(E. Black is a regular contributor to this site. Her full collection of articles may be found here.)
Introduction: A Question of Terms and Perspective
This paper is about two churches whose heyday was in the recent past and who are known much more for their politics then their religious teachings. One, the defunct Peoples Temple, founded and led by the Rev. Jim Jones, is seen by many as a Communist group that masqueraded as a church.[i] The other church is the Peace Mission Church which grew out of the 1930s ministry of Father Divine and which in turn has been characterized, by some, as a forerunner of the American Civil Rights movement.[ii]
Wikipedia describes Jim Jones as an American atheist and Communist.[iii] Yet Peoples Temple was an independent congregation in the larger Christian Church, Disciples of Christ denomination.[iv] Jones was also the young Christian minister with whom Father Divine communed in the last decade of his life.[v]
Father Divine’s controversial Peace Mission marched in the streets with the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) during the 1930s against racism, fascism and war.[vi] Peace Mission members carried no crucifixes, bibles, pictures of Jesus or any other type of church paraphernalia when they marched. Instead they bore signs and placards of political protest along with one proclaiming allegiance to Father Divine as God. Yet paradoxically Father Divine, who has been characterized by a major biographer as “a utopian social ideologue with communist tendencies” was also credited with many anti-Communist statements during the Cold War of the 1950s between the capitalist United States and the Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.[vii]
Both Jim Jones and Father Divine have been characterized as radical or Communist at some time in their careers, yet both men were also activist religious leaders. This matter is even more complicated as neither man believed in the God of the traditional, historic Christian church, yet both men styled themselves as “Reverend” and both headed churches as in the Christian Church tradition.[viii] This raises the question: Were either Father Divine or Jim Jones actual Communist, or were they both just religious leaders? What does the term “communist” mean as applied to either or both men?[ix] More fundamentally, just what were these two men’s politics, and how did those politics inform what they set out to do?
- Social Justice takes a body: Father Jehovia’s communistic Cult and Father Divine and his radical communalistic Peace Mission Movement of “The Cause”
The ministry of Rev. Major Jealous Devine (George Baker Jr. aka Father Divine), founding Bishop of the Palace Mission and the Circle Mission Churches of the International Peace Mission Movement (IPMM), had its beginning, not in a church, but in a tiny, unorthodox New Thought metaphysical class in Baltimore, Maryland. The founder, born as Samuel Morris in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but known to his followers as “Father Jehovia” or “God” at the beginning of the 20th century, espoused a vision which – although couched in religious terms – had immediate political implications.[x] The post-Civil War Reconstruction era (1865-1877) of reinvigorated racial segregation and White supremacy had left the young Black man feeling frustrated by what he viewed as the ineffectual politics of both the African Methodist Episcopal Church that he served in and the liberal White Christian denominations that supported it. He declared himself the God who had come to save drowning humanity from its errors, and launched a socio-religious movement that declared immediate utopia and direct action to realize it. His vision of justice for the world was a strong rebuke to the racial, class and gender hierarchies, and to the politics that sustained them.[xi]
Abandoning his former life – including his wife and children – Morris relocated alone to Baltimore, where he sought to implement the radical, utopian vision of his mind. As the self-proclaimed world’s egalitarian savior, he preached in homes, churches and streets that God, Father Jehovah, had come in him to deliver them all from the incorrect mindset. His years of labor eventually bore fruit as he gathered a small class of about 10 individuals who fervently believed in his utopian message. His teachings centered around a radical reinventing and repurposing of the core tenets of New Thought: That God was “universal mind” and “Principle”: that God existed potentially as such in everyone – no matter the race, sex, or social class – and specifically in him, a light skinned Negro; and that hierarchies based on differences among people were in reality obsolete and wrong. This revolutionary movement to establish radical and utopian social became known to Father Jehovia’s followers as The Cause.
In the socio-political nomenclature of his contemporaries, Father Jehovia’s class and the movement which it spawned was a cult of heterodox New Thought. Much of what it taught had been espoused by other, earlier and contemporary socio-religious communistic cults of the day in one form or another.[xii] The difference between them and Father Jehovia’s teachings was that his entire radical, communistic, heterodox New Thought process was embodied at its highest level in him. Moreover, it could and would be made material in real time by those who recognized that reality and who implemented The Cause.
The movement eventually endured internal leadership crises, and as a result of one, Father Jehovia’s second-in-command, George Baker Jr., left the group, ostensibly going on a missionary tour of the South. Yet he was to never return. He ended up years later as the leader and God of a class of his own.
Baker’s decision to go South with the utopian message of Father Jehovia was a supreme act of revolutionary bravado and courage, if not recklessness.[xiii] It also represented the first significant export of the anti-racist, anti-sexist, egalitarian and communistic political ethos of Father Jehovia’s, one that largely ended in the chaos of Jonestown.[xiv] The Southern missionary tour was an opening salvo, announcing to the world of unrighteousness beyond Baltimore’s city limits that God and his radical politics of universal brotherhood were present and on the scene. Despite Baker’s incarceration as John Doe, alias God, in an insane asylum and a brief trial which led to the young messenger being declared maniacal and banished from the state of Georgia, the immediate impact of God’s presence on the world and its politics was minimal.[xv] It remained so throughout the Great War of 1914-1918, during which God in the body of George Baker Jr. lived in New York City.
What was consistent throughout this process was the maintenance of a small class of students practicing the practical politics of egalitarianism, communalism and group socialism centered on a leading personality who embodied it all. Whether initially in Father Jehovia’s small originating class or in its breakaway manifestation among the followers of the man now known as Rev Major Jealous Devine, those involved lived their politics. In this sense their politics and their religion were one.
Fighting Racism : The Politics of integrating an exclusive suburb for The Cause
Although the core of the tiny class under Father Jehovia passed into oblivion after 1912, its equally tiny and radical utopian offshoot under his former lieutenant soldiered on. As the global flu pandemic swept the country in 1918, and sages and cultists predicted the end of the world, Rev. Major Jealous Devine’s all-Black, socialist house commune moved from crowded inner city New York to the seaside suburb of Sayville.
Characteristically uncharacteristic, the purchase of the multi-room home at 72 Macon Street was not in the leader’s name, but in that of his wife. Whether Rev. Major Jealous Devine’s new middle and upper middle class White neighbors knew the extent of his radical politics is questionable. To allay whatever fears or concerns they may have had about him, the Reverend assumed the cloak of a respectable bourgeois squire and was only seen by his neighbors tending his well-kept lawn or strolling downtown, where he was always courteous, deferential and polite.[xvi]
Perhaps more significantly, Devine established an employment service which hired out members of his commune as maids and butlers to the surrounding households. As word spread about his services, so the demand and the numbers of laborers who answered the demand grew as well. This Divine employment service served a dual purpose. It provided employment to his most loyal followers, who in turn turned over all their earnings into the communal pot. In turn, these new resources sustained the material bases for the Divine Reverend to further expand the room, board and other amenities that, as God, he claimed he could provide. In addition, with his faithful members strategically placed as domestics inside the homes of his neighbors, his followers could provide Father with detailed intelligence on the doings of the families surrounding him. Beyond providing him with a wealth of information about his neighbors’ various personalities and peculiarities, this gave Father plenty of warning of any nascent negative sentiments towards him or his group.
