Mother Divine

E. Black
Rebecca Moore

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MOTHER DIVINE TIMELINE

1925 (April 4):  Edna Rose Ritchings was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

1931:  Ritchings first heard of Father Divine and began a correspondence with the Peace Mission movement.

1941:  Ritchings relocated from Vancouver, British Columbia to Montreal, Canada where she worked as a stenographer in a jewelry store. She joined the local Peace Mission extension.

1941–1945:  Ritchings served in several leadership positions in the Montreal, Canada Peace Mission extension, up to and including Vice-President and President.

1946:  Ritchings moved from Canada to the world headquarters of the International Peace Mission movement, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She joined headquarters staff as a secretary to Father Divine (George Baker Jr.) and was renamed Sweet Angel.

1946 (April 29):  In a secret ceremony Sweet Angel was married to Father Divine.

1946 (August 7) : Father Divine announced his marriage to Sweet Angel, declaring that she was the reincarnation of his first wife Peninnah, and that their marriage would be chaste.

1947:  Father Divine instituted a special commemorative anniversary to celebrate his marriage to Sweet Angel, now known as Mother Divine, to be observed annually in all Peace Mission extensions.

1953:  Following Father Divine, Mother Divine moved from the Divine Lorraine Hotel in Philadelphia to the Woodmont estate in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.

1961–1965:  Mother Divine took on the primary role as officiator of rituals as well as of spokesperson for the Peace Mission in the face of the physical decline of Father Divine.

1965 (September 10):  Father Divine died, leaving the Peace Mission under the official leadership of Mother Divine.

1968:  Mother Divine built a commemorative crypt for the physical remains of Father Divine on the premises of the Woodmont estate.

1972:  Mother Divine fended off a takeover attempt on the International Peace Mission movement by Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple.

1982 (February):  Mother Divine authored the book, The Peace Mission Movement, as an authoritative summation of the movement’s history, practices and beliefs.

1985:  Due to declining Peace Mission membership, Mother Divine authorized the final sale of the movement’s major properties in rural upstate New York, collectively known as the Promised Land.

1989:  Due to declining readership, Mother Divine authorized the discontinuation of the regular publication of the International Peace Mission movement newspaper, the New Day, first published in 1936.

1996 (April):  The Peace Mission celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of Sweet Angel’s marriage to Father Divine.

2000–2006:  Due to declining Peace Mission membership, Mother Divine authorized the closure and sale of the movement’s signature hotels, the Divine Lorraine (2000) and the Divine Tracy (2006).

2008 (August 12):  Mother Divine presided over the groundbreaking celebration for the Father Divine Library and Museum on the Woodmont property.

2012–2013:  Increasingly displaying the signs of advanced age, Mother Divine retreated from public life.

2017 (March 4):  Mother Divine died at the Woodmont estate at age ninety-one. She is interred alongside her husband inside the Father Divine crypt.

2017 (October):  The Father Divine Library and Museum were inaugurated and opened to the public.

BIOGRAPHY

Edna Rose Ritchings [Image at right] was born April 4, 1925, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She was the eldest of five children, three girls and two boys, born to Charles and Mabel Farr Ritchings. Mr. Ritchings was a successful local businessman who ran the Strathcona Floral Company, a nursery and flower shop (Harris 1953).

Edna Rose Ritchings’ interest in the International Peace Mission movement was singular in her family. By her own account, Edna’s fascination with the movement began very early when she overheard a group of Divinites talking about the “little Negro” who claimed to be God and was feeding thousands (Black 2013). She began a correspondence with Father Divine (or, more likely, with the numerous secretaries who handled his mail) and began subscribing to New Day, the Peace Mission’s weekly newspaper. By the age of fifteen, Edna Rose was dedicated to the high intensity religious group, embracing its messages of racial equality and universal brotherhood (Harris 1953; Weisbrot 1983; Watts 1995). She moved to Montreal, where she became involved in the Peace Mission center there, rising in the ranks to become vice-president and president of the extension. In spring 1946, Ritchings moved to the international Peace Mission headquarters in Pennsylvania.

