George Baker received the baptism of the Holy Ghost at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles in April 1906. But this participant in the birth of the Pentecostal Movement was not destined to become a powerful evangelist, anointed missionary, or even faithful saint, rather George Baker became the delusional false messiah of the Peace Mission Movement, a spiritual cult that claimed “millions” of adherents from around the world. Amongst the movement’s members, Baker was known only as Father Divine and was hailed as an incarnation of God.
Father Divine was a blatant blasphemer. In 1940, he described the Pentecostal meetings in Los Angeles in his official organ entitled New Day, believing the experience deified him: “I recall many years ago shortly after the HOLY GHOST fell in the demonstration or came into expression in My light of understanding, but when I say fell in the demonstration of speaking in tongues in Los Angeles in nineteen six and after then spread throughout the country” (qtd. in Watts 191). For Baker, the baptism of the Holy Ghost was to become distorted by layers of bad, even weird, theology.
In 1907, George Baker was drastically influenced by a traveling evangelist from Pennsylvania named Samuel Morris. Morris claimed to be the “Father Eternal” and styled himself “Father Jehovia.” Baker, his student, became “The Messenger, God in the Sonship degree”, second in power to Morris. The trinity was completed by the addition of Reverend Bishop Saint John the Vine, formerly John Hickerson of Alexandria, Virginia. Inevitable disagreement led to the dissolution of the group in 1912, and Baker set out on his own (Watts 27-30).
Baker attempted to develop an itinerant evangelistic ministry, but many ministers and churches objected strongly to Baker’s claims that he was God. In 1914, he was ejected from a black Holiness church in Valdosta, Georgia after informing congregants that he was the messiah and was soon to destroy the world. Amazingly, a number of female members believed Baker, and he was installed in a member’s home where he continued to teach his damnable doctrine. The controversial leader was arrested in Valdosta in February and tried for lunacy. Despite his impressive calm during the proceedings, Baker was found guilty of insanity and ordered to leave Valdosta. Through the publicity, however, he gained several more supporters, including some Whites (Watts 38).
Baker had limited success travelling the American South with a few vagabond disciples, but his following grew steadily after setting up a permanent home in New York City in 1917. The group lived communally and pooled their resources. Baker found jobs for his disciples and offered an alternative to the poverty that surrounded them in Harlem.
At this time, Baker adopted the name Reverend Major Jealous Divine, combining the strange elements of his self-perception as the embodiment of God in ecclesiastical, military, and ontological terms. Amongst the devotees, he was simply Father Divine, and the “children” of his family sang: “God is here on earth today. Father Divine is his name” (Watts 47-48).
The Peace Movement grew and developed a strong financial base. In 1919, Father Divine and his wife, Peninniah, known as Mother Divine signed the deed for a property in the resort town of Sayville, Long Island. The small cult was tolerated by its White middle-class neighbors until its swollen numbers coupled with rumors of free love and suspicions about the source of Father Divine’s growing wealth led to complaints. Father Divine was arrested in May 1931 for creating a public nuisance. Four days after his sentencing, the judge died of a heart attack. Vindicated, Father Divine hubristically said: “I hated to do it!” (“Father Divine, Cult Leader, Dies . . . ” 12).
Despite accusations and speculation, Father Divine maintained a strong sense of morality in the home at Sayville. Members were enjoined to abstain from smoking, liquor, cursing, all sexual activity and cosmetics were disallowed. The lavish “Holy Communion” banquets held each evening included a sermon from Father Divine and a pseudo-Pentecostal worship style with dancing, shouting, and speaking in tongues (Watts 64, 72).
The publicity increased awareness of the cult, and many White, educated people began to join the group, accepting Father Divine’s claim to divinity and ascribing to his “New Thought” teachings about visualization, materialization, and the power of positive thinking.
The Kingdom of Peace Movement expanded to include communal properties in many major American cities and branches in Europe, Africa, and Australia. When Father Divine died in 1965, he lived in a lavish 32-room mansion on a 72-acre estate in Gladwyn, Pennsylvania. He held no property in his name and had no “personal” wealth, but lived in opulence. Followers, who believed Father Divine was immortal, posited that he had only “discarded” his body but was still spiritually present with the movement (“Father Divine, Cult Leader, Dies” 12). Father Divine’s many good works and timely message of racial equality and social justice are irreversibly blotched by his Luciferian claims of divinity. Like Simon, the sorcerer of Samaria, Father Divine bewitched people, trading the gift of God that he received at Azusa Street Mission for filthy lucre. What might have been a dynamic Pentecostal ministry degenerated into abysmal abomination, and George Baker’s so-called Kingdom of Peace shall one day be cast into outer darkness by the real Father Divine, Jesus Christ, the Righteous.
“Father Divine, Cult Leader, Dies; Disciples Considered Him God.” New York Times (11 Sept 1965), pp. 1; 12.
Watts, Jill. God, Harlem U.S.A.: the Father Divine Story. Berekeley: Univ of Cal Press, 1992.