Reverend Major Jealous Devine deftly managed this state of affairs with great skill for over ten years as he quietly expanded his utopian commune under the noses of his middle class capitalist neighbors. It was a combination of his commune’s success and the convergence of the collapse of the world capitalist economy in 1929 that would end his underground existence and introduce Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement to an unsuspecting – and soon-to-be fascinated – public.[xvii]
The politics of David versus Goliath: A Black Man claiming to be God dropping dead a White Judge for The Cause in 1932
The facts and details surrounding the trial and sentencing of the newly-minted Father Divine and the subsequent death of the White presiding Judge who sentenced him[xviii] was well covered in both the public and Peace Mission press, and represented the beginning of the Father Divine saga. It also contributed to the exponential growth of his Peace Mission Movement globally. The political symbolism of a short, brown-skinned man, claiming to be God, living with several Black and White women in a house in a predominantly White suburb at the height of an era of both legal and de facto racial segregation in housing was one thing. The political symbolism of that same brown-skinned man being brought before a White male judge on charges of disturbing the peace of the all-White neighborhood, and the judge dying a few days later, was something else. The suggestion or implication that God was indeed inside Father Divine, that little brown-skinned man, had even greater political significance given the national and global context that it took place in.
In 1932, the US was in the third year of the Great Depression. Coupled with the collapse of the world capitalist economy in 1929 was the rise of the Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which presented itself to the capitalist world as both its inevitable future and its current political savior. The USSR and its global legion of the world’s workers, its downtrodden, its dispossessed and its colonized peoples represented totally new and unprecedented forces to be reckoned with. All of these factors gave Joseph Stalin, the chairman of the Community Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) an aura of charismatic revolutionary dominance and gravitas unmatched in recent recorded history.[xix]
It was in this context that Father Divine would grab the attention of the world’s population to broadcast his proclamation of a radical, utopian and universal brotherhood which his Peace Mission both embodied and lived to the entire world. And indeed, Father Divine did seize the moment, creatively utilizing the media spotlight shining upon him to the utmost of his ability.
The Politics of Economics in The Cause of Father Divine
Father Divine had kept his Sayville home, but his burgeoning international ministry had now outgrown its quaint bourgeois suburban confines. Now with many new members, some White and quite wealthy, all of whom pledged their lives, bodies and assets to The Cause, Father Divine plunged back into the environment of New York’s inner city that he had fled 15 years before.
He organized his expanding following to collectively take their nickels and dimes, and purchase or rent real estate properties, hotels and boarding homes where he could house and feed his growing flock. He encouraged members to open businesses, providing a multitude of services for the communities in which they operated, a practice that some scholars have misidentified as Father Divine’s advocacy of capitalism;[xx] rather, his economic advocacy and practice were within the same communal socialist model he had used from the beginning of his independent ministry. Father Divine’s economic policies were collectivist and communalist. The Peace Mission operated economically on the basis of communal socialism. The model encouraged group property ownership and small business collective ownership, not based on the individual profit motive, but as a way of amassing and husbanding collective wealth accumulation. Peace Mission governing bodies managed these assets, but it was Father Divine who had the ultimate say over them and their proceeds, which he redistributed, not to individual private owners, but to each according to their needs and their participation in the overall Peace Mission collective.
The politics of political activism in the cause under Father Divine during the 1930s
Because of their often racially-exclusive hiring and advocacy practices, Father Divine opposed closed shop labor unions and blasted White racist labor unions and workers.[xxi] Despite or because of this, he soon developed a keen alliance with the anti-racist radical labor and union activists of the Communist Party USA.
The New-York based Peace Mission also became a direct action activist group itself during this period, despite Father Divine’s somewhat initial hesitation. The center of the city’s Black political activism of the 1930s was characterized by the work of such mass based political organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the works of another legendary mainstream member of the Black clergy, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell.[xxii]
In the context of this larger, more mainstream activism, the followers of Father Divine worked at the grass roots margins in a version of the Communist Party Popular Front, participating in marches on such issues as police brutality of Black youths in the urban ghetto. It also participated in boycotts of businesses in Harlem that practiced anti-Black racial hiring discriminations and in actions designed to integrate eating facilities in public places in New York City. The injustices of the Scottsboro racial injustice case was dear to Father Divine’s heart and concern, as was the ongoing manifestation of White terrorism in the racially-segregated South in the form of lynching, and he organized his followers to actively address and oppose both.
Because of his increasingly involvement on the political issues of the day, Father Divine was perceived by some as a potential or actual political kingpin in the Black community by members of New York City’s political establishment. Mainstream mayoral candidates recognized his growing power, and they campaigned in front of the Peace Mission and publicly sought his endorsement. Father Divine responded by launching mandatory literacy campaigns among his largely illiterate followers, thereby qualifying them to both register to vote and to get to the polls. He also authorized and joined a minor New York City-based political party called the All Peoples Party.[xxiii]
The politics of Taking on Black Nationalism for The Cause: Father Divine takes on Marcus Garvey
Father Divine was Black. The membership of the Peace Mission was primarily composed of Blacks. The movement was based in Harlem, a Black inner city district of New York City. Moreover, it was involved in political actions that focused on injustices to Black people. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to call or characterize either Father Divine or his Cause as Black nationalist. To the contrary, Father Divine and his movement were against Black nationalism.[xxiv]
When he returned to Harlem in the midst of the Great Depression, Father Divine had to confront the plethora of competing Gods, ministers, faith healers and other assorted religious leaders, not a few of them huskers. One of the dominant Harlem-based, political religious movements of the time, was the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA & ACL) of Marcus Mosiah Garvey.[xxv] Critical of both the petty bourgeoisie NAACP and the White nationalist Communist parties of the day, the UNIA & ACL was the largest, oldest, and most prominent international Black nationalist organization. Even though it had begun to wane, the group was still popular and powerful, with membership in the millions and chapters all over the Black world. It served as a template of what could be accomplished in organizing Black people to work on their own behalf, both locally and globally.
The short and stout Garvey was a familiar sight in film clips and photos in both the Black and White media, and the public was well aware of his bombastic speeches and colorful parades of uniformed followers marching for blocks throughout the streets of Harlem. For these reasons, it would seem a natural conclusion – however mistaken – for some to associate the new Black media figure, Father Divine, with the figure of Marcus Garvey.
The similarities between the two men went beyond physical appearances. Both spoke in messianic terms about the causes they represented, and both were associated with movements which the mainstream press considered phenomena of Harlem. But that’s where the commonalities ended. The two men were ideologically and philosophically worlds apart.
Whereas Marcus Garvey and the UNIA message and political approach to the issues of White racism and Black dispossession advocated Black Nationalism as a solution, Father Divine’s message and politics sought to eradicate race identity. In addition, Garvey and his UNIA could tactically work with the White terrorist Ku Klux Klan to achieve their seemingly-identical goals to separate Blacks and Whites; for Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement, though, the KKK was anathema, and to even conceive of working with them on any level was even more so.
Garvey’s UNIA hoisted an internationalist Black nationalist flag and extolled biblical stories that glorified Ethiopia; Father Divine’s PMM emphasized passages from the Bible that glorified its leader as God, Jesus Christ and the savior that had come to end the injustice of the very concept of separate races. Garvey pontificated at length on the need for and the positive benefits of the Black nuclear family to help stabilize Black people, and while he saw that family as patriarchal, he spoke at length on the needs of Black mothers and their children; Father Divine’s movement, on the other hand, called for a much broader collective as an eternal family of celibate equals, regardless of age, gender, ethnic background or class, all of whom were to be brothers and sisters to each other under its leader and his wife as Father and Mother.
