Founder: The Reverend Major Jealous Divine, better known as simply Father Divine. His identity prior to being known as Father Divine is a much disputed topic, which he addresses in a public letter. For more on this topic, please see Issues and Controversies.
Date of Birth: While there is no clear information before 1914 in regards to Father Divine's birth, legal documents at the courthouse in Mineola, NY state he was born in 1880. In 1932, Father Divine acknowledged that his age was around 52 "according to the legal records," but said that he had "spiritually and mentally no record." Followers of the Peace Mission Movement, however, assert that his first marriage occurred on June 6, 1882, which would make his date of birth considerably earlier than the 1880 date given on the legal documents. 1
Birth Place: The same legal documents used to determine Father Divine's date of birth state that he was born in Providence, RI.
Year Founded: The movement was first widely known in Brooklyn around 1919. 2
Sacred or Revered Texts: When Father Divine was starting to assemble a following; he gave out books by two authors whose works he felt bore witness to his own views and teachings. These were Robert Collier, who wrote several volumes on "new thought," and Baird T. Spalding, who wrote three volumes of The Life and Teaching of the Masters in the Far East. He abandoned these soon after he started distributing them, however, because people were not nearly as interested in these literary works as they were in his actual spoken words. 3 Today, while Father Divine's movement has no specific sacred texts, they follow, to a certain degree, the teachings set forth in the Bible. Any speeches or texts written by Father Divine are, however, also considered sacred, and are studied by the movement's followers. One of the most important documents of the movement is the International Modest Code. Each member of the Peace Mission Movement is required to live by the rules set forth in this code. The Constitution of the United States is also an important document to the members of the Peace Mission Movement, as they believe it was divinely inspired. 4
Size of Group: At the height of the Peace Mission Movement, the number of members was so large that it led to Father Divine's arrest for disturbing the peace. A rally in New York City drew anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people in 1931, the same year as Father Divine's arrest. 5 Estimates in the movement's strongest days were quite different, with John Hoshor putting the number at about 2,000,000, and Time magazine citing a number of right around 50,000 6 . Today, however, the movement's numbers are steadily falling, as the group abides by a strict rule of celibacy. In his Encyclopedia of American Religions , J. Gordon Melton reports that, in 1995, the group still had branches in not only several parts of the United States, but also in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Australia, Central America, Great Britain, and Nigeria. He also reports that the group keeps no specific membership numbers.
Before the beginnings of the Peace Mission Movement, little concrete information is known about Father Divine. Many different stories emerged about his origins, some of which you can read about here. The consensus seems to be that Father Divine was an itinerant preacher, originally from Georgia, who traveled all over the East Coast of the United States and ended up in New York City. 9 Once he moved to Sayville, NY, people were quickly drawn to his charismatic ways. 10 Father Divine would later speak of "having withdrawn from public preaching to avoid conflict with religious groups, his failure to interest followers in reading books, and his final conviction that those who came to him wanted the message of God from him directly." 11
People were said to be drawn to Father Divine's teachings because of the "love and benevolence [he] supernaturally extended to whomever came within its radius, the revelation to countless numbers that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was here and now in the person of Father Divine, and the simple living of the teaching of Jesus Christ that already drew people to Christianity." 12 By 1924, some reports cite a membership of 30-40 people; by 1926, Father Divine had already assembled a fairly integrated following, and by 1930, busloads of people were coming to see Father Divine and hear him speak, whether out of pure curiosity or because they were actually drawn to his message. 13 Father Divine provided work, shelter, and food in a time of great need, and this, coupled with his charismatic message, created a great draw for people. His provision of jobs for his followers was especially important during the time of the Great Depression. He "obtained jobs for nearly all of his followers as domestic servants for residents of Sayville and nearby suburbs," 14 something that no other religious leader could provide in such a time of great need. Father Divine also encouraged his followers to educate themselves, as he believed that "learning was essential to social mobility." 16
A controversial encounter with the Sayville court system, and the events surrounding it, lead Father Divine's followers to be even more convinced of his divinity. This was largely due to an alleged statement Father Divine made when asked to comment on the death by heart-attack of the apparently healthy judge just days after Divine's sentencing. Father Divine is quoted as saying "I hated to do it" as his official statement concerning the matter . 17 The case was widely publicized as a racial issue, and gave Father Divine attention which lead to an increased following. 18 By the mid-1930's, after Father Divine had relocated to Harlem, his movement's membership had grown to such great numbers that he needed to purchase more properties to accommodate their famous Communion banquets, services, and other gatherings. He sold his property in Sayville, and buildings used for the Peace Mission Movements were, from that point on, purchased in the names of his followers instead of in that of Father Divine. 19 His followers continued to build businesses, including hotels which they called "heavens," in the name of the Peace Mission Movement.
