Casting off the Material Body

by E. Black

The Promise of Eternal Life for the Righteous and the Reality of Mortality in the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple

(E. Black is a regular contributor to this site. Her full collection of articles may be found here. The Peace Mission announcement of the Transcendence of Mother Divine in March 2017 is here.)

“I tell you the truth, anyone who obeys my teaching will never die!”[1]

“I am the Father Eternal!” Father Jehovia[2]

“My true followers do not die.” Father Divine[3]

“We win when we go down [in death].” Jim Jones[4]

MOTHER DIVINE cast off the material body on March 4, 2017 to live forever in the hearts, minds and righteous actions of the Followers of FATHER DIVINE.[5]

Introduction

Despite his proclamations of ultimate divinity and transcendence, Father Jehovia passed away in obscurity.[6] Father Divine, a student of Father Jehovia, who promised eternal life “in the flesh” for those who most closely followed his teaching, was challenged in that assertion by the death of his elderly wife Peninnah in 1943 and by his own death from old age in 1965.[7] The faithful followers of Jim Jones, who had claimed Father Divine’s mantle, died along with Rev. Jones, in a shocking paroxysm of collective mass suicide in 1978.[8] Divine’s second wife, Sweet Angel (Edna Rose Baker nee Ritchings) although challenged by Jones, was her husband’s legitimate successor and the caretaker of the declining Peace Mission.[9] Her long reign as head of the Peace Mission came to an end when she died, age 91, in March 2017.[10]

Although always marginal and never very numerous in the aggregate sense, faithful adherents of the ministries of these radical heterodox New Thought ministers for social justice exemplified ultimate dedication, steely resolve and unbreakable adherence to the vision of their respective leaders.[11] How did the various followers understand the promise of eternal life for the righteous as taught by the Minister? How did these Ministers rationalize their promises of eternal life for the righteous with the reality of mortality among their followers? How did these Ministers rationalize the reality of their own mortality with their self-proclaimed Divine status? Despite Father Jehovia’s tiny utopian house commune/church being lost to obscurity, the horrific and cataclysmic end of Peoples Temple and the almost certain coming extinction of the Peace Mission Movement by the physical attrition of its few remaining and celibate elderly members, might the prophecy and promise of eternal life for the righteous of the movement be ultimately attained? These questions and more are examined in this paper.

Preamble

At the end of the 19th century, the US was in a period of industrialization and a trend of increasing urbanization. These factors, coupled with the advent of the scientific view of the world which challenged long-held Christian theological assumptions, created a sense of instability and insecurity in many.

A basic tenet in Christianity is that death for believers in Jesus is not permanent, but reversible, by the power of God. Ministers in the faith also prophesize the eventual return of Jesus Christ.[12] Every century since the beginning of the Christian story, groups of believers have been certain that they would live to see the return of Jesus and the end of the world. Many of these believers interpreted the “signs of the times” of their own eras as prefiguring the imminent return of Jesus, the end of the world and the final judgment of all human beings, living and dead, as described in the Book of Revelation.[13] Many also believed that their actions also heralded or fulfilled these momentous events.

In the 19th century, such expectations, coupled with observations – and for many, anxieties – over local and global political, economic and cultural changes and events produced the Adventist Movement in the US.[14] According to the members of this branch of Christianity, Jesus’ return and the final judgment were to usher in a thousand-year period of time – called a millennium – of utopian bliss for the Christian faithful. During this period, pain, disease and death among surviving human beings were to become things of the past, by the power, purpose and will of God.[15]

At the turn of the 20th century, 40 years after the Civil War, liberated black slaves and their descendants still did not experience either racial equality or economic and social justice which they had been promised.[16] In this context, urban centers on the East Coast gave birth to a collection of black autodidact intellectuals, spiritual leaders and sages, who in turn would generate eclectic spiritual responses and grassroots socio-political movements to reassert the humanity of African descendants.[17] One such eclectic spiritual movement became known as the “Live Ever, Die Never” movement.[18]

A subset of this spiritual movement used the motifs of Christianity, including beliefs in the expected Second Advent and the ideas of heterodox New Thought, to present and describe itself. It kept this theosophical core as it morphed and expanded to confront and undermine the socio-political realities of racism, sexism and classism. This movement underscored interracial unity, an eclectic mix of radical democratic and socialist ideas economics, and the practice of intentional community for its adherents to realize its vision of how the world should be and – because of its purposeful intervention – would inevitably become.