Beyond these differences, even their historical trajectories were different. By 1932, the UNIA had hundreds of thousands of members and been active on the frontlines of the Black community for over 15 years, and Marcus Garvey himself was a household name. Despite Father Divine’s introductory splash in the press that same year, he was still relatively unknown to the larger world outside of the walls of his White suburban house commune. His time was still to come.[xxvi]
Despite or because of these differences – and recognizing its own ascendancy – the PMM set its sights on the UNIA and aggressively sought to convert its members. Garvey initially ignored Father Divine, but as some of his members and leaders began deserting him for the PMM, the UNIA went on the offensive. In 1938 the UNIA lambasted the Peace Mission Movement as a White-controlled, Black-faced front, set up by scheming Whites who used Father Divine as a figurehead, to commit genocide against the Black race.[xxvii]
In addition, a particular set of White people – the members of the Communist Party USA – came to exemplify the political differences between the Black leaders. The Black Nationalist movement of Marcus Garvey had paid little attention to the post-World War I Communist movement, except to be critical of it.[xxviii] On the other hand, Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement saw the White-led, inter-racialist Communist Party as fellow co-workers in the cause for radical social democracy, justice and peace. Indeed, by the end of the 1930s, the increasing involvement of Whites in the Peace Mission had become a point of contention for members of both races.[xxix]
God on the Left: Father Divine and the Politics of Browderist American Communism.
The Communist Party USA with which Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement had allied themselves with in the 1930s was led by Earl Browder.[xxx] As the nation’s best-known Communist during the Great Depression, Browder’s views and policies of Marxism-Leninism as applied to the specific conditions of the United States had far reaching influences on the Communist International during that time.
The similarities between Father Divine and Earl Browder led the two men to cooperate and to coordinate their movements’ work together. The effects of Browderist Communism on the practice and ethos of the Peace Mission Movement was and is profound.[xxxi] What’s just as important to understanding the politics of the PMM is the fact that in the social political milieu of 1930s Harlem, Father Divine made the deliberate choice to oppose the Black Nationalism of Marcus Garvey and to unite with the American Communist Party under Earl Browder.[xxxii]
Righteous World Government in Harlem: The political platform of The Cause in 1930s New York
Father Divine adeptly used the circumstance and context of the Great Depression, the existence of the USSR as a powerful counter and contrast to the collapsing capitalist economy, the issues of racism – especially the Black Nationalist reaction to the system of White supremacy in the US – and the controversies around his own movement in his announcement of his solution to the world’s angst: the Righteous Government Platform.[xxxiii]
The RGP was proposed and unanimously adopted in 1936 by an “International Righteous Government Convention” assembled by Father Divine’s followers, in New York City. The platform defined The Cause as advocating Righteousness, Justice and Truth in all walks of life. The movement itself was defined as an association of 22 million members who were interracial, international, inter-religious, interdenominational and nonpartisan, and who had accepted Father Divine as the savior returned to earth in bodily form.
Although it was ratified by a convention of thousands, the Righteous Government Platform was universally acknowledged as being the work of a single man, and its tenets thus serve as an authoritative statement of Father Divine’s political stance at the height of his ministry. Under the aegis of a political document, Divine blasted the religions of his day as well as those political forces that had striven to keep the CHRIST – as defined by his esoteric version of that word – from the political world. He, however, had come to make righteousness, truth and justice a living reality. Indeed, the reality he had already brought inside of the Peace Mission Movement through its members would be established universally following that example.
The Cause at the beginning of the Cold War era: Father Divine and the Politics of the 1950s.
By the time of World War II, the internal and external politics that had framed the overt political expressions of both the Communist Party USA and the Peace Mission had begun to shift profoundly, and the Cold War which followed led to even greater changes from the progressive years of the 1930s. A top-down purge of Communist and Communist-influenced individuals and groups was initiated as post war politics in the USA took a severe turn to the right, and the US, the brand new global hegemon, went on the global anti-Communist offensive. In this new political atmosphere, Earl Browder lost not only his job as leader of the CPUSA, but also his membership, and the political theories and strategies he had championed, were denounced by the Comintern as heretical, revisionist and counter revolutionary.[xxxiv]
The crackdown extended to both the ageing Father Divine and a diminished Peace Mission, which by then had transferred its operations to Pennsylvania. Rather than succumb to the new political reality, however, he and those around him seemed to take steps to distance themselves from their former policies,[xxxv] and Father Divine began to openly denounce Communism and to praise America in increasingly strident terms.
Yet the coded language which Father Jehovia had used as the movement began at the turn of the century had gradations of meaning, and the denunciations could and did have several meanings, depending on the perceptions of the listener or reader.[xxxvi] Despite his castigations of Communism, new structures of his organization – including the creation of gender-segregated holy orders – and the apparent conservatism of his movement, the actual radical political core of Father Divine remained unchanged.[xxxvii]
- The politics of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple in quest to lead the Radical, communalistic, Heterodox Cause for Social justice
Fighting Racism: The Politics of Integrating the White Church for The Cause
Whatever the changes – real or perceived – that the Peace Movement made in the first years following World War II, they were not enough: the movement had begun its slow but inexorable decline. In additions, questions began to rise about the movement’s future, and more specifically, how a movement that had seemingly ruled out the death of its leader could prepare for a successor.[xxxviii]
It was in the same conservative decade of the 1950s that a young, White Christian minister in Indiana with concerns on issues of social justice took an increasing interest in the Peace Mission Movement and its Cause. After all, despite its more recent contraction, the Peace Mission had served as a successful template for the interracial/socially active utopian ministry and had something to teach the young reverend. His name was Jim Jones, and his church was Peoples Temple.[xxxix]
Dr. Martin Luther King once said that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,” because Whites and Blacks, even of the same denomination, worshipped separately. Although the Methodist Church in which Jones began his career was liberal in tenet and theory, the congregation was as racially segregated in practice as any other.
The practice was nevertheless unacceptable to the new minister, and he energetically and aggressively sought out African Americans to join and participate in the church. He did so, as he implied later, because he had experienced cognitive dissonance between the Christian message of love, forgiveness and oneness in Christ, and the racial discrimination against Black Christians in the White church.
His efforts towards integration were not successful in his first church, and after several other attempts with several other churches and denominations, he founded his own church, the People’s Temple Christian Church, which eventually became known as Peoples Temple.[xl]
The Politics of Fighting Communism with radical American communalism: The early Peoples Temple of the 1950s and 1960s
Despite Jones’ own revisionist statements to the contrary, there are no documents in existence which show that the politics of Peoples Temple or its young leader was explicitly Communist. To the contrary, the few extant records reveal a Christo-centric, Bible-based ministry and program. However, from the subjective standpoint of people whose politics were consistent with 1950s American conservatism, the nuances of the young minister’s teachings certainly may have appeared to have been suspect.[xli]
Instead, because Communism was defined as an ideology of America’s new enemy, the USSR, Peoples Temple operated in a politico-religious milieu that was suffused with the language of Cold War anti-Communism. Like the much older Peace Mission Movement, Peoples Temple made concessions to the superficial aspects of the times.[xlii] Yet, also like the Peace Mission, the Temple’s emphasis on racial integration set it apart from most of its contemporaries.
Indeed, despite Jones’ later assertions, it was not the CPUSA or any other Marxist-Leninist organization with which he sought to strike an alliance, but rather the Peace Mission Movement of Father Divine. His attempts to unify the two movements went so far as to declare that there was no longer a succession question in the movement, since he was there to assume leadership. In so doing, he was embracing the politics of interracial communalism and the Cause of Righteousness, Justice and Truth that Father Divine and his group held at its core and practice. Although the language used to describe that union was to evolve in the 1960s, Jones’ political alliance with the cause of the Peace Mission Movement never wavered.
