Simanaitis Says

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FATHER DIVINE: GOD, SCAMP–OR A BIT OF BOTH

.THE THRONE CAR of evangelist Father Divine was yesterday’s topic. Today (and tomorrow) I celebrate this man who was an early role model of racial equality for many, and yet something of a scam artist to some others.

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Reverend Major Jealous Father Divine, c. 1876–1965, American evangelist, activist for equality, business entrepreneur. Image from biography.com

Early records of Father Divine are few. Likely the son of freed slaves, perhaps he was born around 1876 as George Baker, Jr. Living in California in 1906, he became familiar with the New Thoughts movement, a philosophy of positive thinking that became a central theme of Father Divine’s preaching. In 1913, his message earned him 60 days on a Georgia chain gang. In 1914, he was charged with lunacy, booked under the name John Doe aka God. In fact, years later, investigating an (unfounded) communist link, the F.B.I. listed him as George Baker aka God.

I’m reminded of two similar occurrences, one in the movie Miracle on 34th Street, the other in the words of Mark 14:60-62, Matthew 26:63-65 and Luke 22:67-70. The biblical reference is Jesus’ affirmative response to being asked whether he is Christ, the Son of God. In the 1947 Christmas film, Kris Kringle answers affirmatively the question of a district attorney: “Do you really believe that you’re Santa Claus?”

Father Divine’s answers were more complex. One judge, hoping for a Contempt of Court citation, asked him, “Are you, or are you not, God?”

Father Divine responded, “No, I am not God. But many of my followers call me God and I like them to believe it.” He added as an afterthought, “Many also call me the devil.”

A bunch of folks in Sayville, Long Island, 60 miles east of New York City, may have subscribed to this latter opinion. By 1919, Father Divine and his followers had already established a commune in Brooklyn, New York, through an admirable business plan: Start with donated derelict property, fix it up with volunteer help, then rent it inexpensively to those in need.

In Sayville, however, the house wasn’t derelict: It was sold to Divine by one German-American settling a feud with another over an anglicized name change. “Home for sale to ‘colored’ buyer,” the ad read.

The Sayville, Long Island, property. Photo by DanTD, 2012.

The Sayville, Long Island, property. Photo by DanTD, 2012.

Matters at the Sayville commune appeared relatively quiet for more than a decade. Then, in 1931, Father Divine and his followers were hauled into court for disturbing the peace. Apparently the disturbance–and local animosity–arose through the commune’s offering free banquets to 3000 or more.

Proceedings were complicated and prolonged, with farcical aspects. Being booked, Father Divine’s followers insisted on using their “inspired” names, Faithful Mary and the like. When they were each charged with disturbing the peace, Father Divine offered to pay his $5 fine with a $500 bill, for which the court had insufficient change. He and others then contested the charge.

Father Divine’s trial was finally held in May 1932. The jury found him guilty of disturbing the peace, but asked for leniency. However, Judge Lewis J. Smith ruled otherwise, saying Divine was a “menace to society.” A year in prison and a $500 fine were proclaimed on June 5, 1932.

Apparently, the court had no problem with change this time. However, on June 9, 1932, Judge Smith keeled over and died of a heart attack.

Father Divine responded, “I did not desire Judge Smith to die…. I did desire that MY spirit would touch his heart and change his mind that he might repent and believe and be saved from the grave.”

No such deal. Ignoring the fact that Judge Smith had a history of heart trouble, national media went whacko. And Father Divine’s International Peace Mission thrived. Its following increased throughout the country, predominately African-American in the Northeast, but white middle-class elsewhere.

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Father Divine and his banquets could attract the crowd. Image of the 1930s from Main Line Today.

But wait; there’s more. Tomorrow are tales of the original Mother Divine’s passing, a new Mother “Sweet Angel” and more on “John the Revelator,” he of the Divine Duesenberg. Daughter Suz and I even make brief cameo appearances. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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