This subset of the larger utopian spiritualistic movement might well have withered away, without the individual ministries of four men – three African American and one white – over the course of three successive generations. Each man proclaimed himself to be the physical incarnation of divine principle, the eternal Father, God, and Jesus Christ, all stemming from the basic concept of “God in a body.”

The first such minister, Samuel Morris, who called himself Father Jehovia, was an autodidact spiritual leader and sage who founded the Fairmount Avenue house church in Baltimore, Maryland in the early 20th century.[19] This ultimately transient House Church, as tiny and marginal as it was, turned out to be the incipient organized class of this developing and unique tendency. After the Fairmount Ave House Church became defunct two former disciples of Father Jehovia developed ministries of their own. One disciple, George Hickerson, who called himself Saint John Devine, founded the now-defunct Church of the Living God in Harlem, New York City.[20] A second disciple, George Baker Jr., called himself Father Divine, and formed the International Peace Mission Movement, the membership of which peaked in the 1930s but which still exists today. Although never directly in contact with either Morris or Hickerson, the final God in a body was Jim Jones, a white man who claimed to be the reincarnation of Father Divine. His ministry of Peoples Temple Christian Church, which ended in Jonestown in 1978, was the last expression of this unique utopian radical activist subset.[21]

These men radically reinterpreted the traditional concepts of Christianity, rejecting the God of the normative version as a false and ineffectual entity unworthy of recognition and worship. In its place, they presented themselves as the embodiment of what their followers understood as the true God, the ultimate and infinite mind or Principle. As such, each was an atheistic-embodied God, an individual so highly evolved and connected with universal divine consciousness that they proclaimed that they had the supernatural power to cure disease, to command the forces of nature, and to resurrect the dead. Each respective leader also promised “eternal life” for the righteous, that is, the followers and believers who successfully patterned their own lives after the embodied God so as to become physical vessels of divine principle. Such righteous followers ideally were to eventually form an intentional community, a divine city that was to be a “sample and example” to the rest of humanity.

In both Peace Mission and Peoples Temple parlance, this earthly paradise was known as the “Promised Land,” a community which was to be a bastion of racial, gender and class equality where all lived an existence of – in Jim Jones’ words – Divine Socialism. Although sometimes described in temporary or transient terms, these intentional communities were expected to serve as the first catalyst for an eventual universal transformation of all realities.

No Sex = Eternal Life

For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven.[22]
“When people cease to propagate, they will cease to die.”[23]
“What we ought to be at this revolutionary stage is no sex.”[24]

Father Divine’s ministry as head of the Peace Mission Movement operated out of the contextual framework of the heterodox New Thought recombination of normative Christian motifs that he – as George Baker, Jr. – had learned as Father Jehovia’s Messenger in the Fairmount Ave House Commune at the turn of the century. Their mission was the same: to make the world aware that God was present, embodied in a Man whose mission was to create an intentional community to save the righteous at the end of the old world and the dawn of a new day.[25]

As the head of a rapidly growing movement that underscored and championed interracial unity during the Jim Crow era of legalized segregation in the US, Father Divine came under increasing scrutiny. His alliance with the Communist Party USA during the rise of the Soviet Union also brought further attention.[26] Because of the heightened public awareness of his Peace Mission Movement, Divine’s teachings on celibacy and eternal life in the flesh for the “pure” of his followers began to be known, not only among his followers, but among his critics as well.[27]

