Reviving Father Divine: Can a new documentary and museum save the dying Peace Mission movement?

Two ornate, velvet-upholstered chairs — thrones, almost — were positioned facing the crowd gathered for the Sunday-afternoon ribbon cutting for Father Divine’s Library and Museum.

The seats appeared to be empty, but each speaker that stepped up turned to greet them before addressing the audience: “Peace, Father. Peace, Mother. Peace, everyone.”

Life and death, presence and absence, are fluid concepts at Woodmont, the grand, 73-acre Gladwyne estate that is the last stronghold of the International Peace Mission movement created by Father Divine, the civil rights leader, businessman, philanthropist, and self-proclaimed god. Today, more than 50 years after his death, he’s still the head of the household. The movement — or, perhaps, cult — was once reported to have as many as 20 million followers. Now, just 12 or 15 true believers, most in their 80s or 90s, reside at Woodmont, living in celibacy and isolation according to Divine’s International Modest Code.

These days, those left in the Peace Mission have turned their focus to legacy-building — by finally opening the library, a collection of hundreds of thousands of letters, photographs, audio recordings, home movies, and manuscripts that was a decade in the making, and by welcoming in documentary filmmaker Lenny Feinberg (The Art of the Steal, Black and White, and Dead All Over) for three years of shooting. His film, Father’s Kingdom, will premiere at the Doc NYC film festival Nov. 11.

“It’s a different universe once you go through these gates. It’s a different world, a different time zone,” Feinberg, of Lower Merion, said last Sunday, greeting a visitor to Woodmont with the word “Peace.” (“Hello” — which contains within it the word “hell” — is taboo.)

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Woodmont in Gladwyne. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Feinberg began researching the Peace Mission after his daughter, Julia, told him about a banquet she attended at Woodmont, how the women in their red “rosebud” uniforms — designating their almost nun-like status — and men in their baby-blue jackets served Father’s empty chair first and addressed him as if he were present.

In the film, Feinberg attempts a delicate balance in navigating Father Divine’s undeniable successes as a passionate civil rights leader and the many questions that surround him.

The trailer for Father's Kingdom

That starts with describing Father Divine’s birth in 1879 in Rockville, Md., as George Baker; that claim, to Divine’s followers, is blasphemy. It continues with questions about how the Peace Mission accumulated wealth, likely by persuading followers to part with their savings, and with Divine’s rejection of personal attachments. For those raised as children in the movement, that led to chronic emotional neglect.

And it follows the anguished deliberations of Christopher Stewart, who moved into Woodmont full time in September, but hasn’t yet taken “crusader’s vows.” Those would mean a lifetime of celibacy, and permanently severing his 26-year romantic relationship.

Producer Nancy Cutler said the followers shared their stories for one reason: “They’re on a quest to keep Father Divine’s legacy alive.”

After all, Divine also worked to combat Jim Crow: organizing to demand justice for lynchings and integrating segregated communities like Brigantine, N.J., where beaches were reserved for whites until Father Divine purchased a large resort there. The Divine Lorraine was the first integrated hotel in Philadelphia.

The Peace Mission distributed food and clothing to anyone who needed it, white or black — though words describing a person’s race were scrubbed from all the movement’s language. When Father Divine was arrested for disturbing the peace with the hordes who followed him to Sayville, Long Island, a judge sentenced him to year in prison — then dropped dead three days later. Divine was quoted from his prison cell as saying, “I hated to do it.”

The film tracks “miracles” such as that spurred the growth of the religion, the movement, and the real-estate empire of “Heavens” scattered around the Northeast. It also notes how the locus of the mission shifted to Philadelphia in 1942, when Father Divine fled New York after a court there ordered him to repay a follower who’d given him her life savings. His followers bought Woodmont, the 1894 estate built by steel magnate Alan Wood Jr. for $75,000 in 1952.

And, it charts the movement’s denouement after the death of Father Divine in 1965, as Mother Divine, his second wife, attempted to keep it going. She died in March 2017.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Lower Merion-based documentarian Lenny Feinberg. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff photographer

It’s now facing the same challenges as other religions, like the Shakers, that favor neither proselytization nor procreation. Peace Mission members declined to estimate the number of followers remaining.

“Their answer to everything is Father and Mother will provide,” Feinberg said.

But Roger Klaus, one of Father Divine’s younger followers at age 71, is hoping they may provide through this film.

“It had some things that were inaccurate,” he said — like the references to George Baker.

On the other hand, “Father Divine’s name used to be known all over the world, but the younger generation doesn’t know anything. I hope they hear about this.”

And he’s hoping the library and museum, open to the public on Sunday and Wednesday, will generate fresh interest.

The cornerstone reads “2009 A.D.F.D.” — short for, “in the year of our lord, Father Divine.”

Construction was completed in 2011, but it took another six years to open the library to the public. And there’s more still to be done. Almost every word Father Divine spoke was documented in shorthand, or in various iterations of recording media: wax cylinders, wire recordings, reel-to-reel tapes, and cassettes.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Kenny Gamble, right, and his wife Faatimah Gamble look at photographs that are displayed in the Father Divine Museum and Library. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Stewart, 47, who’s the chief curator, said volunteers are needed to continue cataloging and digitizing the archives: “at least 50,000 letters, correspondence, a quarter-million photographs.”

Because it was pouring rain on the day of the ribbon cutting, the crowd packed into a separate building for speeches. They included Kenny Gamble, who recalled dining at Circle Mission as a young boy, plus academic researchers, historians, supporters, and followers. True believers and agnostics shared the microphone easily. One speaker said a central part of his interest in the Peace Mission was in the cooperative economic system it utilized, including property deeds sometimes with 400 names on them. Another believed Father Divine had cured his cancer.

There were also “harmonizers” like Carol and Marshall Strax, a Nanuet, N.Y., couple who spoke reverently of Father and Mother Divine.

“Marshall was raised by a follower, Precious Jewel. One day she retired and disappeared from their home. Marshall always wondered what happened to her,” Carol said.

Rather than resenting the movement, though, they began visiting Woodmont regularly themselves.

Rik Rydant, a researcher from High Falls, N.Y., with a longstanding interest in the Peace Mission, contributed a large collection of primary documents to the library.

“Coming here, it’s almost like being back 2,000 years ago, watching the apostles of Christ at the Last Supper,” he said.

Leonard Norman Primiano, a professor of religion at Cabrini College, said he was just relieved that the gospels were intact.

“As a scholar of the Peace Mission movement, many years ago I would say to Father and Mother, you have got to preserve the history,” he said. “These are invaluable resources for the history of religion in the United States. … The way this country developed and the way race relations developed.”

Then everyone shook out their umbrellas and walked back across the rain-soaked lawn to tour the new library.

Feinberg said, “You’d think Father would have picked a better day.”