International Peace Mission Movement and Father Divine


The International Peace Mission Movement, an American communitarian religion founded in the early decades of the twentieth century, established a significant presence in Philadelphia under the leadership of its African American minister, the Reverend Major Jealous Divine, better known as Father Divine (1879?-1965). As an American sectarian religious innovator, Father Divine reached the height of his national renown during and following the Great Depression. Believed by his followers to be an incarnation of the creator God of the Christian Trinity, Father Divine has been both appreciated as an early leader in the movement for African American civil rights and social justice and criticized as a self-promoter and instigator of a “cultic” religion.

Father Divine, an African-American man wearing a pinstripe suit and hat, sits in an automobile. He is surrounded by people who are all hoping to catch a glimpse of him during his visit to Philadelphia. His wife Penninah is seated next to him and carries a parasol.
Father Divine visited Philadelphia for three days in September 1939. During this trip, he delivered fifteen lectures and served ten Holy Communion Banquets. His wife Peninnah, the first Mother Divine, is shown here seated next to him as they greet followers during the visit. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Father Divine was the guiding theological, liturgical, scriptural, and administrative force behind the indigenous American religion he founded. While his adherents never associated him with a legal birth name, he has been identified by researchers as George Baker, a native of Rockville, Maryland. Influenced as a youth by the multitude of religions around him, from Methodist and Catholic to storefront African American churches and the New Thought Movement, he traveled the country as a young itinerant preacher. Gradually, he formulated his own unique system of belief: a celibate, perfectionist, communitarian, racially integrated, and economically self-sufficient American religion known as the International Peace Mission Movement.

Under Father Divine’s charismatic leadership, the Peace Mission grew nationally and internationally, located by 1914 in Brooklyn, New York, then moving on in 1919 to Sayville, Long Island, and in 1932 establishing a headquarters in Harlem. Through dynamic preaching, Father Divine taught that a positive consciousness in unity with his own “Divine Mind” was the only reality that would lead to good health, prosperity, and true happiness. Because he taught that this present earthly reality was heaven, his followers had no expectation of rewards in an afterlife. They would have a blessing of earthly and spiritual benefits by living up to his teachings and standards, which included positive work, good food, and a clean, safe place to reside. The Peace Mission was particularly known for its spotlessly clean cafeterias and restaurants, which served plentiful food at remarkably reasonable prices to the general public and the followers. Abundant dining was also a mark of Father Divine’s Eucharistic ritual known as the Holy Communion Banquet Service, served several times a day wherever he resided or visited as well as observed in all Peace Mission properties.

Father Divine, wearing a black suit and white hat, sits next to his wife Penninah, who wears a floral-print dress. They are seated at a large table at Shibe Baseball Park in Philadelphia. Penninah passes a plate of food to Father Divine while other guests enjoy the meal in the background.
Father Divine is pictured here with Peninnah, the first Mother Divine, as they enjoy a meal at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. This photo was likely taken during Divine’s first visit to Philadelphia in September 1939. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

On September 3, 1939, Father Divine made a grand entrance into Philadelphia. Citing an invitation from municipal leaders, he traveled from Manhattan on the “Divine Special,” a sixteen-coach train that also carried his staff and followers. Leading a large parade from Broad Street Station through the streets, he invited guests and the curious to enjoy a bountiful Holy Communion Banquet Service at Musical Fund Hall, Eighth and Locust Streets. Over the next three days, he preached and served Banquets at Shibe Park, then the home of the Phillies baseball team, and the Baker Bowl, the Phillies’ former ballpark. Father Divine’s personal relationship with the City of Brotherly Love had begun.

Peace Missions Worldwide

By the time Father Divine came to Philadelphia, Peace Missions existed in many American cities and in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, France, Germany, Austria, and Panama. While most communities in the Northeast United States were African American, the great majority in the Midwest and the West were white. Father Divine and his followers were “radical” (to use their own words) critics of the way Americans permitted rampant race hatred and discrimination. Such teachings were outlined in his 1936 Righteous Government Platform. Father Divine and his faithful were “fanatical” (their words) in their adherence to Father Divine’s standards of living, known as his “International Modest Code,” which included celibacy, no smoking, no drinking, no undue mixing of the sexes, no profanity, no vulgarity, and no obscenity in everyday speech. Women wore no garb considered immodest, including low-cut blouses or slacks. They would not buy or wear cosmetics or perfumes, although jewelry was allowed. No short pants were permitted, even in buildings without air conditioning, a prohibition that extended to non-followers who ate in Peace Mission cafeterias and dining rooms.