Some biographers and researchers connected Father Divine’s proscriptions on sex with the practical need to ward off legal and moral objections and challenges to the mix of radical democratic and socialist economic practices and ideas that his Peace Mission represented.[28] Less examined are his maxims that “Man will continue to die as long as men continues to procreate” and “Man will cease to die when man stops being born.” Yet his “no sex” edicts and promises of eternal life were two sides of the same ideological coin. By commanding that sexual intercourse be banned and linking it to the promise of eternal life for his righteous ones, Father Divine was creating a powerful incentive for developing the mind in his followers to overcome the natural impulses of the flesh.[29]

According to Peace Mission belief, followers who successfully linked their minds with Father’s and successfully denied the natural impulses of the body could be used as effective and reliable co-workers with Divine in constructing his intentional community of utopian Justice and righteousness. In this understanding, Divine’s “no sex” edict was a way – if successfully implemented and maintained – to help the follower to develop mental self-mastery as a step in evolving the lower mind of individualism into the higher mind of universal, divine collective consciousness. The uniting of individual consciousness with the highest Godhood or Principle as embodied in their minister in turn would help construct and sustain the intentional community of utopian justice and righteousness.

This was the goal of every manifestation of this movement, whether it be the Fairmount Avenue house church, the Church of the Living God, the Peace Mission, or Peoples Temple. Thus, while the Peace Mission’s “no sex” edict served a practical purpose in navigating around the era’s anti-miscegenation laws, it also acted as a training tool for the faithful to fulfill the divine mission of creating a community of righteousness.

Likewise, the Peace Mission’s prohibition against sexual intercourse would promote mental mastery over the physical body’s sex impulse – the impulse to procreate to provide replacements before death – and thus over the need to die. In the fully actualized Divine community, natural and routine death as the end of the physical life process would be a thing of the past for the obedient faithful.[30]

The Contradiction of Mortality in a Cult Promising Immortality  

So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie.[31]

The Peace Mission of Father Divine had tens of thousands of followers in the 1930s – the group itself claimed millions[32] – most of them urban poor and working class Blacks, although there was a significant number of Whites, a few of them quite wealthy and affluent. Divine’s faithful flocked to his kingdom extensions and visited his growing collection of Peace Mission-operated businesses, including diners, barbers and hotels. Many of the other customers of these business became followers as well.

The Peace Mission became increasingly adept at using the printed word to advertise its services and spread its message. Its periodicals, the Spoken Word (1931-1938) and the New Day (1938-1997), not only announced Peace Mission services and listed its businesses but also contained glowing testimonies of members “thanking Father” for his ability to bring good fortune and to prevent calamities to those who faithfully observed his teachings, as well as his miraculous powers of healing any and all sickness. They also celebrated his ability to resurrect the dead. Many testified that they firmly believed that faithful adherence to Father’s teachings would guarantee them the eternal life in the flesh that he promised.

Not covered in the Peace Missions papers and magazines were announcements of marriages, births, or the occasional deaths. There were never any mention of funerals. But despite Divine’s claims to the contrary and their own expectations, followers did die. Followers who died in Peace Mission hotels dormitories or on its collective farms were effectively removed, their corpses whisked away, usually by specially-selected staff during periods of time when other members would be otherwise preoccupied, and dumped on the doorsteps of local hospitals, funeral homes and mortuaries, after which they were buried without ceremony and forgotten in potter’s fields. Most of them, having previously cut all ties with their biological families on Father’s expressed orders when they first joined the Peace Mission, had no known relatives to inform of their deaths.

Father Divine and the staff members assigned to handle these types of situation – and sometime the roommate of the deceased – knew of these occasional deaths. When he did address the phenomenon of the occasional death of a member, Divine would emphasize that the decedent had abandoned his teachings and had backslid into mortality. Ultimately it was the reality of the declining health and the eventual death of his wife, Peninnah, which caused Divine to address the contradiction of mortality in a cult that promised immortality.[33]

Resolution of the Contradiction: The Doctrine of Death as Sacrifice

Although the Peace Mission discouraged marriage and extolled celibacy for its most faithful, the fact that its leader was married was just one of many seeming contradictions and conundrums that the movement sought to navigate as it propagated its utopian message.