As the Temple matured during its decade in Indianapolis, so did the political and theological ministry of Jim Jones. The congregation officially united with the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ denomination, and a few years later, Jones switched his own ordination accordingly. In the early 1960s, after establishing a number of community-oriented social services reminiscent of the Peace Mission Movement of the 1930s, Jones branched out into more politically-charged activities, first by joining in a campaign to desegregate a theater and then – almost single-handedly, according to his own account – a hospital. He also used radio programs to speak on issues of nonviolent resistance to racial discrimination. For these bold efforts, he and his interracial family and church were harassed and threatened with violence.[xliii]
In the mid-1960s, Jones transplanted his Peoples Temple to the town of Ukiah in rural northern California, where he saw an opportunity to follow the Peace Mission template of the 1930s and to build an interracial utopia away from the urban center where he had launched his movement.[xliv] The move came around the beginning of a new period of political discord within the US. Political leaders on the left – both Black and White – were felled by assassins’ bullets. Another war to contain Communism in Asia – the Vietnam conflict following the Korean “police action” by a dozen years – was ramping up, and a resistance movement to it was taking shape. Also ramping up was the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as the younger, more militant voices in the Black community of Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and Huey Newton, calling for socialism and Black Power.[xlv] With a lack of progress on all fronts – an escalating war, a crackdown on Black activism, and even more assassinations – a radical political current in the US reminiscent of the radicalism of the 1930 emerged.[xlvi]
Just as Father Divine had found his political voice in the earlier period, so now did Jim Jones begin to come into his own. With a newly-minted leadership corps and an increasingly interracial congregation behind him, Jones set his sights, not on the Black urban areas of Father Divine’s New York City, but on the San Francisco Bay. Also like Divine, Jones proclaimed that the world political center of activity was now on his shoulders and his alone. Father Divine had offered the world “Righteous Government” in the 1930s. His political reincarnation in Jim Jones was to offer the same thing, but now it was called Divine Socialism.
The Politics of Divine Socialism in San Francisco: The Cause in the 1970s
Jim Jones landed in the inner city areas of the San Francisco Bay area with his message of universal brotherhood and his coterie of devoted co-workers and disciples in the Cause. Using the language of socialism, he openly competed with the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and a plethora of other moderate-to-radical, politically leftist movements, parties and groups, all rivaling for the attention of the masses.
As Father Divine had done in early 1930s Harlem, Jones used a unique combination of political activism, practical social services – including meals, housing and other assistance – and the allure of paranormal powers associated with his declaration as the embodiment of God to great effect in 1970s San Francisco. Soon thousands were attending services at Peoples Temple, and political figures – from establishment leaders to radical and marginal activists – were seeking court with Jones. His work with prominent local religious and political leaders eventually paid dividends, and he was appointed commissioner of the housing authority. More importantly to him, though, he was spreading the message of universal brotherhood and Divine Socialism across the state.[xlvii]
The Politics of Fighting Black Nationalism for The Cause: Father Jones takes on the Nation of Islam
Just as Father Divine found a political-religious competitor in the form of Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalist UNIA in 1930s Harlem, Jim Jones had an established Black Nationalist organization to contend with: The Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s Lost /Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America, better known as The Nation of Islam.[xlviii] Indeed, much as Peoples Temple viewed itself as the political and religious successor to the 1930s Peace Mission Movement, NOI was a branch of the tree of Black Nationalism planted by Marcus Garvey.
The Nation of Islam of the 1970s, like the earlier Moorish Science Temple of Noble Drew Ali from which it sprang and like the even older UNIA from which it recruited many of its earliest members, was an exclusive Black member organization that advocated for both a separate sovereign nation as well as a separate national identify for its members.
Unique among the Black nationalist groups, the NOI taught that the White man is the Devil. Keeping a critical eye on the integrationist policies and advocacies of the Civil Rights Movement, NOI delivered its message most powerfully through its most articulate and recognized minister Malcolm X. After his assassination, another spokesman – a young firebrand named Louis Farrakhan – arose to take his place, preaching the message of the aging Elijah Muhammad.[xlix]
This was the group which had established its Temple down the street from the newly-purchased headquarters for Jim Jones’ church in San Francisco’s majority-black Fillmore neighborhood.[l] Despite public overtures for reconciliation and harmony, Jones disagreed with both the ideology and the politics of the NOI, and began an increasingly aggressive stealth campaign to convert its members over to his congregation after 1971.
His actions paid off. After Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his successor and son, Wallace D. Muhammad, articulated a new message on issues of race and other concerns was much closer to Jones’ than it was to his father’s. Gone was the doctrine of the Black man is God and the White man is the Devil. Wallace D. Muhammad changed the name of the sect from the Nation of Islam to the World community of Islam in the West and opened up membership to people of all colors. On his organization’s most important holiday in 1976, he shared the podium with Jones, embracing him as a brother. Going further, he supported Jones in his political ascendency in San Francisco and encouraged NOI followers to visit Peoples Temple.[li]
God on the Left: Father Jones and the politics of the American New Left
By the 1970s, the position that the CPUSA had held 40 years earlier as the vanguard on the radical left had been severely and successfully degraded by a combination of targeted political repression, intelligence agency infiltration, and the growing disenchantment in the West of the USSR as a beacon of a socialist alternative to capitalism. In addition, the CPUSA had an array of competitors for the hearts and minds of the American left. A hodge-podge of Maoist, Trotskyite, Marxist-Leninist, Marxist humanist, and post-Marxist organizations jockeyed for the attention of the San Francisco Bay Area. Moreover, the overtly Communist-leaning parties had to contend with other political and social justice movements, such as labor, antiwar, and Black-, Chicano-, and women’s-liberation organizations. Further complicating the struggle for supremacy among the interests working in this political atmosphere was that many adapted the language of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric – whether the group was explicitly Marxist-Leninist or not. Among these groups was the increasingly-political Peoples Temple, as evidenced both in Jones’ sermons from the pulpit and in the printed position statements drafted by his lieutenants.[lii]
The politics of David versus Goliath: murder and mass suicide for The Cause in Jonestown
The facts surrounding the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan and others at the Port Kaituma airstrip, and the subsequent deaths in Jonestown on November 18, 1978 are well known.[liii] The shock and revulsion over the mass murders and suicides has almost completely obscured any attempt at a nuanced, rational understanding of whatever political message that the Temple attempted to deliver through the sight of heaps of bodies strewn throughout a community named after a man claiming to be God. For most Americans, the word “Jonestown” has become synonymous with insanity, irrationality, and barbarity.[liv]
Yet the very existence of Jonestown itself – located in an English-speaking country in South America led by a socialist government; established as a community of refugees who considered themselves disenfranchised from access to political power; inhabited by a population which was disproportionately Black, poor and female – begs for a political analysis.
The political symbolism was neither coincidence nor happenstance. The leadership of Peoples Temple, like the leadership of the Peace Mission, saw and planned everything it did, from the prospective of their political and ideological world view.[lv] Even in the seeming chaos among the strewn bodies of the Jonestown dead, a closer inspection reveals the interracial composition of Peoples Temple, the clasped hands and embraces in rigor mortis showing a lasting political message of love, courage and unbreakable resolve, unity and will beyond and through the veil of horror.
