Local Lens: Remembering Mother Divine
On March 14th of this year, the New York Times ran the following headline: “Mother Divine, Who Took Over Her Husband’s Cult, Dies at 91”. Mother Divine actually died on March 4th, but it took the Times a while to print an obit.
I met Mother Divine some years ago when I visited her estate at Woodmont in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. At that time, I teamed up with an artist friend who wanted to set up his easel and paint the Woodmont mansion for a possible book project. Mother was gracious during that visit. We were not only invited to dinner — Mother’s followers called it a “holy communion” service — but were also told that we could have a special interview with Mother after the meal.
The mansion is a multi-room French Gothic masterpiece designed by Quaker architect William Price for Philadelphia industrialist Alan J. Wood, Jr. in 1892. After the passing of the Gilded Age and the selling off of many of Philadelphia’s old mansions, it was sold to Father Divine for a relatively humble $75,000. Woodmont then became the headquarters for the Peace Mission Movement.
The Peace Mission Movement began as a force for peace and goodwill between different racial groups. The movement, as Mother Divine noted, was to make people “industrious, independent, tax-paying citizens instead of consumers of tax dollars on the welfare rolls.”
Since the passing of Father Divine in 1965, the Peace Mission Movement has been under the direction of Father Divine’s second wife, Edna Rose Ritchings, a white Canadian woman he met in 1946.
Father Divine’s greatest contributions were probably in the area of Civil Rights. As early as 1951, he advocated for reparations for the descendents of slaves and for integrated neighborhoods. Decades before the Civil Rights Act, before the NAACP, Stokley Carmichael, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, Father Divine preached peaceful non-violent social change. Unfortunately, Father Divine’s “preaching” work on behalf of Civil Rights is a mostly understated fact.
Father Divine’s marriage to the second Mother Divine (the first was an African American woman named Peninniah, who died shortly after the Woodmont purchase) was a celibate affair, as members, both married and unmarried, were prohibited from having sex, or using alcohol and tobacco.
When I first saw Mother Divine she was descending the grand staircase in the mansion. She was dressed in a white 19th century ball gown while being escorted by a sentry dressed in red who also wore a small red beret tilted to the side in the style of Che Guevara. The sentry was a thin black woman and Mother was white — she had snow hair and skin much paler than the color of Dove soap. She carried herself with a confident elegance, her head erect and her eyes focused on some invisible point on the horizon. Her walk down the staircase was so slow it called to mind the walking styles of European aristocracy, namely Queen Elizabeth II of England.
Emblems of royalty were very evident in the mansion, not only in the grandiose architecture and design of the place but also in the studied attentiveness and seriousness of Mother’s other sentries, who also wore cocked berets. The sentries were stationed throughout the house like Swiss Guards in the Vatican. The atmosphere definitely evoked the formality of a royal court because it was obvious that the sentries would not tolerate any foolish action, like presupposing it was okay to sit on the furniture, which of course we did not do.
In situations like this, the human tendency is to be formal even though I longed to see just one of the sentries smile or show some warmth. Feel-good camaraderie is not in the Woodmont style book, however. The sentries, when they did smile, did it in a fixed way as if they were ready to retract it and turn it upside down at a moment’s notice. I knew this to be the case when I asked one of them, a Miss something-or-other, if I could take a photograph. My request was met with a stern “No, you may not take photographs,” as if I should have known better. I replied with a somewhat stunned “Oh… okay,” the ‘Oh’ in my reply signaling my dismay at such a silly rule. What could possibly be wrong with taking a snapshot?
Often the “secondary” people around any high-ranking leader have an inflated sense of self-importance and behave in a manner that may “out-formalize” the personal style of the big boss, the very person one would expect to flaunt attitude. Mother Divine had an easy and light spirit and it was easy to see a mischievous glint in her eyes. She was quick to smile and laugh, yet she was surrounded by stiff wooden Cigar Store Indian types who were quick to scold.
Dinner began when Mother rang a large handbell. A female cook in a white uniform produced the platters from a small kitchen directly behind Mother. Numerous platters of salad items, including a wide assortment of vegetables, condiments and sauces, set the pace for more complicated platters offering meats and fish, rice, potatoes, breads, and more vegetables and meats until at last diners could devote their attention to the business at hand, eating, rather than the elaborate ritual of passing platters.
When platters were passed from one diner to another, they never touched the table. Diners were not allowed to hold two platters at the same time, so the synchronization of the plates had the movements of a dance. While this was going on, diners listened to old audio tapes of Father Divine sermons. The mostly elderly crowd, men in suits and women in Peace Mission uniforms, combined eating with the singing of hymns. A few elderly white women, European by birth, clapped their hands in a singsongy fashion in between mouthfuls, reminding me of the antics of patients in a mental institution.
After dinner, Mother invited my artist friend and me into her private office where she showed us old photographs of Father Divine. A sentry stood beside her as the four of us chatted. I found myself occasionally looking out of Mother’s office window at the tomb of Father, believed by followers to be God incarnate. The conversation was not profound but filled with cursory pleasantries. There were even several photo ops in which Mother snuggled up against my artist friend and me. Photographs were no longer an issue because the sentry who greeted us in the foyer was not the one standing by Mother’s side.
By the time my friend and I left Woodmont we had the feeling that the sentries around Mother were much like a covert army. It was like the feeling you get when you visit a couple who are in a bad marriage but who put on a happy face when company comes. You can somehow feel the tension and repressed emotion coming from the couple but there’s no way you can prove that it exists. Mother, after all, was sitting on a vast fortune and a huge empire. She was elderly and had to be helped around the mansion on her daily walks around the estate.
While in a cab leaving the estate, we passed Mother as she began her daily walk, escorted by several dour-looking sentries. During our chat with Mother she appeared strong but seeing her outdoors was a profound change. She not only looked weak and vulnerable but also seemed to be almost totally under the care and direction of the women propping her up.
The word “care” in this sense can also be a code word for power and control. We have all heard stories of what happens to some elderly mothers when their care is relinquished to their children, and how one child can claim power of attorney and have the mother committed to a nursing home while her assets are funneled into other family bank accounts.
My friend and I were certain that Mother liked us and so we were very surprised when we were turned down by a secretarial sentry when we called later to schedule a follow-up interview. The sentry told us that we were not permitted to visit. No reason was given but it was obvious that we were no longer welcome at Woodmont.
Since that time we have both felt that Mother was really a prisoner behind pearly gates and that she was not acting as a free agent.
This is why I think it is a good thing that the New York Times called the Peace Mission a cult. •