Father Divine was the religious title and name used by George Baker, Jr. (1877–1965), the founder and the head of the movement. Peninnah (Sister Penny, then Mother Penny), who died, presumably in 1943 (Morris 1995:264), was his first wife and the first Mother Divine. “Peninnah was Divine’s rock, a trusted and stalwart follower without whom he might not have managed” (Morris 2019:209). [Image at right] She played an instrumental role in the Peace Mission’s development in the 1920s and 1930s, establishing the group’s “Promised Land” in Ulster County in upstate New York. She lived there fulltime for a while and unsuccessfully attempted to open an orphanage (Morris 2019:245). Although Mother Penny had various health problems, she continued to assist Father Divine at the weekly community dinners; her last known appearance was at a banquet in New York in 1942 (Morris 2019:261).

It was the practice in the Peace Mission to adopt a name to reflect one’s new angelic identity, since Father Divine insisted upon a sharp break between “the old life and the newness of rebirth” (Parker 1937:157): Edna Rose became Sweet Angel. The day after her move to Philadelphia, Sweet Angel and Father Divine, almost fifty years her senior, were married. Because one of the teachings of the Peace Mission was celibacy inside and outside of marriage (spiritually because one was living the angelic life, but practically because interracial marriage at that time was illegal) the marriage was kept secret. [Image at right] Thus, Peace Mission members were shocked when Father Divine presented Sweet Angel as his “spotless virgin bride” in August 1946 (Weisbrot 1995:288). He said that she had assumed the spirit of the first Mother Divine, and that their marriage would be chaste (Weisbrot 1983:215). Because Father Divine publicly shared his authority with Ritchings, investing her with his mystique, he gave her the ability to administer the Peace Mission in his absence. As a result, “Mother Divine became a nearly coequal partner in guiding the Peace Mission” (Weisbrot 1995:288).

Father and Mother Divine presided over the Peace Mission from its headquarters in the Divine Lorraine Hotel in Philadelphia from the late 1940s onwards, with Sweet Angel becoming the new face of the aging and increasingly diminishing black religion. The black press played up this novelty, and stories about the Peace Mission always displayed pictures of the second Mrs. Divine alone or alongside her elderly husband, as if to underscore her youth and vitality (“Divine Years” 1958). In 1953, the couple moved from the Divine Lorraine Hotel in Philadelphia to the newly acquired seventy-two-acre Woodmont estate in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Father Divine declared throughout their marriage that they lived in separate quarters.

The new Mother Divine’s regency in the declining Peace Mission movement portended change. [Image at right] Whereas most petitions in the movement had been made to God (that is, Father Divine) after her arrival, and with Father’s full blessing and encouragement, they were now made to God, Father and Mother Divine. Along with her elevation within the movement, her presence as the reincarnated first Mother Divine inaugurated the teaching of reincarnation in Peace Mission theology (Guinn 2017:87). The first Mother Divine (Peninnah) was believed to have died a willful death and then been reincarnated in the second Mother Divine (Edna Rose Ritchings).

In the face of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and a new militancy among African Americans, the Peace Mission saw a corresponding contraction of membership. In ill health at this time, including falling into a diabetic coma in 1960 (Weisbrot 1983:220, 223n29), Father Divine carefully crafted a bureaucracy designed to survive his death, with Mother Divine at the helm. Between 1961 and 1965, when Father Divine died on September 10, Mother Divine took on the primary roles as spokesperson for the Peace Mission (a public presence) and the officiator at Peace Mission rituals (a private presence). She continued to lead the organization as resources and membership dwindled, successfully fending off an attempt by Jim Jones (1931–1978), head of the Peoples Temple, to assume leadership in the absence of a male head in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As the Peace Mission sustained membership losses, Mother Divine raised funds through the sale of real estate and personal property. In 1985, she sold the “Promised Land” in upstate New York. This was followed by the sale of the Peace Mission’s signature hotels in Philadelphia, the Divine Lorraine in 2000 and the Divine Tracy in 2006. Meanwhile, Mother Divine continued to cultivate the persona of Father Divine, authorizing construction of an elaborate commemorative crypt for the leader in 1968, called a Shrine to Life (Watts 1995:177). [Image at right] Forty years later, she presided over the ground-breaking ceremony for the Father Divine Library and Museum, which opened seven months after her death (Melamed 2017).

Edna Rose Ritchings/Sweet Angel/Mother Divine led the International Peace Mission movement as Father Divine’s widow from 1965 until her death from natural causes at age ninety-one on March 4, 2017.