A black and white photograph of two buildings on a city street in 1942. One is three stories and the other is four stories. A few people walk past in the foreground.
Father Divine acquired these two buildings, located at 764-772 S. Broad Street, in 1939 and rechristened them the Circle Mission Church, Home and Training School of Pennsylvania. When Father and Mother Divine moved from New York to Philadelphia, the properties (shown here in 1942) became the Peace Mission’s international headquarters. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Father Divine’s theology of positive consciousness also informed his economic principles. He taught that God wanted his community to work hard and make money and that there was tremendous social power in accumulated community wealth. He guided his followers to pool their financial resources to obtain, preserve, beautify, restore, and secure land and properties. They learned how to repair, construct, or restore buildings bought at low cost, as well as do their own landscaping, gardening, plumbing and heating work. Followers also repaired the church’s fleet of automobiles or other required machinery. The minister’s “Divine Cooperative Plan” called on the membership to be honest, never accept government monies or welfare, never make purchases on credit, and pool personal finances to make group investments. Followers never insured homes, businesses, automobiles, or their own lives because the only insurance needed was the assurance to be blessed by God, Father Divine. The Peace Mission also created employment opportunities for followers–many of whom were female and uneducated–by establishing domestic work agencies. In the Philadelphia area, such workers were well known through the 1970s for their industry, reliability, and honesty providing house cleaning and childcare services.

In 1939, the Peace Mission purchased buildings at South Broad and Catharine Streets in Philadelphia, formerly the Hotel Dale, and christened them the Circle Mission Church, Home and Training School of Pennsylvania. Father Divine in the 1940s began to formalize his movement into a more structured church with an eye to sustaining it into the future. He moved to Philadelphia in July 1942 and established the Circle Mission Church as his international headquarters. Although this separated him from his church’s main base of membership, he abandoned New York City, citing gross disrespect from the metropolis and a lack of appreciation for the millions of dollars he claimed to have saved the city through his Peace Mission’s ministry of supporting indigent, jobless, hungry, and disempowered residents. Leaving New York also allowed him to depart from various legal entanglements, especially a monetary settlement won by a former member from a lawsuit.

Divine Tracy and Divine Lorraine Hotels

A black and white photograph of the Divine Lorraine Hotel. The building is ten stories tall. A sign on top of the building announces the hotel's name.
Father Divine acquired this former apartment building, shown here in a 1971 photograph, in 1948. It functioned as a hotel and a major center for the Peace Mission’s welfare activities until 1999. (

In need of housing in Philadelphia for migrating believers from New York and new adherents, Father Divine directed church members to purchase structures throughout Center City, West Philadelphia, and North Philadelphia. Referring to their residences as “heavens,” male and female followers lived separately. In 1949, the Tracy Hotel adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania at Thirty-Sixth Street near Chestnut Street came under Peace Mission control and was soon operating as the Divine Tracy, an interracial residential and transient hotel. The purchase of the smaller 150-room Divine Tracy followed the 1948 acquisition of the building that became most emblematic of Father Divine’s presence in Philadelphia: the 246-room Lorraine Hotel at North Broad Street and Ridge Avenue between City Hall and Temple University. The hotels required even married couples to rent single rooms on separate same-sex floors. Both hotels were closed by the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Divine Lorraine in 1999 and the Divine Tracy in 2006.

