Father Divine (18??-1965)

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Father Divine (18??-1965)

Despite certain ambiguities of character, the self-appointed Father Divine was undoubtedly both charismatic and clever and prospered in one of the few leadership roles open to black males in early twentieth-century America. Divine's theology blended various Christian traditions with a belief in positive thinking in ways that foreshadowed a number of contemporary New Age spiritual trends; and his career demonstrated how a promise of religious salvation, political progress and the philanthropic provision of basic social services can attract a large following in times of racial and economic turmoil. From obscure and humble origins Father Divine fashioned himself into a cult leader of god-like pretensions and created a controversial church whose beliefs fascinated America throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

There are a number of competing versions of the history of his early life—sources conflict as to his birthdate, variously noted as between 1874 and 1882—but the most plausible account is that Divine was born George Baker to ex-slave parents in a Maryland African-American ghetto in about 1880. By the early years of the twentieth century he was traveling with a wandering evangelist who styled himself Father Jehovia, while the young Baker called himself the Messenger. After some years of preaching together they parted, and Baker began to refer himself as Major Jealous Devine and to proclaim himself as God. With a small band of followers in tow, he moved to New York where he changed his name yet again to Father Divine.

By 1919 he had obtained a base for his new Universal Peace Mission Movement in Sayville, Long Island, where his preaching initially attracted a mainly black audience. The years following World War I had seen a massive migration of southern African Americans to northern industrial cities, and Divine's message of self-respect and racial equality drew an increasingly large following. The Universal Peace Mission mandated celibacy and modesty and shunned improvidence and debt, but it was its provision of employment, cheap lodgings, and inexpensive food to its adherents during the Great Depression that brought thousands of worshippers, white as well as black, flocking to Sayville. The influx aroused the ire of local residents whose complaints resulted in Father Divine's arrest. He was charged with disturbing the peace, convicted in 1932, and sentenced to a year in jail. The court proceedings brought Divine widespread notoriety when, two days after sentencing him, the judge suffered a fatal heart attack. From his prison cell, the self-styled "God" proclaimed "I hated to do it"—a remark that, trumpeted by the media, confirmed their leader's claims to divine being among his followers.

Moving the mission's headquarters to Harlem, Divine continued to attract national attention on two fronts: by his lavish lifestyle and rumors of his sexual adventures, and by the progressive social ideas his believers practiced. The Mission's services were scrupulously integrated racially, and the movement led the way in pressing for anti-lynching laws and for public facilities to be open to all races. In a time of economic disaster it rejected relief and welfare and bought hotels, which it termed "heavens," where its members could live modest, mutually supportive lives free of alcohol, tobacco and reliance on credit.

In 1946 Divine was again in the headlines when he married one of his young followers, a white Canadian woman named Edna Rose Hitchings, also known as Sweet Angel. By the 1950s, however, he was in deteriorating health. His public profile dwindled alongside the importance of his movement as other, less outrageous, African-American leaders rose to prominence. Father Divine died in 1965 at his Philadelphia estate, where his wife, known as Mother Divine, was still presiding over the remains of the Universal Peace Mission Movement in the late 1990s.

—Gerry Bowler

Further Reading:

Burnham, Kenneth E. God Comes to America: Father Divine and the Peace Mission Movement. Boston, Lambeth Press, 1979.

Watts, Jill. God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story. Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1992.

Weisbrot, Father. Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1983.