TEACHINGS/DOCTRINES

The Peace Mission faith was built on the certainty of followers in the biblical interpretations as well as in the social, economic, and spiritual ideas preached and taught by Father Divine. The Peace Mission proclaimed that there was no God in the sky, and that Father Divine was God Almighty in a human body on earth as the fulfillment of the coming of the Jewish messiah and the return of Jesus the Christ (Mother Divine 1982:44–46). Relying upon New Thought ideas, Father Divine proclaimed that heaven and hell were states of mind and that perfect happiness or “heaven” was available in the here and now, not something to achieve or go to after death. “The Essence of [Father Divine’s] message to the World,” published November 17, 1934, purports to reveal his true nature:

The coming of my body into expression was to bring to humanity the consciousness of God’s presence. . . . I made my body a target to bring to your conscious realization the presence of God on the material plane. . . . The very words that I speak unto you are Spirit and they are Life. . . . (Parker 1937:200–01).

The International Peace Mission movement proclaimed a gospel of self-help, sexual abstinence, economic independence, communal social equality, and international brotherhood that was to be lived as well as believed. Father Divine taught, and his followers accepted, that his teachings presented Christianity in practice and were based on universal principles compatible with all positive spiritual traditions. A unique element of Divine’s teachings, especially given the racial segregation that dominated American life in the 1920s and 1930s, was his emphasis on interracial love and harmony. While he emphasized black entrepreneurship as the means to self-help and survival (Lincoln and Mamiya 2004), he also promoted interracial gatherings in a communal setting, such as the weekly heavenly banquets (Watts 1995:75-76). [Image at right]

Another distinctive practice of the Peace Mission (one which flowed from Father Divine’s interpretation and implementation of Mark 12:25 and Luke 28:34–36) was the promotion of non-sexual, opposite-race and same-sex social pairings called “twins” (Mother Divine 1982:24–26). All Peace Mission members, from Father Divine on down, who lived in movement properties were paired in this way. Thus, from her time as a member of Father Divine’s secretarial staff and throughout her long tenure first as God’s wife, and then as God’s widow and Peace Mission leader, Mother Divine was paired with Miss Peaceful, “a petite African featured” woman as her twin and communal roommate (Harris 1953:257–58). The two women were to be each other’s primary social companion, friend, and confidant; their primary task was to encourage the other to always keep “Father’s teachings.” This also helped ensure that the practice of celibacy would be followed.

Peace Mission members believed that eternal life in the physical body was possible and desirable, and that heaven on earth could be achieved by individuals in community in strict adherence to Father Divine’s teachings. Whereas before 1965 the Peace Mission often proclaimed, and members expressed belief in, the physical immortality of Father Divine, after 1965 under the leadership of Mother Divine, members believed that Father Divine’s death, called “laying down the body,” was a willful and sacrificial decision made by him. While still teaching the possibility of eternal life in the physical body for perfected followers of Father Divine, Mother Divine emphasized the reincarnation of the faithful after a willful death, including the expected and anticipated reincarnation of Father Divine in a physical body.

While Edna Rose Ritchings was still a child living with her parents, the Peace Mission allied with radical political movements outside of the mainstream that were opposed to war and that expounded a belief in racial equality. For a time this included the Communist Party in the United States (Weisbrot 1983:148–52), Later on, under Mother Divine’s leadership, the Peace Mission supported reparations for descendants of enslaved persons (Father Divine 1951) and advocated for the efficacy of communal economics and living (Mother Divine 1982:23, 24, 40; Mabee 2008:155–58). In the 1990s, however, members supported the Reform Party of presidential candidate Ross Perot, a turn from radical communalism to radical individualism (Sitton 1993).

Finally, in addition to believing in the possibility of individual perfection by imitating the life of Father Divine and embodying his teachings, Peace Mission members were convinced that America could be and would be transformed into the Kingdom of God on earth, once their teachings and practices were fully implemented (Mother Divine 1982:20, 31–32, 110–11, and passim). In the meantime, the lives of faithful Peace Mission members were to present examples of the perfect life of happiness available to all.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

The Peace Mission meetings of the 1940s that Edna Rose Ritchings joined were essentially gatherings of followers to extol Father Divine, his teachings, and his movement. Such assemblies, honed over two decades, consisted of opening with the singing of Peace Mission hymns as well as singing songs from popular culture that reflected aspects of Father Divine’s message (Fauset 1944:64, 65; Harris 298–306). Often the tunes of popular songs were used with lyrics composed extempore by followers, while others were entirely original compositions. These singing sessions would often provide members with ecstatic emotional release, wherein glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and other spiritual expressions were common (Watts 1995:75).