Peninnah, known as Mother Divine, was several years older than her husband. As the First Lady of the Peace Mission, she played the role of “God’s wife” and was the symbolic head of the domestic affairs of the expanding utopian community. As such, she was seen as the embodiment of Divine’s teaching in feminine form, and was much beloved and revered among the followers. News of her hospitalizations in the mid- to late-1930s, and of her disappearance from public view after 1940 may have been managed into oblivion by the Peace Mission, but the mainstream media took notice.[34]

It came as a momentous surprise in 1946, then, when Father Divine announced his secret marriage to a young white Canadian immigrant who had served on his personal staff. The marriage of the ostensibly celibate Divine to a secretary several decades younger than her new husband raised many moral, ethical and practical questions: What had happened to his first wife? Wasn’t she among the faithful who would live immortally in the flesh? Had she back slid? After threatening divine retribution to both the media and followers who would dare question God, Divine’s explanation introduced the concepts of the willful or sacrificial death, and reincarnation of a righteous member of the movement in his teachings on immortality.

According to his explanation, Peninnah, who was elderly and Black, had grown weary of her body and had requested a new one. Divine “reluctantly” allowed her to “pass” and gave her a brand new one, one who happened to belong to an 18-year-old, White Peace Mission member named Edna Rose Ritchings. Oblivious to the alleged transference at the time, Ritchings had come to the US from Canada earlier that year. Shortly after arriving at the Peace Mission International headquarters in Philadelphia, she joined Divine’s exclusive and largely female secretarial staff; shortly thereafter, she was given the name “Sweet Angel.” The marriage – and perhaps more important, the inner Peace Mission campaign to promote it – introduced and eventually solidified the community’s acceptance and expectation of reincarnation. Immortality in the flesh had been the expectation of the faithful. Now that Peninnah had returned as Sweet Angel Divine, belief in Father Divine’s ability to grant reincarnations took root and began to grow.[35]

Ten years later, the intervention in Peace Mission affairs by a young White Christian minister from the Midwest named Jim Jones accelerated the acceptance of mortality and the possibility of reincarnation for the faithful among the movement’s leadership. Jones’ impact on the Peace Mission elite was profound, and by the early 1960s, the Peace Mission was openly discussing both deaths and reincarnations among of the followers in its publications. Although the original teaching of physical immortality for the faithful in the Peace Mission still held at the time of Father Divine’s death in 1965, it had been modified to also accept that the teaching that deaths of the faithful, up to and including the death of God were the sacrificial, willful laying down of bodies that could and would be picked up by the now un-embodied spirit if and when God chose to do so.

Jim Jones had met with Father Divine several times – always travelling to the older black man’s venues for the occasions – and had expressed admiration for the Peace Mission policy of celibacy. The peoples Temple leader, however, did not tie it to the doctrine of immortality. Instead, he bluntly told Father Divine and his leadership that not only would Divine eventually die and reincarnate, but that when he did, Jones would be that reincarnation and take Divine’s place as head of a revitalized activist Peace Mission Movement.[36]

Jones told his Peoples Temple followers that heaven and hell were states of mind, and that a fully-developed universal consciousness – which he labeled Divine Socialism – could and would eliminate all sin, sickness and conquer death. Jones also posited that he embodied this universal consciousness, and that with the death of Father Divine, this highly-evolved form existed in him, and in him alone.[37]