Following the death of his first wife, Peniniah, Father Divine married Edna Rose Ritchings, a Caucasian Canadian follower, on April 29, 1946. Prior to their marriage, Ms. Ritchings was known in the movement as Sweet Angel, but she soon became simply Mother Divine. 20 "To many, this 'Holy Marriage' is a final proof that Father Divine has charisma, for only God 'could overcome the prejudice of "mortal mind" in such a marvelous way"' 21 . In 1947, the movement's headquarters moved to a suburb of Philadelphia, PA. "In 1953, a veteran disciple named John Devoute donated for Father Divine's personal use a thirty-two-room mansion just outside of Philadelphia, overlooking a seventy- three-acre garden-filled estate of breathtaking beauty." 23 After acquiring Woodmont, Father Divine began to slip in and out of the public eye, starting in about 1955. He would go into seclusion for long periods of time, often causing speculation about his health. These speculations were not allayed when he ceased speaking in public in 1960. 24 At this time, Mother Divine took over the role of addressing the public, and she remains the voice of the movement at present.
Central to the beliefs of the Peace Mission Movement is that members believe Father Divine "fulfills the scriptural promise of the Second Coming of Christ," and that he "is the personification of God in a bodily form. 25 "A sociologist who visited the Sayville base of the movement in 1937 noticed such signs on the walls as "Father Divine is God," and one plaque that read: "Father Divine is the Living Tree of Life, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We may take the Words of Father Divine, eat and drink and live forever." 26 The members of the Peace Mission Movement also believe that, despite leaving his human form, Father Divine's spirit is "still as operative as it ever was," and for this reason many often come to the shrine at Woodmont where he is buried. 27 Also, they believe that all things that were done by God or Jesus were done by Father Divine, "since he was, and continued to be, Christ." 28 "God as Father and Mother are personified in Father and Mother Divine and constitute humanity as one brotherhood. Woodmont is the Mount of the House of the Lord (Michah 4:1-2, Isiah 2:2-3) from which the law shall go to all nations. The Mission views itself as the fulfillment of specific Biblical prophecies and the essence of all religion: faith in the one God. It accepts both the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount." 29
The belief that Father Divine is God naturally leads his followers to accept all his teachings as truth. One of the most important of these is the equality of all people. Father Divine maintained that race is a social construction, and that people should instead realize that there is a "unified descent of all peoples from God." 30
Father Divine further taught that "everyone contained the Spirit of God, so that all were entitled to be treated with dignity, regardless of skin color." 31 This belief leads to one of the main tenets of the movement, which is that no one should use terms that indicate a specific race. Instead, the members use terms such as "so-and-so people" or "people of light complexion" 32 Father Divine said that "God hath made of one blood all races" 33 , and felt that acknowledging race only encouraged racism.
Father Divine's insistence on equality was not only directed towards racial issues. He also discouraged gender differentiation, and instead preferred to use things like "so- called men," or "those who call themselves women." 34 Father Divine urged equality for all people, not just African Americans or women. 35
The Peace Mission Movement's belief in equality for all people was strengthened by their patriotism, especially around the time of World War II. The horrors of Nazi Germany only served to reinforce the movement's belief that the United States was the location for the new Kingdom of God. They believe that our governing documents, especially the Constitution, provide all the necessary standards for equality among all people. 36
The members of the Peace Mission Movement also live by certain fairly strict codes of conduct. Celibacy is required from each member of the movement. Father Divine says that "Any physical relationship between men and women is a black sin" 37 and his people accept this. In her book Father Divine, Sara Harris asks one member of the Peace Mission Movement, Miss Beautiful, how she manages to live a celibate life. Harris notes that Miss Beautiful "would shrug her shoulders and laugh in your face and tell you that, thank Father Divine, she had never found it hard to 'do what's only right.'" 38
The followers of the Peace Mission Movement are also committed to being independent and self-supporting. The accept nothing that they have not paid for, and pay only in cash. They do not believe in any sort of credit system, a rule which is carried over into businesses they operate. Such is the case at the Divine Tracy Hotel Restaurant in Philadelphia, where the only form of payment accepted is cash. Smoking, drinking, the use of any sort of drugs, and gambling are also forbidden in Father Divine's movement. Finally, those in the Peace Mission Movement strive to live as happy, peace-loving people, who oppose violence of any kind. 39
As a new religious movement, the International Peace Mission Movement experienced several difficulties with society. This section presents issues and controversies which stemmed either from Father Divine's teachings, his followers, or his organization in general. Religious movements classified as cults or sects often encounter such situations, and the following are only a selection of those encountered by Father Divine.