In death, as in life, Jim Jones was found, not separated from his flock, but among them. It was a reminder that even at the omega of his movement, Father was an egalitarian.[lvi]
The last address of Reverend Jim Jones – the so-called Death Tape – was recorded as a political message to the world, and concludes with the words: “We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”[lvii] It was a eulogy that could apply to the entire movement and everyone in it, one that stretches back to include Father Jehovia and Father Divine, both of whom left behind their mortal versions – Samuel Morris and George Baker Jr. respectively – in acts of symbolic revolutionary suicide. Although they would strenuously object to the comparison, the Jonestown eulogy could also apply to the few elderly former Peace Mission members who, although once the vibrant youth of the Peace Mission, were as true to Father Divine’s teachings decades before as they were to Father Jones’ instructions on the final day.[lviii]
In the lineage of direct action established by Father Jehovia and carried on by Father Divine, Peoples Temple – by its very existence – had disturbed the peace of the American empire and cast a living aspersion on its claim to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, and in its death, had tried to bring that message to the entire world.[lix] Even its attempt as a post-death legacy – the instructions given to the young Jonestown men to deliver gold, cash, and bank account records to the Soviet Embassy in Georgetown – was a slap at the United States, as were the wills of both Jim and Marceline Jones to bequeath their estates to CPUSA.
The USSR might have lost some of its luster as the alternative to the chaos and injustice of the global capitalist imperialist system, but in the ideological Cold War which still raged between the USSR and the US, the Communist state was still preferable to the leaders of Peoples Temple. For Jones and his loyal supporters, the Soviet Union was still the inevitable future and political savior of the world’s workers, its downtrodden, its dispossessed and its colonized peoples. Thus the final acts of Peoples Temple – even the deaths themselves – were carefully designed to show to posterity an eternal political allegiance to the cause of socialist freedom and liberation over White racist capitalism. They were designed and envisioned to be an immortal political statement of mortal righteousness over unrighteousness, of good over evil.[lx]
Thus Father Jones in 1978, like Father Divine in 1932, seized the world’s attention to demonstrate and underscore the ideal of the radical, utopian model of universal brotherhood that he and his followers embodied, and that he would have, no matter what the cost, even that of his and his followers’ lives. In the name of Divine socialism, Jim Jones took a calculated risk that the deaths would deliver a political message. So far, the message has been overshadowed by the deaths themselves, the madness of Jonestown’s leadership in its final weeks, and perhaps most importantly, the clarity of the message itself.
The politics of both the Peace Mission of the 1930s and Peoples Temple of the 1970s – whose structure, ideology and approach the later group consciously sought to succeed and embody – were an outgrowth of their shared utopian world view: a universal oneness of all people, regardless of race, gender or social status, under an anti-hierarchal righteous government that could be described as a form of Divine communal socialism, which together constituted an utopia of truth and justice as manifestation of principle. The practice was a utopian community in the here and now led by a man who embodied God or principle.[lxi] The groups shared an eclectic political culture that could and did use a wide variety of assessable and often contradictory political expressions to both reach potential members – and to retain existing ones – as well as to co-opt rivals, and to confound enemies.
But at their foundations, the politics of the Peace Mission Movement and its re-envisioned version under Jim Jones as Peoples Temple were utopian communalistic. Despite its close cooperation with and close affinity for the style and practice of the Browderist CPUSA of the 1930s and 1940s, the politics of the Peace Mission of Father Divine were not Marxist or Leninist/Communist. Likewise, despite its Third World revolutionary statements as well as its affinity to and appropriation of the rhetoric of Communist organizations, the politics of Peoples Temple were not Marxist or Leninist/Communist either.
Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. “The Open Door.”
_____. Q 887.
_____. Q 1059 (Part 5).
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“Father Divine.” African-American Religious Leaders, Revised Edition, A to Z of African Americans.
“Father Divine, Holy Preceptor of Psychosis.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology. July 1935, 215-224.
Fried, Richard. Nightmare in Red. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Harary, K. “The Truth About Jonestown.” Psychology Today. March 1, 1992.
“Judge Jonah J. Goldstein is Dead at Age 81.” JTA: The Global Jewish News Source 1967.
McKelway, St. Clair and A.J. Liebling. “Who Is This King of Glory?” New Yorker, June 1936. Reprinted in St. Clair McKelway, Reporting at Wit’s End: Tales from the New Yorker. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2010, 80-122.
Paper-Research.com. “Biography of Father Divine.”
“Psychoses among the followers of Father Divine.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. April 1938, Volume 87:4, 418-449.
Satter, Beryl. “Marcus Garvey, Father Divine and the Gender Politics of Race Difference and Race Neutrality.” American Quarterly Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1996), 43-76.
“Spiritual Jubilee.” http://www.noiwc.org/images/Jimmy1.pdf.
West, Cornel & Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Father Divine” in The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country. New York: Free Press (2000), 122-125.
Williams, James. The Rural People’s Party and Comrade Jim Jones. 2009.
“Who Was Father Divine?” News & Notes. National Public Radio. 2007.
Avakian, Bob. From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist. Chicago: Insight Press, 2007.
Bart, Philip. Highlights of a Fighting History: 60 Years of the Communist Party, USA. New York: International Publishers, 1979.
Burnham, Kenneth E. God Comes To America. Boston: Lambeth Press, 1979.
Chidester, David. Christianity: A Global History. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001.
_____. 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.
Daschke, Dereck & Michael Ashcraft. New Religious Movements: A Documentary Reader. New York: NYU Press, 2005.
Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.
Divine, Mother. The Peace Mission Movement. New York: Anno Domini Father Divine Publications, 1982.
Elbaum, Max. Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2006.
Faithful Mary. “God”: He’s Just a Natural Man. Philadelphia: Universal Light, 1937.
Fields, A. Belden. Trotskyism & Maoism: Theory & Practice in France & the United States. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1988.
Garvey, Amy Jacques. The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. Dover, MA: The Majority Press, 1986.
Garvey, Marcus. Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy. Dover, MA: The Majority Press, 1986.
Hall, John R. Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1987; reprint 2004.
Harris, Sara. Father Divine: Holy Husband. New York: Doubleday Publishing Company, 1953.
Hayden, Dolores. Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790 – 1975. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1979.
Hoshor, John. God In A Rolls Royce. New York: Hillman-Curl, Inc, 1936.
Hutchinson, Earl Ofari. Blacks and Reds: Race and Class in Conflict, 1919-1990. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1995.
Klaw, Spencer. Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Mabee, Carleton. Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2008.
Maxwell, William J. New Negro, Old Left. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Meiers, Michael. Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988.
Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
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Nordhoff, Charles. The Communistic Societies in the United States: From Personal Visit and Observation. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.
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Reiterman, Tim, with John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.
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Sakai, J. Settlers: The mythology of the white proletariat. Morningstar Press, 1983.
Watts, Jill. God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
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Journals, Magazines, Newspapers
[i] It must be noted that some writers assert that Peoples Temple was a CIA front masquerading as a Communist group masquerading as a church. Thus those who have studied the politics of Peoples Temple describe them either as Marxist-Leninist or as the CIA pretending to be Marxist-Leninist.
While these views on Peoples Temple appear many places, a concise exposition of the former view, see James Williams, The Rural People’s Party and Comrade Jim Jones. For the latter view, see Michael Meiers, Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988) & “Jonestown.” See also Addendum 1.
[ii] For the Peace Mission Movement as a forerunner of the American civil Rights movement of the 1960s, see the “Father Divine” entry in Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country (New York: Free Press, 2000), 122-125. See also, Robert Weisbrot, Father Divine (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 107-119, 145-171, and 223 n 33. See also Addendum 1.