The claim to Father Divine’s mantle put him at spiritual and organizational loggerheads with the personage who would seem to be the legitimate heir to the Peace Mission movement, Sweet Angel Divine. Before Divine’s death in 1965, the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple relations were marked by continual communication and cross-pollination of ideas and practices, and relations were cordial between the two leaders. After Divine’s death – and most dramatically in 1972, when Sweet Angel Divine publically refused to accept Jim Jones as their reincarnated embodied God – Peoples Temple and the Peace Mission became increasingly and openly dismissive of the other’s leadership.[38]

Despite this mutual animosity, on issues of ultimate life and death and the fate of the mortal body and the universal mind and principle, the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple remained firmly in sync. Mother Divine may have rejected Jim Jones’ claim to be her reincarnated former husband – acceptance of the Temple leader’s claims would have stripped her of her exalted status as Mother Divine and Woodmont castle’s matron – but their philosophies, and even their words, would cohere. On the last White Night in Jonestown, Jones would use the exact words that Mother Divine used to describe the willful, sacrificial, and victorious death of God, Father Divine in 1965, to describe the willful, sacrificial, and victorious death of himself and 900 of his followers in 1978. Even as the deaths in Jonestown proceed, Jim Jones told his followers that their actions demonstrated their ultimate faithfulness to the cause that was the foundation of both groups. [39]

As we take a historical look back on the rise and fall of this uniquely American utopian movement, expressed in two separate ministries that came into the world of the early and mid-20th century, we can conclude that the true believers of both saw themselves under the tutelage of an embodied God of divine consciousness and Principle who represented the return and reincarnation of past communities of ultimate social justice. For the true believers of the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple, those that died faithful to this Cause, no matter how benign or bizarre the circumstance or conditions, having experienced the prospect of eternal life in the flesh, rather willingly cast off their material coils – their physical bodies  – to live forever in spirit and in the memories and righteous actions of their fellow co-believers still mired and embodied on the earth plane.

Bibliography

Articles

Black, E., Atheistic Gods and Divine Gurus of the Religion of Social Justice: The Theology of Father Jehovia, Father Divine and Jim Jones (2015).

____. Addendum 3: Bishop St John the Divine, George Hickerson, the Apostate and Dissident, Footnote 4.

____. Utopian Justice, Righteousness and Divine Socialism: The Politics of Father Jehovia, Father Divine and Jim Jones and of the Cause They Headed (2014).

____. Addendum 3: The Politics of the late Peace Mission and the early Peoples Temple: Consistent with Browderist Communism.

____. Edna Rose Baker and Marceline Jones as Mothers Divine (2013).

____. Laying the Body Down: Total Commitment and Sacrifice to The Cause in the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple (2012).

____. “Ever Faithful”: The contest between Mother Divine, Jim Jones and their followers for supremacy in faithfulness to the Cause (2010).

____. The Reincarnations of God: George Baker Jr. and Jim Jones as Fathers’ Divine (2009)

____. The Three Virtual Intentional Communities Of God In A Body In Real Time (1868-2008) (2008).

Peace Mission Movement, the Transcendence of Mother Divine (March 2017)

Time, Death of Father Divine (September 17, 1965)

Books

Braden, Charles Samuel. These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1949

Burnham, Kenneth E. God Comes to America. Boston: Lambeth Press, 1979.

Chidester, David. Christianity: A Global History. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001.

Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1988. Revised ed. titled Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown, 2003.

Dorman, Jacob S. Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Divine, Mother. The Peace Mission Movement. New York: Anno Domini Father Divine Publications, 1982.

Harris, Sara. Father Divine: Holy Husband. New York: Doubleday Publishing Company, 1953.

Holy Bible (Darby version).

Hoshor, John. God In A Rolls Royce. New York: Hillman-Curl, Inc, 1936.

Klineman, George, with David Conn and Sherman Butler. The Cult that Died: The Tragedy of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. New York: Putnam, 1980.

Landing, James E. Black Judaism. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.

Lears, Jackson. Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.

Maaga, Mary McCormick. Hearing The Voices Of Jonestown. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

Mabee, Carleton. Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2008.

