Father Divine: The Man Who Called Himself God

At a time when scarcity affected millions, one eccentric preacher offered men and women a taste of the American dream.

During the 1930s, a man appeared in America offering salvation through the simple act of eating. “Father Divine”, professing himself to be God incarnate, urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking. His message crossed racial lines because he appealed to shared traditions in American culture. This eccentric preacher offered Americans, both black and white, rich and poor, hope that racial unity and personal perfection could be achieved through the union of religion and the dinner table.

Father Divine began life as George Baker, Jr. in the border state of Maryland less than fifteen years after the Civil War. His mother, Nancy, had been born a slave in the 1840s. Two Catholic masters owned her over the course of her life, Lemuel Clemens and Henry B. Waring. Both required that she attend the Catholic churches they had erected on their respective properties.

In 1864, when Maryland outlawed slavery, Nancy went into service as a maid and already had two daughters by unknown persons. She married a man named George Baker in the 1870s and the two moved into a ghetto outside of Rockville, Maryland known as ‘Monkey Run.’ George Baker, Jr. was born shortly after, in May 1879.[1] Nancy and her family attended Rockville’s Jerusalem Methodist Church, a separatist branch, where, according to historian Jill Watts, “inevitably, the intense spirituality and religious dedication of the African-American community left a deep impression on George.”[2]

His mother died when he was a young man. She was five feet tall and weighed four hundred and eighty pounds. A coffin had to be built inside their house and could only be removed after the doorway had been hastily expanded. Historian R. Marie Griffith theorized that Nancy’s extreme size, acquired after moving to Monkey Run, was a response to the oppressive conditions of slavery she had experienced as a young woman.

“One wonders whether her large physique was really (or only) a source of embarrassment or whether it could have signified freedom from the chains of poverty and advancement into a new way of life,” he speculated. “At the very least, it seems worth asking whether young George, later Father Divine, viewed her weight as something more than a tragic calamity.” In George’s mind, Griffith believed, Corpulence came to be associated with the overcoming of poverty and its various social stigmas.[3]

George Baker, Jr. aka “Father Divine”

George Baker, Jr. abruptly left Rockville soon after his mother’s death and went to Baltimore looking for work. Spurning the poverty and unemployment of the African American sections of the city, he found employment as an independent gardener for a variety of wealthy white residents. He didn’t settle there for long. In 1902, he set out to preach in the South. By that time he had embraced an amalgamation of Christian doctrines. He picked up bits and pieces from Catholicism, storefront Christianity, and the Methodism of his birth.

Coupled with the New Thought doctrine still making the rounds in Baltimore, he “produced a foundation that potentially had broad appeal to people from diverse religious backgrounds,” according to Jill Watts.[4] A New England hypnotist and inventor named Phineas Quimby developed New Thought in the middle of the nineteenth century. Quimby taught that good health could be achieved through positive thinking. “By adopting and adapting components of this doctrine,” Jill Watts explained, George Baker, Jr. “created a unique and attractive theology.”[5]

In 1906, when he was 27 years old, George Baker, Jr. traveled to California and participated in a spiritual revival known as the Azusa Street Revival, which is also thought to have been the birthplace of Pentecostalism. Fascinated by the religious fervor, he delved deeper into New Thought literature than he had in Baltimore.[6] It was during that revival that George believed the Holy Spirit had entered him and transformed him into a messenger of God’s word.

He returned to Baltimore, where he met a man named Samuel Morris who also believed the Holy Spirit had entered him. George and Samuel quickly formed their own church with the help of a local laundress and evangelist named Harriette Snowden. Samuel believed himself to be the incarnation of God and George claimed to be his messenger.  The two attracted a respectable following of over twenty persons, and George Baker, Jr. formally took on the name, “the Messenger.”[7]

In 1912 the Messenger decided that he was God, not Samuel Morris, and the ensuing internal squabble destroyed their ministry. The Messenger left Baltimore and opted to once again travel south. He brought with him a firm conviction that God’s kingdom could be achieved on earth, that racial harmony was possible, and that he should accept no money for his services. Even at this early stage, the banquet was central to his theology.

As he traveled around the South, he held sermons in people’s homes under the insistence that everyone present should furnish a dish. “At each Holy Communion banquet,” Jill Watts explained, “he attempted to recreate Christ’s last supper and reinforce his own role as a savior of humankind.”[8]

Two years later, in the town of Valsdosta, Georgia, an angry congregation drove the Messenger from their church after he proclaimed that God had returned to earth in the form of a “Negro,” but his brazen remarks won over a few who were present. All of his early followers were African American women who found some appealing component to his theology, and some even left home to move in with him. Jill Watts suggested that he appealed to women because he rejected gender distinctions and his insistence on celibacy “freed them from the fear of childbirth.”[9] Whatever the reason, his flock continued to grow, which upset many in the local community.

The Messenger was arrested on February 6, 1914 and charged with lunacy. He was convicted but released from custody with an order to leave town. He took some of his followers with him and continued his circuit around the South, which was eventually expanded to include the Northeast. In 1917 the group settled down in a Brooklyn apartment where they continued their Holy Communion banquets under the strict supervision of the Messenger, who forbid them from sexual activity, smoking, profanity, drugs, and alcohol.[10] There he changed his name for the final time, to Reverend Major Jealous Divine, or simply, Father Divine.

