Addendum 3: Bishop St John the Divine, George Hickerson, the Apostate and Dissident

George Hickerson is known to history as the man who broke up Father Jehovia’s heterodox New Thought class in 1912 by asserting that all of its members – the students as well as the leader – were equally God, to the same degree. In making this assertion, he directly challenged Father Jehovia’s overall leadership of the Fairmount Ave Sect and effectively consigned it to historical oblivion.[1]

Mr. Hickerson had joined the Fairmount Ave Sect some time after George Baker Jr. did early last century, although the precise date and the circumstances of the conversion are not well documented. Mr. Hickerson was a light-skinned person of mixed race, similar to Father Jehovia’s own background.

What can be gleaned from extant documentation is that Mr. Hickerson had an eclectic religious career on the margins of various forms of Black community-based religious esoterica before joining the Fairmount Avenue sect. Once he did, he eventually rose – or possibly appointed himself – to the position of leadership designated as “Bishop,” as opposed to the position of “God” that Samuel Morris or the position of “second God” and “messenger of God” that Baker had each claimed inside the house commune.

Perhaps it was his personal religious background and experiences that led Mr. Hickerson to first challenge and then buck the divine order of the various degrees of God ship established inside the cult by Father Jehovia. Perhaps he was simply dissatisfied with or jealous that a younger, less-educated gardener like George Baker Jr. had a more elevated or a more personal relationship with the cult leader than he had. Whatever the reason, he did indeed challenge the divine order, and vigorously so, which precipitated a leadership rupture in the tiny house commune.

The details of this split are as historically murky as Mr. Hickerson’s early biography.[2] Whether the implosion in leadership was immediately responsible for the group’s destruction, we do know that in the immediate aftermath, Father Jehovia’s other high-ranking lieutenant and young “messenger,” George Baker Jr., left it on a missionary tour of the South. This tour evolved over time and eventually migrated north again, transforming into an independent ministry that would eventually become known as the Peace Mission Movement.[3]

In the meantime, following his ejection from the Fairmount Avenue Sect, Mr. Hickerson struck out on his own and went north to Harlem in New York City, where he founded the Church of the Living God during World War I.Through it he sought to correct the organizational, ideological and theological flaws of his former teacher’s class. In his own version of the heterodox New Thought idea initiated by Father Jehovia, there were no graduated degrees of Godhead, but rather all were equally and immediately God. As Bishop St. John the Divine, George Hickerson would dress theatrically in crown, robes and jewelry, and encourage all of his followers, male and female, to immediately proclaim and display the full embodiment of God in their own being.

Chroniclers of Hickerson have characterized his short-lived church as “colorful” and “divinely chaotic.”[4] What keeps history from dismissing it outright is our recognition of it as an early attempt to realize and collectivize the core theological stance of Father Jehovia’s heterodox New Thought school: “The universal Divine Mind (God) resides in every person.”

Notes

[1] For biographic accounts on George Hickerson (called “John” in her account), see Jill Watts, God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995); 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 James E. Landing, Black Judaism (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002).

His name was George Hickerson. His Holy Name, possibly granted him by Father Jehovia, was “John Divine,” or “de Vine” misunderstood in some accounts as his given name being John and his holy designation as the Vine. As paramount leader of his own group he is known in history as “Bishop” and “Saint” John Divine.

Mr. Hickerson is the primary source in the historical record for personal information on both Samuel Morris and George Baker Jr. beyond their facades and mystiques as atheistic Gods of the churches or groups that they founded.

It is clear from the interviews of him that, despite the collapse of his own attempts at heading various heterodox metaphysical classes and churches, he saw himself as spiritually and theologically equal or superior to both Father Jehovia and Father Divine.

[2] Currently there is no documentation that a researcher can examine that states with authority on what exactly happened to the Fairmount Ave heterodox New Thought class of Father Jehovia after the 1912 leadership implosion. Whether it continued – as this researcher suspects – or it broke up completely and definitively ended that year, as indicated by the extant written accounts, is open to conjecture.

[3] For more on George Baker Jr.’ s response to the intra-cult leadership crises brought on by Hickerson’s challenge to Father Jehovia, see Watts.

Interestingly the record indicates that Baker, whose divine authority was contingent on and only valid in the subjective theological framework and world of Father Jehovia , refused to take immediate sides between Father Jehovia and Mr. Hickerson during the conflict. Indeed, Baker response was to leave Baltimore and go on an extended missionary tour of the South as the Messenger and second God, titles he had received from Father Jehovia.

