God, Harlem U.S.A.

Jill Watts’s careful research, stemming from her dissertation at UCLA, reveals many previously little-known facts about the former George Baker, a religious leader active from the 1920’s until his death in 1965. It also attempts to change the popular image of Father Divine, who has been characterized as a flamboyant evangelist somewhat in the model of Jim Bakker.

Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement had roots in Baker’s upbringing in a ghetto in Rockville, Maryland. African-American churches in the early twentieth century preached benefits in the afterlife, ignoring the need for social services in the present. Black people sought alternatives, especially poor people who were uncomfortable in mainstream churches, which were dominated by the black middle class.

The New Thought movement gave Father Divine many of his ideas. Much of his theology was based on the concept of the power of positive thinking. He taught his followers that they could achieve anything they desired, and that God would provide for those with faith. His communion dinners, provided free of charge, were given as evidence of this. Father Divine would not accept cash donations (contrary to popular belief) but was always able to provide for his followers. Watts’s book is unsatisfactory in explaining how this was possible; there is only a hint of a large inheritance. Father Divine never claimed to be God or to be able to cure illnesses—these beliefs were spread by his followers. Neither did he take advantage of his followers, financially or sexually, as has been charged. In fact, he demanded celibacy from his disciples and practiced it himself, even though he was married twice. He gained his following by providing what people at the time needed: employment, social services, and faith in themselves.