Father Divine and Marcus Garvey
Both Father Divine and Marcus Garvey were influential black leaders of the 1920's and 1930's. At a time when African-Americans were still totally segregated and discriminated against by the majority of the population, these two men held very important roles for the people they represented. "Both movements centered on a charismatic leader, provided concrete benefits to their members, promoted economic enterprise, and encouraged political action," yet they were also different in many ways.
The key difference between the two was the valuation of race. Garvey promoted 'race first' sentiments, and felt that racial solidarity was the key to attaining the three goals of his movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). These goals were: (a) "to arouse a unified race consciousness in all peoples of African descent," (b) "to strengthen this united black race by organizing black-owned and managed, large-scale business enterprises and shipping lines," and (c) to create a black-governed nation in Africa that would host the creation of a renewed black civilization and stand up for the rights of black people everywhere." 40
Father Divine, on the other hand, encouraged his followers to ignore race. He asserted that the term "'negro' was false because it referred to no historical reality." 41 Garvey and Divine obviously had quite different views as far as race was concerned, and Garvey accused Father Divine of "race suicide" because he enforced the practice of celibacy amongst the members of his movement. Another difference between the two movements was the role of women. In the UNIA of Marcus Garvey, women were encouraged to take on private roles in the home. The followers of this movement believed that black women had long been supporting their families and being community leaders and deserved a break from this. Father Divine, on the other hand, encouraged people of all races and genders to live communally and celibately, and therefore the women never fell into "traditional" female roles, such as mothering and housekeeping. This difference between Garvey and Divine was perhaps the most important factor that led to the difference in the number of women in each group, as the Peace Mission Movement of Father Divine was almost predominately women -- practically the opposite of Marcus Garvey's UNIA.
This phenomenon can perhaps best be explained by the Role Theory Model of why people join certain religious movements. The Role Theory Model suggests that people voluntarily join such movements in a search for new ways of life, they learn their roles and become tentatively committed, and, through socialization, become a member of the movement. Women, in this case, were most likely drawn to a movement where they could live a different role, and, through a natural process became more and more committed to the movement as they became more comfortable with their new roles. 42
Father Divine's Arrest
In the early years of his movement, Father Divine gained a substantial following. His followers would gather at his home in Sayville on Sundays to hear the word of Father Divine, and sometimes for the huge banquets he gave. "The presence of so many blacks triggered long dormant racist sentiments, as residents [of Sayville] expressed fears that their town was becoming a Negro haven." 43 This discontent was addressed in a November 21, 1930 community meeting where residents of Sayville gathered to try and figure out how they could oust the group from their town. This meeting, however, produced no such results.
About a year later, on November 15, 1931, police responded to complaints about crowds and traffic congestion. There followed a police raid on Divine's Sayville residence that lead to the arrest of 80 people, who were charged with disturbing the peace. Fifty-five of these pleaded guilty and accepted to pay a $5 fine. The rest, including Father Divine, pleaded not guilty and had to stand trial. Most of the people charged were found guilty and were required to pay the $5 fine. Father Divine's trial for maintaining a public nuisance lasted a bit longer, and, despite the jury's recommendation for a lenient punishment, Justice Lewis J. Smith chose to exact the maximum punishment on Divine -- a year in jail and a $500 fine. He said: "There is no issue as to the form of religious worship in this case, but one cannot use religion as a cloak for the commission of crime. Jurors should bear that in mind. There may be those who believe this defendant is God. There are undoubtedly many who believe he is not God, and those who do not believe he is God are entitled to have their rights protected the same as those who believe he is God." 44
The judge, despite being a seemingly healthy man, died of apparent cardiac problems two days after sentencing Father Divine. 45 From jail, Father Divine is quoted as saying, when asked for his thoughts about the judge's death, "I hated to do it." 46
A new trial was ordered due to the fact that "prejudice was excited in the jurors by the comments, rulings, and questions by the court," yet Father Divine was never retried. He was released from jail after 33 days, and nothing further came of the matter in the courts. This incident did, however, help to introduce those who may not have previously known about him, and his following grew because of it. 47
Who Is Father Divine?
