The 1932 conviction of Father Divine for disturbing the peace and the death of Lewis J. Smith, the judge who sentenced him, four days later, brought the Peace Mission leader to the world’s attention, searing him and his often-outlandish claims into the public awareness, much as the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan and the mass deaths in Jonestown would do for Jim Jones and Peoples Temple 46 years later.[i]
Thus the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple were introduced to the larger world, not as churches but as small, marginal, bizarre, and volatile political cults led by men claiming to have the means to cause retributive deaths on their enemies, even if the enemy was a seemingly-untouchable symbol of US power, like a sitting judge or congressperson.
The metaphysical class of Father Jehovia, the Peace Mission Movement of Father Divine, and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple were three separate manifestations of the same Cause working for social justice in the US. The signature moments of the latter two had one significant difference, however: Father Divine’s claimed role in the death of Judge Lewis represented the opening political statement of his movement. With many more to come; Jonestown’s tragic end – and the statements of Jim Jones on the so-classed Death Tape – represented its final political statement,[ii] and the positions which Jones had taken throughout his life would be examined only in retrospect, and with the knowledge of the deaths tainting every popular analysis.
In these two confrontations, however, the state was symbolized by the power of its representative – a judge and a congressman – while the people were symbolized by the inter-racial, egalitarian organizations standing up for them all. For the faithful of each cult leader, their confrontation with the state was seen as a classic David- versus-Goliath battle.[iii] The confrontation between aggressive and intrusive state power on one hand, and the oppressed and principled people on the other, features a decisive blow delivered by the underdog and a historical victory, through retribution, for the people over the evil state.
In this analysis, the overall movement’s political expression begins with Father Divine and ends with Jim Jones, the alpha and the omega of the cause of justice, righteousness and truth.
[i] Although the Reverend Major Jealous Devine and his little house church may have been known locally to a few in the New York communities of Sayville and Harlem, and in a few wide spread esoteric New Thought circles, he was not known to the rest of the world before his Alpha moment in 1932 for his conviction for disturbing the peace and the death of Judge Lewis Smith a few days later.
Likewise, while Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple was remembered in Indianapolis, Indiana, and well-known in Redwood Valley, San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, it was Jim Jones’ Omega event – the horror of Jonestown – which introduced him and his movement to a much larger world audience.
The histories of the two movement included subsequent deaths of other, related individuals that some tied to the notion of the proof of the retributive powers claimed by their respective leaders.
For Father Divine, the other defining death was of Mrs. Annie Hallick, a White woman and close neighbor of the Divine commune in Sayville, whom the Divine followers accused of being the main agitator “who incited other residents” against the cult, leading to Father Divine’s arrest. “Four days less than a year” after Father’s trial – and his first demonstration of retributive power a few days later – Mrs. Hallick “merely fell from her bed, breaking her leg” and died. It is not clear whether this was a murder or an accident, but for the believers in Divine it was “retribution taking its toll.” See Retribution That Followed Wake of Persecution in Sayville.
For Jim Jones, it was the deaths in 1980 of two leading apostates, Al and Jeannie Mills, which cast suspicions upon the vestiges of his movement. During their Temple years (1969-1975), the husband and wife – then known as Elmer and Deanna Mertle – were members of the Temple’s powerful Planning Commission; she headed the Temple’s publications office, while he had served as its official photographer.
The Mertles defected from Peoples Temple in 1975 and changed their names. Jeannie Mills authored a book, Six Years with God, which described the excesses and misdeeds of the Temple and its leader. The two of them founded the Human Freedom Center, a dissident group that formed the template for the Concerned Relatives organization. It was at the instigation of both groups that led Congressman Ryan to go to Guyana in 1978.
Al and Jeannie Mills, as well as their daughter Daphene, were murdered in their Berkeley home in 1980. The murders remain unsolved. See “Jeannie Mills.”
[ii] This is important in terms of this thesis, for if one simply views the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple as separate from each other and doesn’t recognize the connection between the two, the significance of the political symbolism of the deaths of representatives of the American state cannot be fully understood.
[iii] Both Father Divine and Jim Jones symbolized the epitome of David struggling against the Goliath of injustice, and cultivated their relevant personae to endear them to their devoted followers as such.
Father Divine’s short stature, his unpedigreed background, his incorrect and creative embellishments of the English language, and his obvious physical imperfections, combined with his spiritual and political claims made him appear ridiculous to some, but commanded an aura of legitimacy for others.
Similarly, Jim Jones’ somewhat murky background – which he cultivated and altered, according to his audience – his swearing in righteous indignation during his sermons, and his unpretentious lifestyle, combined with his spiritual claims led many to dismiss him out of hand, but engendered fierce loyalty to him in others.
For each man, his presentation of himself as the little guy in confrontation with and overcoming the injustices of the world around him, served to attract and retain those whom they wished to retain and repelled those people they didn’t. It also pitted them as champions of the common people facing the colossal powers of the US state, i.e. David versus Goliath.
Even the mass deaths at Jonestown which Jones orchestrated was an event he saw as a victory for principle and a loss for apostates and the US powers backing them. “They have no one left to hate,” he said.
- About Jonestown
- the jonestown report
- the jtr bulletin, November 2014
- Articles, the jtr bulletin, 2014
- Utopian Justice, Righteousness and Divine Socialism: The Politics of Father Jehovia, Father Divine and Jim Jones and of the Cause They Headed
- Addendum 2: The Politics of Divine Retribution and the Battle between David and Goliath in the Cause