Miller, Timothy. America’s Alternative Religions. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

Parker, Robert Allerton. The Incredible Messiah: The Deification of Father Divine. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1937.

Reiterman, Tim, with John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.

Schaefer, Richard T. and William W. Zellner. Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Lifestyles. New York: Worth Publishers, 2010.

Simpson, George Eaton. Black Religions in the New World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Watts, Jill. God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Weisbrot, Robert. Father Divine. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

Washington, Joseph R. Black Sects and Cults. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984.

Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998.

Websites

http://www.afrigeneas.com/preciousphotos/photo028.htm

https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart5.html

https://www.libertynet.org/fdipmm

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/us/mother-divine-dead-peace-mission-leader.html?_r=0

http://peacemission.info

Explore Jonestown Massacre

The Father Divine Project on Vimeo.

Wikipedia, Edna Rose Ritchings.

_____, Father Divine.

Notes

[1] John 8:51, Holy Bible/New Living Translation.

[2] Sarah Harris, Father Divine: Holy Husband (New York: Doubleday Publishing Company, 1953), 14.

[3] Harris, 117.

[4] Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing The Voices Of Jonestown (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998), Appendix B, 153.

[5] Excerpt from Father Divine International Peace Mission website statement.

[6] Father Jehovia. i.e. Father Jehovah or Father God, was the spiritual handle of Samuel Morris in his role as founder and leader of a unique heterodox metaphysical /New Thought class that met on Fairmont Ave in Baltimore, Maryland in the first few decades of the 20th century. A significant reference for information on Morris as Father Jehovia with sources can be found in Jill Watts, God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995), 26-30, 156, 180 n3, 191 n33, 192 nn 34, 35 & 36. An image of Father Jehovia is posted here.

[7] On Peninnah’s death in 1943, see Watts, 167; on Father Divine’s death in 1965, see Watts, 173 and Time Magazine, September 17, 1965. An image of Peninnah Divine is posted here.

[8] Accounts of the Jonestown mass suicides come from numerous references and sources including but not limited to Maaga; George Klineman, Sherman Butler and David Conn, The Cult that Died: The Tragedy of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple (New York: Putnam, 1980); Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and his People (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982); and Rebecca Moore, Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009). Images of the Jonestown mass suicides are posted at Pinterest.

[9] Edna Rose Ritchings’ career as Sweet Angel and the second wife of Father Divine and as his successor are discussed in Harris, 243-262; Richard T. Schaefer and William W. Zellner, Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Lifestyles (New York: Worth Publishers, 2010), 194-196; and Watts, 167.  Images of Sweet Angel and Father Divine are posted here.

[10] Sweet Angel Divine’s passing was covered by the New York Times and with Peace Mission tributes and addendum.

[11] On the theologies of the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple in relation to New Thought by this author, see Atheistic Gods and Divine Leaders of the Religion of Social Justice: The Theology of Father Jehovia, Father Divine and Jim Jones.

[12] Overview taken from David Chidester, Christianity: A Global History (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001), 3-59.

[13] On the imminent return of Jesus, the end of the world and the final judgment of all human beings, living and dead, in Christianity, see Chidester, Christianity, 41-43, 89, 199, 236, 292, 532.

[14] On the Adventist movement in Christianity, see Chidester, Christianity, 407

[15] On Christian utopianism and millennialism, see Chidester, Christianity, 153-156, 407-411.

[16] Although a thorough examination of the various ethno-political struggles of the war reconstruction period (1866-1877) and its aftermath through 1920 are beyond the scope of this paper, an understanding of this epoch in US history is fundamental in grasping the context of the world into which Samuel Morris and George Baker Jr. and other Black saviors, sages and mystics were born and what social ills they tried to remedy. References on the time include African American Odyssey: Reconstruction and Its Aftermath Part 1: Forever Free and Part 2: Black Exodus Part 2, and Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010).

