Father Divine (c. 1877-1965) founded a cultish religious movement known as the Peace Mission. He served as its director from 1915 to 1965.
Father Divine is one of the more perplexing figures in twentieth-century African American history. The founder of a cultish religious movement whose members regarded him as God, Father Divine was also an untiring champion of equal rights for all Americans regardless of color or creed, as well as a very practical businessman whose many retail and farming establishments flourished in the midst of the Great Depression. Regarded by many members of the traditional black church as an imposter or even a lunatic, Divine was praised by other observers as a powerful agent of social change, alone among the many cult leaders in Depression-era New York in providing tangible economic benefits for thousands of his disciples.
The early biography of the man who later called himself Father Divine is little more than a patchwork of guesses: Divine was apparently unwilling to discuss his life except in its "spiritual" aspects. Believing himself to be God incarnate, he felt the details of his worldly existence were unimportant; the result is that historians are not certain even of his original name or place of birth. Most agree, however, that Father Divine was probably born ten to twenty years after the end of the Civil War, somewhere in the Deep South, and that his given name was George Baker.
As betrayed by the accent and colloquialisms of his speaking style, Baker seemed to have grown up in the rural South, no doubt in a family of farmers struggling to survive under the twin burdens of economic exploitation and racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws. At an early age, Baker escaped the drudgery of farm work by becoming a traveling preacher, gradually working his way north to Baltimore, Maryland, in the year 1899.
In Baltimore, Baker worked as a gardener, restricting his preaching to an occasional turn at the Baptist church's Wednesday night prayer meeting, where his powerful speaking style was much encouraged by his fellow churchgoers. Though a man of stubby proportions with a high-pitched voice, Baker enthralled listeners with his fluid storytelling and highly emotional delivery, typical of the sermons given at the rural southern churches where he grew up.
But Baker was also a restless man of independent opinions, and it was not long before he felt compelled to resume the life of a traveling preacher. He returned to the South with two specific goals: to combat the spread of Jim Crow segregation and to offer an alternative to the otherworldly emphasis of most established churches. Such a crusade was not likely to meet with much success—indeed, Baker was fortunate not to be lynched—yet it reflected a concern for social issues that would remain constant throughout the long career of Father Divine.
Baker returned to Baltimore around 1906 and there fell under the influence of an eccentric preacher named Samuel Morris. Morris had been thrown out of numerous churches for proclaiming himself to be God, a belief he derived from a passage in St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians which asks, "Know ye not that … the spirit of God dwelleth in you?" This teaching provided Baker with a religious foundation for his social activism: if God lived within every human being, all were therefore divine and hence equal. Baker became Morris's staunch supporter and disciple. Morris took to calling himself "Father Jehovia," while his prophet Baker adopted the appropriate title of "The Messenger." It was not long before The Messenger again felt the need to spread his gospel southward, and in 1912 Baker set off for the backwoods of Georgia.
At some point in his travels Baker apparently realized that if Samuel Morris were God, so too was he, and he henceforth referred to himself as the living incarnation of the Lord God Almighty. Such a claim was naturally alarming to the pastors of the churches where Baker stopped to preach, and in 1914 he was arrested in Valdosta, Georgia, as a public nuisance who was possibly "insane." The court recorded his name as "John Doe, alias God," but with the help of a local writer who took an interest in The Messenger's strange story, Baker was released and told to leave the state of Georgia. Instead, he was promptly rearrested in a nearby town and sent to the state insane asylum, whereupon his benefactor once again freed him after a short time.
Though Baker's theology was no doubt peculiar, he impressed most people as a man of sound mind and deep moral commitment. "I remember," his attorney later told the New Yorker, "that there was about the man an unmistakable quiet power that manifested itself to anyone who came in contact with him."
The Making of a Cult
Baker soon tired of his troubles in Georgia and in 1915 made his way to New York City, bringing with him a handful of disciples he had picked up along the way. With these followers, Baker set up a communal household in which income was shared and a life of chastity and abstinence was encouraged, all under the direction of "Major J. Devine," as Baker was then styling himself. Major Devine preached the doctrine of God within each individual, but there was never any doubt among his followers as to who was the actual incarnation of the deity—only Devine, or "Divine," as the name inevitably came to be spelled, could claim that honor. Divine helped his disciples find work, and they in turn entrusted him with the management of the group's finances as well as its spiritual well-being. By living simply and pooling their resources, Divine's movement was able to purchase a house in suburban Sayville, New York, in 1919, by which time Divine had also taken as his wife a disciple named Pinninnah.
In contrast to his earlier, public preaching, which had often expressed the need for racial equality and justice, Divine's spiritual work was now confined to the salvation of his followers and was based on harmony within and between individuals. To the outside world, Father Divine was a quiet, well-respected member of the Sayville community (otherwise all-white) who ran an employment agency for the many African American men and women staying at his house on Macon Street. Divine excelled at both of his professions. As his church grew by leaps and bounds, the preacher—also a shrewd businessman—not only found work for his disciples but oversaw the investment of their common earnings with the talent of a natural entrepreneur. Divine taught his followers the virtues of hard work, honesty, and service in their business dealings, exhorting them to achieve economic security in this world as preparation for salvation in the next. Under the guidance of Divine's leadership, his disciples gained a reputation as excellent employees and the operators of honest, efficient businesses.
Divine's "Peace Mission," as he called his following, remained relatively unknown until the start of the Great Depression in 1929. New York was full of such cult organizations, each boasting its own charismatic preacher and offering to the thousands of recently arrived black southern emigrants an emotional brand of religion similar to what they had known in their hometowns. With the advent of the Depression, however, desperate economic conditions made the Peace Mission's generosity all the more striking.
