By Judy Christensen
Maryland was home to a number of black leaders who fought racial injustice and provided spiritual leadership–Josiah Henson, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Thurgood Marshall, to name only a few. Rockville can claim George Baker, Jr., today known as Father Divine, the son of a former slave and charismatic leader of a spiritual movement.
Born in Rockville in 1879, George Baker, Jr., was the son of Nancy Smith, a former slave, and her husband, George Baker, a farm laborer. The Bakers owned a small house on Middle Lane in a segregated black neighborhood disparagingly called “Monkey Run.” The Bakers attended Jerusalem Methodist Church, and their children attended the Rockville Colored Elementary School.
Soon after his mother’s death in 1897, he left Rockville for Baltimore, where he became familiar with new storefront religions and evangelists. He became involved with “New Thought,” a movement akin to the power of positive thinking.
Baker allied himself with Father Jehovia, adopting the title of “The Messenger.” Jehovia’s group believed they could embody God by practicing pure religious beliefs. Baker was renowned for his powerful sermons and charismatic presence.
In 1912, Baker left Father Jehovia and declared that he was the only true expression of God’s spirit, taking the name of Father Major Jealous Divine. He spent five years in the South as a circuit evangelist, calling himself “Messenger of God.” At one point, he was judged insane and confined. He was also the victim of mob violence and claimed to have narrowly escaped lynching.
Baker’s followers were held to strict behavioral standards, including temperance, renunciation of family ties, and celibacy. Father Divine married, but characterized the union as spiritual rather than physical. He purchased a home in the all-white town of Sayville, Long Island, where he founded the interracial Peace Mission Movement. By the 1930s, a network of missions had spread across the nation with headquarters in Harlem, New York.
Under his leadership, 150 missions were established, offering living space and jobs for the poor. The movement also amassed a network of businesses (restaurants, gas stations, hotels, clothing stores) and other enterprises that provided employment and quality services, including integrated facilities, to those in need. By the late 1930s, the movement claimed more than $15 million in assets.
Father Divine’s message of equality and self-sufficiency attracted both blacks and whites; his crusade for anti-lynching laws and elimination of racial barriers were precursors to the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Father Divine’s philosophies spread internationally, but were never part of the mainstream. His religious philosophy and practices were rigid and controversial, and he was called a charlatan who deprived his followers of family ties and profited from their labor.
Later in life, he moved his Peace Mission to Philadelphia. Father Divine died in 1965, but the movement he founded was incorporated as a church and continues to this day, spiritually led in his name by his second wife, Mother Divine. His 1892 mansion in Gladwyn, Pennsylvania is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He never returned to Rockville.
For additional information see: Jill Watts, God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992) and Robert Wiesbrot, Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1983).