Heaven Was a Place in Harlem

The radical tableside evangelism of Father Divine — equal parts holy man, charlatan, civil rights leader, and wildly successful restaurateur

A Holy Banquet

The quiet town of Sayville, New York, had its world turned upside down in October 1919, when a mysterious couple purchased a large house on Macon Street. The buyers, the first African-American homeowners in the town, turned out to be spiritual leaders who called themselves Father and Mother Divine. Large groups of people — racially diverse, but mostly women — could be seen coming in and out of the home for dinner, inspiring salacious rumors in the majority-white Long Island town. The so-called “Holy Communion Banquets” doubled as worship services, where attendees would shout and sing praises to Father Divine, who they thought was God. Neighbors, on the other hand, thought he was a problem.

The Sayville community spent nearly four years trying, but failing, to oust Divine and his rowdy flock. Finally, during one of Divine’s worship banquets in November 1931, police raided his home and arrested him, along with 30 of his followers, on noise and nuisance charges.

The case was brought to Justice Lewis J. Smith, who sentenced Divine to a year in prison. But four days after the sentencing, the 55-year-old judge died of a sudden heart attack. When journalists asked for Divine’s reaction, his brazen response made headlines, and helped turn the cult leader into a media phenomenon: “I hated to do it,” he reportedly said.

Divine appealed the late Judge Smith’s sentence and won; the appellate court overturned the conviction and he was released from jail. His followers had, in their eyes, just witnessed proof of their leader’s divine power. The frenzy over the judge’s death and Divine’s release was covered in newspapers from New York to Baltimore, and his congregation, the International Peace Mission, leapt into the public consciousness.

For decades to come, Divine and the Peace Mission were at the center of controversies, contradictions, and ironies. Divine was one of the best-known spiritual figures of his time, but he had eccentric beliefs and a mysterious past, and many considered him little more than a kook. He was accused of breaking up families to increase his following, yet Divine and the Peace Mission also opened a network of hotels, farms, grocery stores, and restaurants that fed thousands of ordinary Americans throughout the Great Depression. The movement peaked during an era of Ku Klux Klan lynchings and Jim Crow segregation in the South, yet Divine’s numerous followers, black and white, worshipped him as a god. Divine refused to acknowledge the notion of race, but historians have argued that his vocal opposition to segregation made him a link between Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr. Father Divine was equal parts holy man, charlatan, civil rights leader, and wildly successful restaurateur. The key to his movement’s influence and longevity could be found in the bit that started it all — food.

Father Divine followers congregate at a Peace Mission location in New York City Getty Images

In The Beginning...

During the International Peace Mission’s heyday — beginning around 1932 and lasting for the better part of three decades — the group’s membership base is conservatively estimated to have numbered in the hundreds of thousands. (It was against Peace Mission policy to formally track membership figures, so concrete numbers are nonexistent.) Articles from the 1930s counted far-flung branches of Divine’s movement in Australia, Switzerland, and Panama. But the movement was strongest in Harlem and then in Philadelphia, where its headquarters have been based since the early 1940s.

Wherever the Peace Mission could be found, so could the Holy Communion Banquets. Hundreds — sometimes thousands — of members and curious visitors packed ballrooms and dining halls at Peace Mission locations to feast while listening to Divine’s speeches, either live or via audio recording. When Divine was present, he’d make a grand entrance with his wife, Mother Divine, before taking his place at the head of the table. (Divine married twice, first in the 1910s, to a follower, Peninnah, although her legal name and the exact date of their union is unknown. After her death in 1943, Divine married another follower, Edna Rose Ritchings. Within the movement, both were known as Mother Divine.) As dishes like candied sweet potatoes, buttered baby carrots, and seafood platters made their way down the table, he’d “bless” each one by shoving a serving spoon in it and passing the plates along to singing crowds. It was, by design, pure spectacle.

Food and feasts have long served as connection points for religious movements, which associate feeding the needy with good works that find favor with God. The Loving Hut vegan restaurant chain is owned by Vietnamese spiritual guru Ching Hai, who preaches a form of meditation called Quan Yin. Hare Krishna temples open their in-house vegetarian cafes for free public “love feasts” every Sunday. In the New Testament, Jesus miraculously feeds 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The Eucharist, the ritual at the center of the Catholic mass, is based on the story of Jesus’s “Last Supper.” The Passover Seder in Judaism includes the invocation, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

The Peace Mission’s banquets served as a riff on the Eucharist and Christian communion, but the group also used food as a form of evangelism. For Divine and the Peace Mission — like many religious movements before them — the stomach was the route to salvation. Amid the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, Jim Crow segregation in the South, and de facto segregation in the North, Peace Mission members ate for free and in abundance at the banquets. Peace Mission followers argued that the bounty was not merely a gesture of Divine’s generosity, but a tangible gift from the man they called God. Rejecting the mainstream Christian “heaven in the sky” belief, the Peace Mission argued that heaven was accessible here on Earth, and Divine’s bounty was the literal proof in the pudding, according to Sylvester Johnson, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities and an expert in African-American religious history. “They used the banquets as evidence that the Mission was bringing salvation,” Johnson said. “That salvation was for the here and now and not just something that you had to get after you die.”

