He was the most beguiling oracle ever to grace our land: a short, plump, bald [African American] who always smiled and spouted a gospel so incomprehensible that it attracted a vast and enthusiastic clientele, black and white and lustrous hues in between. His adoring fold called him Father Divine. It is the essence of his genius that he refused to recognize, much less discuss, questions about his divinity. “I don’t have to say I’m God,” he once declared, “and I don’t have to say I’m not God. I have said there are millions of people who call me God…I produce and shake the earth.” – Leo Rosten
The truth is, in his Depression-era heydey, Father Divine actually was called “God” by millions (yes, millions) of people, and he had various “Heavens” in American cities where people of all races lived together in harmony, (segregated by sex but not by color) enjoyed festive meals and happily declared a message of peace, social justice and joy to anyone who would listen.
Rosten’s essay is a very enjoyable read, and mostly accurate, but he leans so heavily toward his own amusement that he misses some important truths about this enormously fascinating character. Born (it is believed) George Baker, the son of emancipated slaves, this former gardener eventually started preaching, first in a Baptist church and then on his own, establishing a multi-racial following and the International Peace Movement. His message, often repetitious, was relentlessly positive in tone (songwriter Johnny Mercy said his hit “Accent-uate the Positive” was inspired by Father Divine’s public remarks).
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