An elderly woman who rarely talked about her past died earlier this month in a lavish mansion outside Philadelphia, a mansion that was once the center of a religious movement that claimed anywhere from two to 10 million followers.
Her death marks what will most likely be the closing chapter in a story with origins right here in Baltimore.
Sweet Angel Divine, or Mother Divine as she was known to followers of the International Peace Mission, was 91 when she died March 4. She was the widow of the Rev. Major Jealous Divine, aka Father Divine. Some say he was born in Georgia, others in Rockville, Md.; Father Divine resolutely declined to say. The man apparently born George Baker in or around 1879 (again, he refused to say himself) was living in Baltimore, working as a gardener and teaching Sunday school, when he became interested in ministry.
Boy, did he become interested in ministry. By 1910, following an inspirational visit to Los Angeles, he was leading his own congregation. By the end of the decade, Father Divine had moved to New York, eventually settling on Long Island.
His preaching included calls for racial equality (he was African-American), communal living, chaste relations and -- something the government would view suspiciously over the decades -- cash-only transactions. Father Divine and his movement were determinedly color-blind and committed to peace, something that struck a responsive chord in many people, both black and white, during an era when Jim Crow was the law in many parts of the country.
Father Divine’s International Peace Mission owned hotels, apartment houses and dozens of other businesses. Those included restaurants and cafeterias, which were known for offering low-cost, even free meals to anyone who asked for one. In Baltimore, according to a Nov. 6, 1943 article in the Afro-American, visitors to his restaurant at 823 N. Arlington Ave. could get a three-course meal for 15 cents. Visitors were expected to say “Peace” to anyone they met, and men and women were seated separately. Magazines and newspapers were not permitted, only publications issued by the church.
By the 1930s, Father Divine was calling himself God. During an October 1942 visit to his Arlington Avenue restaurant, Father Divine told a reporter for the Afro, “Abraham Lincoln spoke of me when he said, ‘This nation under God will have a new birth of freedom.’ I’m not on Earth to make you ashamed. I will preach Christ in words, but more so in deeds and actions.”
On April 29, 1946, Father Divine -- who had been widowed for three years -- married a 21-year-old Canadian woman, Edna Rose Ritchings. She legally changed her name to Sweet Angel Divine. And following Father Divine’s death on Sept. 10, 1965 (he was said to be about 100 years old, but again, no one knew for sure), Mother Divine took over leadership of the movement.
Over the years, Mother Divine kept a firm grip on the church -- firm enough to turn back an attempt by Jim Jones, claiming he was the reincarnation of Father Divine, to take control of it. Rebuffed, Jones would move on to California and later Guyana, where he and some 900 of his followers committed mass suicide in 1978.
But membership in the International Peace Movement dwindled. Mother Divine was forced to sell off much of its property -- Father Divine's estate was estimated to be worth about $10 million when he died -- to maintain the suburban Philadelphia mansion, known as Woodmont, where she remained surrounded by a handful of followers. Still, according to an obituary in the Washington Post, she continued to speak of her husband in the present tense, and to set a place for him at every meal.
“He has just gone away for a while,” she was reported to have said soon after his death, “and he will come back to Earth in a bodily form.”