Divine, Father Major Jealous (ca.
The man known as Father Divine, the leader of a metaphysical
communal group, the Peace Mission Movement, has an obscure
origin. The most reliable of several stories that have circulated
about his early life is that he was born George Baker in
the 1880s on a rice plantation on Hutchinson Island in the Savannah
River in Georgia, the son of sharecroppers. Around the
turn of the century he appeared in Baltimore, Maryland, where
he became the assistant to Samuel Morris, an itinerant preacher
who called himself Father Jehovia.
He emerged on his own in 1914 in Brooklyn, New York, as
the leader of a small group. Divine had absorbed teachings
from Christian Science and New Thought and emphasized
healing in his preaching. Around 1919 he moved to Sayville,
New York, and in the early 1920s had fewer than 50 followers.
However, by this time he had been accepted by his followers as
God, a much easier affirmation from a New Thought perspective,
which emphasized an impersonal imminent divine reality
rather than the personal deity of traditional Christianity.
Through the late 1920s and into the early 1930s, his following
grew steadily, made up primarily of black people but with a
measurable number of whites.
In 1931 an incident occurred that lifted him from obscurity.
In response to complaints from Divine’s neighbors, the police
arrested him for disturbing the peace. He complained of racial
discrimination, but was tried and convicted. Overriding the
jury’s request for leniency, the judge sentenced him to a year
in jail. Two days later the judge died of a heart attack. When
told of the judge’s death, Divine was reported to have remarked,
‘‘I hated to do it!’’ The widely reported remark made
him a nationally known figure, especially in the African American
community. (To this day the Peace Mission publishes accounts
of disasters suffered by people whose behavior does not
conform to the mission’s teachings.) His conviction was reversed
a few days later and Divine moved with his followers to
Harlem. The country was then in the midst of the Great Depression,
and the movement spread and prospered. He offered
people very inexpensive food and shelter, opened an employment
service, and most importantly, daily demonstrated God’s
abundance by throwing lavish banquets at which good food was
served in generous portions. When people adhered to the
movement, they were expected to conform their life to its economic
teachings. They had to get a job, pay off their debts, and
give their employer a good day’s labor for their pay. They had
to cancel all insurance, return any stolen money, and for the future
pay their own way. They also moved into one of Divine’s
communal centers, called heavens, and live a celibate communal
life. To further assist members, the group formed a variety
of businesses in which many members were employed.
In 1946 Divine married Canadian Edna Rose Ritchings,
now known as Mother Divine, and their wedding day remains
an important holiday for the movement. Around this time he
relocated his headquarters to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and
in 1954 moved to Woodmont, an estate in suburban Philadelphia,
which was named the Mount of the House of the Lord.
Following his death on September 10, 1965, he was enshrined
at the estate. Mother Divine succeeded him as head of the
The Peace Mission Movement was one of the most controversial
movements of the 1930s and became one of the first
groups labeled as a ‘‘cult.’’ Its metaphysical teachings were little
understood by most observers, and white writers had little sympathy
for Divine and his interracial ideals. Only in recent years
has he been studied in the context of his metaphysical perspective,
his role as an African American leader, and as a human
rights activist. The Peace Mission Movement may be contacted
c/o Palace Mission Inc., 1622 Spring Mill Rd., Gladwyne, PA
19035-1021. Members can be found in Canada, Germany,
Switzerland, Australia, and Nigeria.
Burnham, Kenneth E. God Comes to America. Boston: Lambeth
Press, 1979.
Divine, Mother. The Peace Mission Movement. Philadelphia:
Imperial Press, 1982.
Weisbrot, Robert. Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial
Equality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.