The banquets became a cornerstone in the popular movement and wound up serving as the settings for many of the group’s highest-profile moments. It was during a Peace Mission banquet in June 1971, six years after Divine’s death, that Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple cult, and 200 of his followers dined with members of the Peace Mission. During the dinner, Jones stood up and declared that he was Father Divine’s reincarnation and would be taking over the Mission. Divine’s widow, the second Mother Divine, expelled Jones and his followers from the banquet, then banned him from the Peace Mission outright. Seven years later, Jones orchestrated the infamous Jonestown Massacre, the murder-suicide of more than 900 of his followers using a mix of cyanide and other poisons dissolved into grape Flavor Aid punch.

The banquets were also the source of taboo-defying social gatherings and fellowship between races that prior to the civil rights movement could be considered nothing short of revolutionary, according to Johnson. “Here is a multiracial movement that is led by what outsiders would view as a black man,” Johnson said, noting that people within the movement spurned the notion of race. “He was leading this movement in which people have financial security. They had food security, they had housing security — during the Great Depression, in the city. That’s striking.”

A large group sits around a dining table with Father Divine and his first wife, Peninnah, also known as Mother Divine, in undated photo Getty Images
March of Time newsreel showing busloads of Father Divine followers packing a Harlem-area "heaven" in 1936 Getty Images

The Use of Restaurants

No one knows exactly when or where Father Divine was born, or even what his real name was; he presented himself as having simply manifested from heaven. When asked for his age, he’d say he didn’t know. Historians have surmised that Divine was born in poverty around 1879 in Rockville, Maryland, and that he was named George Baker — possibly after his father, though in other accounts his father’s name may have been Joseph Baker. Throughout his life in the public sphere, Divine declined to confirm these details, claiming that “God has no mother.” What scholars know is that around 1912, he began travelling and preaching in the South, gradually refining his god-like persona. He experimented with various names that depicted him as holy figure, including “The Messenger,” Major J. Devine, and Major Jealous Divine (alluding to the jealousy of the biblical God), before finally settling on Father Divine.

The weekly worship banquets became enshrined as the focal point of Divine’s movement, with Divine and his wife lavishing food upon their 30 or so followers. In New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration, Princeton University religion scholar Judith Weisenfeld writes that the couple also ran an employment agency from the home to help their members find jobs, housing, and food. The congregants showed their appreciation by singing it to Divine. By the early 1930s, these praise gatherings had grown popular and loud enough to create the noise disturbances that led to Divine’s arrest, conviction, and the remark about striking dead the judge who’d sentenced him. After Divine’s conviction was overturned, he became famous. “It allowed the media to publicize his claims,” Johnson said, adding that even though the media dismissed Divine’s more unusual beliefs, “controversy sells.”

Emboldened by the growing interest, Divine moved his headquarters to Harlem in 1933. The Peace Mission’s arrival in New York City dovetailed with the waning years of the Harlem Renaissance and the ongoing Great Migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to cities in the North, Midwest, and West. This timing proved fruitful for Divine and his burgeoning movement. Urban black communities were especially open to experimenting with religious identity, according to Weisenfeld, as many people rejected traditional forms of Christianity that had been passed on through slavery. Instead, they sought Afrocentric forms of worship and turned to black religions like Divine’s International Peace Mission, the Nation of Islam, and other groups such as the Moorish Science Temple, the Shakers, and the Ethiopian Hebrews.

The Peace Mission presented itself as a form of evangelical Christianity. It practiced belief in the Christian Bible and its core teachings: that Jesus Christ died for all people and that everyone should live moral and righteous lives. Their beliefs differed from mainstream Christianity in the claims that Divine was God in the flesh, and that he had come to earth to make heaven accessible in the here and now. The group also preached celibacy and segregating sexes in all its properties, and rejected the existence of race, meaning members did not see Divine or themselves as white, black, or any other race.

“We see lots of religious movements that are raising questions about religious orientation and racial identity,” Weisenfeld said in an interview. “The cultural movements, political movements, religious movements, social movements of the Great Migration are all part of a period of searching for different ways of thinking about collective identity.”

