Father Divine’s Movement Slowly Fades
They keep a place set for Father Divine in the grand dining room at Woodmont, the French Gothic manor where he once greeted thousands of followers who believed he was God.
His office there is just as it was at his death in 1965 -- down to the vintage television across from his desk. When his widow, Mother Divine, used the room for a recent interview, she left his big chair empty and pulled up a seat beside it.
“Father is here with us,” she said with a smile, meaning it literally.
Since his death, his widow and other believers have done their best to preserve Father Divine’s presence and sustain the religious movement he founded in New York during the first half of the 20th century.
The International Peace Mission still maintains its hilltop estate in Gladwyne, outside Philadelphia; church offices in downtown Philadelphia; and a budget hotel -- the Divine Tracy -- near the University of Pennsylvania campus.
Believers, most of whom are in their 70s and 80s, still gather regularly to sing religious and patriotic songs and listen to recordings of Father Divine’s sermons.
But there are signs the movement is in its twilight.
The Peace Mission has spent the last two decades selling many of the landmark properties Father Divine amassed with donations from the faithful in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Two Philadelphia properties -- the Divine Lorraine Hotel and the Unity Mission Church -- have been sold since 2000.
“Basically we have not changed. We just don’t have the people we once had,” Mother Divine said.
History hasn’t quite decided what to make of Father Divine, a preacher who rose from obscurity by advocating a strict moral code -- and by convincing thousands of people that he was God.
A plaque outside the Divine Lorraine describes Father Divine, who was black, as a civil rights leader. Critics said he was a huckster who talked followers out of their savings.
His early history, and even his real name, are matters of mystery.
Journalists in the movement’s heyday said he was probably born George Baker and mowed lawns in Baltimore before he became a preacher and settled in New York.
His congregation experienced its first significant growth after he moved with his disciples to Sayville, on Long Island, in 1919. There, he offered free weekly banquets and help finding jobs to a growing number of mostly black followers attracted by his message of “practical Christianity.”
He urged believers not to drink, smoke, swear, gamble or borrow money and to pool their resources and practice communal living.
Followers also eschewed “undue mingling of the sexes.” Men and women lived in separate quarters -- a tradition kept alive at the Divine Tracy, where male and female guests stay on separate floors.
Father Divine barred followers from marrying too -- although he had married -- saying that they should give up traditional bonds in favor of membership in a universal family. He also rejected racial identity, urging people to think of themselves simply as Americans.
Those teachings were largely overshadowed by his claim to divinity, which he began to make in his sermons in the 1930s.
According to the movement’s beliefs, Christ did not have the power to fully emancipate man so he died and returned as Father Divine. Since his death, believers have said that Father Divine simply “laid down his body,” much as Jesus did before him.
The declaration that he was God captivated the New York press, especially after Father Divine was hauled into court on public nuisance charges in 1931.
A judge sentenced him to a year in jail, then, four days later, died unexpectedly. Interviewed in prison, Father Divine reportedly said, “I hated to do it.” Weeks later, he was set free.
After that, the sect became a phenomenon. Father Divine moved his base to Harlem, where he acquired hotels and converted them into “Heavens” where followers lived and worked.
Similar Heavens opened in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Through it all, the church’s key activity was operating dining halls that provided free food to thousands. Later the mission began charging for the meals, but only a few cents.
Believers said the meals were miracles. Skeptics weren’t so sure.
Hundreds of supporters turned over their weekly salaries to the movement, and critics said the cash bought Father Divine luxury cars, fine suits and choice real estate in previously all-white enclaves.
Robert Weisbrot, a Colby College history professor who studied Father Divine, said some of the criticisms are valid.
“Did he get something out of it? Yes, he did,” he said. “But it is remarkable how many people over the years counted on him for a cheap meal, cheap lodging, or a cheap Sunday banquet.”
The suggestion of impropriety still bothers Mother Divine. She attributes it to prejudice. “He wasn’t the established church, and he wasn’t the right complexion,” she said.
After years of fending off accusations, Father Divine took the movement to Philadelphia in 1942, eventually acquiring the businesses and properties which are now mostly gone.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.