father-divine

Excerpts from the wikipedia entry:

Father Divine was probably called George Baker around the turn of the century. He worked as a gardener in Baltimore, Maryland. In a 1906 sojourn to California, Baker became acquainted with the ideas of Charles Fillmore and the “New Thought Movement,” a philosophy of positive thinking that would inform his later doctrines. Among other things, this belief system asserted that negative thoughts led to poverty and unhappiness.

Baker attended a local Baptist Church, often preaching, until 1907 when a traveling preacher called Samuel Morris spoke to, and was expelled from, the congregation. Morris, originally from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, had a soft-spoken and uncontroversial sermon until the end when he raised his arms and shouted, “I am the Eternal Father!” This routine had him thrown out of many churches in Baltimore and was apparently unsuccessful until Morris happened upon the receptive George Baker.

In his late 20s Baker became Morris’ first follower and adopted a pseudonym, “the Messenger”. The Messenger was a Christ figure to Morris’s God the Father. Father Divine preached with Morris in Baltimore out of the home of former evangelist Harriette Snowden who came to accept their divinity. Morris began calling himself “Father Jehovia”.

Divine and Father Jehovia were later joined by John A. Hickerson who called himself Reverend Bishop Saint John the Vine. John the Vine shared The Messenger’s excellent speaking ability and his interest in New Thought.

In 1912, the three-man ministry collapsed as the John the Vine denied Father Jehovia’s monopoly on godhood citing 1 John 4:15 to mean God was in everyone.

“Whoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwells in him and he in God.”

Father Divine denied both that Father Jehovia was God and that anyone could be God. Instead he declared that he himself was the only true expression of God’s spirit. In 1912, he parted ways with his former associates and declared himself a god.

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On February 6, 1914, several followers’ husbands and local preachers had Divine arrested for lunacy. This actually expanded his ministry, with reporters and worshippers deluging his prison cell. Some whites even began calling on him. One white follower, J. R. Moseley, arranged for J. B. Copeland, a respected Valdosta lawyer, to represent him pro bono. Father Divine was found mentally sound in spite of “maniacal” beliefs.

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He and his disciples formed a commune in a black middle-class apartment building. He forbade sex, alcohol, tobacco, and gambling among those that lived with him. By 1919 he had adopted the name Reverend Major Jealous Divine. “Reverend Major” was chosen as a title of respect and authority while “Jealous” was a reference to Exodus 34:14 where the Lord says He is a “jealous god”. His followers affectionately called him Father Divine.

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On May 8, 1931, a Sayville deputy arrested and charged Father Divine with disturbing the peace. Remarkable in the depression, Father Divine submitted his $1000 bail in cash.

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On Sunday, November 15 at 12:15 AM, a police officer was called to Father Divine’s raucously loud property. By the time state troopers, deputies and prison buses were called in, a mob of neighbors had surrounded the compound. Fearing a riot, the police informed Father Divine and his followers that they had fifteen minutes. Father Divine had them wait in silence for ten minutes, and then they filed into police custody. Processed by the county jail at 3 AM, clerks were frustrated because the followers often refused to give their usual names and stubbornly offered the “inspired” names they adopted in the movement. Seventy-eight people were arrested altogether, including fifteen whites. Forty-six pled guilty to disturbing the peace and incurred $5 fines which Father Divine paid with a $500 bill that the court was embarrassingly unable to make change from. Peninniah, Father Divine, and thirty followers resisted the charges.

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On December 16 John Hunt, a white millionaire and disciple from California calling himself John the Revelator, met the Jewett family of Denver, Colorado. He kidnapped their 17 year-old daughter Delight and took her back to California without her parents’ consent. Renaming her “Virgin Mary,” John the Revelator began sexual relations with her. He announced that she would give birth to a “New Redeemer” by “immaculate conception” in Hawaii. Father Divine summoned Hunt to New York, separated the couple and chastised his eccentric follower. The Jewetts, finding their daughter apparently brainwashed into believing she was literally the Virgin Mary demanded compensation. After the movement’s attorneys conducted an internal investigation, they refused. Outraged, the Jewetts offered their story to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal, an established critic of the movement. After a manhunt and trial, John Hunt was sentenced to three years and adopted a new name, the “Prodigal Son”. Father Divine publicly endorsed the conviction of John the Revelator contrary to some expectations (some followers expected him to once again “smite” the judge). However, the scandal brought bad publicity to Father Divine. News coverage implied his followers were gullible and dangerous.

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Going into the 1950s, the press rarely covered Father Divine, and when it did, it was no longer as a menace, but as an amusing relic. For example, light-hearted stories ran when Father Divine announced Philadelphia was capital of the world, and when he claimed to inspire invention of the hydrogen bomb. Father Divine’s predominantly lower class following ebbed as the economy swelled.