For many Peace Mission believers, creating a new collective identity meant sacrificing their old lives. Divine’s followers took on new names that often contained Biblical allusions, like Simon Peter, or expressed themes of nature and peace, like Sunshine Satisfied and Venus Star. The staunchest devotees lived in the movement-owned compounds called “heavens.” Neither smoking and drinking nor the “undue mixing of the sexes” was allowed on Mission property. Celibacy was required and marriage was discouraged — even though Divine would eventually marry twice.

Many members, most of whom were women, walked out on their families to follow Divine, facing public scrutiny. “The husbands of these women actually instigated a cultural distance against Father Divine,” Johnson said. “[They claimed] he was a religious fraud and that he was breaking up their families.”

In addition to the criticism of members who abandoned their previous lives to follow Divine, the Mission generated no shortage of other scandals and salacious allegations. Publications like the New York Times and New York Evening Journal tracked Divine’s never-ending drama, including the in-fighting and the numerous lawsuits, arrests, and accusations circling the cult.

The year 1937 was particularly difficult for the group. In April, a man was stabbed with an ice pick while his friend, a process server, tried to deliver a summons to Divine at a Harlem Peace Mission location on behalf of an ex-member who wanted money that she had given to the Mission returned. The man was sent to the hospital with a near-fatal stab wound to the stomach, the New York Times reported. That same day, another high-ranking member named Faithful Mary argued with Divine over money. She later defected, taking over a Peace Mission “heaven” compound in her name. Faithful Mary, whose legal name was Viola Wilson, later published an expose called “God”: He’s Just a Natural Man, alleging that she and Divine had a sexual relationship and that his movement was a scam to support his lavish lifestyle. In May, a couple who had left the group over its gender-separation policy sued Divine after he refused to return the money they’d given him and the Mission upon joining. The couple won the lawsuit but never received their settlement money. When Divine moved the Peace Mission headquarters from Harlem to Philadelphia in 1942, a primary reason for the decision was the need to evade legal entanglements within New York City’s jurisdiction.

Cooks prepare dinner in a Peace Mission-owned resturant in 1939 Getty Images
March of Time newsreel showing Father Divine speaking to followers at dinner table in 1938 Getty Images

Paving the Way for Dr. King

In spite of criticism, the Peace Mission attempted to captivate non-members with acts of service and outreach in the form of enterprise. An internal cooperative within the Peace Mission pooled finances to build and operate dozens of hotels, laundromats, grocery stores, and restaurants, all called “heavens,” another reference to the group’s “heaven on earth” tenet. The restaurant heavens were open to the public, with menus featuring hearty meals for as little as 10 cents. Members encouraged diners to indulge in the extravagant spreads. Menus from the ’60s included fried Louisiana Gulf shrimp and broiled tender lamb-ettes with mint jelly, both of which cost $2.50. Jumbo Australian lobster tail went for $3.25. A bowl of raspberries cost 20 cents, while 23 cents would buy a chef’s salad.

The wide-ranging selections were meant to attract the broadest possible group of non-members, while reflecting the values of the individuals preparing them, Weisenfeld said. “In contrast to a movement like the Nation of Islam, where the dietary practices were about rejecting the foodways of slavery, Father Divine’s theology embraced Southern black foodways and embraced eating a lot,” Weisenfeld said. “In one way, Father Divine provided the food, but I actually think it’s much more accurate to say he didn’t do anything except provide the occasion for it, and it was members’ labor and money and cooking that made the banquet.”

Although the restaurants were staffed by devotees who took vows of celibacy, lived in Peace Mission compounds, and believed Father Divine to be God, they operated pretty much like any other full-service eatery, with a few exceptions. Most of the restaurants were licensed, although some struggled to obtain the proper paperwork due to members’ insistence on applying under Peace Mission names like Venus Star. For average diners, the most notable difference between Peace Mission restaurants and other eateries may have been the owners’ ban on tipping, a policy that even today would be ahead of its time. Divine condemned the social imbalances inherent in tipping, which became widespread in the early 1900s as a way for employers to avoid paying fair wages to their mostly black and immigrant service workers.

In the official Peace Mission bylaws, Divine declared: “In restaurants and in public places the people have accustomed themselves to giving tips to the employees. It was because of the employees not being paid, in a great measure, and on the other hand it was because of selfishness among the employees, as well also as among the employers. ... I have requested that there would be not tip taking, and the employees would not have an occasion to be bribed by the influence and the custom of receiving and taking and requesting tips with the hope of getting something for nothing.”

