FATHER DIVINE Founder of a non-ritualistic socio-religious movement called the Peace Mission Cult, George "Father Divine" Baker was one of the most interesting and controversial black Americans during the early twentieth century. Born of sharecropper parents on Hutchinson's Island, Georgia in 1874, Baker moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1899. During the next decade, he preached part-time in a number of Baptist churches and ultimately became involved in religious cultism, serving as "The Messenger and Son" of "Father Jehovia," a Pennsylvania cult leader. In 1912, Baker returned to his native Georgia where he formed his own cult. Based on the assumption that he was "divine," Baker became the essential core of the movement, worshiped by his followers as God incarnate on earth.
Following a number of arrests for "rabble-rousing" and disturbing the peace, Georgia authorities succeeded in driving Baker out of the state by 1915. In that year, he moved his "flock" to New York City and, later, to Sayville, Long Island. Calling his meeting place "Heaven," Baker's cult numbered approximately forty in 1928. Two years later, he assumed the name "Father Divine," previously being called "The Messenger" and "Major Morgan J. Devine." In 1932, Father Divine and the Peace Mission Cult gained national attention and, more important, thousands of new converts as the result of a "demonstration" of Divine's "supernatural powers." Arrested on Long Island as a public nuisance, Father Divine was prosecuted and sentenced to six months in jail by an unsympathetic judge who, less than a week after the trial, suffered a fatal heart attack. Quoted as saying "I hated to do it," Father Divine assumed omnipotent proportions in the eyes of his followers. The cult movement itself grew tremendously thereafter with estimates of actual membership ranging from two million to Father Divine's "official" figure of twenty million by 1950.
Father Divine based his cult on the concepts of peace and purity. Followers were expected to renounce and abstain from sexual relationships in order to achieve a "pure" state. Reminiscent of several mid-nineteenth century Utopian communitarian experiments in the United States, the Peace Mission Cult not only stressed the necessity of a "sexless kingdom," but it also acted as a massive cooperative agency based on the spirit of the Last Supper. Missions were established throughout the east and midwest where the poor and downtrodden of all races were fed, clothed and housed. Additionally, the Mission established a number of businesses, including "Peace Restaurants," barber shops and laundries, where good service and low prices attracted thousands of needy urban dwellers.
Father Divine was a staunch advocate of racial equality and harmony. He took pride in publicly "exhibiting" his white and black followers living in a peaceful, harmonious state. Divine himself married a white Canadian girl (his second wife) in 1946, who became his pure "Sweet Angel" and virginal "Mother Divine." Father Divine believed in and taught the concept of eternal life in the here-and-now. Forbidding illness and death, Father Divine stressed that members of his cult who became ill or died lacked the true faith. It is not surprising, therefore, that when he himself died in 1965, the Peace Mission Cult lost much of its impetus.