that drained the body of “spiritual energy,” making the individual vulnerable to disease and death. Even followers who lived outside 72 Macon Street practiced celibacy. Husbands and wives slept in separate rooms and considered themselves selves spiritual siblings. Hadley came to believe that Father Divine’s vine’s rumored harem was a product of malicious gossip and that he adhered faithfully to his own celibacy requirement.
Hadley observed that about thirty followers and guests attended weeknight Holy Communion banquets. Frequently ministers and others interested in theology dropped by and spent hours discussing ing religion with Sayville’s mystical clergyman. Many stayed for the banquet and participated in the worship service. On weekends visitors increased as the devout who lived outside the home returned turned for his “blessings” and the curious traveled to investigate the Long Island preacher. On Saturdays and Sundays the crowd doubled, and in the dining room, blacks and whites worshiped together into the late hours. On Wednesday evening, April 24, 1930, while Father Divine served dessert, Hadley rose to speak.
I told them I met them when they were eating and I would like to leave them the same as I found them. As I left the dining room, Father Divine followed me out and wanted to take me to the station, but I told him I came unexpected and alone and I wanted to leave the same as I came…. He said his spirit would guide me to New York City.
That night Hadley rushed to the district attorney’s office and made her report. She insisted that Father Divine did not participate in sexual debauchery or any illegalities: “The welcome was genuine and there is nothing but a deeply religious air about the whole place-no immorality whatsoever.” She had determined that he did not solicit funds for the home and speculated that his money came from an extraordinarily large inheritance. The district attorney carefully examined the young woman’s report and after several days issued a public statement: “We can find no reason to attack him on moral grounds. Neither can we find any tangible evidence that he has in any way violated the law.” (864-928).
Father Divine viewed capitalism as good, and The Great Depression as being a sort of good… for him.
His critical attitude toward politics did not carry over to economics, and he enthusiastically praised capitalism. In his opinion, capitalism was not at fault; the individual was to blame for the depression. He contended that Americans had created the depression Americans had created the depression with their negative attitudes and alienation from God’s internal presence. Only through positive thinking and channeling God’s spirit could the country pull out of the downward economic spiral. Despite the suffering brought on by the depression, he actually considered the crisis beneficial, for it increased his following and spread his teachings. (1186-1189)
He had some rather interesting opinions on identifying as Black…
In his opinion, blacks bore much of the blame for the inequalities in American society. The theme of individual responsibility dominated his outlook, and he concluded that blacks “had committed the sin in setting up color in the first place. They set it up in their consciousness and they would find it everywhere they went and they and no one else would be responsible.” From Father Divine’s perspective, African Americans perpetuated their own oppression and should shoulder much of the responsibility for eradicating racism.
He accepted many of the unflattering characteristics ascribed to black Americans by whites and believed that African Americans who defined themselves as black internalized and manifested negative qualities. In front of one predominantly black congregation he insisted: “Now I am not poor because I do not belong to a poor, downtrodden race. If I was attached to a poor downtrodden race like some of you think you are, . . . then I would be like some of you.” He rejected identification with African-American people and during another meeting announced: “The other night someone got up and said there were lots of c[olored] people from New Orleans [present]…. I don’t care anything about c[olored] people. I haven’t them in me … [and] cast them out of my consciousness and do not allow them to exist there.(1191-1198)
Image and caption from “God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story”
Capitalism, good… and communal capitalism, even better?
Father Divine masterfully forged his coalition of followers. The affluent blacks and whites provided financial stability, while the less fortunate angels furnished dedicated collective labor. Pooling their resources, his children embarked on a brave project: in the midst of the depression, they established a chain of independent businesses based on his notions of collective enterprise. Since few followers could afford to finance a business, they joined in cooperatives and divided the profits evenly among the partners who contributed money and muscle. Peace Mission businesses combined communalism with capitalism to make lucrative enterprises that drew still more followers, especially those interested in profitable commerce.
The first Peace Mission enterprises were restaurants opened in 1932 around New York City and Newark. Immaculately dean, these restaurants offered hearty meals at low prices. Angels cut costs by purchasing day-old bread, overripe produce, and edible food from markets and restaurants. Father Divine demanded that Peace Mission sion restaurants charge only five or ten cents for a complete meal and insisted that his followers refuse all tips. Peace Mission restaurants rants quickly became popular and attracted the poor seeking a hot meal as well as the affluent searching for a bargain. Many who spurned Father Divine’s teachings gladly patronized Peace Mission restaurants and made these enterprises successful.
Before long, angels dived even deeper into the business world and opened hotels, markets, dress stores, and garages. Like the Peace Mission restaurants, these businesses undercut competition by providing high-quality goods and services at low prices. Followers sought Father Divine’s advice and approval on each business, and his strict guidelines for personal finances yielded a sound foundation for Peace Mission enterprises. (1390-1400).
Quite a few followers of Marcus Garvey, upon the collapse of his UNIA movement, transferred their allegiance to Divine’s Peace Mission. But Garvey was no fan.
Marcus Garvey had little patience with America’s black messiah and denounced Father Divine in articles appearing in the Black Man:
Father Divine in articles appearing in the Black Man: There is no god but One Almighty Being of Heaven, wherever Heaven is. He is the Creator of the universe. Man is but a small part of his creation, and Father Divine is but man. He is physical flesh and blood and of spirit just like another human being and if it is true that he assumes the role of God, then he must be mad or a wicked contriver of deception.
To stop the flow of converts to the Peace Mission movement, the UNIA attacked Father Divine’s ministry at a regional conference in Canada in August 1936. UNIA delegates led by Garvey passed several resolutions condemning the Peace Mission movement and charging that Father Divine’s theology was blasphemous and morally corrupting. Garvey alleged that the movement was a “colossal racket” contrived by Father Divine and an inner circle of self-serving whites seeking to bilk people of African heritage out of their earnings.
The year 1937 was disastrous: there was the scandalous trial of Peace Mission follower John the Revelator for raping 17 year old Delight Jewett, and the devastating defection of Divine devotee Faithful Mary, who charged that he was a fraud, thief, liar and sexual pervert (interestingly, after all this, she actually returned to the fold!).
By the war years, Divine’s influence and number of followers diminished, he moved to Philly, and at some point, became a widow.
…the movement suffered a blow with Peninniah’s sudden disappearance appearance from the banquet table. Father Divine and his staff refused fused to comment on her absence, but as many speculated, she had again fallen seriously ill. Sometime in 1943 at an unknown location, Peninniah passed away. Her stalwart support had been instrumental in perpetuating Father Divine’s ministry, and her death left a void in the movement. At first Father Divine did not publicly acknowledge her passing, but his later remarks indicated that her loss deeply affected him. (2146-2149).
But hey, no worries… Mother Divine’s spirit just took up residence in a new young body, as stated at the top of this post. Father Divine and his Peace Mission was amazing. He most likely never had millions of followers, despite what a New York Times article claimed (the movement never kept an official membership roll and had no such induction ceremonies such as baptism or confirmation), but he did, undoubtadly affect many thousands, Black, White, American, Canadian, West Indian, wealthy and poor. He was pro-capitalism, pro-hard work, pro-integration, and pro-self-sufficiency. Born to former slaves of the Confederacy, he died at home in a stately mansion of old age, leaving behind a White wife in 1965, 100 years after the end of the Civil War.
Share your thoughts