A number of works have been published since the Jonestown tragedy of 1978 on Father Divine and his shrinking and increasingly irrelevant Peace Mission. One is overtly little more than a promotional piece for the late Black religious leader, and others are similarly uncritical.[i] Driven by evolving cultural and political views on race, the recent perspectives on the ministry of Father Divine contrast with earlier critical reviews of his movement, which were often less flattering.[ii] There were, for example, early suspicions during Divine’s years in Sayville that his cult was a subversive, anti-American front funded by overseas intelligence organizations of US enemies.[iii] Further criticism came from Black communities which held that the movement was financed by wealthy White racists who used Father Divine and his following as an experiment in getting Black people to willingly commit self-genocide.[iv] Communist opponents of the Divine movement suggested that his pseudo-socialist message undermined the appeal of CPUSA in Harlem.[v] Finally, White right wing opponents of the Peace Mission accused it of being a secret church of Soviet Communism in the US, charging that behind its proclaimed facade of celibacy lay the sordid reality of a notorious White sexual slavery cult that lured young White girls into a life of hypnotized debauchery at the hands of the Black Father Divine and his lustful minions.[vi]
Similarly, in the last years of Peoples Temple’s existence – but even more so in the decades since – Jim Jones’ group underwent a public metamorphosis based upon rumor and innuendo, but in the opposite political direction. The Temple didn’t start out that way, though. Unlike the Peace Mission, whose mysterious origins were often portrayed in stark and politically disturbing or subversive terms, the initial press coverage of Jim Jones was generally positive, and his church was applauded for bringing people together and for the social services it provided them. It was not until the Temple became a political player in San Francisco politics that an undercurrent or negative stories began to appear in press accounts.[vii]
Since Jonestown’s tragic implosion, a virtual flood of books, articles, and films has presented the Temple in a consistently harsh light, with little reflection on the salutary roles it did perform. Most of these works seem uncannily similar to the denunciations of Father Divine and the Peace Mission of the 1930s. Like its predecessor, Peoples Temple has been smeared with unfounded rumors of being a front for either foreign or domestic intelligence services set up to use the members as dupes and/or as foils of an unscrupulous leadership. Others posit that Peoples Temple – like the Peace Mission – was either a Communist front deceptively acting like a church to fool the US government social minders, or a secret right wing racist group deceptively using the cover of a Black church and socialism to lure unsuspecting Black men, women and children to their slaughter. The public is now beset with apostate tales of untenable and unethical sexual escapades at the highest levels of the Temple, and other, less lurid accounts, including those by Temple survivors, don’t carry the same resonance.
Given the horror of November 18, 1978, it is this researcher’s view that a more nuanced and balanced approach to the actual political reality of Peoples Temple, unlike the one underway for the late Father Divine and his dying movement, is less than likely to happen soon.
[i] These recent works on Father Divine include Kenneth E. Burnham, God Comes To America (Boston: Lambeth Press, 1979); Mother Divine, The Peace Mission Movement (New York: Anno Domini Father Divine Publications, 1982); Robert Weisbrot, Father Divine (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984); Jill Watts, God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); and Carlton Mabee (Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2008).
[ii] Besides the ongoing newspaper accounts of Father Divine and the Peace Mission in the New York Amsterdam News and the Hearst press in the 1930s, two major biographies on Divine – John Hoshor, God In A Rolls Royce (New York: Hillman-Curl, Inc, 1936); and Robert Parker, The Incredible Messiah: The Deification of Father Divine (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1937) – appeared when he was at his height.
[iii] During World War I, Major Devine’s group in Sayville, New York was suspected of being a secret headquarters for Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, in part because his commune home on Macon Street had been purchased from a member of Sayville’s ethnic German community. Detractors reasoned that German intelligence and the Divine cult had united to culturally and politically subvert the US system from within. See “Sayville, New York”; see also Parker, 3-4; and Watts, 52.
[iv] At a UNIA convention in 1937, Marcus Garvey gave voice to a long-whispered rumor circulating in the Black community that “scheming Whites” were behind a carefully-laid plot to use Divine and his cult to convince Blacks not to have sex so as to prevent Black children from being brought into the world, which would lead to race suicide within one generation. See Beryl Satter, “Marcus Garvey, Father Divine and the Gender Politics of Race Difference and Race Neutrality,” American Quarterly Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1996), 43-76.
[v] Internal Communist Party opposition to the Divine movement came from the party rank-and-file – both White and Black – which charged that the Peace Mission movement was a rich capitalist-backed plot to use Divine and his socialism to destroy the party’s influence with Black people. See Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 129; and Watts, 119.
[vi] William Randolph Hearst was a rich White owner of a large press empire in the 1930s and a political rightist who targeted both the CPUSA and the Divine movement as enemies of America. His wealth, power and influence allowed him to instigate much of the FBI’s surveillance of both groups. He also helped finance the case that Faithful Mary, a high-level apostate brought against the Divine movement, including her exposé of Divine entitled “God”: He’s just a natural man (Philadelphia: Universal Light, 1937) which described him as a Machiavellian sex fiend. See also Naison, 142-144; Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Blacks and Reds: Race and Class in Conflict, 1919-1990 (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1995), 99 & 164; Watts, 149, 154-160, 166 & 223n.40; and “William Randolph Hearst.”
[vii] For examples of the negative reports on Peoples Temple in 1970s San Francisco, see the Lester Kinsolving series of articles (also located here).