Each Sunday at the Sayville residence was set aside for an all-day banquet, free of charge and open to anyone who cared to attend. Father Divine would accept no payment for these feasts, nor did he take charitable contributions; he asked only that everyone who sat down to dinner behave in a Christian manner and abstain from the consumption of alcohol. Word quickly spread of Divine's "miraculous" bounty, and by the early 1930s his Sunday dinners were attracting hundreds of hungry poor people—mostly black but not exclusively so—to the house in Sayville. Disturbed by this eruption of black power in their midst, residents of Sayville had Divine arrested as a public nuisance. A thorough police investigation uncovered no signs of financial or moral improprieties at the Peace Mission, but Divine was nevertheless sentenced to one year in prison by a judge who considered him a dangerous fraud. When the judge promptly died three days later, Divine's reputation as a divine Christian being was enhanced: like Jesus, he had been wrongly accused, and now his persecutor was paid back in full. Divine was set free on bail, his conviction later overturned, and the Peace Mission attracted new followers by the thousands.
Peace Mission Flourished
Divine's success in the 1930s was indeed nothing short of "miraculous." After moving his headquarters to Harlem, the center of black artistic and cultural life in New York and the nation, his Peace Mission rapidly added scores of affiliated branches elsewhere in New York, in New Jersey, and as far away as California. About 85 percent of Peace Mission disciples were black, and at least 75 percent were female, many drawn as much by the electrifying person of Father Divine as by his social or theological message.
Since full-fledged disciples (known as "Angels") were required to donate all of their worldly possessions to the Mission, Father Divine was soon overseeing an organization of considerable financial size. By all accounts, he did so honestly and skillfully, helping his followers to find jobs, start innumerable small businesses, and after 1935 settle on farmland purchased by the Mission in upstate New York— all of this in the midst of the worst depression in the history of the United States. Divine did allow himself a few luxuries: he lived in the finest of the Mission's many Harlem properties, was chauffeured in a Rolls Royce, and was rarely seen in anything but a fashionable three-piece business suit.
Father Divine never advocated the virtues of poverty: his followers had all too much of that as it was. In his preaching, Divine combined an almost fanatical faith with strict adherence to the ethics of American life, urging his followers to rise from poverty by old-fashioned thrift, hard work, and scrupulous honesty. To work, in his eyes, was to serve God. Divine was especially wary of the dangers of borrowing money, and all of the Mission's business was conducted in cash, even real estate being paid for in cash and in advance. The flaunting of large amounts of money naturally drew the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, which never found any irregularities in the dealings of Father Divine or the Peace Mission. On the contrary, on many occasions his disciples startled former employers or tradesmen by repaying long forgotten debts; in one instance, this involved the sum of 66 cents for a train ride taken 40 years before.
Father Divine saw economic independence as a stepping stone toward his overall goal of racial equality. He was unequivocally opposed to any form of racial discrimination, or even to the recognition of racial difference. For Divine, all human beings partook of the divine essence, and all Americans were due the rights granted them by the Constitution. He therefore purposely bought many pieces of property in all-white areas, including most notably an estate on the Hudson River opposite the home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as a beachfront hotel near Atlantic City, New Jersey, and extensive tracts of farmland in upstate New York. When challenged by segregationists for such moves, Divine would often speak of the American way of life, as in an article published in New Day, a Mission newspaper: "My co-workers and followers are endeavoring to express our citizenry and enact the Bill of Rights in every activity and even in every community … to enjoy life, liberty and the reality of happiness."
The end of the Depression also witnessed the gradual retirement of Father Divine. Already in his sixties, Divine was shaken by a lawsuit filed in 1937 by a former disciple who sought repayment of money she had given to the Peace Mission over the years. A long series of legal maneuvers eventually resulted in the incorporation of the Peace Mission and Father Divine's move to Philadelphia, beyond the reach of New York State law. Of greater fundamental importance to the Peace Mission was the advent of war in 1939, when the American economy snapped out of its long depression and jobs became plentiful. The Peace Mission's style of frugal collective living lost much of its appeal in a booming economic climate, and the organization stagnated, with Father Divine gradually retiring to a life of quiet wealth outside Philadelphia.
In 1946 Divine married his second wife, a 21-year-old white disciple named Edna Rose Ritchings—a move that required all of his rhetorical skill to explain as the act of a celibate divinity. Ritchings nevertheless went on to become de facto head of the Mission, known first by her cult name of "Sweet Angel" and later simply as Mother Divine.
Father Divine lived until 1965, little seen and not active in the few remaining Mission projects. However, he did remain a powerful symbol of hope for racial unity and a role model for later generations of people of color. Divine is probably best remembered as a man who, in his own peculiar way, acted in his own interest while skillfully advancing the cause of thousands of inner city African Americans.
Further Reading on Father Divine
The African-American Almanac, edited by Kenneth Estell, Gale, 1994.
Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, Norton, 1982.
Harris, Sara, Father Divine, Collier Books, 1971.
Parker, Robert Allerton, The Incredible Messiah: The Deification of Father Divine, Little, Brown, 1937.
Weisbrot, Robert, Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality, University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Nation, February 6, 1935.
New Day (Peace Mission publication), various issues, 1936.
New Yorker, June 13, 1936; June 20, 1936; June 27, 1936.
New York Times, September 11, 1965, p. 1.
Spoken Word (Peace Mission publication), various issues, 1934-37.