[iv] On Peoples Temple as part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), see Indianapolis expansion of Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church entry, and Membership Trends of Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) entry.
[vi] For Father Divine and the Peace Mission’s close relationship with the Communist Party USA in the 1930s, see Weisbrot, 148-152; Sara Harris, Father Divine: Holy Husband (New York: Doubleday Publishing Company, 1953), 189-194; Jill Watts, God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 119-121, 135, and 139; Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 129-130 and 150-151; and Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Blacks and Reds: Race and Class in Conflict, 1919-1990 (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1995), 143-144.
[vii] Robert Weisbrot (166) characterized Father Divine as a “utopian social ideologue with communist tendencies.”
On Father Divine’s about face comments on Communism during the Cold War, see Weisbrot, 211-212; Harris, 194; and Watts, 171 and 177.
Jim Jones, while later claiming to be Divine’s reincarnation and successor as leader of the Peace Mission, said that he did not believe that Divine was the author of the anti-communist denunciations attributed to him, but rather blamed his secretarial staff led by his widow and eventual successor – and Jones’ rivasl as head of the peace Mission – Mother Divine.
“But the saddest thing to hear a man [Father Divine] that once led a movement that was with socialists that were marching down the streets of Harlem that once said, ‘This is what we need. We need … communization. We need it.’ And to see it turned clear around and have his writings say, that it’s all bad. I can’t believe he ever said it… I believe in the end they [the Peace Mission secretarial staff] were running the show. I know that he didn’t write the letters [denouncing Communism and printed in the Peace Mission periodical The New Day] that he was supposed to write. I didn’t say, letters written by M. J. Divine, were no more written by M. J. Divine than my tomcat. They were written by secretaries without ever talking to him” (Bracketed notes by the author). Q 1059 (Part 5).
[viii] Father Divine, who styled himself as the Bishop of the Palace and Circle Mission churches of the Peace Mission Movement, said of the normative God of Christianity “Because your God would not feed the people, I came and I am feeding them… I came, because I did not believe in your God.” Weisbrot, 33.
The Reverend Jim Jones, an ordained Christian minister in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, echoed this when he said – among many other places – said “We [Peoples Temple] are not religious; we are atheist(Bracketed notes by the author). Q 887.
[ix] The author makes a difference between communism and communist written with a lower case “c,” which in this writing refers to the utopian communist movement which extendfs from the European Middle Ages through its recent expressions in the various socio-religious communities in the western world, as differentiated from the political Communism of Marxism and the various forms of Marxism-Leninism which are written with a capital “C.”
[x] For more on Father Jehovia and his tiny, marginal Fairmount Ave heterodox metaphysical class/commune, see Watts. See also St. Clair McKelway and A.J. Liebling, “Who Is This King of Glory?” (New Yorker, June 1936; reprinted in St. Clair McKelway, Reporting at Wit’s End: Tales from the New Yorker, New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2010, 80-122), and writings on this site by this author
[xii] Samuel Morris wrote the name Jehovah as Jehovia.
Although the politics of Father Jehovia’s utopian class/commune and its descendents in the form of the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple are the focus of this paper, various other utopian communal and/or communist and communistic sects, communes and cult leaders, gurus and utopian thought trends where fairly common in mid to late 19th century USA. They include, but are not limited to, the Amana Society, the Harmonist, the Zoar commune, the radical Quaker offshoot known as the Shakers, the Icarians, the Bishop Hill commune, the Oneida Community and the various communistic orders and the communities among the various followers of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.
The ultimate truth cult of New Thought, with its emphasis on mind power and mind cure which taught that utopia could be found within and manifested without, was also founded and spread in 19th century USA. It was from this genre from whence the utopian politico-religious trend of Father Jehovia, Father Divine and Jim Jones extends and from where its eclectic use of various political and religious expressions originate.
Among the plethora of materials and sources available on the subject of the 19th century USA utopian communism, the author recommends Donald E. Pitzer, America’s Communal Utopias (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Dolores Hayden, Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790 – 1975 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1979); Spencer Klaw, Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community (New York: Penguin Books, 1994); Edward Rothstein, Herbert Muschamp and Martin Marty, Visions of Utopia (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003); and Charles Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies in the United States: From Personal Visit and Observation (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012).
For an examination on the specific religious aspect of the American utopian communist movement that is the focus of this paper, the author offers “Atheistic Gods and Divine Gurus of the Religion of Social Justice: The Theology of Father Jehovia, Father Divine and Jim Jones” (2014)
[xiii] This resulted in the telling and retelling of the inner Peace Mission myth that Father Divine had endured and survived 32 individual murders by lynchings attempted by White racists in the segregated South enraged at his teachings, from all of which he invariably resurrected himself. See Weisbrot, 3 and 18; and Watts, 40-41.
During a decade of high profile assassinations of a president, a presidential candidate and a major civil rights leader, Jim Jones, who claimed to be the exact same God that Father Divine had re-embodied, also asserted that he too suffered assassination by gunshot at the hands of evil enemies of the Cause, and, like Father Divine before him, that he resurrected himself from death. More specifically, Father Divine claimed that he had been lynched by White racist mobs several times and that he, in an act of divine overcoming, had resurrected himself each time. See David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown (Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1988), 75. That this assassination and resurrection occurred after the decade which Father Divine died and was buried would not be lost on those in the Peace Mission who were open to be convinced that Jim Jones was indeed the true successor to the Cause of Father Divine.
Although easily dismissed as fable and lies by the skeptical observer, for the true and loyal believer in either or both men, the truth of these stories had profound political significance. The implication of these stories in both groups was to demonstrate the reality that the Leader was all-powerful in the face of any adversity brought to the group by its enemies and that they had living proof in their God in a body who, having been murdered, was resurrected and standing before them.
[xiv] The politics of bold confrontation and audaciousness for the Cause characterized this entire movement.
Starting in the beginning of the 20th century Baltimore, Maryland, a neighborhood collector of recyclable and discarded metal boldly proclaimed from the pulpits of various churches that he, Father Jehovia, not the Jesus of their Bible stories, was the Father Eternal come to erase the injustices of the world. His disciple, Father Divine, who later bought mansions and real estate in elite White segregated areas, continued the legacy of his mentor and claimed to be God. Finally, Jim Jones who, like his mentor Father Divine, racially integrated his immediate family and church. declared himself the God of socialism and inter-racial brotherhood in the midst of US capitalism and institutional racism
[xv] For accounts of George Baker as the messenger during his southern missionary tour in the early 20th century, see Watts, 32-39; and Weisbrot, 9-15, 18, and 20-21.
Issues of the mental health of the leader and followers of both the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple would dog both churches throughout their existence. On Father Divine and the Peace Mission, see Watts, 34 and 42; Paper-Research.com, “Biography of Father Divine”; “Father Divine, Holy Preceptor of Psychosis,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology (July 1935), 215-224; and “Psychoses among the followers of Father Divine,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (April 1938, Volume 87:4), 418-449. On Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, see Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982), 262; K. Harary, “The Truth About Jonestown,” Psychology Today (March 1, 1992); and Ty Burr, “Jonestown recounts descent into madness,” Boston Globe (January 27, 2007).
Against the assertions in these resources the perspective of both the Peace Mission and People Temple loyalist would be that, it is we, the non-believers, who are the insane ones, because we were never members of the groups, so we don’t know – and can never know – who Father is, although, from their loyalist perspective, we all benefit from whatever good Father did.
