"GOD, HARLEM U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story" by Jill Watts

"GOD, HARLEM U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story"

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A clear window into Afro-American history, tying together many strands of black culture via the remarkable life of evangelist Father Divine; by Watts (History/Cal. State). Born George Baker in 1879 in the Monkey Run ghetto of Rockville, Maryland, Father Divine became a celebrity preacher of the early/mid-20th century, with missions across the country and a following of hundreds of thousands, whom he fed as well as taught--for feasting and prayer (and celibacy) came together in his brand of Christianity. The plain but well-detailed description here of post-bellum black life in relatively enlightened Maryland presents an existence so brutal and limited that Father Divine's (or anyone's) successful emergence from it seems a miracle. From Monkey Run, the future preacher moved to Baltimore's Pigtown, and then somehow to L.A., where he joined a storefront church group and learned about speaking in tongues. By the mid-20's, Father Divine was a power in Harlem, with a home and following on Long Island--where, according to Watts, as his group grew ever-larger he experienced prejudice and legal persecution. Father Divine preached a homespun, antiunion, ""do it yourself"" work ethic with a core of gentle humility and love that manifested itself in the bountiful meals he placed before followers: Before the government could organize welfare in the 30's, he was feeding the poor. No one ever found out where the money came from, but the preacher's indifference to color brought him white followers in high places (one of whom sorely damaged him by seducing a young girl in the movement). The outbreak of WW II ended Father Divine's moat potent period, but he was important enough to be consulted by (and to reject) the sinister Rev. Jim Jones in the 60's. In these sympathetic, quiet pages, Father Divine emerges as a significant figure of the Harlem Renaissance: a hard-working humanitarian and man of God.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0520201728
Page count: 239pp
Publisher: Univ. of California Press