Outside of Philadelphia, the home base, the singing and emotional manifestations were usually followed by the reading of sermons by Father Divine printed in the New Day, by Peace Mission extension leaders. Talks by visiting speakers, if present, followed. Such communications, either as sermons by Father Divine or talks by local Peace Mission leaders, or visiting speakers, would often center on contemporary social, economic, and political topics as often as on esoteric, spiritual ones. Services usually concluded with member testimonials about the power of Father Divine to forecast the future, heal, and provide salvation. Such testimonials also took place in conjunction with the Peace Mission’s weekly holy communion service, which was essentially a free banquet open to all comers. “The banquet table serves as the central place both of worship and fellowship for Peace Mission disciples,” according to historian Robert Weisbrot, writing about what he observed in the 1980s.

Heaping dishes of food, of great variety and in seemingly endless succession, recall the free Sunday feasts that helped propel this movement to national fame during the Great Depression (Weisbrot 1995:285).

At first the weekly meals were held in people’s homes, which angered neighbors upset about the interracial congregation. [Image at right] But as the numbers grew, the banquets outgrew domestic spaces and moved to more institutional or congregational settings. The heavenly banquet became the primary way the Peace Mission attracted followers in the 1930s, in which thousands of individuals were fed during the Great Depression. Continuous “sittings” would be held on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate the crowds (Watts 1995:75). After Ritchings married Father Divine, the heavenly banquet acquired a new significance on their anniversary, with Father Divine designating the interracial marriage as the fulfillment of Revelation 19:7, 9, celebrating the wedding of the lamb and his bride (Weisbrot 1983:215).

As the Peace Mission became more institutionalized in the 1950s, new orders of membership were created. “Rosebuds” were younger women; “Lily-buds” were somewhat older women; and “Crusaders” were men of any age. These orders each had their own code of conduct, liturgical practice, brightly-colored uniforms (Weisbrot 1995:288).

LEADERSHIP

Edna Rose Ritchings demonstrated her leadership aspirations and abilities in the International Peace Mission movement early on, rising to the positions of vice-president and then president of the Montreal, Canada Peace Mission extension before the age of twenty-one.

In early 1945, Ritchings traveled to the world headquarters of the International Peace Mission movement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in 1946 she returned to marry Father Divine the day after her arrival (Weisbrot 1983:214). She was quickly catapulted to a senior leadership position. Both the marriage and Ritchings’ meteoric rise in the organization caused critical external scrutiny and internal division. According to Weisbrot, however, the marriage “served a vital purpose in aiding the Peace Mission’s transition from cult to church: it provided a successor to Father Divine” (1984:215). Although this purpose was not immediately disclosed to followers, Father Divine’s declaration that Sweet Angel represented his church on earth (as the church is married spiritually to the lamb in Revelation 19:7, 9) she was invested with authority to rule in his stead.

Mother Divine used her “Divinely-given” authority throughout Father Divine’s decline in the 1950s and after his death in 1965. [Image at right] The Peace Mission faced disparagement by civil rights activists who saw the movement as out-of-date and irrelevant. Internal threats to her position arose by those who were uncomfortable with her increasing assertion of real authority while Father Divine was still alive. These internal and external challenges to her leadership continued after Father Divine’s death; they included a takeover attempt by Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, which was supported by a tiny fraction of highly placed and disaffected Divinites in the early 1970s (Guinn 2017:207–11).

By 1980, internal and external threats to her position as the paramount Peace Mission leader were resolved in her favor. Mother Divine had to manage the rapidly advancing physical decline and global contraction of the International Peace Mission movement. Now secure and uncontested in her leadership role, she was able to take controversial but pragmatic executive actions, such as selling off Father Divine’s one-of-a-kind Duesenberg “throne car.” She halted the fifty-year run of the movement’s weekly, New Day. She effectively ended the dream of the International Peace Mission movement to sustain and maintain a rural upstate New York agricultural paradise community, called “the Promised Land,” without any repercussions from staff or the remaining followers (Mabee 2008:25, 214–23). She oversaw care and management of the influx of increasingly elderly and infirm Divinites from the United States and abroad. Yet, even with radical consolidation efforts, the number of followers continued to drop precipitously. Mother Divine therefore authorized the closure and sale of the Peace Mission’s signature hotel properties in Philadelphia, the Divine Lorraine Hotel in 2000 and the Divine Tracy Hotel in 2006.