[17] See George Eaton Simpson, (Black Religions in the New World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 253-280; and the role of African American autodidact spiritual leaders and sages in the construction of marginal Black Judaism in James E. Landing, Black Judaism (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002) and Jacob S. Dorman, Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). Also informative on the role of various African American spiritual leaders and marginal sages and mystics on the development of African American religious trajectory is Gayraud S. Wilmore’s Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998).

[18] Joseph R. Washington, Black Sects and Cults (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 116; and Landing, 121-122.

[19] See Watts, and E. Black, Atheistic Gods.

[20] On George Hickerson as Bishop St John Devine or Divine (phonetically and erroneously written by some as “de Vine” or “the Vine”), see Landing, 145-147, and E. Black’s Addendum 3: Bishop St John the Divine, George Hickerson, the Apostate and Dissident, footnote 4.

[21] What we are emphasizing here is that Jehovia and Divine, through their related work and later through Divine’s sole work, a new, eclectic and unique radical utopian religious subset was created. It was this same subset that Jim Jones would eventually intercept, adopt and seek to embody and lead in his own way as the “God in a body” through his Peoples Temple. See also E. Black, Atheistic Gods.

[22] Matthew 22:30, Holy Bible/New Living Translation

[23] Peace – LibertyNet and Mother Divine, The Peace Mission Movement (New York: Anno Domini Father Divine Publications, 1982), 52.

[24] Jim Jones, quoted in David Chidester, 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), 102.

[25] E Black, Atheistic Gods.

[26] On the politics of Father Divine, see Watts, 7-8, 18, 108; on his alliance with the CPUSA, see Watts, 135, 138; and Weisbrot, 148-152. See also E. Black Utopian Justice, Righteousness and Divine Socialism: The Politics of Father Jehovia, Father Divine and Jim Jones and of the Cause They Headed and Addendum 3: The Politics of the late Peace Mission and the early Peoples Temple: Consistent with Browderist Communism.

[27] “Father Can’t Never Die” is a quoted answer from a Divinite follower interviewed in the early 1950s when asked “What will happen when Father Divine dies?” by researcher and author Sara Harris. It is also the title of the last chapter in her 1953 book Father Divine: Holy Husband (New York: Doubleday Publishing Company, 1953). This particular work is germane to this paper in that it documents the period during the Peace Mission’s decline when the movement’s promise of eternal life in the flesh was increasingly coming into question by the aging of its adherents. Ms. Harris’ book was the product of seven years (1947-1953) of in-depth study of the Peace Mission movement and ends by raising, for the first time, the prospects of a mass suicide among the followers of Divine in the event of his death. Father Divine’s death 12 years after this book first printing would pass without such a horrific occurrence among his dwindling and largly elderly following due to the creative reworking and expanded understanding of the Mission’s concept of death and reincarnation. Despite this new or expanded understanding, history would show that Ms. Harris raised the correct concern, but about the wrong organization: it would be a very similar organization to the Peace Mission of Father Divine – Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple – that would end in mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. Ironically included in the Peoples Temple mass suicides were many individuals who had left the Peace Mission for Peoples Temple. Also of interest is the fact that while the first edition of the book was released in 1953, a latter edition, in broad release, was issued in 1971, seven years after Father Divine’s death from old age but at the incipient point of Peoples Temple’s 1970s growth and zenith. Jim Jones owned a copy of the 1950s edition of Harris’ book that was, ironically, found among his personal possessions in Jonestown.

[28] Harris, 98; and Charles Samuel Braden, These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1949), 20.

[29] Father Divine also spoke of celibacy as a form of population control. See the Peace Mission Movement periodical, the Spoken Word #26, October 1935, 18, and Spoken Word #6, April 1936, 3.