Mother Divine is shown next to a pyramid-shaped memorial at Father Divine's burial site. She is wearing a white dress and has her hand resting on a fence that serves as a barrier between her and the memorial.
Edna Rose Ritchings (1925-2017), the second Mother Divine, led the Peace Mission after Father Divine’s death in 1965. In this 1977 photograph, she is pictured with the Shrine to Life, Father Divine’s burial site at the Woodmont estate. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

After the mission became established locally, Father Divine theologically defined Philadelphia as a new city of God and “the International Country Seat of the World.” Philadelphia remained a blessed space and place to his followers even after Father Divine’s death in 1965. He had two celibate spiritual marriages: one to a “dark complected” woman–references to race are avoided in Peace Mission discourse–named Peninnah or “Sister Penny,” who died in the early 1940s. In 1946, he took a second wife, the “light complected” Canadian follower Edna Rose Ritchings (1925-2017), also referred to as Mother Divine. This second wife, who was twenty-one at the time of their marriage, maintained his religious movement with Father Divine’s aesthetic style of positive thinking and a gospel of wealth remaining richly in evidence at Woodmont, the Church’s seventy-two-acre suburban estate in Gladwyne, Montgomery County. Down to a few dozen celibate followers by the time of Mother Divine’s death, the Peace Mission’s members assumed responsibility for administering the property and the library and museum at Woodmont in order to preserve Father Divine’s legacy and his teachings about how to sustain a life harmonious with God’s consciousness.

Leonard Norman Primiano is Professor of Religious Studies at Cabrini University in Radnor, Pennsylvania. He is co-developer with Will Luers of “The Father Divine Project,” an online research database and multimedia interpretive documentary about the Peace Mission Movement. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2017, Rutgers University


Father Divine During 1939 Philadelphia Visit

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Father Divine’s 1939 visit to Philadelphia marked the beginning of his relationship with the city. He arrived on the “Divine Special,” a sixteen-coach train that carried many of his followers and staff along for the journey. During the visit, Divine met with city officials and delivered lectures at notable sites across Philadelphia, including Shibe Park (home of the Phillies) and the Musical Fund Hall at Eighth and Locust Streets.

Father Divine also presided over ten Holy Communion Banquet Services, a central component of the Peace Mission’s rituals. These abundant feasts were served several times a day at all Peace Mission properties and wherever Father Divine resided or visited.

Although his first visit to Philadelphia was brief, Father Divine settled in the city three years later and lived there for the rest of his life.

Father Divine and Peninnah

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Peninnah (also known as Penny) joined the Peace Mission in Georgia during its early years, demonstrating her utter devotion to Father Divine and the future of the movement. Little is known about her early life or the events leading to her marriage.

As the first Mother Divine, Penny was a passionate participant and song leader in the Holy Communion banquets, such as the one shown in this 1939 photograph. She did not typically act as a public spokesperson, but instead served as a continuous presence during the Mission’s day-to-day activities.

Divine’s marriage to Peninnah was celibate and considered spiritual in nature, but followers of the movement were not allowed to marry. This caused confusion and controversy among observers outside the Peace Mission. To the devoted followers of the Mission, however, entertaining such concerns about Divine’s life and rules amounted to sacrilege.

Peninnah died in the early 1940s (some accounts point to 1943), and Father Divine married Edna Rose Ritchings, the second Mother Divine, in 1946.

The Circle Mission Church, Home and Training School

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Father Divine moved to Philadelphia in 1942 after a series of difficulties in New York City. He claimed that New York was unappreciative of his cost-saving Mission efforts and his support of hungry, unemployed, and impoverished residents. In addition, the move allowed him to avoid a series of legal entanglements.

After Divine's arrival, his newly acquired Circle Mission Church, Home, and Training School became a central location in the Peace Mission’s activities. Divine purchased the buildings from the Osage Tribe, whose signage is still visible in this July 1942 photograph. Although the property was far removed from the Mission’s main base of membership in New York, Father Divine encouraged church members to buy and lease additional Philadelphia buildings so migrating believers would have a place to stay. These properties, referred to as “heavens,” were eventually found throughout Center City, West Philadelphia, and North Philadelphia.

The Circle Mission Church hosted banquets and celebrations in addition to Sunday school lessons and services. Although the Peace Mission’s membership declined over time, the buildings at 764-772 S. Broad Street remained the headquarters of the movement.

The Divine Lorraine Hotel

The Lorraine Apartment building, completed in 1894, served as a striking example of North Philadelphia’s nouveau-riche evolution. Wealthy industrialists were drawn in by the apartments’ luxurious furnishings, convenient amenities, and Victorian-inspired look (designed by architect Willis G. Hale). The building became the Lorraine Hotel in 1900 after its purchase by the Metropolitan Hotel Company.