In tandem with the assertion of her executive authority, Mother Divine moved to institutionalize her understanding of Peace Mission practice and faith. Using her position as the Peace Mission’s caretaker in the physical absence, but spiritual presence, of Father Divine, she seized the Peace Mission narrative to promote a type of ideological orthodoxy (Watts 1995:167–78). This was done to distance the movement from events like the 1978 Jonestown mass murder-suicides in Guyana, and from the subjective sentiments of internal movement detractors. She also sought to counter anticult and other literature that she felt misrepresented the Peace Mission by writing her own analysis, The Peace Mission Movement, in 1982.

A special commemorative issue of New Day was issued in April 1996 in honor of the fiftieth wedding anniversary of Mother and Father Divine, and despite a few ups and downs, Mother Divine’s leadership remained unquestioned and uncontested. Looking to the future, the eighty-three-year-old Peace Mission leader presided over the groundbreaking celebration for the Father Divine Library and Museum at the Woodmont estate in 2008. Mother Divine continued to host tours of Woodmont. She also gave special talks at the Sayville, New York, property and appeared at Holy Communion services, increasingly assisted by aides and secretaries. She effectively disappeared from the public view between 2012 and 2013.

Mother Divine remained leader of the Peace Mission until her death at the Woodmont estate on March 4, 2017, at age ninety one. “Although not an innovator or social crusader as Father Divine had been in his prime, Mother Divine . . . proved an effective unifying symbol for a movement seeking to maintain organizational stability amid waning numbers” (Weisbrot 1995:289). Seven months later, the Father Divine Library and Museum were opened to the public for research and reflection.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

The primary challenge for Edna Rose Ritchings was to lead a working-class black religion in the United States as a young, white female from Canada’s urban middle class. Her task was to display and prove her solidarity as an exemplary follower of Father Divine: to be a role model for his teachings on interracial, international, universal brotherhood, and sexual abstinence.

At its practical and ontological core, the Peace Mission was essentially a black women’s movement led by a black man who was worshipped as God. As such, the Peace Mission served as a safe space wherein former rural, working-class black females, often newly urbanized, could find consistent employment, regular meals, and a guaranteed roof over their heads without submitting to societal pressures. This security freed them from expectations of marriage and child-bearing with former rural working-class black men, who were often not able to financially and/or emotionally support either them or the children that resulted from their unions.

For a white woman to head a predominantly African American group, comprised largely of black females, therefore, was a daunting task; this was true especially in the era of legalized segregation. Mother Divine had to navigate widespread external suspicion that she was either a victim of, or a willing accomplice to, a maniacal, mind-controlling black cult leader who ran an underground white sex slavery ring (Wilson 1937). Moreover, suspicions raged internally that she had used her youth and feminine charms, as well as her “whiteness,” to seduce the aging Father Divine into marriage. Ritchings’ rapid rise to become co-leader was seen as undeserved in a movement run by women who “were highly visible in the upper and middle echelons of the Peace Mission organization” (Weisbrot 1983:61). Furthermore, the interracial marriage was, in fact, illegal in some thirty states in the America of 1946.

Inimitable teachings about race and racism in the Peace Mission seemed to ameliorate, and even justify, this extraordinary situation. Father Divine rejected any notion of black and white. “There was but one race, Father Divine insisted, and that was the human race” (Weisbrot 1983:100). He objected to all racial designations, especially the word “Negro,” and refused to attend any celebrations or awards given to distinguished Negroes. But Father Divine opposed racial shame as well, encouraging his “angels” not to use skin lightening or whitening products. Moreover, “Father Divine was no more willing to accept whites as moral tutors than as aesthetic models” (Weisbrot 1983:103). Father Divine’s rejection of all racial distinctions required members not to identify each other by race.

In his opinion, race did not really exist and was a damaging artificial construct of the mind” (Watts 1995:89). To get around obvious color differences, members might use euphemisms such as “light-complected” or “dark-complected” (Weisbrot 1995:286).

Thus, the ascension of a white woman to a position of great power over African Americans could be rationalized as the ultimate goal of an explicitly color-blind movement.

A related challenge concerned the marriage between Ritchings and Father Divine. While the couple repeatedly avowed that they were chaste, apostates told a different story. Some high-level Peace Mission leaders quietly left the movement once the secret marriage became public knowledge while others, like Carol Sweet and John West Hunt, left in a vocal and well-publicized huff (Harris 1953:259–76). Sweet and Hunt were long-time white followers who alleged that they had either participated in, or covered up, Father Divine’s sexual indiscretions. They were incensed, and appeared to be jealous, that the young outsider had been catapulted over them into Father Divine’s graces. The black press was also less than sanguine about Edna Rose Ritchings as the new Mother Divine, and there is anecdotal evidence that Father Divine lost standing in the black community because of it (Harris 1953:253–56).

