In the 1930s, Gardiner town historian and former SUNY New Paltz history professor Carleton Mabee was a student at Columbia University. Possessing a sense of racial justice not in fashion at the time, Mabee often took the short trek uptown to Harlem, where a startling urban renaissance offered jazz, gospel, theater, and art. Mabee was fascinated with this flowering of Negro culture, and breathed freely of its perfume. He would attend the Abyssinian Baptist Church on Sundays, where gospel masses shook the rafters. One of the most compelling uptown attractions, however, was Father Divine.
A short African-American man dressed in a tailored suit and radiating charisma, Divine drew people because he offered low-cost feasts (25 cents or less) at a time when the Depression had emptied most pockets. Mabee, whose modest budget was gobbled up by the cost of college books, was grateful for the bountiful meals of chicken, gravy, and mashed potatoes.
In addition to a full belly, Mabee also received an earful of rhetoric. Father Major Jealous Divine (1880-1965) was the head of a religious sect called the Peace Mission Movement. Preaching a combination of Old and New Testament scriptures, Divine gathered followers and organized utopian communities. Here, black and white people lived together—a startling proposal during this racially charged era. Mabee was fascinated by this emerging sect. He heard Father Divine fulminate only once, speaking of the enduring power of God’s love, but the memory of that magnetic preacher persisted.
Seven decades later, Mabee (who turns 95 on Christmas Day) has returned to the story of Father Divine. A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian (for a 1943 biography of Samuel F. B. Morse), Mabee has completed a book on Father Divine, who had a community of followers in Ulster County.
The result of six years of research by Mabee—often by poking through old newspapers and musty county records and by interviewing survivors of the sect—is Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York (Purple Mountain Press, 2008).
His followers came from New York and from the South in the 1930s, buying up tracts of inexpensive land to build and manage hotels, stores, restaurants, gasoline stations, guesthouses, resorts, and shoe repair and barber shops. In fact, Ulster County once boasted the highest concentration of members of the Peace Mission Movement, with residents living in Krumville, Lloyd, New Paltz, Elting Corners, Stone Ridge, and Kingston. All told, there were 31 different Divine communities in the area, most bearing the name “peace” in the name of the establishment and a photograph of their well-dressed leader on the wall.
Bill Rhodes, professor emeritus at SUNY New Paltz and a colleague of the nonagenarian Mabee, asserts that the historian’s subjects are chosen with an eye toward the man’s own belief in racial equality, integration, and nonviolent social change, and that much of his scholarship is related to the education of blacks.
Promised Land is not merely an inventory of the buildings that stood in tribute to Father Divine in Ulster County; the book, meticulously researched, also delves into the life and deeds of a man who was complicated in his endeavors, but ultimately a pioneer in the fight for desegregation. Mabee cites Father Divine as one of the people, like Martin Luther King Jr., who paved the way for Barack Obama to occupy the White House.
An engaging man, Divine was also a controversial one. He preached a “Modesty Code” that banned smoking, drinking, obscenity, and accepting bribes. He believed in faith healing over Western medicine—except in cases of emergency. He insisted that shopkeepers in his flock accept cash only, sell at competitive prices, and refrain from selling tobacco or liquor. The code also forbade a mixing of the sexes; even husbands and wives were housed by gender on separate floors.
Those who disobeyed were cast out from Divine’s blessed social experiment.
Followers were a fervent lot. They took new names to reflect their spiritual rebirth, such as Victory Dove and Sweet Love. They conducted their businesses quietly and honestly and even drew begrudging respect from neighbors. (They paid their debts on time and in cash.) Yet there were limits to their piety; some found the vow of celibacy most trying. Since Divine was absent from the Mid-Hudson Valley more often than not, his adherents might relax certain strictures of faith in his absence, Mabee says. “There were many suspicions that there was a lot of sex going on,” he explains. “There are many people who claim that or charge that. And [Divine] would say himself, ‘You’re supposed to be living in Utopia and you’re not.’”