David Nightingale: Father Divine (~1879 - 1965)

May 14, 2017

Old-timers in the Hudson Valley sometimes talk about properties that belonged to Father Divine -- or rather, to the Peace Movement led by George Baker. These properties were referred to as 'Heavens' rather than houses.

For example, in 1938 a house on River Road, Milton became a Heaven, as did Krum Elbow, a waterfront estate directly across the river from the FDR home. Hasbrouck Farm in Stone Ridge became a Heaven, and there was a boarding house on Eltings Corners, outside New Paltz, that also was a Heaven. (That house later burned down). There was a hotel in High Falls, a center in Kingston, and various farms, farms that supplied healthy food for many of the other Heavens.

George Baker was born around 1879, and grew up in a (then) poor black ghetto on the northern edge of Rockville, 50 miles from Baltimore.

Today, he is remembered as the founder of the "Father Divine Peace Mission", which was dedicated to feeding the poor, black or white, while encouraging them to become self-sufficient. Drugs, sex, and alcohol were forbidden.

In Baker's childhood, religion played a large part. His slave mother used to worship in clandestine African-American rituals of singing, and biblically inspired sermons, but her Catholic masters also required her to attend church and uphold Catholic standards for their offspring [ref.1, p.4]. Slavery was outlawed in 1864 in Maryland, and George attended public school off and on, between working as a laborer and gardener. His father was a farm laborer, but managed to buy a tiny [70'x90'] lot on which he built their small house. But the youth, witnessing alcoholism and crime in the ghetto area, left home after his mother died, going alone to Baltimore, determined to lead a temperate and righteous life [ibid, p.12].

He worked at various laboring-type jobs, often attending store-front churches, learning from other preachers, and reading all kinds of religious literature.

About 1917 (he would have been 38) he moved with 8 or 10 followers to Brooklyn and set up his "Peace Mission". Getting jobs as blue-collar workers and/or domestics they pooled their resources and were able to move into a rented house, where there was to be no smoking or drinking and the sexes were segregated. They next moved out to the all-white coastal town of Sayville on L.I. , managing to buy an older house. They demonstrated that they were hard-working and polite, helping the poor get jobs and feeding them. If the people they took in wanted to stay they were to give their earnings to the Peace Mission, and agree to celibacy, with again no smoking or drinking. According to all the biographers the monies did not go to Father Divine but to the whole Peace Mission.

Many of the women followers had left their husbands for the safety of Father Divine's houses. Hostilities were often encountered, both from racism as well as from some of those left-behind husbands!

These safe houses or 'heavens' expanded over the years, especially to the Hudson Valley. The followers called Father Divine GOD, and when he married a much older black woman, Penninah, it was a celibate marriage of common aims. After she died, a young blonde Canadian follower, Edna Rose Ritchings, enamored of his work since high school, became his stenographer, and sincerely believing that he actually was God, proposed to him. She was 21 to his mid 60s when they actually became a married couple, also celibate.

Some of this seems hard to believe, and his detractors called him a fraud.

He died at age 86, in 1965, but Edna continued his work, dying early this year (March 2017) in the beautiful French Gothic manor estate of 70 acres, "Woodmont", outside Philadelphia, given to the Peace Mission by the wealthy follower John Hunt (Devoute), a thrice-married reformed alcoholic addicted to sex, whose mother, also a follower, was the Californian heiress Florence Wuest Hunt (Mary Bird Tree).

Over the years the movement drew in prostitutes, ex-cons, blacks as well as whites, and troubled souls who included quite well-off teachers, doctors and lawyers.

While one may be skeptical of anyone calling himself God, it was clear that Father Divine's whole life was dedicated to relieving suffering, especially during those times that included the Depression.

References:

1. "God, Harlem USA; the Father Divine story", by Jill Watts, Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA (1992).

2. "The Incredible Father Divine", by Sara Harris; W.H.Allen, London, UK (1954).

3. "Slave Religion", by Albert J.Raboteau; Oxford Univ. Press, Inc., Oxford & NY, (1978).

4.   Also, not actually used here: "Promised Land", by Carleton Mabee; Purple Mountain Press (2008).

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

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