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This Far by Faith




About the Series

1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues
1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WA
1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW
Next Journey
Father Divine's Peace Mission: Hope for the Impoverished 1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER

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Timeline: 1866-1945 View Detailed Timeline
1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues
1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues

1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW
Father Divine's Peace Mission: Hope for the Impoverished

"Because your god would not feed the people, I came and I am feeding them. Because your god kept such as you segregated and discriminated, I came and I am unifying all nations together. That is why I came, because I did not believe in your god." --Father Divine

Father Divine's Peace Mission remains one of the most unorthodox religious movements in America. He may or may not have been born George Baker, either in Maryland or further south. Although a Baptist, he received God's word at the Azusa Street Revival. Early on, he preached a message of equality among men and the hope of heaven-on-earth to black men. His actions got him arrested, imprisoned, and, on one occasion, institutionalized in a mental asylum. However, his charismatic message of an interracial paradise on earth caught on in the North, where he was able to preach in greater anonymity. Ultimately, Father Divine's Peace Mission would become well known for its aggressive efforts to desegregate all aspects of American society.

Entrance to one of Father Divine's "Heavens" on the East Side in New York, 1941.

Father Divine created a philosophy that merged elements of Catholicism, Pentecostalism, Methodism, and positive thinking. Father Divine's followers believed that he embodied the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Mainstream Americans scoffed at this small African-American deity, but many in black America thought he was crazy like a fox. Father Divine used white disciples to buy property.

He bought a hotel near Atlantic City, New Jersey, so that blacks could access the beach. He married white women and lived openly with them. To most of black America, he was doing things no other black man could have gotten away with.

In 1931, the local authorities arrested Father Divine and dozens of his disciples in Sayville, Long Island, for "invading the county with his religious practices," which included black men and white women living in the same house together. Divine was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail by a biased judge, Lewis J. Smith. Three days after imposing the sentence, however, Judge Smith, 55, dropped dead. When a reporter asked the jailed preacher for a comment, Divine replied, "I hated to do it."

The trial and its consequences brought a great deal of popularity to Father Divine. Over 150 Peace Missions sprang up around the country, with one quarter of them located in New York. The largest Mission formed in Harlem, then trapped in the deepening Great Depression. At one point, the Peace Mission was the largest property owner in Harlem. And during the Depression, Father Divine fed tens of thousands food and his vision of racial equality. They venerated him as a deliverer from Heaven.

Father Divine at a parade to celebrate the acquisition of a new communal dwelling, which he calls Heavens, in Harlem. July 31, 1938.

From the beginning, Father Divine had ministered to the whole person, body as well as soul, and that approach found an eager reception among the impoverished. The movement rapidly built up a network of businesses, including restaurants, gas stations, grocery and clothing stores, hotels, farms, and many other enterprises.

All provided high-quality goods and services inexpensively, and not incidentally created jobs for Father Divine's faithful. By the end of the Depresson decade, the Peace Mission had accumulated savings in excess of $15 million.

But his success created problems. Father Divine lived large, dressed ostentatiously, and challenged the status quo. As his empire grew, so did the investigations by journalists and government officials. Newspapers reported allegations of mishandling of funds, sexual abuse, and homosexuality.

Yet, through his teachings and his actions, Father Divine could be counted among the stalwarts who defended African-Americans' right to have heaven here on earth, not pie in the sky.

Did You Know?

In the early 1900s, the Moorish Science Temple of America attempted to resuscitate Islam in black America.

Bishop Ida Bell Robinson started her own church, eventually growing to 84 churches all along the eastern seaboard.

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