'Father Divine' goes beyond scandals and rumor His movement boasted anywhere from 2 million to 10 million disciples.

March 22, 1992|By Lynn Van Matre | Lynn Van Matre,Chicago Tribune

GOD, HARLEM U.S.A.:

THE FATHER DIVINE STORY.

Jill Watts.

University of California Press.

249 pages. $30.

He was a flamboyant minister with a loyal following, a keen business sense and an upscale lifestyle, and controversy and scandal accompanied him wherever he went. Today, that description could fit more than one high-living evangelist. But in the 1930s, the clergyman in the national headlines most often was a dapper, eccentric black man who was born George Baker Jr., but was far better known as Father Divine.

In its heyday, Father Divine's Peace Mission movement boasted anywhere from 2 million to 10 million disciples, including significant numbers of wealthy whites, and loomed as a potentially powerful social and political force. His appearances in Harlem attracted crowds of up to 15,000; his fame was such that his followers, known as "angels," addressed letters to him simply "God, Harlem U.S.A."

But his enormous affluence, his largely black female following and his penchant for referring to himself as God incurred the wrath of a diverse group of detractors, black and white. Jealous clergymen railed against him for his spiritual audacity; unsubstantiated rumors of sexual misconduct dogged his ministry.

Neighbors complained that his lavish banquets for the faithful constituted a public nuisance. It didn't help matters when one of his followers, a white Californian convert known as John the Revelator, was convicted of kidnapping and raping a fellow angel, a 17-year-old girl known as the Virgin Mary.

Divine, who died in 1965, is remembered these days for the sensationalism and the rumors -- often apparently unfounded -- that characterized his ministry. Author Jill Watts, an assistant professor of history at California State University, chronicles the scandals and litigation that were part and parcel of the Peace Mission movement, but focuses more attention on its founder's mixed bag of theological beliefs.

Divine, born in 1879 in a poor neighborhood in Rockville, Md., moved to Baltimore as a young adult. There he taught Sunday school and became interested in the ministry.

Soon he began piecing together a religion that would eventually draw inspiration from Methodism, Catholicism, black storefront churches, Eastern religions, New Thought and other mind-healing movements, and the Christian Science textbook "Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures" (which Ms. Watts mistakenly refers to as "Science and Mind").

In 1906, while visiting an integrated Pentecostal church in Los Angeles, George Baker Jr. became convinced that God had marked him for a divine mission. Soon after, he concluded that he was the only true expression of God's spirit on Earth and changed his name to Major Jealous Divine.

Father Divine, as his disciples called him, demanded that his followers say no to sex, alcohol, tobacco, drugs and profanity. He believed in equality for women and racial integration but eschewed racial pride, contending that blacks as well as whites bore blame for racial inequalities because of their negative thinking. An opponent of handouts, he offered job training and food through his Peace Missions in exchange for labor.

Most of this, of course, is now forgotten, while the scandals and myths live on. "God, Harlem U.S.A." offers a thoughtful, well-researched look at Divine as theologian and social activist as well as a charismatic celebrity preacher who amassed his enviable following long before the days of televangelism.

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