(E. Black is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for this site may be found here.)
In the mid 1950’s, an up-and-coming white Christian minister with an avowedly interracial ministry from the American Midwest made a trip Philadelphia to visit an Afro-American octogenarian leader of a decades-old interracial urban commune which was the central headquarters of the International Peace Mission movement. The white minister’s name was Rev. James Warren Jones. The black man, some 60 years his senior, was George Baker Jr., better known as Father Divine.
Externally the United States of the period was at the center of postwar global dominance and responsibilities, facing off against a global counterforce of the USSR, and the Socialist/Marxist-Leninist anti-colonial revolutionary countries and movements which it organized and dominated. Internally, the image of a neat, orderly, prosperous – and white – suburb seemed to represent America, with its thriving middle class of fathers with good jobs, and perfectly coiffe and manicured wives at home with every modern convenience. But the image was challenged by the persistent undertow of America’s dirty little secret: Racism.
It was this persistent dichotomatic dissonance, the reality of a skin-based privilege underlying a society that proclaimed itself as the historic pinnacle of freedom, liberty and unity in equality for people in the collective “American” psyche, that gave rise to the social space that individuals like George Baker Jr. and Jim Jones would occupy.
On the face of it, the two interracialist religious leaders couldn’t have been more different. One – although by then in decline – was a notorious, wealthy, elderly, established, black leader. The other, much less known, was young, white and still seeking his footing. One was from the distant world of the post-Civil War South, the son of formerly enslaved Africans. The other was the son of a white World War I veteran who – according to Jones – had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. These obvious ethnic and generational differences, as well as the heyday gap of 40 years between the respective organizations they led – the Peace Mission of the 1930’s and Peoples Temple of the 1970’s – tend to obscure the deep personal, ideological and uncanny similarities between these two men and their movements. The purpose of this article is to look at their lives and careers side by side, and see what the similarities and differences between them might mean.
The early years of the lives of both men were filled with irony, disappointment, humiliation, and rejection. George Baker Jr. was born in 1879, the fourth child and first son of ex-slave George Baker and ex-slave Nancy (like the majority of her fellow enslaved Africans, Nancy’s surname was unknown; after the Civil War she took the name “Smith”). One more child, George’s brother, Milford, would be born to the couple later. Though his mom was born at a place named Mt. Pleasant, in Rockville, Maryland, life for George Jr. was anything but pleasant. Reaching only 5 feet 2 inches as an adult, little George was perennially teased for his small stature as a child also had to contend with the fact that when his morbidly obese mom died in 1897 during George’s teenage years, she was remembered in the Montgomery County Sentinel as, “without doubt, the largest woman in the county, if not the state.”
For young Jim Jones, born an only child on May 13, 1931, in rural Indiana, to James Thurman Jones and Lynetta Putnam Jones, life also was no bed of roses. Though doting and close to his mom throughout his life, Jim characterized his father as an avid racist. Other accounts suggest James Thurman was emotionally remote from his little boy. Some who remember “Jimba” from his early years characterized him as a “fouled-mouth Dennis the Menace” type character, more attuned to his retinue of pet cats, dogs, birds, and older church woman than he was to children his own age, who tended to reject him. Some have wondered if he was sexually abused as a child. If so, though rarely discussed openly during the 1930’s, this would not have been an uncommon occurrence for unprotected and poorly supervised youths. As an adult he would recount that he was born on the wrong side of the tracks, and that he was considered white trash.
Both George and Jim, facing uncomfortable personal and family realities, were attracted to the world of religious beliefs early on. Young George’s religious influences were the Roman Catholicism of his mother, the Quakers in Montgomery County, and the Methodist and Baptist churches of the larger black community. Jim, though having no particular sectarian training at home, developed emotional ties as a youth with deeply religious surrogate moms who exposed him early on to the local Quakers, the Church of the Nazarene and Pentecostalism.
