Father Divine: Still looking over Philadelphia

    Given all of the attention by Philadelphians and lovers of historic buildings across the nation to the fate of the once-majestic Divine Lorraine Hotel, it is not surprising that the recent announcement of its redevelopment has been in the spotlight. Many questions have also understandably arisen about the individual — the Reverend Major Jealous Divine, better known as Father Divine — whose name is synonymous with the structure, as well as the hotel that housed members of his Church, the International Peace Mission Movement, for 50 years.

    In a city that bears no murals or other civic signs of appreciation for this African-American religious leader — a major figure in the history of urban religion in the United States — the Divine Lorraine Hotel’s rooftop sign still stands over Broad Street as a beacon north and south, marking and celebrating Divine’s presence in its own special way. It remains as a testimony for passersby of the influence that Father Divine and his Church, the Peace Mission for short, have had on Philadelphia even more than a decade after his followers relinquished control of the building to developers.

    Who was this man who preserved this beautiful Victorian structure in the first place, and what exactly went on behind those walls in the 1940s, when his faithful ran it as the first full-service racially integrated hotel of quality in the city of Philadelphia?

    The International Peace Mission

    Father Divine (? – 1965) was neither a Roman Catholic priest nor a Protestant Christian minister. He is one of the great American sectarian religious leaders, a charismatic minister, an influential preacher, a religious entrepreneur and, for his followers, an incarnation of God Almighty here on earth. The mission he founded can best be described as an indigenous, utopian, celibate, communal, intentional religious movement. It is one of many such religions that developed in the United States over the last three centuries.

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    The mission is indigenous because it was born out of the soil and experience of Americans. It has been described by some as a sect or cult, because of the way it took Christian texts and rituals, and basic theological ideas and spiritual themes, and re-created them, incorporating other religious ideas — especially perspectives from the influential American New Thought Movement — hybridizing them along with Divine’s original insights on the sacredness and productivity of everyday life.

    Father Divine’s mission sparked controversy in the middle decades of the 20th century for its racially integrated communitarian style of intentional living. He took on the roles of both spiritual and earthly parent for followers, a religious substitute for members’ living families.

    To be sure, over the years Divine himself faced various controversies: accused of breaking up families, swindling money from followers, being sexually promiscuous, etc. Even in the midst of these accusations (such promiscuity and larceny was never proven), he worked on as one of the early leaders of civil rights in America.

    From oppression to salvation

    To appreciate fully the allure of Divine’s mission, one needs to understand the history of African Americans in the United States after the Civil War. During this period, both former slaves and the descendants of slaves lived under a new form of social and economic slavery in America known as the discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws, which were just as repressive in the North as in the South.

    Divine’s system of belief and practice was a direct response to such racial oppression. Operating first in Sayville, Long Island, from 1919 to 1932, then New York City from 1932 to 1942, and then in Philadelphia from 1942 to 1965, he inspired an economic plan where ostensibly poor and working class followers pooled their savings, generating a powerful force for the purchase of properties for residential living, for the establishment of businesses to employ followers and sustain them economically, and for the feeding of thousands of followers and hungry people no matter what their religious affiliations.

    Unique in his vibrant amalgamation of spirituality, self-empowerment, economics, race consciousness, gender equity, patriotism, and basic human dignity, Divine preached what some American religious historians have come to call a “gospel of wealth,” in which, essentially, right belief leads to prosperity on earth and in the afterlife. Divine’s message might be better described as a “consciousness of wealth” — an important distinction — teaching that all thought must reflect the perfectly positive, perfectly honest, perfectly productive, perfectly creative mind of God, and from that connection would flow an abundance of both spiritual and material blessings.

    While a religion very compelling to African American (or “dark-complected” people, to cite the Peace Mission members’ terminology), the Mission also appealed to many “light-complected” or Caucasian followers likewise attracted to Divine’s charisma and teachings about racial equality. By the end of the 1930s, the mission had extended itself from New York City and the Northeastern cities to Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle, and then spread internationally with followers in France, England, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, Panama and Canada.

    A movement on the move

    From the period of its early development in Sayville, the mission used its collective monetary resources to acquire real estate for various business and residential uses. When Divine moved himself and many followers to Philadelphia in 1942, the Church — which already welcomed the masses into its various New York cafeterias and restaurants — also purchased properties in cities such as Newark and Jersey City, N.J., and continued expanding into another dimension of the hospitality industry: hotels. There were two types of hotels in the Peace Mission: residential hotels, exclusively for the followers, and transient hotels for non-followers.