Other observers doubted that Edna Rose Ritchings could be an effective Peace Mission leader. One historian of the Peace Mission in the 1950s went as far as to opine that in the event of the death of Father Divine, his followers would rather opt for a mass suicide than submit to the “nothing” leadership of Mother Divine (Harris 1953:312, 319–20).

Coming into sole leadership of the declining Peace Mission in 1965 in the midst of the rising civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Mother Divine’s response was not to offer anything new or innovative. [Image at right] Instead, she reprinted and replayed Father Divine’s commentaries and sermons on social justice issues from the previous decades as the Peace Mission’s answer to the swirling changes affecting the society around it. Although this course of action was a logical way to approach the matter, it was also fraught with controversy from those who remembered and revered Father Divine’s personal dynamism and social activism of the 1930s. They found Mother Divine’s approach less than inspiring (Mabee 2008:217–18).

Adopting a dismissive approach to the question of Mother Divine’s leadership, the Reverend Jim Jones of Peoples Temple mounted a frontal assault to take over the Peace Mission and its vast assets in 1971 and 1972. Jones, a long-time Peace Mission contact, cultivated the discontent of some members inside the Peace Mission who were disgruntled under the leadership of Mother Divine. They included those who explicitly criticized her for failing to emulate Father Divine’s record as a miracle worker, faith healer, and activist. Other women asserted that they had been Father Divine’s sexual partners during his marriage to Sweet Angel, and claimed they had faced retribution from Mother Divine after her husband’s death.

In his campaign to discredit Mother Divine as leader, Jim Jones attempted to confirm the suspicion that her authority was based not on celibacy and fulfillment of scripture, as the Peace Mission claimed, but on her successful, private sexual dominance over the late Peace Mission leader. Jones, who was married to Marceline Baldwin Jones (1927–1978), declared that he had rebuffed Mother Divine while the two were alone in a private meeting during a visit to Woodmont. In an attempt to acquire personal, intimate proof of Jones’ claim to leadership of the movement, she allegedly made an overt sexual advance.

Although unsuccessful in his overall goal of becoming the leader of the International Peace Mission movement, Jones succeeded in peeling off a number of Divinites. These included a former Peace Mission extension president and a member of Mother Divine’s secretarial staff, who accepted Jones’ claim to be Father Divine reincarnated. Jones modeled Peoples Temple after the Peace Mission, demanding that members of Peoples Temple call him Father or Dad, and incorporated a number of Father Divine’s theological principles. Just as her late husband had done in 1932 (declaring “He hated to do it,” when a judge who had ruled against him died suddenly) (Weisbrot 1983:53), Mother Divine turned the deaths in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 into a cautionary tale of divine retribution, now employed on her behalf, against recalcitrant followers and critics (Mother Divine 1982:137–41).

Despite consolidating her leadership of the International Peace Mission movement by 1980, Mother Divine faced further challenges as the caretaker of a rapidly contracting global empire of properties that housed an increasingly infirm, aging, and celibate clientele. In order to repatriate the far-flung followers into the remaining hubs of the movement, and to maintain them in the communes that they were both guaranteed and accustomed to, Mother Divine began a twenty-five-year process to cut expenses and repurpose movement monies by selling off Peace Mission properties and real estate.

Mother Divine also sought to address the sticky subject of Divinite theology, a subjective space in which followers and non-followers alike were encouraged to see and seek “Father” in their own way. Mother Divine sought to institute an understanding of Peace Mission practice and faith that strengthened her position as the Peace Mission’s leader. Her response to challenges in which Father Divine’s own teachings were used against her was to author The Peace Mission Movement in 1982. This became the authoritative book for understanding the group’s theology and practice.

In order to keep the Peace Mission Movement message available in perpetuity for future generations, Mother Divine oversaw the groundbreaking celebration for the Father Divine Library and Museum in 2013. They would be completed seven months after her death in 2017.

SIGNIFICANCE TO THE STUDY OF WOMEN IN RELIGIONS

Although never the leader of a mainstream organization or in a mainstream religion, Edna Rose Ritchings had enormous significance. [Image at right] As a young white Canadian, Mother Divine became the unquestioned leader of a working-class black women’s socio-religious movement. Her life’s work is a study in how she and the movement together navigated and challenged normative, socially enforced gender roles and racial identities during the period of Jim Crow racism. This occurred both before and during the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. In an attempt to create and express a model of interracial sisterhood and utopian social justice to the dominant society, members of the International Peace Mission worked to build a parallel society.