[30] On the philosophical framework that made this seem rational, and even appropriate, see Peace – LibertyNet; the Spoken Word #26, October 1935, 18, and Spoken Word #6, April 1936, 3; Harris, 96-115 and 142-161, and E Black, Atheistic Gods

[31] Apostle Paul-Hebrews 6:18 New Living Translation

[32] A Peace Mission site repeats a claim by Peace Mission opponents in the late 1930s that Father Divine had 50 million followers. On Divine’s death in 1965, the number of followers was quoted by a report in Jet magazine of once reaching 20 million. A more accurate account is in the Wikipedia article on Father Divine which reads in part, “the membership totals were drastically overstated in the press. Time Magazine estimated nearly two million followers, but the true figure of adherents was probably a few tens of thousands and a larger body of sympathizers who attended his gatherings.”

[33] The Divinite view of death as “sin” and a “personal flaw” of a follower is discussed further at Housing God In Life And Death: Architecture and the final resting place in two radical movements, note 15. Interestingly, while Mother Divine reports that “In the Peace Mission there are no funeral services” (“Peace Mission Movement,” 51) – and this is true for the ‘children’ (i.e. the followers) and co-workers (the Peace Mission elite) as well as Father Divine’s first wife, Peninnah – Father Divine was given a well-publicized funeral service in September 1965, and after her death in March 2017, Mother Divine was given one as well (Tommy Garcia personal communication)

[34] For more on Peninnah Divine, see E. Black, Wives of God, Mothers of the Faithful: Edna Rose Baker and Marceline Jones as Mothers Divine (2013).

[35] The 1946 public revelation of Peninnah Divine‘s death, allegedly “given by the permission” of her husband in 1943 so that her mind or spirit could be reincarnated into the body of a much younger woman had a far reaching impact on Peace Mission theology around issues of death and dying. From total denial of death and universal censure of followers who died in the 1930s and 1940’s, by 1960 the issue had evolved to the generally accepted concept that members, in good standing, died to have their spirits reincarnate. See Timothy Miller, America’s Alternative Religions (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), 289, 290 (notes 11 & 12), and Mother Divine’s “Peace Mission Movement,” 51.

Reincarnation is a staple of normative New Thought understanding of the permanency and primacy of spirit (mind) and the transience of matter, which, in New Thought is simply “mind in material form.” Thus Fathers Jehovia, Divine and Jim Jones creatively used the concept of reincarnation to express and explain phenomenon.

On Father Divine’s use of and evolution on the doctrine of reincarnation, see Carleton Mabee, Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2008), 118-120. Also see the video account of a Peace Mission member who recounts her own experience of the evolution of the teaching of reincarnation inside the group first hand.

[36] Jim Jones, who began his active campaign to succeed Father Divine as leader of the Peace Mission from July 1958, used the alleged reincarnation of Peninnah Divine’s spirit into the body of Sweet Angel Divine as an accepted and honored Peace Mission template to argue that Father Divine would eventually and willingly shed his mortal coil and reincarnate his spirit /mind in Jones. Father Divine’s failure to repudiate Jim Jones’ assertions during his lifetime bolstered this possibility as credible for some of the Peace Mission followers. Jones’ attempts to exercise his reincarnation rights in the Peace Mission were finally thwarted by Father Divine’s widow seven years after her husband’s death

[37] Whether he was converted to these beliefs through his study of the Peace Mission, whether they were simply familiar to the inwardly-doubting and atheistically-inclined minister through his recollections of the mystical, imaginative and fantastical musings of his mother during his childhood, or whether his espousing these tenets were cynical ploys to fulfill other personal or psychological needs, Jim Jones would speak and teach on reincarnation, and the doctrine would remain an article of faith for members of his Peoples Temple through the final White Night at Jonestown on November 18, 1978

[38] E. Black, “Ever Faithful”: The contest between Mother Divine, Jim Jones and their followers for supremacy in faithfulness to the Cause (2010).

[39] For an argument that despite legal and charter differences between the two organizations and deep enmity between followers of each group after 1972, that the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple were essentially two groups in the same social, philosophical and historic stream, see E. Black, Laying The Body Down: Total Commitment and Sacrifice to The Cause in the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple (2012)

Last modified on November 14th, 2018.
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