Divine, Father

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Divine, Father

Father Divine, c.1882–1965, African-American religious leader, founder of the Peace Mission movement, b. probably near Savannah, Ga. and named George Baker. After preaching in the South, he moved to Harlem (1915) in New York City, became one of the neighborhood's biggest landlords, acquired wealth through other businesses, including restaurants and grocery stores, and began styling himself Major M. J. Divine, later Father Divine. Although once dismissed as a cult leader, he built the largest religious movement in northern ghettos during the Great Depression. His role as an early civil-rights activist—he led antilynching campaigns, instituted economic cooperatives, and organized political action against racial discrimination—has come to be more appreciated. The movement spread beyond New York City to other places in the United States and abroad, sometimes after the group sent whites to purchase property in segregated areas. During the 1940s, his health and influence declined, but his movement symbolized the progressive spirit in the black church and helped define the church's active role in the civil-rights movement.

See S. Harris, Father Divine (rev. ed. 1971); K. E. Burnham, God Comes to America (1979); R. Weisbrot, Father Divine (1984); J. Watts, God, Harlem U.S.A. (1992).

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