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FATHER DIVINE: CHARISMATIC, CONTROVERSIAL

WHEN WE left Reverend Major Jealous Father Divine, indeed only yesterday and 1932, he was sentenced to a year in stir because his Long Island commune disturbed the peace. Ironic, what with his International Peace Mission and all.

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Father Divine is released on appeal after less than a month in stir. He’s the short guy; the woman to his immediate right is Mother Divine, his wife, of which more anon. This and other images from God in a Rolls-Royce, ditto.

Divine’s International Peace Mission continued its national growth, reconditioning hotels into Heavens, establishing inexpensive housing and operating other enterprises in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Seattle. Indeed, Divine’s fame had spread around the world to Canada, France, Switzerland and Australia.

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Divine’s preaching was sprinkled with innovative English such as “physicalating” and “tangiblated.”

From his original days as The Messenger, Divine had preached the benefits of positive thinking, self-reliance of individuals and their equality. In fact, during the Great Depression, he was no fan of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal because of its welfare aspects.

Rules for his followers were straightforward: Give up your worldly goods. No alcohol, no tobacco, no profanity and no sex.

WT….?

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Father and Mother Divine.

Back in 1919, Divine had married one of his followers, Sister Penny, Peninnah, an older African-American woman about whom little else is known. However, his relationship with Mother Divine, as she came to be known, was said to be spiritual, not physical. Rumors may have suggested otherwise, but even critics wrote that Divine seems to have practiced what he preached.

The subtitle of John Hoshor’s God in a Rolls-Royce suggests a critical examination of Divine. Full disclosure: I searched out the book in expectation of a shocking expose. And, true, its 1936 vintage makes today’s reader cringe because of Hoshor’s “mammies” and “young bucks.”

On the other hand, Hoshor’s Preface notes, “The book is filled with laughs and ridiculous situations, but beneath the laughter, you will hear the poignant heartfelt cries of human beings clamoring for paradise.” And, in countering rumors of impropriety, Hoshor relates a story of one follower’s attempted vamping of Divine. She failed.

Not that human frailties didn’t surface occasionally within the Peace Mission movement. In 1939, John Hunt, aka John the Revelator of the Divine Duesenberg tale, kidnapped a 17-year-old Colorado girl, renamed her Virgin Mary and announced that she would give birth to a New Redeemer. Her parents, the F.B.I. and Father Divine were not amused. In particular, unlike Judge Smith, the judge in Hunt’s Mann Act sentencing lived to tell about it.

In the mid-1940s, iIllness and age brought into question immortality of the Peace Mission’s principals. Hitherto, Mother Divine had taken an active role in her husband’s various enterprises. The Sayville, Long Island, property, for example, was in her name. Mother Divine died in 1943, likely of natural causes. This wasn’t announced; she merely disappeared from public view.

In 1946, it became known that Father Divine had taken a second wife, Vancouver, Canada-born Edna Rose Ritchings. She was blond, white and around 21. Divine was perhaps 50 years her senior.

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Father and Mother Sweet Angel Divine.

The media went whacko again. On the other hand, in retrospect, Mother Sweet Angel Divine assumed responsibilities of maintaining what had become a large business enterprise of the International Peace Mission. To the best of my research, she’s still alive.

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Woodmont, Father Divine’s 72-acre estate in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. Image from Main Line Today.

In 1953, the Divines moved to Woodmont, in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, along Philadelphia’s ritzy Main Line. This 72-acre estate was donated by follower John Devoute. Divine lived there until his death, age 89, in 1965. The estate, a National Historic Landmark, continues as headquarters for the International Peace Mission.

Two other Pennsylvania properties of the Peace Mission were Philadelphia hotels, the Divine Lorraine (operating 1948–1999) and the Divine Tracy (1949–2006). The usual Peace Mission rules applied: no alcohol, tobacco, profanity or sex. Men and women occupied different floors. Men’s shirts had to be tucked in. Women were required to wear stockings. No slacks, shorts nor other Jezebel attire.

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The Divine Lorraine, 699 Broad Street, Philadelphia. Now under redevelopment as part of the Divine Lorraine Community.

When Daughter Suz attended grad school at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s, she initially stayed at the nearby Divine Tracy. Later, I stayed at the Tracy when visiting.

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The Divine Tracy, 20 S. 36th St., Philadelphia. Image and information, circa 2005, at libertynet.org. Yelp reports it closed now.

We both recall spotless if spartan rooms, modest rates, gentle people and inexpensive, hearty vegetarian meals in the dining room. Forget the Pinot Grigio with dinner, though. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

One comment on “FATHER DIVINE: CHARISMATIC, CONTROVERSIAL

  1. Michael Rubin
    November 1, 2016

    It was an era for big personality religious leaders…Amy Semple McPherson founded the Forsquare Gospel Church (Angelus Temple remains in Los Angeles) and there were others, as well. McPherson is believed the first to use ‘mass media’ for her preaching – in this case it was radio. Others followed and I’ll let others comment on that.

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