It was nearly midnight, but the faithful of an avant-garde religious sect were still hollerin’ Sunday hallelujahs in a house at 72 Macon St. in the normally muted Suffolk County South Shore town of Sayville.
Unnoticed by the believers, a crew of cops and vigilantes had surrounded the house and were fixing to bring the praise party to its knees.
The date was Nov. 15, 1931, and a charismatic revivalist known to his vassals as Father Divine was about to have his first front-page moment.
John Lamb, one of 80 people packed into the eight-room house, later wrote that they were “in the midst of a great demonstration of the spirit, while various angels were singing in foreign tongues, dancing and praising God.”
Meanwhile outside, he wrote, “hose lines were laid so that water could be poured in, if necessary, to quiet us down.”
The hoses stayed limp. Father Divine, a bald, diminutive black man, negotiated a peaceful surrender and led his flock out the front door.
“There we found the state troopers waiting,” Lamb wrote, “and they said we were all under arrest but preferred not to use any force.”
A multiracial throng of 78 men and women were collared for disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace.
Father Divine, a.k.a. the Rev. Major Jealous Divine, was charged with maintaining a public nuisance, a crime usually associated with back-alley enterprises, not a nominal church that offered cheap food and a promise of salvation.
But there was nothing usual about Divine.
His origins were mysterious. He claimed he was magically begotten in biblical times.
It’s more likely he was born George Baker in Georgia or Maryland a decade after the Civil War.
In about 1900, Baker became an early acolyte of Samuel Morris, an eccentric Baltimore preacher who billed himself as Father Jehovia — and God himself.
Baker poached Morris’ hustle.
He took the moniker “The Messenger” and by 1914 was leading a congregation on Lefferts Place in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Like Morris, he claimed he was humankind’s creator.
He began crafting a prosperity-gospel credo called the Peace Mission Movement that encouraged communal living, shared assets, abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and sex (even for connubial partners), and open arms for all races — a rarity back then.
Rebranded as Father Divine, he unspooled his doctrine in perplexing verbiage that could sound like Vaudeville double-talk.
“The individual is the personification of that which expresses personification,” he once said. “Therefore he comes to be personally the expression of that which was impersonal, and he is the personal expression of it and the personification of God Almighty!”
He spoke in tongues without really trying.
Divine drew patrons by offering 15-cent meals — not cheap soup-and-sandwich chews, but bountiful banquets.
“His dinners were feasts — heaped platters of chicken and ham, beef stew, roast pork, vegetables and desserts galore,” Carl Warren wrote in a five-part Daily News probe of Divine. His followers had “stars in their eyes, cash on the barrel-head and a blithe disregard for color lines.”
Divine shifted to Long Island in 1919, when a feud prompted a man to try to stick it to his neighbor in all-white Sayville by selling his home to the black preacher.
Over the next dozen years, as America slid toward the Depression, Divine’s following snowballed from dozens to thousands. About 300 acolytes joined his daily feasts, and that number might triple on Sundays when buses arrived from Brooklyn and Harlem.
Cops spent hours each day untangling ungodly traffic jams.
By 1931, Sayville had had enough. After a heated town hall meeting, neighbors T.J. Linehan, Claire Swettman and Fred Guthy filed complaints against Divine, prompting the Sunday night raid.
The 78 followers were fined a few bucks each. But Divine insisted on a jury trial, held in Mineola seven months later before the stern Justice Lewis Smith.
Jurors reluctantly convicted Divine but recommended leniency. Justice Smith wasn’t having it.
As the grinning Divine stood before him, Smith spit out a tirade, calling the little preacher a fraud and “menace to society.” The faithful gasped when Smith pronounced sentence: a year in prison.
Four days later, the judge dropped dead of a heart attack at age 55.
“I hated to do it,” Divine told reporters.
He was freed after just a week behind bars.
The publicity attracted new fervent followers, and Divine shifted his Peace Movement headquarters to Harlem and his feasts to the old Rockland Palace on W. 155th St.
At his peak popularity in the late 1930s, he lorded over hundreds of communal buildings, land and businesses — largely in Harlem and upstate Ulster County — that were donated or purchased by devotees.
Newspapers that ignored fanny-pinching, cash-grabbing white revivalist preachers published one exposé after another about Divine and his silk suits, Duesenberg limousines and posh lifestyle. The News said all its snooping “failed to find any evidence of a racket.”
In 1953, he retired to a Gothic manor near Philadelphia, where he advocated for civil rights and against racist lynching in the South.
He died in 1965, at roughly age 90, and was succeeded as Peace Movement avatar by his wife, Edna Ritchings, a much younger white Canadian whom he married in 1946.
Known as Mother Divine, she died just three months ago.
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