[xvi] See “Sayville, New York.” On Father Divine’s former Sayville commune on Macon Street, now maintained as a historical landmark and museum owned by the Peace Mission Movement, see The Home of the Soul at http://sayvillelibrary.org/residences/homeofthesoul.htm. (Editor’s note: Website no longer functional, October 2017.)
[xvii] On Father Divine’s Sayville sojourn, see Weisbrot, 4-5, 27-30, 34-37 and 73; and Watts, 57, 60-61, 71, and 74. On White racism in Sayville during the 1920s, see Watts, 55, 63, 70-71, 73-74, 77 and 79
[xviii] On the 1932 trial and the death of Judge Lewis Smith a few days later, see Weisbrot, 51-55; and Watts, 72-73, 79, and 94-97. For the Peace Mission’s own account, see “Retribution That Followed Wake of Persecution in Sayville”. See also Addendum 2.
A full discussion on the Soviet Union and its leader is outside of the scope of this paper, but an understanding of them in the historical context is essential to fully assess the contextual framework and backdrop of how some viewed Peace Mission and Peoples Temple political actions and motives, as well as how some members in both groups viewed them.
In the case of the Peace Mission in the 1930s, its inter-racialism and campaign against lynching, as well as its political contacts with the CPUSA, cast suspicion on it as a pro-Soviet front. The Peace Mission’s relationship to a deviant form of Communism called Browderism is addressed more fully below.
Concerning Peoples Temple, David Chidester posits the view in Christianity: A Global History (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001) that Jim Jones “worked out his novel form of Christianity on the international battlefield on which capitalism confronted communism” (515).
[xx] Although Watts identifies Father Divine as a capitalist, her own research suggests otherwise. She quotes Peace Mission literature of the 1930s advocating “a cooperative state” and states that the movement envisioned “a state based on collective enterprise where workers labored in cooperatives and divided the profits evenly” (126). She also notes that, in attacking the capitalism of the early 1930s and calling for its replacement with Divine communal socialism, the Peace Mission proclaimed that “[r]ugged individualism of the super greedy is dying; the reward of every man according to his several abilities and the function of hiring a man may conceivably find a place in the new state.”
The mistaken characterization of Father Divine and the Peace Mission as capitalist holds elsewhere, even as she acknowledges that “in the midst of the depression, they established a chain of independent businesses based on [Father Divine’s] notion of collective enterprise” (104).
[xxi] Like other leftist critics of the trade union movement such as radical Trotskyites, Father Divine’s 1930s attacks on White supremacy in the US Labor movement and Unions in no way compromised his politically-left socialist credentials or beliefs.
White racism in the US labor movement has a long and sordid history, one that is recognized by many labor historians, activists, and researchers. A full discussion on the subject is beyond the scope of this paper, but an understanding of it is important in fully understanding the politics of Father Divine.
For more on White racism in the US labor movement see such works as David R. Roediger, Mike Davis, Michael Sprinker and Kathleen Cleaver, The Wages of Whiteness: : Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2006); and J. Saka, Settlers: The mythology of the white proletariat (Morningstar Press, 1983).
[xxii] See “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” See also,
The ministry of Father Divine comes into historical focus on the margins of the ongoing struggle or larger movement for racial, social, economic, and gender equity in the US. It is important to keep in mind that although this paper is focused on the politics of the Cause that manifested Father Divine, that aspect of the larger movement never was mainstream or politically hegemonic in the struggle for social justice in the USA. The entire trend, from Father Jehovia through to Jim Jones, can be seen as a textbook type of a social justice vanguard inside of a much larger movement
[xxiii] Anti-racism was the principal focus of Father Divine. Weisbrot assesses Divine best when he describes him as a “utopian social ideologue with communist tendencies” (166).
In 1936, Father Divine helped create and then participate in the Harlem-based All Peoples Party (APP) and the Harlem Political Union (HPU). In doing so his Peace Mission joined more than 100 other Harlem-based organizations to create electoral and lobbying vehicles that endorsed radical leftist and anti-racist candidates. These efforts brought Divine followers together with Christians, Communist and members of fraternities to work on various causes including “fuller employment at trade union wages for inner-city workers, a 40% rent reduction for renters and an end to voter disempowering gerrymandering in Harlem.” See Weisbrot, 146.
The Peace Mission was also an active and vociferous opponent of the White racist terror tactic of lynching Black people. Weisbrot, 157-161; and Watts, 114, 126, 133, 164 and 169. See also “Lynching in the United States.”
Mayors of New York City who interacted with Divine and the Peace Mission were John O’Brien and Fiorello LaGuardia. The chairman of the City Fusion Party, Ben Howe often spoke at Peace Mission banquets. Myles Anderson Paige, the first Black Judge of New York, as well as the Jewish Judge Jonah Goldstein showed interest in currying favor with Divine and his following.
[xxiv] Watts (88) declares that in Father Divine’s opinion, “Blacks bore much of the blame for the inequalities in American society.” Yet Divine also acknowledged that Whites bore a responsibility as well, since both races had allowed the negative vibrations of racial differences to exist in their minds and project it into the world.
Father Divine was so devoted to eliminating the very concept of racial differences that he demanded that his followers stop referring to themselves and others by color or race, and recognized only differences in shades of skin complexion. In the 1930s his secretarial staff co-workers – known as Angels – were all White, with the exception of Faithful Mary. At his banquets, his followers sat, as much as the composition of the group would allow, in gender-separate alternating patterns of Black, White, Black. He assigned the gender separated roommates in his hotels and homes similarly. See “Who Was Father Divine?”
Once in the 1930s, when some of his Black followers complained about what they perceived as a preference for Whites in the movement, Father Divine was so upset that his teachings on race could be so misunderstood, he threatened to commit suicide by slitting his throat. Watts, 89.
In 1946, when the 67-year-old widower Divine remarried, he took a young White girl from his secretarial staff named Sweet Angel as his wife. Upon his death in 1965, Mother Divine succeeded him as leader of the Peace Mission Movement, a position she retains as of this writing in 2014.
[xxv] See Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League (UNIA and ACL), as well as its website. See also Marcus Mosiah Garvey, as well as his biography. See also UNIA and ACL Centennial 100 years of Garveyism
[xxvii] For comparative studies on the politics of Marcus Garvey and the politics of Father Divine, see Beryl Satter, “Marcus Garvey, Father Divine and the Gender Politics of Race Difference and Race Neutrality” (American Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1 March 1996, 43-76). See also Weisbrot, 190-196 and Watts, 114-117.
While preparing this paper, this researcher interviewed a 90-year-old Garveyite who saw and heard both men. When asked “Why did you choose Marcus Garvey over Father Divine?”, the Garveyite replied, “Because Father Divine had White Angels.”
[xxviii] On Garvey’s anti-Communism, see “Lesson 17: Communism” in Marcus Garvey, Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy (Dover, MA: The Majority Press, 1986), 134-138; and “The Negro, Communism, Trade Unionism and His(?) Friend or Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts,” in Amy Jacques Garvey, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (Dover, MA: The Majority Press, 1986).
[xxix] For more on the Father Divine/CPUSA alliance of the 1930s, see Naison; Harris, 190-194; Weisbrot, 146-152; and Watts. 119-121
[xxxi] The political theories and philosophies of US Communist Party leader Earl Browder are known as Browderism. For more on Browderism and how it relates to the politics of Father Divine and Jim Jones, see Addendum 3.
