FATHER DIVINE [GEORGE BAKER] (ca. 1880–1965), New York, founder of the Peace Mission Movement.
Once a raucous religious demonstration landed George Baker before a Long Island judge. The judge fined him $500 and sentenced him to a year in the county jail. Several days later, the judge fell dead from a sudden heart attack. Legend has it that Baker, better known as Father Divine, commented from his jail cell: ‘‘I hated to do it.’’ Accounts of this sort amused and confounded outside observers, but they only added to Divine’s mystique among his followers. To them, these tales illustrated that he was not only a preacher and healer but God incarnate. However, the expensive Duesenberg car and 12-passenger Balank airplane Divine owned suggest he was also a consummate businessman.
Baker’s beginnings are as enigmatic as the folklore surrounding him. Little is known about his background, except that he was the child of sharecroppers, born around 1880 on Hutchinson Island, Georgia, located on the Savannah River. As a young man, his experiences were shaped by a stint on a chain gang, work as a garden laborer, and occasional preaching. It was the latter that proved most formative. ‘‘Apprenticed’’ under several self-styled evangelists, Baker was anointed ‘‘God in Sonship Degree.’’ In 1914, he migrated to Valdosta, Georgia, with a small following. However, trouble with the law led him north—first to Baltimore, then later to New York City—where he settled in Harlem under the name Major J. Divine. Proclaiming himself God, he established a church in the Afro-American district of Brooklyn and called on followers to embrace celibacy, social separation of the sexes, and renunciation of all ‘‘worldly’’ trappings, including money and wealth.