There were other progressive policies in place at Peace Mission restaurants. Most notably, the restaurants, like the organization that ran them and the banquets that inspired them, were all integrated. Black customers sat next to and ate from the same serving plates as white diners — a subversive policy during the Jim Crow era.

A parade of Father Divine supporters protest rent prices in Harlem, 1936 Getty Images
March of Time newsreel showing Father Divine political rally in 1936 Getty Images

A Figure Too Controversial?

Despite his rejection of race as a concept, Divine remained committed to social justice causes and championed them from the dining table. In addition to promoting integration, he used the feasts to preach against lynching, along with drafting petitions and organizing marches in opposition to the practice. The height of the group’s activism began over 20 years before Martin Luther King’s rise to national prominence, which may explain why Divine’s role in the civil rights narrative has largely been forgotten.

The 2017 documentary Father’s Kingdom argues that Divine was the “link between Martin Luther King Jr. and Marcus Garvey,” citing Divine’s anti-lynching efforts, his vocal opposition to war, and his mandate for all Peace Mission followers to vote. Yet Garvey and King have remained marquee names while Divine has faded in the public’s memory, partly because Divine never embraced the title of “civil rights leader.” His rejection of race also made him difficult to categorize — how could he both fight for black Americans’ rights and preach that there was no such thing as a difference between black and white people?

“To the extent that people took him seriously as a social-political figure was because he actually had a political program that involved anti-lynching, racial integration, disarmament, peace, and things like that,” Weisenfeld said. But as the more organized civil rights movement gained momentum, Divine’s influence faded. “The rise of the modern civil rights movement, in some ways, can account for the declining prominence of Divine.”

Divine better fit the classic mold of a cult leader, from his enigmatic past to his compounds of zealous followers to his Messianic insinuations. Although the International Peace Mission did not collect offerings, and Divine claimed to own nothing, he often wore expensive suits and traveled in limousines. These luxuries were apparently paid for by the Mission or its members, and they were often cited in critical press coverage of Divine. Along with the Peace Mission’s social advocacy, the group pushed for peculiar policies like banning the word “hello” because it included the word “hell,” and requiring doctors to guarantee they could cure patients or else be held responsible for medical-related deaths. In 1946, three years after the death of his first wife, Divine married his blonde, 21-year-old Canadian secretary, Edna Rose Ritchings. He announced the relationship to followers only after a secret ceremony, introducing Ritchings as his virgin bride, the reincarnation of Mother Divine. The apparent inconsistencies between Divine’s behavior and his teaching kept outsiders from taking him seriously.

Yet much of Divine’s flock stayed faithful throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. They continued to attend weekly communion banquets and supported the Mission’s political advocacy. Thousands of Peace Mission devotees marched in parades, signed petitions, and picketed. When Divine died in 1965, however, the movement effectively died with him, even though a dwindling number of followers continued to believe that Father Divine’s presence never left them and chose to follow the second Mother Divine, who took over leadership of the group. Without its star, though, the movement lost its intrigue. “They were well-known because of the media,” Johnson said, adding that after Divine’s death, “basically, the novelty wore off.”

As membership dropped, the restaurants and most other properties were sold. The Keyflower Dining Room in Philadelphia, the last Peace Mission-owned restaurant, was closed in 2006. These days, the movement retains its headquarters at the Woodmont mansion, a historic landmark in suburban Philadelphia where roughly 20 members still live, as well as the Circle Mission in Philly proper, and a location in Sayville. The Woodmont campus offers public tours and is home to a museum and library to preserve Divine’s memory.

The communion banquets continue, though. Every Sunday, the small group of remaining devotees set a table at the Woodmont estate, with places for themselves, Father Divine, and Mother Divine. They serve Father Divine first, even though he died 53 years ago. They sing to him, pray to him, and speak to him as if he’s there, because they believe he is. Mother Divine attended the meals until her death in 2017. Nevertheless, the faithful, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s, carry out the ritual, serving and speaking to her, too.

Woodmont’s archivist, Christopher Stewart, who lives at the campus and curates the library and museum, said that Divine’s flock upholds these traditions as an act of faith. “Most followers feel that whatever happens, it’s God’s will,” he said, referring to Father Divine. “They’re not upset that there’s not hundreds of people here. They believe that whatever’s going on is what Father wants. ... So the spirit of it is definitely going to go on.”

Father Divine (center) shaking hands with religious leader Prophet James F. Jones (left) | Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture CollectionPeter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Father Divine followers congregate at a Peace Mission location in New York City
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Special thanks Samantha Mason, Mariya Pylayev, and Jill Watts