Academic journal article Folklore

"Bringing Perfection in These Different Places": Father Divine's Vernacular Architecture of Intention

Academic journal article Folklore

"Bringing Perfection in These Different Places": Father Divine's Vernacular Architecture of Intention

Article excerpt

Abstract

The Peace Mission Movement, an American intentional religious community founded by the Revd M. J. Divine, also known as "Father Divine," expressed through an intentional use of architecture their own quest for a utopian perfection of consciousness in America. What is especially significant about this expression of perfection is that they did not seek it by building environments of their own creation. Instead, the movement and its leader created a unique religious vernacular architecture not by architectural design, but by a spiritualised appropriation of existing spaces. Through purchasing, restoring, re-using, and preserving many different types of American domestic and commercial structures, Father Divine and his followers developed a theology of material culture and historic preservation that expressed a major theological perspective of their belief system--to spiritualise the material and to materialise the spiritual-all in the service of God and for the transformation of human nature.

Introduction

If one were asked to cite notable examples of religious material culture in the United States, the list would no doubt include the built environments of the American utopian communities cited by Dolores Hayden in her classic study, Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975 (1976). Examining the quest for spiritual perfection expressed in these distinct American religious communities, Hayden includes the utopian architecture of the Shakers of Hancock, Massachusetts; the Mormons of Nauvoo, Illinois; the Fourierists of Phalanx, New Jersey; the Perfectionists of Oneida, New York; the Inspirationists of Amana, Iowa; the Union Colonists of Greeley, Colorado; and the Cooperative Colonists of Llano del Rio, California. These sectarian groups developed models for what they believed to be perfect societies in America, a country understood as destined by God to be a new Eden. [1]

Comprehensive as Hayden's list is, attention needs to be given to an eighth perfectionist American intentional community: the International Peace Mission Movement. The Peace Mission--inspired by their founder and leader, the Revd M. J. Divine, also known as "Father Divine"--expressed through a vernacular architecture their own quest for a utopian perfection of consciousness in America. The recognition, designation, and study of built environments as vernacular architecture by folklife scholars has centred on buildings, artefacts, and landscapes reflecting and sharing traditional conceptions, skills, and aesthetics of a particular community (see Roberts 1972; Upton and Vlach 1986; Glassie 2000). Building typology and construction, however, which some readers may associate with the study of vernacular architecture, is not the focus of this study. This article will emphasise the very act of everyday use that made and continues to make Peace Mission structures "vernacular," that is localised, negotiated, performed, re-created spaces. Buildings are not only artefacts of expressive culture, but important sites for the continuous enactment of culture in everyday life. What is especially significant about the Peace Mission's expression of perfection is that they did not seek perfection by building environments of their own creation, but instead, in the words of Father Divine, they sought to "[bring] perfection" to structures already constructed. The movement created a unique religious vernacular architecture not by architectural design, but by a spiritualised appropriation of existing spaces. Such religious vernacular architecture exemplifies the dynamic nature of all buildings as objects open to the expression of a religious belief system.

Through purchasing, restoring, re-using, and preserving many different types of American architecture, Father Divine and his followers developed a theology of material culture and historic preservation that expressed a major theological perspective of their belief system--to spiritualise the material and to materialise the spiritual--all in the service of God and for the transformation of human nature. …

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