Historical Markers
Father Divine Historical Marker
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Father Divine

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Broad Street & Fairmont Avenue, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
September 11, 1994

Behind the Marker

"How glorious it will be when all civilization shall have been spiritualized and shall recognize the REDEEMER and the SAVIOR of men marker even as these of MY following!"

Father Divine, Philadelphia, PA, 1939.

Father Divine was a charismatic spiritual leader who emerged in the 1930s. His Peace Mission Movement espoused a philosophy of racial integration during a time when segregation was the rule of the day.
Father Divine, circa 1940.
On a brisk November day in 1931, police responded to a complaint in Sayville, Long Island that busloads of people were arriving at the house of a man calling himself Father Divine, to hear him preach a message of "love and benevolence" and to partake of a huge, free banquet. Neighbors resented the traffic and the crowds of predominantly African-American worshippers.

Arrested for disturbing the peace, Father Divine proclaimed that his detention was racially motivated and refused to post bail. He was subsequently tried and convicted, and the judge handed down the maximum punishment of one year's imprisonment. Two days later, as Father Divine began to serve his sentence, the judge, an apparently healthy man, suddenly died. Followers of this already esteemed religious leader now had even greater reason to be convinced of his divine power.

Born George Baker in Rockville, Maryland, in 1879, Father Divine was a charismatic African-American spiritual leader who inspired many people, both African-Americans and whites, in the mid-twentieth century. After his release from prison Father Divine moved to Harlem. During the Great Depression tens of thousands of down-and-out Americans joined his Peace Mission. Father Divine helped thousands of followers escape the worst deprivations of the Depression, and he became an influential spokesperson for racial equality.

Father Divine Being Led Away by Police
Father Divine apprehended by police.
In Harlem his organization built up a network of hotels, homes, restaurants, gas stations, and clothing and food stores that provided both services and jobs for grateful members. Father Divine taught his followers to pay off their debts, and to avoid credit purchases and insurance. Collecting donations from believers, Father Divine purchased hotels that he turned into "heavens."

There, members of his movement could find affordable housing and food. Members lived communally in these "heavens" and were encouraged to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, and, in the tradition of many of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sects, sexual activity. This last proscription created conflict with another popular African-American leader of the era, Marcus Garvey. Leader of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Garvey accused Father Divine of encouraging race suicide and said that Father Divine's celibate followers would cause the extermination of African-Americans in one generation. In spite of this conflict with the popular Garvey, Father Divine's fame and popularity only grew.

The Peace Mission proclaimed that there was no longer any need to await the Biblical prophecy of a Second Coming, because God was already on earth in the form of Father Divine. His organization expanded to accommodate a growing number of followers, and he required a large secretarial staff and a cook and chauffeur. The Peace Mission's myriad businesses and properties enabled Father Divine to enjoy a regal lifestyle. Despite the criticisms of detractors who mocked him as "God in a Rolls-Royce," his movement provided aid and assistance to fill his followers' need for both material and spiritual support.
Father Divine, leader of a religious cult, is shown with his wife as he gave the signal to start the "marriage feast of the lamb" which marks the 8th anniversary of his marriage.
Father Divine, rings in the "marriage feast of the lamb," (Mother Divine stands...

In 1943, Father Divine's wife Penny died. Three years later he surprised his followers by marrying one of his secretaries, a White Canadian named Edna Rose Ritchings. She took the name "Sweet Angel," and both she and her new husband declared that their marriage was "spiritual" and chaste. In the mid-1940s, the couple moved to suburban Philadelphia. At a dinner preceding his appearance at a huge Peace Mission rally held at Shibe Park, the baseball park at 21st Street and Lehigh Avenue, Father Divine proclaimed, "I have been called to Philadelphia on this particular mission, not by MY followers alone but stressfully - and especially by a good many of the officials of this City, that they might also convey the Message of this Truth such as I AM conveying, that the inhabitants of this City might be contagionized with the spirit of honesty, competence and truth such as I have established among you." 
Perspective from Southwest.
The Divine Lorraine Hotel, Philadelphia, PA., 2008.

By 1943, the Peace Mission owned and operated three Divine Hotels in Philadelphia. These hotels served both black and white guests, providing an inexpensive, wholesome meal and affordable, clean, and safe accommodations at a time when segregation still reigned in William Penn's "City of Brotherly Love." During their stay, guests had to adopt Father Divine's International Modesty Code. Men and women, even married couples, took rooms on separate floors. Men were not permitted to wear short sleeve shirts and women were not permitted to wear pants or short skirts. Visitors were not allowed in guests' rooms. Tipping was prohibited.

Over the next two decades, Father Divine's public appearances became increasingly rare. He received "the high and the low" in the oak-paneled library of his home called "Woodmont," in Gladwyne. (Today, Woodmont is a national historic landmark.) When he died in 1965, his wife, now called Mother Divine, took over a ministry that is still in existence today.

Father Divine's Peace Mission is a testament to both the legacy of religious utopian movements in Pennsylvania and the changes those movements have undergone. Where earlier utopian societies were almost exclusively white, rural, and isolated, the Peace Mission was a multiracial, urban, and nationwide experiment in Christian living.
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