Father Divine: A General Overview
Timothy Miller, University of Kansas
(A paper presented at CESNUR 99 conference, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Preliminary version.© Timoty Miller, 1999. Do not reproduce without the consent of the author)
In the first half of the twentieth century the Peace Mission Movement and its founder, Father Divine, were widely dismissed, in the popular news media, as an eccentric, probably dangerous cult and its power-mad charismatic leader. Such books as John Hoshor's God in a Rolls Royce (1) and Sara Harris's Father Divine: Holy Husband (2)depicted Father Divine as a ruthless black autocrat who amassed millions of dollars in assets and surrounded himself with lovely young women, including a white wife, while forcing his followers to live in celibate austerity. That early common assessment has been overshadowed in the last two decades by a new school of thought, contained most prominently in Robert Weisbrot's Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality (3) and Jill Watts's God, Harlem U.S.A., (4) that slices through the morass of racism and anticult prejudice to conclude that Father Divine created an original philosophy of positive thinking, helped thousands of impoverished followers escape the worst miseries of the Great Depression, and was influential as an early advocate of racial equality. Followers of Father Divine proclaimed him God in the flesh, and for most Americans nothing could have been more ridiculous than a small African-American deity. He never talked about his birth or early life, but his biographers have demonstrated, with considerable effort, that he was born George Baker in Rockville, Maryland, in 1879. He first attracted some notice in the South, where whites regarded his preaching as dangerous and had him jailed, but his rise to national prominence really began with his purchase of a home in the all-white New York City suburb of Sayville, Long Island, in 1919. He and the original Mother Divine, along with nine followers, established a communal lifestyle there and soon were welcoming visitors to free Sunday banquets. The presence of the lively band of African Americans threatened the lily-whiteness of the tony suburb of Sayville, and Caucasian residents grew restive. In 1931 the local authorities arrested Father Divine and dozens of his disciples for disturbing the peace by praying too loudly. Divine was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail by the outrageously biased Judge Lewis J. Smith. Three days after imposing the sentence, however, Judge Smith dropped dead at age 55. One of the most renowned anecdotes about Father Divine has a reporter asking him, in jail, for a comment, and Divine replied, "I hated to do it." That comment is probably apocryphal, but the timing of Smith's death was not lost on the growing legions of Father Divine's followers. The Peace Mission at that point moved to Harlem, which was caught up in the deepening Great Depression. From the beginning Father Divine had ministered to the whole person, body as well as soul, and that approach found an eager reception among the thousands of impoverished souls of the ghetto. The movement rapidly built up a network of businesses, including restaurants, gas stations, grocery and clothing stores, hotels, farms, and many other enterprises. All provided high-quality goods and services inexpensively, and not incidentally created jobs for Father Divine's faithful. Members lived communally, and celibately, in movement-owned homes and hotels known as heavens. Meanwhile, the Peace Mission put on great banquets, serving enormous crowds from a seemingly endlessly bountiful kitchen. The movement also became prominent for its dedication to racial integration. Although membership was always predominantly African America, from its early days the movement had white members, as it does today, and its activities were thoroughly integrated. Father Divine refused to recognize even the concept of race; when absolutely necessary, Divinites will go no farther than to refer to a person's complexion as darker or lighter. All were one and all were equal in Father Divine's world. No one has ever accurately counted the Peace Mission's membership. Estimates have ranged up into the millions, although Divine's more judicious biographers tend to settle on figures around 10,000. The number of local Peace Mission centers, often called "extensions," rose to over 150, probably, in the late 1930s. Other extensions were founded in the West Indies, Switzerland, Canada, France, Australia, and other countries. Through it all Father Divine's detractors continued to depict him as a racketeer who was amassing millions of dollars and living in splendor provided by his oppressed minions. In 1937 a departed follower, Verinda Brown, sued Divine for money she said she had donated to the movement as a disciple. She won a judgment of $7,000, which Father Divine considered unjust and refused to pay. He also knew, undoubtedly, that any payment would encourage others who left similarly to seek financial compensation. In 1942, his legal appeals exhausted, he left Harlem and New York State rather than comply with the judgment. The movement has ever since been headquartered in the Philadelphia area. He did, however, continue to lead his flock in person in New York. New York law prohibited the serving of subpoenas on Sundays, so every week Father Divine spent one day in his stronghold. Although the Peace Mission movement was entirely celibate, Father Divine was married. One of his earliest followers, long before the settlement in Sayville, was Peninniah, an African-American woman whom at some point he married. It was always understood that the marriage was spiritual, not physical, symbolizing God's love for and bonding with the human race. Sister Penny, as she was often called, was a stalwart worker for the Divine cause. Father Divine taught that his followers would not die, but Peninniah did die, in 1943. Three years later, in a moved that surprised just about everyone, Father Divine married one of his young secretaries, a white Canadian convert named Edna Rose Ritchings who had taken the movement name Sweet Angel. Again the marriage between God and his "spotless virgin bride" was purely spiritual. She became a strong leader in her own right, and when Father Divine died in 1965 she was able to sustain an organization that might have been expected to perish without its charismatic leader. Adhering to Father Divine's teaching of immortality for his followers, Mother Divine proclaimed that he continued to live, merely having made the supreme sacrifice of departing his body to live and govern purely in the spirit. To this day Father Divine is spoken of in the present tense; his office is maintained for his use, and his place is set at all banquets. The Peace Mission Movement today is located primarily in Philadelphia, with a second center in Newark. Some members are scattered throughout the United States and abroad, especially in Switzerland. Their numbers have diminished sharply, since the movement continues to be celibate and does not engage in aggressive evangelism. Much of the activity in Philadelphia is centered in the Divine Tracy Hotel, located adjacent to the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia. The Divine Tracy is both a facility for the Peace Mission and a public hotel, and if I may be permitted an unsolicited endorsement, I have stayed there more than once and would pronounce it perhaps the best hotel value in any major American city, providing very comfortable rooms at minimal prices. The movement's values prevail at the hotel, of course; Father Divine's International Modest Code prohibits smoking, drinking, and immodest clothing, and men and women are housed on separate floors. The headquarters of the Peace Mission Movement is Woodmont, which Father Divine declared the Country Seat of the World and the Mount of the House of the Lord. Woodmont is a large manor house on an extensive acreage on Philadelphia's Main Line. It was built in 1892 by Alan Wood, a Pennsylvania steel baron, for a million dollars. Its architect was William Lightfoot Price, known for other splendid projects, including two opulent hotels in Atlantic City and several extravagant mansions. Price was also a devotee of intentional community who co-founded the Arden single-tax community in northern Delaware and then the Rose Valley arts and crafts community in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, just a few miles south of here. In 1929 Woodmont was purchased by corporate lawyer J. Hector McNeal, whose wife professed admiration of Father Divine. After Mrs. McNeal's death the Peace Mission Movement purchased the property for $75,000, and provided it with an extensive rehabilitation. In 1953 the work was completed and the estate was opened to the public. The estate is the final resting place of the mortal remains of Father Divine, housed in a mausoleum known as the Shrine to Life.
1. John Hoshor, God in a Rolls-Royce: The Rise of Father Divine: Madman, Menace, or Messiah . . . . (New York: Hillman-Curl, 1936).
2. Sara Harris, Father Divine, Holy Husband (New York: Doubleday, 1953).
3. Robert Wiesbrot, Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983).
4. Jill Watts, God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
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