Who Was Father Divine? Early 20th-century preacher Father Divine saw himself as God on earth. We take a look at the life and times of the African-American spiritual leader with Princeton University religion professor Albert Raboteau.

Who Was Father Divine?

Who Was Father Divine?

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Early 20th-century preacher Father Divine saw himself as God on earth. We take a look at the life and times of the African-American spiritual leader with Princeton University religion professor Albert Raboteau.


This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

In African-American culture, no one cuts a more striking image than the black preacher.

A fisher of souls, spiritual guide, civil rights advocate. But the pulpit is no stranger to controversy either. At times, the black preacher has also been the keeper of the status quo, a voice corrupted by the power of the office, a patter of his own pockets. And sometimes, he may be all of the above at once.

Father Major JEALOUS DIVINE (Leader, Peace Mission Movement): That man might understand the abundance of the fullness is a living reality if they can and will concentrate on it.

CHIDEYA: That's the voice of the extraordinary religious leader known as Father Major Jealous Divine. Here's a newsreel about Father Divine from 1936.

Unidentified Man: To his eager followers, Father Divine is God on Earth. And his headquarters shrill with the worship of his flock. No collections are taken, yet the father's income is as large as it is mysterious.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

Professor ALBERT RABOTEAU (Religion, Princeton University): In his heyday in the '30s, he was quite influential.

CHIDEYA: That's Professor Albert Raboteau. He's one of the nation's foremost scholars of African-American religious history.

Prof. RABOTEAU: His influence is measured by publicity, by interest. He was really notable, if not notorious, figure for many Americans.

CHIDEYA: Notable if not notorious. What do you mean by the notorious part?

Prof. RABOTEAU: Well, Father Divine, along with figures like Daddy Grace, to some extent Marcus Garvey, and others, who were popular leaders who were not in the mainstream, often were accused of being charlatans, of misusing people's funds, of really exploiting people.

And so they were often investigated by the FBI, as was Father Divine. They were attacked in the press, as was Father Divine by the Hearst newspapers, and they inspired a number of salacious biographies at the time. So in that sense: notorious.

CHIDEYA: So, in the early days of the 20th century, he adopted a philosophy called the New Thought Movement. And when you talk about him as someone who was constantly under scrutiny, why did this philosophy appeal to his flock, especially to struggling African-American men?

Prof. RABOTEAU: For example, he denied the binary categories of race that defined African-American status in this country. There was no such thing as black or white. These were our mental categories that could be overcome by applying mind power, by applying positive thinking.

CHIDEYA: That was definitely revolutionary at the time.

Prof. RABOTEAU: It certainly was, and that is to try to attack the racial problem by denying the premises of the racial problem was certainly radical. He believed that the American race mind needed to be cleansed of any notions of race.

He, also, eventually, developed a political platform, the Father Divine Peace Mission Movement. Among the ideas that the Peace Mission Movement announced in the political platform in 1936 were things like the end of capital punishment, the repeal of laws that discriminated against people because of racial categories.

In the late '40s, the Peace Mission Movement mounted a campaign against lynching, in which they collected over 250,000 signatures on a petition to Congress. And they flooded Senator Bilbo from Mississippi's office with letters attacking lynching. So Father Divine's movement was one that was much more complicated than, I think, people have appreciated in the past.

CHIDEYA: He also had a lot of money. And from what I understand, he flaunted it. Tell me about how he rolled - as we would say today - and whether or not that inspired some controversy.

Prof. RABOTEAU: It certainly did. Very early on, he started out with his first congregation in Valdosta, Georgia, and then moved to New York City to Brooklyn. And, through a communal organization - that is people who had joined the movement, and they would offer their labor - he would sometimes help them to find jobs, and then they would contribute from their work to the commune -to the community.

Eventually, they were able to, you know, save money and they moved out to a house in Sayville, Long Island, in an entirely white community. And the movement began to increase and people began to flock out to the house in Sayville, the neighbors began to be concerned.

And when Father Divine suddenly bought a Cadillac and parked it in the garage, they grew more concerned. And when they found out about these huge banquets, these Holy Communion banquets that he was holding, they grew more concerned.

So, the sense of these poor blacks as somehow having all of this money created a good deal of suspicion and led, eventually, to an attempt to force Father Divine out of Sayville.

In part, the prosperity Father Divine created caused suspicion, but they also served, symbolically, as an example of Father Divine's notion that one shouldn't wait for, you know, Heaven in the by-and-by, that Heaven should be made tangible in the here and the now.

And so to see somebody, you know, a black man with no formal education able to create this movement and to have all this conspicuous consumption, even in the depths of the Depression, and to be able to buy property, to be able to house folks, you know, was a puzzlement to many folks, but also to others was a sign that there was something of a social conscience going on here.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, one thing that's fascinating about his case is that, I believe that his background is very mysterious. Tell me about that.

Prof. RABOTEAU: It is. In part, that was intentional. He once said to a would-be biographer that man cannot define God and cannot write a true history of Him. So he was always reluctant to talk about his past, thinking that it was unimportant and also, obviously, very cannily wanting to protect his reputation among his followers as being mysterious because of being divine.

CHIDEYA: Well, Professor Raboteau, thank you so much.

Prof. RABOTEAU: You're welcome. Good being with you.

CHIDEYA: Albert Raboteau is one of the nation's foremost scholars of African-American religious history. He is professor of religion at Princeton University.

Unidentified Man: The mystery man goes daily in his gleaming limousine. From all over the country, followers pour in by car and by special Divine-owned buses to pay homage to his name.

Father DIVINE: Peace, everyone.

Unidentified Group: Thank you, Father.

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