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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    A Man Who Claimed to Be God

    The green cedar-shingled two-story house sits on a tree-lined street in Sayville. A bronze plaque screwed into a chiseled piece of white stone just inside a vinyl, white picket fence is the only evidence of the house’s claim to history.

    It was once owned by an African-American man who claimed to be God. His given name was George Baker, but his followers called him Father Divine.

    Divine was born during the late 1800s in Georgia — during a time period where African-Americans were still considered three-fifths of a person.

    Divine started life as a public figure by teaching tolerance and interracial harmony starting in the 1920s — a time when racism was accepted in society. Divine became Sayville’s first African-American resident when he acted on a real estate add selling a house to “colored” people. The prior owner hoped to get back at a neighbor by selling to an African-American — not uncommon for the times.

    A short, petite, balding man hovering around the five foot mark, Divine was usually depicted in photos with a wide smile brimming across his face just under a thin black mustache. Portrayed in old black-and-white photos, he always wore a pressed, neat, three-piece suit accented with a tie and light-colored fedora encircled with a dark-colored ribbon around the brim.

    “Father Divine attracted black ghetto residents in part because he was an inspiring role model for many poor, uneducated blacks seeking evidence that they could improve their lives,” Robert Weisbrot said in his biography “Father Divine Religious Leader.”

    Divine’s religion focused on the here and now rather than Heaven. Believing in Heaven is “seeing if there is a reality in an unknown place,” said Graham Westcott, a Divine follower and groundskeeper of the Macon Street house. “We believe in American politics, integration, and self supporting,” said Mother Divine, Father Divine’s widow in a telephone interview from Philadelphia.

    Divine also preached against vices. His followers could not drink alcohol, smoke or even have relations with members of the opposite sex. Instead, followers dedicated their lives to be “married” to Father Divine.

    One follower remembers a story about a man from Harlem who came to Macon Street drunk one night. The man walked onto the property, stood next to a tree and suddenly dropped down dead.

    Behind the hunter-green main house with white trim, a two-story white barn with two garage doors is still used today when Divine’s followers return several times a year. The barn is where the “brothers,” or male members of the congregation, stay. The “sisters,” or female members, reside in a two-story gray house with a white porch located to the right of the main house. Separate quarters discouraged the temptation for relations between men and women.

    The Sayville house became a “heaven” during the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s for the poor. Every Sunday, six buses and hundreds of cars would line up in front of 72 Macon Street in search of Divine’s banquets of endless food and to hear Divine’s message of preaching peace. If guests tried to pay for the food, Divine refused to take their money. Instead declaring, “God will provide.” This left many wondering just how he paid for the large amounts of food without a salary.

    A skeptical lawyer ventured all the way to Macon Street from Melbourne, Australia, to see for himself just how Divine could afford to feed the droves of believers that came to his modest house. The lawyer later told Westcott, a believer since 1957, that he saw food being manifested in the Divine kitchen for believers to cook. The attorney proceeded to return to Australia and book city hall in Melbourne to preach Divine’s teachings.

    Dedicated followers of Father Divine lived communally in the houses designated for men and woman. They shared income from jobs that Divine helped them achieve through encouragement in exchange for vouching their honesty, domestic expertise and devotion, according to Weisbrot.

    Divine’s word spread. Harlem newspapers noticed their readership increased when articles about Divine were published. Followers on the west coast helped spread the word of Father Divine to new listeners and word quickly spread abroad.

    Westcott recounts a California woman who traveled to Harlem to hear Divine — still uncertain he was, in fact, God. She stood in the back for one of his sermons and couldn’t catch a glimpse of Divine because he did not use a pulpit and he was shorter than the rest of the crowd. Suddenly, Divine rose up and stared directly at the woman. Right then and there she became a believer because in her mind only God could be a mind reader.

    Unexplainable healings also brought followers and curiosity seekers to Macon Street. Westcott recalls one blind man who spent the night on the cement stoop after Divine said there was no room for him to sleep inside. The next morning the man woke up, saw the fence with perfect vision and jumped over the wooden slats screaming praises and singing about his miracle.

    Another unexplainable healing occurred several stoops down. Divine was called in to help a woman from Boston who was dying. The doctor could not save her and she passed away. When Divine entered the room a few minutes later, the woman instantly came back from the grave. Westcott ran into the woman 25 years later and she still declared Father Divine brought her back from the grave.

    “We believe he was God,” said Mother Divine.

