Thursday, 17 August 2017 06:00

Woodmont low res

The Peace Mission Movement didn’t begin in Montgomery County, but since 1952, its headquarters has been at Woodmont in Gladwyne.

The group was founded by Father Divine, a man whose origins are unclear.  The FBI identified him as “George Baker” and he was likely born in 1876, perhaps in Maryland, though some researchers have placed his birth in the Deep South.  Most researchers agree that his parents were probably former slaves. 

In 1912, the man who would one day be known as “Father Divine” began preaching that he was God, the fulfillment of the Biblical prophecies of the Second Coming of Christ.

Preaching through the south, Divine attracted followers whom he encouraged to live celibate lives and taught that there was no difference between the races or the sexes.  Several times, he came into conflict with local preachers, who twice had him arrested.

In 1914, he and some of his followers moved north to Brooklyn, where they formed their first community in an apartment building.  There, he took the name “Reverend Major Jealous Divine.”  The congregation lived together, eschewing alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and sex.  It was during this time that his followers began calling their leader “Father Divine.”  Many of his followers voluntarily gave their money to the movement and changed their names.

In 1919, the group moved to the predominantly white town of Sayville on Long Island.  The movement grew substantially during the years in Sayville, and Father Divine attracted his first white followers.  Neighbors were unhappy with the group and made several complaints about inappropriate relations between Father Divine and some of his female followers (he had married a much older woman named Penninah during the Brooklyn years).  The local authorities found no evidence for this. 

l father divine 600x400

Father Divine

In 1931, he and many of his followers were arrested for disturbing the peace when police broke up a large party at Father Divine’s house.  Several dozen followers pled guilty and were fined $5 a piece.  When Father Divine paid the fines with a $500 bill, the police were unable to make change.  Divine, Pinninah, and several followers denied the charges.  The resulting trial caught the attention of the New York press and greatly raised Father Divine’s profile.  He was soon regularly speaking to large crowds in the metropolitan area.  As it expanded, the movement finally gained an official name the International Peace Mission Movement.

Woodmont interior

The dining room at Woodmont - a large, multi-course feast is a hallmark of the Peace Mission

Father Divine was sentenced to one year in prison, after which he moved to Harlem, where he had many followers.  During the Great Depression, he became more political calling for an end to school segregation and opposing the New Deal.  His teachings had much in common with the New Thought Movement.  The story goes that Johnny Mercer once attended a sermon in which Father Divine told his listeners to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,” and a song was born.

The Depression would be the zenith of the movement.  In the 1940’s Father Divine left New York for Philadelphia, perhaps to avoid a court order to return the savings of two followers who wished to leave the movement.  His wife Penninah died sometime in 1943 (her death was not spoken of publically).  The movement purchased the Divine Lorraine and the Divine Tracy hotels in Philadelphia.  They were budget hotels with floors segregated by sex in accordance with Father Divine’s teachings on celibacy (they were however racially integrated).  In 1965, John DeVoute, Father Divine’s secretary told the New York Times, “there is only one family, one race. We don't even call people N's [Negroes] or C's [Caucasians]; we consider that a sin.”

In 1953, the movement purchased the Woodmont estate in Gladwyne for $75,000, and this became the headquarters.  By this time, however, the movement had dwindled.  Father Divine was getting older, though just how old he was no one knew for sure.  He made few public appearances at this time, but every year, the group opened the Woodmont estate, rechristened “The Mount of the House of the Lord,” to the public for an annual open house.


Father Divine's masoleum at Woodmont

Father Divine passed away on September 10, 1965.  The Times Herald reported that the cause was arteriosclerosis and quoted his lawyer as saying he was about 100 years old.  Father Divine’s second wife, known as Mother Divine continued running the movement until her death last March.  In the early 1970’s, Mother Divine fought off an attempted takeover by Jim Jones.  The movement has seen few converts since its founder’s death, and the strict teaching on celibacy makes it likely that it will one day be extinct.


Father Divine and Mother Divine

Today, Woodmont is still run by Father Divine’s followers.  The house is open to the public on Sundays April thought October.

137th Anniversary of Norristown State Hospital’s First Patient Admission