Father Divine (1879-1965), Ministers, Activist, Cult Leader
(1879-1965), ministers, activist, cult leader.
Father Divine, a Harlem-based minister, was worshiped as God on earth by members of his "Peace Mission" movement. Although widely derided as a cult "racketeer," Divine fed, sheltered, and helped find work for thousands of poor people during the Depression. He exemplified the tendency among black religious leaders toward greater social activism, declaring, "I would not give five cents for a God who could not help me here on the Earth."
Born George Baker to a black Baptist family in Rockville, Maryland, he encountered in 1906 a black preacher named Samuel Morris, who interpreted literally a phrase from 1 Corinthians (3:16), "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you?" Baker preached ever after on this theme of inner divinity, urging all people to live in harmony with God and with each other regardless of their color or "so-called" race.
After several years of evangelism in the South, Baker moved to New York City in 1915 and, four years later, as the "Reverend M. J. Divine," he settled in Sayville, Long Island. Living with a few followers who pooled their funds, he distributed books on New Thought, which taught that everyone could enjoy earthly success by visualizing positive images and tapping an inner spiritual power. Disciples also strove for unity with God by renouncing carnal temptations such as tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and sexual relations.
During the 1930s Divine's free Sunday banquets attracted blacks from Harlem and Newark, New Jersey, plus a growing minority of whites. These interracial gatherings, however, contributed to his arrest in 1931 for "disturbing the peace," and his conviction the following June after a blatantly racist trial. But even before the verdict was overturned in January 1933, Divine found his messianic aura enhanced when, three days after sentencing and censuring Divine, the judge suddenly died. Relocating to Harlem, Divine presided over a burgeoning movement, clustered in the northern ghettos but also featuring predominantly white branches in California and in several other countries.
Father Divine's network of "Peace Mission" centers held interracial services at a time when nearly all American congregations were segregated. Divine also used whites as secret emissaries to circumvent restrictive housing covenants and acquire homes, hotels, and beachfronts for his interracial following in northern white neighborhoods, including more than two thousand acres of choice property far from the city slums. The Peace Mission gained fame as well for launching thriving cooperative businesses. And in January 1936 Divine held a "Righteous Government Convention" that called for the abolition of segregation, lynching, and capital punishment, and urged an expanded government commitment to end unemployment, poverty, and hunger.
After 1940 the Peace Mission sharply declined in numbers and influence as the return of prosperity lessened its philanthropic appeal, and it evolved from a mass movement to a formal sect featuring half a dozen incorporated churches. In 1942 Divine left Harlem for Philadelphia, and four years later he announced a "spiritual" marriage to a twenty-one-yearold white disciple, thereafter known as Mother Divine. When Father Divine died in September 1965 after a long illness, disciples were stunned and saddened but not to the point of mass desertion. He had been largely out of public view for several years, during which time Mother Divine had prepared followers for the day when "Father will not be with us personally."
Since the late 1950s Mother Divine and her secretarial staff have administered the Peace Mission from a seventy-two-acre estate outside Philadelphia called Woodmont, which Father Divine proclaimed "the mount of the house of the Lord" on moving there in 1953. Disciples pay special homage to Woodmont's "Shrine to Life," a structure designed by Mother Divine; it surrounds a red marble crypt that holds the body of Father Divine. They believe that "Father" did not die, but rather cast off his mortal body to rule the universe through his spirit.
As the Peace Mission's membership has dwindled to perhaps a few hundred and as most of its properties have been sold off, it has accordingly reinterpreted its mission. During the 1930s the young, dynamic, and expanding movement boasted that it was fast converting the world, but today's members instead perceive themselves as a saving remnant, vigilant for the return in bodily form of their founding leader. Disciples have chosen to revere, rather than revive, Father Divine's earlier social activism; but within the Peace Mission's own centers Father Divine's vision of a chaste, integrated communal society endures.
Harris, Sara, with the assistance of Harriet Crittendon. Father Divine, enlarged ed. 1971.
Hoshor, John. God in a Rolls-Royce: The Rise of FatherDivine: Madman, Menace, or Messiah . . . 1936.
Parker, Robert Allerton. The Incredible Messiah: The Deification of Father Divine. 1937.
Watts, Jill. God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story. 1992.
Weisbrot, Robert. Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality. 1983.