Father Divine always insisted that his identity before being known as Father Divine was not important. A search for Father Divine at galenet provides quite a few different biographies. Most coincide with the general belief that Father Divine was originally a man named George Baker. Baker, by most accounts, was born around 1877 in Savannah, GA. A previous Father Divine page by Susan Doyle provides an excellent account of the most popular George Baker history that comes from William Kephart's book Extraordinary Groups, which is as follows:
George Baker was born in Monkey Run, a black area in Rockville, Maryland, the child of two ex-slaves. Although both were hard workers, his mother apparently grew to be the fattest woman in the county, according to the local newspaper. Shortly afterwards, she died in 1897. It was at this point that the grieving George Baker left friends and family and was not heard from again until years later.
The next context that George Baker was found in was in connection with a minister named Samuel Morris in a town near Baltimore, two to three years after he left Monkey Run. Samuel Morris was a preacher who preached that God dwelled in everyone, and George Baker took to this religious philosophy. It was at this point that both men became reborn and took new names. Samuel Morris became Father Jehovia and George Baker, the Messenger. A third man joined them in 1908 changing his name from John Hickerson to St. John the Vine.
The three preached in the Baltimore area for five years before going their separate ways. In 1913, the Messenger declared himself to be God while preaching in Georgia. This caused quite a commotion and the Messenger was eventually taken to court where he was declared to be insane and forced to leave the state of Georgia. He did, however, convince a few people that he was truly God, and he began to win a small group of followers thus developing his own religion.
Other accounts of George Baker's life claim that he was actually born in Maryland, not that he just came there to preach. There are, however, quite a few stories, not only about George Baker, but about other possibilities for Father Divine's past. In 1936, a woman named Elizabeth Maysfield claimed that Father Divine was her son, born in North Carolina in 1886 and that his name was actually Frederick Edwards. Her claims were never proven, but questions were stirred about this issue when, while in a hospital in a semi-comatose state, Father Divine gave his first name as Frederick. This was assumed by most to be an alias 48 , but it piqued the curiosity of those who were trying to figure out his original identity. None of these stories were ever verified, however, and the Peace Mission Movement accepts only what they have been told about Father Divine, which consists mainly of his activity after the mid-1910's.
Burnham, Kenneth. 1979. God Comes to America: Father Divine and the Peace Mission Movement . Boston: Lambeth Press.
Fauset, Arthur H. 1944. Black Gods of the Metropolis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Harris, Sarah. 1971. Father Divine . Collier Books: New York.
Harris, Sarah. 1971. Father Divine: Holy Husband. New York: Macmillan. Originally published: 1953.
Hoshor, John. 1936. God in a Rolls Royce. New York. Hillman-Curl Inc. Publishers:
Kephart, William M. and William M. Zellner. 1994. Extraordinary Groups. New York: St. Martin's Press, 5th Edition. pp 192-232.
Mayne, F. Blair. 1937 "Beliefs and Practices of the Cult of Father Divine." Journal of Educational Sociology .
Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedia of American Religions, Volume 6 , p. 629.
Parker, Robert Allerton. 1937. The Incredible Messiah; the Deification of Father Divine. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.
Satter, Beryl. 1996. "Marcus Garvey, Father Divine, and the Gender Politics of Race Difference and Race Neutrality." American Quarterly, 48.1. pp 43-76.
Washington, Joseph R. 1973. Black Sects and Cults: The Power Axis in an Ethnic Ethic. New York: Doubleday.
Watts, Jill. 1992. God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Weisbrot, Robert. 1983. Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality . University of Illinois Press: Chicago.
Created by Lydia Grammer
Soc 257: New Religious Movements
University of Virginia
Spring term, 2000
Last modified: 04/17/01