Reference Entry

Father Divine

Sholomo B. Levy

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Father Divine

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religious leader and founder of the Peace Mission movement, was born George Baker in Rockville, Maryland, to George Baker Sr., a farmer, and Nancy Smith, a former slave who worked as a domestic with her three daughters before marrying Baker sometime in the 1870s. Nancy, who had been owned by two Catholic masters, exposed her children to the African American spiritual traditions of the Jerusalem Methodist Church in Rockville until she died in 1897.Following his mother's death, George Baker gravitated to Baltimore, as did thousands of African American in search of a better life. He appears on the census of 1900 as a gardener, and he also found work on the docks, where he witnessed the crime and poverty of the destitute and was moved by a new message of ecstatic salvation emanating from dozens of storefront churches in the city. Baker, a dark, stout man with a high-pitched voice, impressed people with his earnest demeanor. He quickly rose from Sunday school teacher to evangelist. However, it was Baker's message, rather than oratorical skills or charisma, that ultimately distinguished him from any number of itinerant preachers. His message synthesized the teachings of evangelical churches with the “New Thought” ideology of Charles Fillmore and Robert Collier. Essentially a form of positive thinking, proponents of New Thought asserted that correct thinking, which Baker and others interpreted in a religious sense, could empower the believer to improve his or her circumstances. This notion contrasted sharply with the ritualistic or heaven-focused beliefs of many denominations, regardless of their form of worship. Baker's theology could be applied to solving earthly problems of poverty and racism. Indeed, he later referred to his centers as “heavens on earth.”The most striking element of Baker's message, that of his own divinity, gradually emerged after he attended the Azusa Street Revival, which gave birth to the Pentecostal movement in California during the spring of 1906. Baker returned to Baltimore convinced that he had been transformed to serve a higher purpose. The following year Samuel Morris entered Baker's church and proclaimed, “I am the Father Eternal!” (Weisbrot, 19). Morris was cast out by the congregation, who considered his words blasphemous, but Baker was intrigued by Morris's interpretation of 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?”(AV) as establishing the possibility of human divinity. For the next five years the two enjoyed a relationship in which Morris was “Father Jehovia, God in the Fathership degree” and Baker was “the Messenger, God in the Sonship degree” (Watts, 27). Later, John Hickerson, known as “Reverend St. John Divine Bishop,” who claimed to speak fluent Hebrew and taught that all black people were descended from Ethiopian Jews, became the third member of their trinity.In 1912 this divine partnership ended as Hickerson and Baker both began to question whether their own degree of divinity might equal or surpass that claimed by Father Jehovia. Hickerson went north to establish the Church of the Living God in New York City, and Baker went south, preaching in various towns until 1914, when he settled briefly in Valdosta, Georgia. There a group of irate husbands and clergy had Baker indicted on lunacy charges, arguing that claiming to be God and encouraging sexual abstinence even for married women was proof of his insanity. One local paper ridiculed him with the headline “Negro Claims to Be God.” He was booked as “John Doe, alias God,” indicating that he no longer used the name Baker. But neither on the witness stand nor in interviews did Baker appear to be one of the crazed lunatics that he and his followers were made out to be. The jury found Baker guilty but did not have him committed because he was not a threat to himself or others. Chastened by this experience and by an earlier clash with southern ministers that got him sixty days on a Georgia chain gang, Baker moved in late 1914 to New York City, where he established a religious organization that, for a while at least, kept a relatively low profile.The prototype for the Peace Missions began in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn in 1917 and then two years later moved to an affluent white suburb in Sayville, New York, where he was known as “Major Jealous Devine” before settling on the appellation “Father Divine.” These missions were experiments in communal living. Residents and visitors entered a world in which race was considered not to exist; even the words “white” and “Negro” were barred from use. Gender distinctions were also treated as suspect, and adherents referred to “those who call themselves women” and “so-called men.” Nor were distinctions recognized on the basis of class, title, or office; all identities were subordinate to being a follower of God. On 15 November 1931 Father Divine and ninety-three of his followers were arrested at their Long Island mission for disturbing the peace. The interracial composition of the movement drew the ire of Judge Lewis Smith, who considered race mixing ipso facto a disturbance of the peace. Father Divine, believing that he was being persecuted, refused to pay the five-dollar fine. When the fifty-six-year-old judge suddenly dropped dead three days after imposing a one-year sentence, Father Divine remarked, “I hated to do it.” The conviction was later overturned, and the coverage in the black press brought Father Divine to national attention.During the Depression Father Divine moved his base of operation to Harlem and opened an estimated 160 Peace Missions in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The movement even boasted of a postcard from China addressed to “God, Harlem, USA” that was promptly delivered to Father Divine. While the majority of his followers in New York were black migrants from the South and immigrants from the Caribbean, in other areas of the country, such as California, white membership may have risen as high as 70 percent. A number of Father Divine's wealthy followers contributed land, buildings, and large sums of money to the organization. Where other charities opened soup kitchens for the poor, Father Divine served lavish buffets twice daily, consisting of between fifty and two hundred menu items of the finest fare available. These centers operated on an honor system where the poorest dined for free and others paid as little as ten cents for a meal and two dollars a week for lodging. Critics have argued that Father Divine was merely pandering to the poor, simple, and ignorant, but according to one contemporary academic observer, “Eating is hardly ever advanced as a reason for having come into the movement” (Fauset, 63 n. 10). Father Divine referred to these banquets as “Holy Communions,” and in the absence of any formal liturgy for the sect, the meals, songs, and testimonials formed the core of their religious activity.Father Divine advanced bold political positions, calling for a minimum wage, limits on corporate wealth, the abolition of capital punishment, and the passage of antilynching legislation. He ran his organization through a series of secretaries, mostly women; there were no ministers or clergy other than Father Divine himself. Drinking, smoking, and sexual relations were strictly prohibited, while industry and financial independence were strongly encouraged. By the end of the Depression, the Peace Mission operated scores of businesses, several hotels, a large farming cooperative, a number of mansions, and two newspapers, New Day and Spoken Word. Yet, the Peace Mission did not pass a collection plate at its meetings, nor did it peddle healing merchandise or accept contributions from nonmembers. Those who lived at a mission center might be expected to donate their earnings to the movement, but Father Divine's propensity to share the wealth seems consistent with his philosophy of prosperity, rather than with the unalloyed avarice of a con artist.During the 1940s membership in the Peace Mission movement declined rapidly from its height of about 50,000. The end of the Depression diminished Father Divine's appeal and relevance. Moving to his Philadelphia estate in 1942 to avoid a lawsuit, he became separated from his base of support. The death of his first wife, Peninnah, known as “Mother Divine,” generated doubt about Father Divine's promise of everlasting life for the faithful. Father Divine's assertion that Peninnah was reincarnated in the form of his second wife, “Sweet Angel,” a young, white Canadian whom he married in 1946, cast further suspicion on his omnipotence. He made few public appearances in the 1950s, and rumors of his failing health quickly spread. The man who would be God died of diabetes in 1965, but to a small band of stoic believers, he still exists in spirit.The acquisition of great wealth and claims of divinity invite comparisons between Father Divine and Daddy Grace, another flamboyant black minister of the period. However, the breadth of Father Divine's poverty programs, the extent of his political activism, and his use of theology to address social conditions suggest that he had more in common with Marcus Garvey as a colorful, complex, and important historical figure.

Reference Entry.  1580 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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