Both men as young adults set off to leave the misery, poverty, humiliations and agonies of their childhoods far behind them. Young George, moved to the “City” (Baltimore) where he lived communally with acquaintances from back home, supported himself by doing odd jobs such as gardening for rich whites. He joined a storefront Baptist church and taught Sunday school there, but he also started his own itinerant preaching on street corners. Young Jim also did some itinerant street preaching in black neighborhoods in larger towns near his home in Indiana. He toyed with the idea of being a nurse - and worked at a hospital long enough to meet and marry a woman five years his senior – but then decided to become a Methodist minister. Though both young men hooked up with conventional USA protestant denominations – young George as a Baptist, and young Jim as a Methodist – neither individual was to be conventional.
Young George was interested in the “New Thought” movement of the turn of the century, an interest that would be endure throughout his life. The newly-born Pentecostal movement in Los Angeles, California of 1907 also got his attention and informed his early religious understanding. Young Jim Jones, coming of age in the 1940’s and the beginnings of the Cold War, was interested in Marxism and was impressed with the Communist Party USA. Both men embraced interracialism and social justice, although Jones’ views seemed to be more politically-based at the outset than were Baker’s.
The life-changing experience for Baker that led to his “Divinity” came when he met and was converted by Samuel Morris, a tall light-skinned black man who eschewed racial categorization. Morris taught that God was in every person, and that he himself was the reincarnation of the Father Eternal, God, present and in body, come to gather like minded souls in a contemporary rebirth of the kingdom of God on earth. Fully accepting this new teaching, George left his “Baptist version” and was reborn as the “messenger of God,” continuing his street preaching now as a disciple of Samuel Morris, aka Father Jehovia. George also lived communally with Father Jehovia in what was now a house church/Family. With this formation, a new religious movement, eclectic in its expressions and interest, but singular in its core convictions, was born. Years later a schism would occur in this movement, and George would go on to established himself as “Father” and “God” of his own religious “Family” – the Peace Mission Movement.
Interestingly until the end of his life, George Baker Jr. would go to great lengths to deny any “mortal” narration of his birth and early life. While living, developing, expanding and coming to embody the teachings of Father Jehovia, the newly-incarnated Rev Major Jealous Devine, aka Father Divine, would never again mention either his teacher’s name or his own birth name. In this he was emulating Samuel Morris himself, who had turned his back on and denied a comfortable post-Civil War northern black life, complete with good employment and young family, to take on a new identity and a new “family” based on his newly expressed “Personified God Consciousness.”
It was this elderly, mortal origin-denying “Personified God Consciousness” man that the young Jim Jones would visit at his rural Philadelphia castle-like home. George Baker Jr. had long since escaped the confines of his obscure and impoverished past; as Father Divine, he had fame, recognition, millions of dollars, a young blonde trophy wife, a retinue of mostly young female secretaries - both black and white – at his beck and call, and an interracial following of thousands who called him “God in a body” and lived their lives acting upon that belief.
Superficially different, but spiritually alike, these two individuals would influence each other in profound ways. For Father Divine, Jim Jones would offer frank discussions on matters none of his other admirers would ever dare bring up, like Father’s eventual physical death and the need for succession in a physically declining movement. Jim Jones’ adoption of many ethnically-different children would prompt the octogenarian Divine to adopt his own Greek and Mexican mixed son. Finally, by his own example as a handsome, youthful interracialist leader with a mind similar to his own, Jim Jones offered the elderly Father Divine the glimpse that his radical, interracial movement centered around a “God in a body,” the Peace Mission could – and would – “reincarnate,” just as he had long taught it would, this time as Peoples Temple under “Father” Jones.
For Jim Jones, Father Divine’s decades-long example of a successful militant, interracial, communalist, intentional community, right in the midst of racist, individualistic, segregated and anti-communist America of the 1950’s was a vision fulfilled. Jim Jones felt “at home” at the Peace Mission, and Father Divine convinced the young minister that he too was a “God in a body,” just as he himself had been convinced of such by Father Jehovia half a century earlier. Jim Jones not only openly recognized “God” in the Peace Mission of Father Divine, he pledged his life for its defense.