When sold to Father Divine in 1948, the hotel--renamed the Divine Lorraine--became the first in the city to be fully integrated. It was open to all who followed the rules of the Peace Mission Movement: no smoking, drinking, or profanity, among other specifications. Men and women resided on different floors of the building and a modest dress code was upheld.

The hotel also served as a significant base for the Peace Mission’s fellowship and outreach. Father Divine repurposed several parts of the Lorraine for public use and social welfare activities, including a place of worship on the tenth floor and a low-cost public dining room on the first floor. After Divine’s death in 1965, his followers ran the hotel until its closing in 1999.

Although this 1971 photograph shows the Divine Lorraine during its stage of upkeep and activity, the building experienced several years of disuse and disrepair in the early 2000s. A 2006 redevelopment deal fell through, but property manager Eric Blumenfeld took over the project in October 2012. In February 2015, he announced plans to convert the hotel back into a 101-apartment rental space with restaurants on the bottom floor. Blumenfeld publicly unveiled the renovated lobby and opened the apartments for lease in September 2017.

Mother Divine at the Shrine to Life

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

When Father Divine officially announced his marriage to Edna Rose Ritchings on August 7, 1946, he described her as the spiritual reincarnation of the former Mother Divine (Peninnah, who died in the early 1940s). Like her predecessor, Mother Divine was a significant leader within the movement: she accompanied Father Divine on his travels, presided over banquets and services, and eventually continued the Mission in the decades after his death.

Edna Rose became fascinated by Father Divine at age 15. She left her hometown of Vancouver, Canada to move in with several Peace Mission followers in Montreal, where she took the name Sweet Angel. When she arrived in Philadelphia to meet Father Divine, he hired her as his personal stenographer, and the marriage followed soon after. Father and Mother Divine moved to Woodmont together in 1953.

In the wake of Father Divine’s 1965 death, Mother Divine continued the Mission’s activities. The banquets, for example, were carried forward with a belief in Father Divine’s ongoing presence; a place was set for him at the table, taped sermons played throughout the proceedings, and Mother Divine blessed meals in his physical absence. In this 1977 photograph, Mother Divine stands next to the Shrine to Life, Father Divine’s burial site at Woodmont.

During the 1970s, Mother Divine faced a major challenge to the Mission’s existence. The notorious leader of the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple cult, Jim Jones, attempted to take over the Peace Mission in 1971. He arrived at the Divine Lorraine Hotel by bus with 200 followers and claimed that he was the reincarnated Father Divine, but Mother Divine banned him from the premises and continued to resist his sabotage attempts over the next six years.

Mother Divine continued to live at the Woodmont estate until her death in 2017.

Visitors at the Woodmont Estate, Gladwyne, PA

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The Woodmont estate, shown here in 1964, became another significant gathering place for Peace Mission followers when Father Divine acquired it in 1952. The expansive property–which remained open for scheduled tours into the twenty-first century–included a three-story stone manor house and several secondary buildings, all arranged on lush rolling hills overlooking the Schuylkill River. Other amenities included a swimming pool (seen here in the background) and an elaborately decorated, chapel-like dining room.

Father Divine held regular lectures and banquets at Woodmont, and his funeral–attended by nearly 6,500 people–took place there in 1965. The “Shrine to Life,” a large cylindrical room west of the manor house, was built between 1966 and 1970 and served as the burial site for Divine.

The Peace Mission carried out significant renovations to the buildings over time, including a full replacement of the main roof and revisions to secondary structures such as the former carriage house. The second Mother Divine, Edna Rose Ritchings, lived at Woodmont until her death in March 2017.

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Related Reading

Fauset, Arthur Huff. Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Cults of the Urban North. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971, 2002.

Mother Divine. The Peace Mission Movement. Philadelphia: Imperial Press, 1982.

Mabee, Carleton. Promised Land: Father Divines Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York. Fleischmanns, N.Y.: Purple Mountain Press, 2008.

Primiano, Leonard Norman. “‘Bringing Perfection in these Different Places’: Father Divine’s Vernacular Architecture of Intention.” Folklore 115 (2004): 3–26.

___________.  “ ‘And as We Dine, We Sing and Praise God’: Father and Mother Divine’s Theology of Food.” In Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, eds. Ben Zeller, Marie Dallam, Nora Rubel, 42-67. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Watts, Jill. God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Weisbrot, Robert. Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

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