In 1919, a frustrated resident of Sayville, New York, a small all-white vacation community on Long Island, put his house up for sale to a “colored buyer.” Father Divine, his new wife, and his flock took the opportunity to escape from the turmoil and religious competition of New York City and purchased the house. “By distancing his disciples from other religious orders, familiar surroundings, and previous companions,” Watts argued, “Father Divine eliminated many of the temptations luring away converts and increased his followers’ allegiance to and dependence on him.”[11] Their respite lasted for a little over a decade, until the Peace Mission movement outgrew its modest surroundings.

Despite the cultivation of a clean and tidy image, Father Divine’s increasing popularity worked against him at Sayville. “His expanding congregation included people from all walks of life,” Watts explained, “young and old, rich and poor, healthy and infirm, black and white―who worshiped together under his roof.”[12] The large influx of people, along with the increasing rowdiness of the Holy Communion banquets, grated against their neighbor’s sensibilities. Rumors spread that were fueled by a death (from natural causes) among Divine’s following.

A Father Divine Peace Mission

On May 8, 1931, police arrested Father Divine on charges of being a public nuisance. According to Francis Hoag, editor of the Suffolk County News, Divine had brought “undesirable notoriety” to the village “ever since this man with the mysterious financial backing established his home here with the strong lure of free eats.”[13] By that time, the average number of Sunday worshipers was over one thousand.[14]

Father Divine was convicted and sentenced to one year in jail and a $500 fine. The judge died of a heart attack soon after, leading many of Divine’s followers to believe that Divine had caused the man’s death. While Father Divine was in jail, the Peace Mission movement spread across the United States, fueled by the onset of the Great Depression. In 1932, Father Divine moved his followers into Harlem where he met direct opposition from a number of pre-established religious sects.

However, one after another seemed to be unable to deal with local problems as effectively as the Peace Mission. One such cult, led by a man named George Wilson Becton, was known as the “World’s Gospel Feast” and provided the same kind of union of food and spirituality as Father Divine. Unfortunately, Becton was kidnapped and murdered by his enemies in 1933, and according to Keith V. Erickson, “the void left by Becton’s death was filled by Father Divine.”[15]

With a combination of social welfare, spiritual fulfillment, and entrepreneurship, Father Divine gradually replaced many of the holy rollers who promised their followers relief from the Depression but offered no tangible results. Divine began his economic projects by opening inexpensive restaurants where his followers “volunteered” to work for low wages, and his holdings expanded from there.

“By the mid-1930s the Peace Mission was the largest real estate holder in Harlem, owning markets, apartment houses, dry cleaning stores, and a coal business,” historian Mina A. Vaughn described.[16] Father Divine’s communal system allowed his followers to live a higher quality of life with less personal resources.

In 1935, Peace Missions dotted the United States and a few opened overseas. Along with this boom came internal dissatisfaction that ended in lawsuits and bad publicity. Father Divine openly displayed luxury as proof of his divinity, while his followers retained little except the bare essentials.

The bounty that surrounded him was just an “outer expression of a percent of a percent of a percent, of a sketch of a reflection of the condition of the mind within,” he professed. Backing up this bombastic claim, he served between 2,500 and 3,000 meals daily between 1933 and 1940 for no charge, or for an admission cost of only 15 cents for those who could afford the fee.[17]

The end of the Great Depression, the lawsuits and bad publicity, and old age, along with a rigid restructuring of the organization itself, all contributed to the end of the Peace Mission movement. Father Divine relocated his followers out of Harlem and into Philadelphia, where they resided until his death in 1965. His second wife, a white woman fifty years his junior known as “Mother Divine” to their followers, took over management of the Peace Missions.[18] A few businesses owned by the movement still operate in the United States today, but millions deserted the fold when Father Divine, who they believed to be God in the flesh, met a very mortal end.

Notes

[1] Jill Watts, God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press,1992), 1-5.

[2] Ibid., 11.

[3] R. Marie Griffith, “Body Salvation: New Thought, Father Divine, and the Feast of Material Pleasures,” Religion and American Culture 11 (Summer 2001): 134.

[4] Watts., 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jill Watts, “’This Was the Way’: Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement in Los Angeles during the Great Depression,” The Pacific Historical review 60 (November 1991): 477.

[7] Watts, God, Harlem U.S.A., 27.

[8] Ibid., 33.

[9] Ibid., 35.

[10] Ibid., 44.

[11] Ibid., 52.

[12] Ibid., 61.

[13] Suffolk County News, 9 October 1931.

[14] Watts, 75.

[15] Keith V. Erickson, “Black Messiah: The Father Divine Peace Mission Movement,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 63 (December 1977): 431.

[16] Mina A. Vaughn, “Father Divine: (c.1879-1965), Religious Leader,” in African American Orators: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook, ed. Richard W. Leeman (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996), 73.

[17] Erickson, 434.

[18] Vaughn, 74.

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Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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