Father Divine’s Indelible Mark on Westchester

The charismatic spiritual leader’s influence on the county included significant real estate holdings.


courtesy of New rochelle city historian

 

To some, the enigmatic Father Divine was a spiritual leader worthy of their undying love and support. To others, he was a fraud and a charlatan.

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Father Divine, an African American who created an empire in Harlem through real estate holdings and small businesses, claimed to have godlike powers and the ability to grant salvation to the faithful. But critics called him a hustler who defrauded the gullible through a strange mix of Christianity, a self-help ideology of positive thinking, and cultism. Even Adam Clayton Powell Sr., the long-term black congressional leader from Harlem, called the African American preacher “the colossal farce of the 20th century.”

Father Divine extended his reach to Westchester in the 1930s and 1940s by purchasing significant residential properties in wealthy enclaves — including New Rochelle, Yonkers, and Tarrytown — much to the chagrin of his rich, white neighbors.

The first Westchester property acquired by the founder of the Peace Mission movement was a grand Greek Revival mansion at the entry to the stylish Park Hill section of Yonkers, a historic neighborhood known for its large single-family homes and considered one of the country’s first planned suburbs, with a close-knit community that included many artists, musicians, and writers. The house, granted landmark status in 1993, was purchased in 1939 from a contractor who wanted to spite his neighbors for thwarting his efforts to build apartments in the neighborhood.

Through his secretary and spokesperson, John DeVoute (Father Divine never owned property in his own name), Father Divine established the Yonkers house as one of his many communal residences, which were called “Heavens,” where residents paid a nominal fee for meals and a place to sleep.

The itinerant minister with the golden voice arrived at his new Yonkers home in a chauffeured custom limousine as part of a march of 700 of his followers, who enjoyed a massive banquet with 100 varieties of food.

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He never actually lived in the house, according to Jane McAfee, a Houlihan Lawrence broker and longtime Park Hill resident, but his followers, known as his “Angels,” remained there well into the 1990s. Ironically, many of those Angels, with names like Sister Smiling Child, Sister Bright, and Love Love Love, later became domestics in local homes, valued for their conscientiousness, work ethic, and honesty.

 


A grand Greek Revival mansion in the historic Park Hill section of Yonkers, was the first of many Westchester properties acquired by Father Divine, a spiritual leader and founder of the Peace Mission movement, known for his charm and controversy.

photo by toby mcafee​

 

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Also in 1939, Father Divine and his church bought a 15-room house in the equally fashionable Sutton Manor neighborhood of New Rochelle, according to city historian Barbara Davis. In 1941, to the great consternation of the Duchess of Tallyrand (railroad heiress Anna Gould, daughter of Jay Gould), the Peace Movement bought a 70-acre riverfront parcel of land right next door to her Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown. They held on to the land until 1986. Other holdings by Father Divine’s followers were located in Ossining and Nepperhan Heights in Yonkers, among other Westchester communities.

Although not much is known about Father Divine’s early life, historians say he likely was born in either Savannah, GA, or Rockville, MD, around 1880 and named George Baker.

While persistent controversy surrounded him, Father Divine donated huge amounts of food to the hungry during the Depression yet amassed riches from tens of thousands of devoted followers.

In an effort to “lift the standards” of surrounding communities, he promoted abstinence, education, hard work, self-reliance, and faith healing, and preached a “Modesty Code” that banned smoking, drinking, obscenity, and accepting gifts, tips, or bribes. His followers were not allowed to attend movies or the theater or use cosmetics or profane language. The code also forbade a mixing of the sexes — even husbands and wives were housed by gender on separate floors.

Business owners among his flock were instructed to accept cash only, sell at competitive prices, and refrain from selling tobacco or liquor. He saw no need for churches and encouraged people to speak directly to their Lord.

An early civil rights advocate, Father Divine denounced the racist power structure of the day and insisted that women be treated as the equals of men. A pacifist, he lobbied for an anti-lynching bill in Washington, and his properties welcomed both blacks and whites in the segregated mid-1900s.

According to TIME magazine, Father Divine’s Peace Mission movement included 50,000 members in its heyday. His organization owned as many as 150 missions throughout the United States and Europe, and included restaurants, gas stations, retail stores, hotels, and farms.

When the movement began to decline in the 1940s, felled by sexual and financial scandals, Father Divine moved his operation to Philadelphia, where he died in 1965.


Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can.

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