    Starting in 1941 with the Brigantine Hotel, the movement owned, managed, and staffed six such fully integrated enterprises in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Peace Mission is proud to note that these six hotels “broke” the hotel industry policy of universal segregation in the United States. Two such establishments in Philadelphia were the 10-story, 300-room Divine Lorraine at Broad and Fairmount streets (purchased in 1948), and the seven-story, 150-room Divine Tracy on 36th Street between Chestnut and Market streets (purchased in 1950), adjacent to the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

    Divine’s “co-workers,” that is the men and women who worked exclusively for the mission, managed the hotels as a form of socially just community outreach: clean, safe, integrated environments at very reasonable rates. The Divine Lorraine served the community, for example, “with evangelical prices, for as little as $60.00 a week,” until its closing.

    Rules and regulations

    These businesses were guided by a strict religious code with specific standards of comportment referred to as Father Divine’s International Modesty Code: “No drinking, no smoking, no use of profanity, vulgarity, or obscenity, and no undue mixing of the sexes.”

    These basic rules informed the lives of the followers — and anyone entering a Peace Mission-owned hotel, whether transient or residential. Thus, every room at the Divine Lorraine had a framed copy of “The Divine Hotel’s Policy – Rules and Regulations,” because they prompted “modesty, independence, honesty, and righteousness.”Rooms were also paid for on a cash-only basis, because it was against Father Divine’s economic codes to purchase goods and services on credit. At the Divine Lorraine, ladies and gentlemen were “accommodated on separate floors” and could “see each other only in the hotel lobby or dining room.” No visitors were allowed in rooms, and even married couples could not cohabitate a room.

    Until the hotel closed for business in 1999, rules regarding clothing were similarly important, for proper decorum of the person was seen as an indication of respect “for the wholesome atmosphere.” Ladies were asked to avoid wearing curlers, shorts, slacks without the proper long jacket, skirts shorter than three inches above the knee, halters, bare midriffs, and low cut backs or necklines. Men were to remove their hats, and wear no shorts, un-tucked shirt tails, or sleeveless shirts.As you entered the Divine Lorraine from Broad Street, to the left was a lounge that did not serve alcoholic beverages, and to the right was the Crystal Dining Room, which served meals to everyone from hotel residents to Temple University undergraduates, allowing for an integrated atmosphere. In this sense, the Divine Lorraine was an oasis for dark-complected people, a haven from the discrimination they would encounter at the posh Bellevue-Stratford Hotel on South Broad Street or perhaps even at the Crystal Tea Room on the ninth floor of the John Wanamaker Department Store on Market Street. The Divine Lorraine was the people’s hotel in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s: truly as full-service as the Bellevue-Stratford, but without the threat of discriminatory policies.

    Divine in the house

    In its heyday of Peace Mission ownership, life at the hotel was quiet but bustling. A highlight for residents undoubtedly were those special occasions when Father Divine himself was on the scene, up from his headquarters and residence at the Circle Mission Church, Home, and Training School, located on South Broad at Catherine Street. On the 10th floor of the Divine Lorraine were two meeting spaces: one (on the North Side of the building) for “praise” and “righteous government” meetings sponsored by the Peace Mission, and one (on the South Side) for the Eucharistic ritual known as the “Holy Communion Banquet Service.”

    Sunday banquet services were routinely in the Crystal Dining Room, but when Divine was in the hotel, the service was held in the Penthouse Dining Room, a celebration filled with singing, ecstatic dancing, and enthusiastic testimonials. After 1946 (and the death of his first wife), Divine was accompanied on these occasions by the light-complected, 21-year-old, Canadian follower, Sweet Angel Divine, who became his second wife, known as Mother Divine.

    The sumptuous, multi-course dinner, was prepared in the extensive kitchen on the same floor. Food was passed from Divine’s head table to four connected extensions. After the meal, speaking from his place at the center or spiritual heart of the table, from which his blessings to the congregation would emanate, Divine would offer a sermon in his own inimitable style. The congregation hung on his every word, often crying out in agreement or excitement. Above him a neon sign proclaimed “God’s Holy Communion Table.”

    There, Divine stood high above bustling Broad Street: the city far below him, a fantastic view of Philadelphia City Hall to his right, and Temple University to his left. His words were broadcast throughout the building’s public spaces, so those who could not dine with him could still partake of his special messages to the world. Whatever problems they might have experienced in their lives, Divine told them it could be better, and that heaven was in the United States, the country that best represented God’s vision of heaven on earth, right here and right now.

    In this early American manifestation of self-empowerment through religion, he told the assembled that the benefits of such belief were countless. They could taste and smell it in the food, hear it in the music and sermon, touch it in the china and silver place settings, and see it in the resurrected splendor of the Divine Lorraine Hotel all around them.

    Leonard Norman Primiano is a professor and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Cabrini College, in Radnor, Pa.

    Correction: The year of the purchase of the Divine Lorraine Hotel was 1948, not 1949. The number of rooms in the Divine Tracy Hotel was 150, not 200.

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