As Mother Divine in the International Peace Mission movement, Ritchings both used and subverted the socially-given role of wife and widow who gains authority by proximity to a powerful husband. She embraced the oxymoronic role of childless mother and challenged those gender customs, rejecting the prerogatives of normative marriage, and denying the concept of race. She accomplished this within a radical group that expressed black female anguish and utopian hope (under the initial leadership of a black man) in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The gender and racial composition of the Peace Mission underscores the importance of the role of women in the International Peace Mission movement generally; Mother Divine’s leadership highlights the phenomenon of a white woman in a largely black group in particular. Although perceived by some sectors of the public as a bizarre all-black cult led by a self-aggrandizing and delusional madman, the all-white, largely female Montreal extension of the Peace Mission shows that Father Divine’s movement provided a unique experience for females of various ages and different races. They could participate in all levels of activity in an international organization, even assuming leadership roles often frustrated or denied women outside of the Peace Mission. The experience also allowed white women (and white men) the opportunity to shed the image and reality of white racism that pervaded the United States at that time. By committing themselves to a black religion, with a black god as leader, they were able to detach themselves from whiteness and its alleged, perceived, and actual privileges. At the same time, the self-help and entrepreneurial programs promoted by the International Peace Mission movement advanced the cause and economic well-being of African American women and men.

Thus, the study of Mother Divine and her leadership of, and participation in, the International Peace Mission movement reveals a little-known aspect of the history of race relations in the United States. It also advances what sociologist David Feltmate calls a “social possibilities” rather than “social problems” approach to new religions like the Peace Mission; that is, it demonstrates how a group addresses existential problems and issues in its current moment (Feltmate 2016). By considering Edna Rose Ritchings, along with the women who made up the movement she led, we see how one group attempted to live an alternative life in a deeply segregated and racist society.

IMAGES
Image #1: Edna Rose Ritchings, renamed Sweet Angel in the Peace Mission.
Image #2: Peninnah (Sister Penny), the first Mother Divine with a young Father Divine.
Image #3: Father Divine, Sweet Angel, and other secretaries in the Peace Mission Movement.
Image #4: Sweet Angel secretly married Father Divine on April 29, 1946, and became the second Mother Divine “in the body.”
Image #5: Crypt erected for Father Divine and consecrated in 1968.
Image #6 Passing food around the table at one of the weekly heavenly banquets held by the Peace Mission.
Image #7: Father Divine and Mother Divine at a large heavenly banquet.
Image #8: Mother Divine and an aging Father Divine.
Image #9: Mother Divine and Father Divine.
Image #10: An aging Mother Divine.

REFERENCES

Black, E. 2013. “Wives of God, Mothers of the Faithful: Edna Rose Baker and Marceline Jones as Mothers Divine.” the jonestown report, October 15. Accessed from https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=40226 on 20 October 2019.

Black. E. 2014. “Addendum 1: The Changing Politics of Assessing Father Divine and Jim Jones.” jtr bulletin. Accessed from https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=61374 on 20 October 2019.

“Divine Years.” 1958. Jet 14(May):49.

Faithful Mary [Viola Wilson]. 1937. “God”: He’s Just a Natural Man. Philadelphia: Universal Light.

Feltmate, David. 2016. “Rethinking New Religious Movements Beyond a Social Problems Paradigm.” Nova Religio 20:82–96.

Guinn, Jeff. 2017. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Harris, Sara. 1953. Father Divine: Holy Husband. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. 2004. “Daddy Jones and Father Divine: The Cult as Political Religion.” Pp. 28–46 in Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, edited by Rebecca Moore, Anthony B. Pinn, and Mary R. Sawyer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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

Melamed, Samantha. 2017. “Father Divine Intervention: Can a Documentary and a Museum Save the Dying Peace Mission?” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 6:7.

Morris, Adam. 2019. American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation. New York: Liveright.

Mother Divine [Edna Rose Ritchings]. 1982. The Peace Mission Movement. New York: Anno Domini Father Divine Publications.

Father Divine. 1951. “Restitution and Retroactive Compensation to the Oppressed of the Earth.” Peace Mission, August 8. Accessed from http://peacemission.info/sermons-by-father-divine/restitution-retroactive-compensation-to-the-oppressed-of-the-earth/ on 20 October 2019.