For this researcher, Baker’s extended missionary tour may have been his way of working, initially at least, to expand the base of the tiny troubled Fairmount Ave Sect by gathering new members into it, and he may have been acting at Father Jehovia’s implied or expressed behest. That this may indeed be the case can be seen in an examination of the substance of the message that he delivered while in the South and his methodology of delivering it.

Yet the established record also shows that after working extensively in the vineyard of his lord, Baker would eventually work his way north, bypassing Baltimore – and presumably Father Jehovia – on his way to New York State. Upon his arrival, just after the outbreak of World War I, and with a small following of his own, the messenger – now known as Major Jealous Devine – went on to became a member or regular attendee at Bishop St. John the Devine’s Church of the Living God. He was nevertheless ambivalent about that decision, as evidenced by the fact that he scrupulously kept his own personal followers away from it. It appears to this researcher that that particular name, Major Jealous Divine, taken from Exodus 20:5 of the Holy Bible – “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” – was a declaration of and a reaffirmation of the doctrine of the single embodied God in the Fatherhood degree of God ship as taught in the original school founded by his former teacher, Father Jehovia. In other words, Baker resolved the theological impasse by asserting that although it was true that all equally had God in them, there was to be only one supreme embodiment of God in the fatherhood degree at a time.

For these reasons, this researcher believes that George Baker Jr. theologically and philosophically remained a Father Jehovia loyalist.

The career of Jim Jones in the movement or school that historically includes George Hickerson also reaffirms Father Jehovia’s degrees of God consciousness doctrine and refutes the Church of the Living God’s apostate reworking of the core thesis of “God in Everyman.”

Approximately 40 years later, the Rev. Jim Jones, then a young Christian minister would join this marginal heterodox New Thought theological school, presenting himself to Father Divine’s followers as the new leader and the appropriate “supreme embodiment of God in the fatherhood degree,” thereby reaffirming Father Divine’s reaffirmation of Father Jehovia’s originally established theological point. In so doing, however, he was also seeking to take Divine’s place in it.

Looking back at Father Jehovia’s, Father Divine’s and Jim Jones’s combined 80 years of leadership of the heterodox New Thought movement cause for utopian social justice, it is this researcher’s conclusion that George Hickerson’s thesis – that everyone was the supreme God at once – was, in practice, a theological dead end.

[4] See Sara Harris, Father Divine: Holy Husband (New York: Doubleday Publishing Company, 1953), 14; and Landing, 143, 145, 147, 148 & 365.

The other Gods in the Church of the Living God, like their Bishop and founder, wore robes and crowns and made a conspicuous sight sauntering back and forth so dressed in their inner city Harlem neighborhoods. Of important note: although a member of the Church, George Baker Jr. refused to wear such garb.

Besides Bishop Saint John Divine and Reverend Major Jealous Divine, other fellow gods and members in the Church of the Living God included Father Saint Paul, Father Joshua, Father Elijah of the Fiery Chariot, Father Obey, Saint Joseph World, Steamboat Bill and other Harlem cult luminaries.

While the theological practice of assuming born again (or born anew) Divine or Holy names was implicit at the start of the movement with Samuel Morris becoming Father Jehovia, the practice gathered further steam as his initial class splintered and his ideology spread to the successor groups, the Church of the Living God, the Peace Mission Movement and finally Peoples Temple, where the practice of assuming new names was expanded by members taking African and politically leftist and sometimes explicitly communist names.

Also interestingly, the individual members of the Church of the Living God, based on their reading of 1 Corinthians 6:19 – “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” – called themselves “Temples of God” as reported in Sara Harris 1953 biography of Father Divine. The young Rev. James Jones, who owned a copy of the Harris book and was a student of Father Divine’s movement and teachings, would eventually name his own church Peoples Temple.

Whether there was such an immediate association between the reading of that particular text and Jim Jones’ choice in naming his church, the point is that he did. Moreover, he did so shortly before he began his long approach to the Peace Mission, further demonstrating and underscoring the central contention of this paper that Father Jehovia, Father Divine and Jim Jones composed one leadership, in succession, in this unique and heterodox New Thought/Metaphysical school.

Originally posted on October 30th, 2015.

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