    As word of his healings and teachings spread, visitors to Macon Street increased. At the peak of the movement, which Divine titled the Peace Mission Movement, Time magazine reported close to 50,000 members. Westcott believed the number to be closer to the millions. No official records were kept.

    Some residents of Sayville did not appreciate the flocks of people. On the front page of The Suffolk County News for May 6, 1932, under a picture caption stating “Lindbergh Baby Found Dead,” was an equally shocking headline to Divine’s followers, “Rev. Divine is under arrest” with a subtitle reading, “Colored Messiah of Macon St. Indicted by Grand Jury As Public Nuisance.”

    The article, by an unknown author, described Divine “in having disturbed the peace, rest and quietude of his neighbors by boisterous singing and shouting during the late hours of the night.”

    Michael St. John, a Divine follower, offered to go to jail in place of Divine, but the court rejected his plea.

    Before his trial began, Divine applied to the Parole Board for custody of all prisoners on parole from state prisons. He hoped to “make over” the prisoners “in accordance with the spiritual light he would bestow upon them,” according to a News article from May 13, 1932.

    The trail began soon after and witnesses called to testify showed no mercy. A neighbor phoned Divine’s residence one night hoping to stop the noise from a loud party. “A voice I believed to be his replied, ‘Do you know whom you are talking to? This is God himself,'” said Eva Connelly on the witness stand. “I was so mad to think that a mere man thought himself God that I did not care whom I was talking to and I called the police.”

    Supporters of Divine protested in crowds up to 10,000 against his arrest and trial. “He was by now far more than a religious leader; he had become a symbol of black hope and resentment against racial injustice,” according to Weisbrot.

    On May 27, 1932, just one page away from advertisements calling “housewives read this ad” marketing four bars of Palmolive soap for 25 cents each and steel refrigerators for $24.95, read the headline “Jurors Fine Divine Guilty.”

    The first paragraph of the article takes a jab at Father Divine. “If, as many of his followers claim, the Rev. Major J. Divine, Sayville cult leader, can perform miracles, now is the time for him to do his stuff, because he’s in the Nassau County jail
    at Mineola.”

    Three days after being sentenced to one year in jail and a $500 fine, presiding Supreme Court Justice Lewis J. Smith died at age 56. Smith was in good health at dinner the night before.

    Many followers believe Divine was the root cause. “Father’s a live wire,” said Westcott. “It’s like electricity it has the same result, positive or negative.”

    After being released from jail only a few months later, Divine left Sayville for Harlem to continue preaching when tragedy struck. Pinninah, also known as Mother Divine, his first wife, died.

    Not long after her death, Edna Rose Ritchings, a white, 21-year-old from Vancouver, Canada, traveled to Harlem to meet Divine with a message. She was the reincarnation of his first wife’s spirit. The two married the next day.

    He did not let his age deter him from public speaking. “Father Divine, when he spoke, outdid them all,” The Suffolk County News reported after his first appearance in Harlem after jail. “He jumped as high as the microphone, he shouted himself into inarticulation. He promised peace and happiness and food and clothing for all the world.”

    Divine continued to spread the Peace Mission Movement until his death on Sept. 11, 1965. Since the Movement refused to keep records, his age is unknown but according to his obituary in the New York Times, he was about 100 years old and died of lung congestion.

    Although Divine was considered by believers to be immortal, they feel his spirit still lives on. His body is buried in a white, marble mausoleum in Woodmont, Penn., where the mission, still headed by Mother Divine, is still spreading his teachings.

    His followers live in two hotels belonging to the movement where they still live communally. Instead of greeting telephone calls with “Hello,” the mission greets callers with the word “peace.” This is because the word is more positive and harmonious with their teachings instead of a word that is one letter away from hell.

    Divine’s followers feel Divine is the spirit and they are his body. This is why several times a year the entire congregation revisits Macon Street to bring the body all together in the same place. They eat, play recordings of Divine’s sermons and discuss the movement.

    Several followers even attest to sightings of Divine long after his death. One follower, walking down a street in Harlem, clutching an umbrella to shield herself from the rain, claims Divine appeared next to her. “Come under the umbrella out of the rain, Father,” she shouted at him.

    There is still one month left until the reunion at 72 Macon Street, but the house is ready.

    Inside the pistachio-colored walls of the dining room, one round wooden table joins with two rectangular ones. Each table covered with a white linen table cloth. Over 30 place settings of Cherry China are set; each including a small salad plate resting in the center of a larger, dinner plate and accented by a clear glass and silverware. Just waiting for the body and spirit to meet — again.

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