Fauset, Arthur Huff. 1944. Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Parker, Robert Allerton. 1937. The Incredible Messiah: The Deification of Father Divine. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. (Available online through the Hathi Trust Digital Library).

Sitton, Lea. 1993. “Perot Takes Campaign to Valley Forge; He’s Blasting Washington; It Was His 60th Rally This Year; He Drew 2000 People, including Mother Divine.” Philadelphia Inquirer (August 23): A1.

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

Weisbrot, Robert. 1995. “Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement.” Pp. 285–90 in America’s Alternative Religions, edited by Timothy Miller. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Weisbrot, Robert. 1983. Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Boston: Beacon Press.

SUPPLEMENTARY RESOURCES

Black, E. 2013. “Jonestown and Woodmont: Jim Jones, Mother Divine and the Fulfillment of Father Divine’s Intention of a Vanishing Divine City.” the jonestown report, October 15. Accessed from https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=40227 on 20 October 2019.

Black, E. 2012. “Laying The Body Down: Total Commitment and Sacrifice to the Cause in the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple.” the jonestown report, October 14. Accessed from https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=34229.

Black, E. 2010. “‘Ever Faithful’: The Contest between Mother Divine, Jim Jones and their Followers for Supremacy in Faithfulness to the Cause.” the jonestown report, October 12. Accessed from https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=30222 on 20 October 2019.

Boaz, Ruth. 1965. “My Thirty Years with Father Divine.” Ebony 20:89–98.

Boccella, Kathy. 2011. “Gladwyne Mansion, Memories of Father Divine Live On.” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 17.

Boccella, Kathy. 2011. “Only a Handful of Followers Left to Carry on Father Divine’s Mission.” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 26.

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

Erickson, Keith V. 1977. “Black Messiah: the Father Divine Peace Mission Movement.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 63:428–38.

“Father Divine.” 2003. African-American Religious Leaders: A to Z of African Americans, edited by. Nathan Aasang. Revised Edition. New York: Facts on File.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Cornel West. 2000. “Father Divine.” In The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped our Country, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West, 122–25. New York: The Free Press.

Grimes, William. 2017. “Mother Divine, 91, Dies; Took Over Husband’s Cult.” New York Times, March 15:B.14.

Hoshor, John. 1936. God in a Rolls Royce: The Rise of Father Divine—Madman, Menace, or Messiah. New York: Hillman-Curl.

Primiano, Leonard Norman. 2019. “International Peace Mission Movement and Father Divine.” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Accessed from https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/international-peace-mission-movement-and-father-divine/.

Satter, Beryl. 1996. “Marcus Garvey, Father Divine and the Gender Politics of Race Difference and Race Neutrality.” American Quarterly 48:43–76.

Seely, Katharine. 1986. “Mother Divine: Keeping the Flame Alive.” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31.

DIGITAL RESOURCES

Dixon, Vince. 2018. “Heaven Was a Place in Harlem.” Vox Video. Accessed from https://www.eater.com/a/father-divine on October 2019. [Includes newsreel footage of Father Divine and many photographs].

“Father Divine.” 2019. International Peace Mission Movement. Accessed from http://peacemission.info/ on 14 October 2019.

“Father Divine.” 1930s. “The March of Time” [newsreel]. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNLNrNxPmDA on 2 October 2019.

“Father Divine and the Peace Mission.” n.d. America and the Utopian Dream. Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. New Haven: Yale University. Accessed from http://brbl-archive.library.yale.edu/exhibitions/utopia/uc18.html on 20 October 2019.

“Father Divine in Tarrytown, New York. 1946 (?). Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HveytJSnlEc on 2 October 2019. [Images of Mother Divine].

“Father Divine’s Peace Mission: Hope for the Impoverished.” This Far By Faith. PBS Television Series. Accessed from http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/journey_3/p_10.html on 20 October 2019.

Garcia, Tom, Jr. 2019. tommygarcia.com. Accessed on 13 October. [Website of adopted son of Father Divine and Mother Divine, has articles and photographs.]

Kaluza, Wanda. 2011. “An American Castle: The Alan Wood Jr. Estate.” Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRefPu32xHo. [Video of exterior of Woodmont Estate].

Luers, Will. 2012. “The Father Divine Project on Vimeo.” Accessed from https://vimeo.com/channels/326983 on 20 October 2019.

Post Date:
26 October 2019

 

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