Due to the generational and racial differences of the two “Divine” leaders, some interesting stylistic juxtapositions did appear, though at core the two were philosophically the same. As an impoverished, physically small son of black former slaves, George Baker Jr. in his persona as Father Divine visually demonstrated success with obvious displays of wealth, i.e. large, well furnished homes, expensive cars, cloths and jewelry and bountiful feasts. He often declared he was not “a ‘N’ (negro) nor representing a ‘C’ (colored) people.” He would berate photographers for taking pictures of him that made him look “ugly” ( i.e., dark), and employed his own in-house photographers to lighten his official portraits. Though ostensibly celibate, he had a preference for tall, light-skinned black women and young, tall, slender white women. It is also possible that he may have had occasional dalliances with the few white young men of his secretarial staff. All in all, his preferences, personal as well as presentational, characterized the age he grew up in, one that equated success and attractiveness with whiteness.
Jim Jones, on the other hand, having grown up white, but poor, saw no existential positives in having white skin per se and would proclaim himself “mixed,” “Indian” and at times “black,” even dressing in dashikis and other African-inspired garb, while encouraging his white followers who could do so to wear their hair in Afro styles. His homes, clothes and personal furnishings were modest, and he counseled his followers to be the same way. Jim did criticize Father Divine’s materially pretentious lifestyle, but tended to blame Divine’s secretarial staff, and especially Father Divine’s wife, Mother Divine, not Father Divine. Still, despite the differences in background, life experiences, and approaches to personal wealth, the two men shared an uncompromising concern about the health and material well-being of their followers.
Both men lead collectivist, communal interracial movements – Divine’s Peace Mission and Jones’ Peoples Temple – during times when such groups were viewed as secret churches of American political communism in their respective heydays. Both drew strict boundaries of appropriate behaviors around their core ideals. And both men could be apoplectically furious and threatening towards apostate members, their own unbelieving relatives, and those they perceived as “enemies,” and extreme in their reactions to situations or individuals they felt threatened them or their movements.
Both, then, were highly and acutely sensitive men whose youths and prior understandings about the world – how things ought to and could be – were profoundly impacted by individuals who inspired, encouraged and articulated their inner suspicions that they were “special ones.” For George Baker Jr. it was his encounter with Samuel Morris in his persona as Father Jehovia that transformed the short, young son of former slaves into Father Divine; for the young Jim Jones, it was his encounter with Father Divine that set him firmly on course to be “Father” Jones aka “God in a body” reincarnated.
As events unfolded, Jim Jones’ carefully-laid plan to become Father Divine’s successor was thwarted by his widow. The once vibrant, militant Peace Mission’s slow decline into obscurity and eventual extinction, a process that had begun prior to Divine’s death, was not reversed by the ascension of Mother Divine as leader, but rather continues as of this writing.
Peoples Temple in the 1970’s trod the same paths that the Peace Mission had blazed and pioneered in the 1930’s. The two movements got much of the same notoriety and resistance from apostates, defectors, lawsuits and political opponents. But it was Peoples Temple that took the collectivist theme to a tragic finality on November 18, 1978, rather than being separated by enemies.
What Might This All Mean?
Father is God and we are blessed
Stanza from a popular hymn song in both the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple
At the beginning of his new movement in the early 20th century, Samuel Morris in the persona of Father Jehovia served as a guest preacher in traditional Christians churches. He was often physically attacked after he would stand at the pulpit, turn away from the Bible on the lectern, look up dramatically at the ceiling, and shout “I AM God!” Some 70 years later, Jim Jones would be ridiculed by detractors as a Bible-tossing and stomping atheist, deceptively posing as God. Yet it was, Father Divine – Morris’ disciple and Jim Jones’ mentor – who best summarized the approach and purpose of all three: “Because your god would not feed the people, I came and I am feeding them. Because your god kept such as you segregated and discriminated, I came and I am unifying all nations together. That is why I came, because I did not believe in your god.”