[xxxii] Both Father Divine and the CPUSA opposed the Garvey movement and its Black Nationalist separatism, and both sought to co-opt and absorb its members into their own organizations. The CPUSA efforts were through opportunistically applying Stalin’s theory on the National Question to the “Negro Question” in the US and calling for a separate Black Nation composed of the southern states of the US.
Despite this there was opposition inside the Communist Party, particularly from Black members, who were opposed to the CPUSA flirtation with Father Divine and who suggested that the Peace Mission was established by and maintained by anti-communist forces to destroy the influence of the Communist party in Harlem.
Downplaying Father Divine’s opposition to racial characterizations, activists within the Peace Mission noted that their leader was a Black man, but because he had declared that he was God, he was objectively a race leader. They also used statements by both Divine and Marcus Garvey which were rooted in the leaders’ shared understanding of New Thought concepts to attract Garveyites into the Peace Mission. See Watts and Weisbrot.
[xxxiii] Several notables appeared before Father Divine’s political convention, including Benjamin Howe of the City Fusion Party, who gave the keynote address; Judge Myles Paige (see note 23, above), Willis Higgins, an Afro-centric anti-Fascist activist; New York City alderman Lambert Fairchild; CPUSA vice presidential candidate James W. Ford, a black man (see his CPUSA profile here); and Robert Minor, also of the CPUSA.
Alderman Fairchild’s political role as an advocate for the Peace Mission in the 1930s was similar to that which San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk was to play for Peoples Temple 40 years later. The Peace Mission’s website still uses Alderman Fairchild’s letters to burnish Father Divine’s credentials, as shown here.
However, all evidence of Communist Party participation in the Peace Mission, as well as the decidedly pro-Communist platforms on the RGP, have been excised, not only from PMM websites, but also from the organization’s records .
See also Addendum 4.
[xxxiv] The end of World War II was also the end of Browderism as an acceptable Communist doctrine. It also represented beginning the opening of the atomic age with its threat of nuclear war, a threat which had a profound impact upon the psyche of the then-teenaged Jim Jones.
The Comintern (1919-1943) was the world association of Communist Parties headquartered in the Soviet Union.
[xxxvi] For more on Father Divine’s anti-Communist pronouncements, see Weisbrot, 151 and 211-212; and Watts, 171 and 177.
For more on the culture of anti-communism during this period in US history, see “McCarthyism. See also Ted Morgan, Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Random House, 2004).
See also Addendum 2 to understand how coded pro-communist pronouncements were embedded in Father Divine’s denouncements of Communism.
[xxxvii] The crux of the Father Divine story and his Peace Mission is and was radicalism.
The outward appearance of Father Divine’s extravagant lifestyle – living in a huge mansion on a hill in which he and his young White wife were serviced by a live-in staff of 30 – shows how far the child of slaves who had no formal education or job training had come. But his inter-racial marriage, which was against the law in more than half of the states, and his defiance of the restrictive housing covenants which enforced racial segregation, demonstrated the radical political and social stands he was willing to take.
He stood apart from the norm in several other respects, of course: he was the religious leader of thousands of people of all races who worshipped him as God, who refrained from marriage and sexual intimacy at his command, and who would have gladly killed themselves or others at Father’s expressed will.
[xxxviii] See Harris.
[xxxix] See Carleton Mabee, Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2008), 213.
Jim Jones, who was 25 years old at the time, was introduced to Father Divine by a high level Peace Mission official named Simon Peter. Simon Peter appears to have continued to advocate for Jones among the leaders of the Peace Mission, even as Jones clearly stated that his purpose in coming was to take over the Peace Mission after the founder’s death.
Indeed, Peter’s support for Jones seems to have survived the Temple leader’s expulsion from the Peace Mission movement by Father Divine’s widow and successor, Mother Divine. The split between Jones and Mother Divine occurred during a cataclysmic meeting in 1972, following which Mother Divine gave expressed orders that all Peace Mission-affiliated groups and individuals cease all communication with Jones and Peoples Temple. See E. Black, “Wives of God, Mothers of the Faithful: Edna Rose Baker and Marceline Jones as Mothers Divine” (2013).
[xl] See Rebecca Moore, Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009), 12-15. See also “Ordination Certificate of Jim Jones into Independent Assemblies of God.”
[xli] This was because, for Jim Jones in the 1950s, just as it had been for Father Divine in the 1930s and 1940s, the fight against racism and for inter-racialism was as paramount as it was axiomatic.
Father Divine’s 1946 marriage to his young, White secretary and Jim Jones’ family of adopted children of several races – the so-called Rainbow Family – in the 1950s and early 1960s challenged societal norms of their respective periods. the fight for inter-racialism was closely identified with Communism, but both men embraced the struggle if not always the label.
For more on Communism and inter-racialism in the US political culture, see Naison; Hutchinson; and William J. Maxwell, New Negro, Old Left (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
[xliii] For the changes in Rev Jones message from Christian communalism to Divine socialism, as well as his early ministry and political activities in Indianapolis, Indiana, see John R. Hall, Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1987; reprint 2004), 15-80; Moore, 12-21; and Reiterman, 43-118.
[xliv] On the Temple’s years in Ukiah, see Moore, 22-26; Reiterman, 97-124; and Hall, 63-69.
[xlvi] See New Left. See also A. Belden Fields, Trotskyism & Maoism: Theory & Practice in France & the United States (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1988), and Max Elbaum Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2006).
[l] The San Francisco headquarters of People Temple was located at 1859 Geary Street; the Nation of Islam’s San Francisco Temple #26 was at 1805 Geary Street.
A picture of Wallace Muhammad and Jim Jones together appears here. A copy of the Nation of Islam announcement of a Spiritual Jubilee uniting the group with Rev. Jim Jones and Peoples Temple appears here.
[lii] On the decline of the old left, see John Patrick Diggins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992). For a history of the CPUSA during the 1960s and 1970s see Philip Bart, Highlights of a Fighting History: 60 Years of the Communist Party, USA (New York: International Publishers, 1979), 315-483.
For more on the plethora of radical leftist groups in San Francisco during the same two decades, see Bob Avakian, From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist (Chicago: Insight Press, 2007), chapters 9, 10, 11, 13, and 14; and Elbaum, 17, 26, 30 and 77. See also “San Francisco in the 1970s.”
For examples of the Temple’s increasing use of Marxist-Leninist phraseology during the 1970s, see taped transcripts of Jim Jones’ addresses during the period here.
By 1978, such language was familiar to the general Temple membership and more particularly to Jonestown residents, who were instructed to use the rhetoric in daily conversation with each other. It also came in handy as the Temple negotiated, first to gain entry into Guyana, and later with several Communist countries on possible exit strategies from the South American country.
[liv] This website carries a growing number of articles which seek to dispassionately and objectively discuss and investigate various aspects of Peoples Temple, including its final tragedy. The site has also received a great deal of criticism over the years for doing so
[lx] Chidester, 627.
[lxi] This is broadly understood in the case of the Father Divine. Robert Weisbrot, one of his major biographers, characterized him as a “Utopian Evangelist.”
Dereck Daschke and W. Michael Ashcraft quote Jim Jones in New Religious Movements: A Documentary Reader (New York: NYU Press, 2005), in countering the accusation that his Peoples Temple was “a conspiratorial communistic group” as saying “if there were more an anti–Communistic group than ours, I don’t know how it could be. Now, indeed we’re utopianist” (246).
Father Divine and Jim Jones were two unique and ideologically-related fanatical utopianists who creatively used both religious and political language to wage all-out war against the racial, sexual and class hierarchies of the capitalist world empire into which they were born.