Father Divine was a religious leader responsible for beginning the International Peace Mission movement. The controversial yet successful preacher amassed a huge multiracial following while preaching that he was the living image of God.
Not much is known about Father Divine’s early life. Historians say his birth name was George Baker, although Census records and the like have not yielded a solid confirmation. He was born in either Georgia or Maryland roughly around 1876, and began his preaching career in the early 20th Century.
Divine, who attended a Baptist church as a young man, happened across a preacher named Samuel Morris who billed himself as “Father Jehovia.”
Divine began calling himself “The Messenger” in alliance with Morris, and the pair connected with another preacher, Reverend Bishop Saint John The Vine. The men clashed over a bit of Scripture that states anyone who accepts Jesus Christ as the son of God is also God themselves, and Divine split from the group and declared he was the only person who could truly claim the title.
Between 1912 and 1914, Divine traveled across Georgia and much of the South, preaching celibacy. His bold style caught the attention of authorities who arrested him on trumped-up charges which only increased his legend.
By 1914, the Peace Mission was a fully realized movement and Divine expanded his teachings to Brooklyn. He purchased an apartment building there, turning it into a commune for Mission members. In the commune, he forbade sex, drinking, gambling and other forms of sin. By 1919, he was being referred to as Reverend Major Jealous Divine. A key facet of the Mission was that it created dozens of jobs for followers, which also added to Divine’s popularity.
Divine’s commune was integrated and as his number of white followers began to grow, it attracted the attention of white citizens in the neighborhood who hurled accusations of debauchery at the movement though the claims were never substantiated.
Divine mostly held frequent ritual “holy communion banquets” and preached racial harmony while promoting the power of positive thinking as a means to obtain wealth. However, not much else is known about the rituals or practices of the movement.
After a time in Long Island, the movement’s high point may have been between 1932 and 1942 when Divine headquartered the group in Harlem. With his encouragement, Mission movement members purchased several hotel and building properties which they billed as “Heavens” and the group became one of the more land-rich spiritual groups in the nation.
Divine eventually built his sprawling 72-acre Woodmont estate just outside of Philadelphia. He operated the movement from the mansion from 1942 until his death in 1965. Jonestown cult leader Jim Jones attempted to wrestle control of the Peace Mission from Mother Divine, claiming to be a reincarnation of Father Divine.
The Mission movement is currently overseen by Mother Divine, Divine’s second wife. Around 18 devotees to Divine still live at the Woodmont estate with Mother Divine, and a handful of followers exist around the world today. The estate is a National Public Landmark and can be visited every Sunday from April to October for free. But in accordance with Father Divine’s wishes, there should be no “undue mixing of the sexes, no profanity, and modest dress is required.”