All three taught that they were bodily incarnations of the true God – not the false, mythical “Sky God” of the traditional versions – and that this “God” was principle, and that that principle was eternal and divine. This very same “Divine principle” could be – and must be – personified, embodied, reincarnated and perfected in others. It was this gospel they preached, the gospel of the God/principle of Justice, equality, and to each according to his needs. When this happened, all three said, when this “God” was perfectly embodied by everyone, recognized and lived in the conscious recognition of its presence by everyone, all artificial divisions of gender, race and unequal distribution of wealth among humans would vanish. Such a state of universal divine consciousness would be the fulfillment of Father Jehovia’s “Kingdom of God,” Father Divine’s “Righteous Government,” and Jim Jones’ “Divine Socialism.” Utopia would not longer be a dream, but a tangible and experienced reality. But until that happened universally, “God” – “Principle” – would have to be reincarnated in worthy individuals as “samples and examples” for the rest. With this mindset, in ways both preeminently rational and seemingly strange, on a path filled with both brilliance and absurdities, innovations and contradictions, triumphs and appalling tragedies, George Baker Jr. and Jim Jones acted. They acted by pointing out the ugly extremes of the daily dehumanizing racism, sexism and unfairness of the world that they were born in. They acted by joining and fathering utopian movements that set the bar for the ultimate remedy of these social ills at a high impossible level.
Regardless of how unorthodox,”radical” and/or tragic the lives of these men and their movements turned out to be, there was – and still is – something objectively significant that they accomplished as vanguard and “extremist” leaders to openly confront, challenge and transform deeply racist, sexist and economic injustices in 20th century US society.
Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1988. Revised ed. titled Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown, 2003.
Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1987, 2004.
Harris, Sara. Father Divine: Holy Husband. New York: Doubleday, 1953.
Mabee, Carleton. Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2008.
Miller, Timothy. Father Divine: A General Overview. Paper presented at CESNUR conference, Bryn Athyn, Penn., 1999. Available at http://www.cesnur.org/testi/bryn/br_miller.htm.
Mills, Jeannie. Six Years with God: Life Inside Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. New York: A&W Publishers, 1979.
Moore, Rebecca, Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2009.
Orsot-Grubbs, B. Alethia. “Together We Stood, Divided We Fell.” In The Need for a Second Look at Jonestown, ed. Rebecca Moore and Fielding M. McGehee, III. Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989. Also available here.
Rose, Steve. Jesus and Jim Jones. New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1979.
Watts, Jill. God, Harlem, USA. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Weisbrot, Robert. Father Divine. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.
Wooden, Kenneth. The Children of Jonestown. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
 This was the first of many such treks or pilgrimages Jim Jones would make to the Peace Mission over the next 20 years. He would later print a proselytizing explanatory pamphlet “Pastor Jones meets Rev. M.J. Divine, better known as Father Divine” defending and explaining his forays into and associations with the “marginalized” and” heterodox” Peace Mission and its “blasphemous ” leader Father Divine to the wider evangelical protestant charismatic community.
 Father Divine’s reluctance to talk about his “mortal” origins is duly noted by all his major biographers, and it was the pioneering work of Jill Watts in God, Harlem, USA that first provided documented evidence of his origins for the academic community.
 Jim Jones’ testimonials at Peace Mission communal banquet table can be found in the Peace Mission’s periodical (now defunct) “The New Day” of Aug 2, 1958, pp. 19 and 21. See also the Peoples Temple pamphlet “Pastor Jones Meets Rev. M.J. Divine.”
 On Father Divine as “White,” see Sara Harris, Father Divine: Holy Husband, pp.172-173.
 On the undercurrent of sexual attraction, tension and possible homosexuality in the anti-sex, pro-celibate Peace Mission, see Harris, Chapters 8, 20 and 21.
 On Jim Jones as “Black” see David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide, p.71.
 An excellent synopsis of Father Divine’s relations to American communism of the 1930’s can be found in Robert Weisbort, Father Divine, pp. 145-153. Also see Harris, pp. 189-195. On Jim Jones as “communist” see “Jim Jones.”
 For a brief overview of the combined and related careers of Father Jehovia, Father Divine and Jim Jones, see E. Black, “The 3 Virtual Intentional Communities Of God In A Body In Real Time (1898-2008).”
 Although the response was almost universally negative, Father Jehovia did gain one important convert with this tactic: the young George Baker Jr.