The Peace Mission Movement of Philadelphia.
Compiled and edited by Jean Barth Toll and Mildred S. Gilliam for The Atwater Kent Museum.
Copied by permission of the Atwater Kent Museum Publishers of. “Invisible Philadelphia Community Through Voluntary Organizations”, Copyright 1995.
The Reverend M. J. Divine, better known as Father Divine, founded the Peace Mission Movement to help human beings become conscious of God’s presence through obedience to the law of the spirit of life, and thus to create abundance and peace for all. The Peace Mission Movement has provided the necessities of life to countless thousand at a price unfortunate people could pay, and gratis to those who could not pay.
Father Divine had been engaged in feeding, clothing, and sheltering the underprivileged of Brooklyn, New York, and elsewhere since the late 1800s. He and the first Mother Divine bought a home in 1919 in Sayville, Long Island, New York, at 72 Macon Street where he housed, fed and clothed the needy gratis, without solicitation of any kind, and delivered sermons to the many who gathered around the abundant banquet table. He attracted people from all walks of life and many parts of the world who were hungry spiritually as well as physically.
In the early 1930s, Father Divine moved to New York City, where followers endeavored to extend to the dispossessed and penniless the kind of help they had received in Sayville, opening homes for $1.50 and $2 per week and providing meals for 10 and 15 cents. Father Divine expanded his work among the masses in New York City for a decade. The powerful political leaders of the city saw his activities as a threat to corrupt practices and subjected him to legal harassment .
At the invitation of an official delegation from Philadelphia, headed by Judge Harry S. McDevitt. he moved his official residence from New York City to the City of Brotherly Love in July 1942 just after the incorporation of six churches under the Peace Mission Movement. Some of these churches have branches in other parts of the United States and the world. Four have their headquarters in Philadelphia.
The Sermon on the Mount is the foundation of the Peace Mission Movement, and the churches demonstrate the practical reality of these precepts of Jesus Christ . The churches are also homes and training schools, and the followers live together as one international, interracial family, the only division being between the sexes. The conviction that Father Divine is the Personified Christ unifies the followers, enabling them to lift up the standard of Christ in offering charitable and human services in the atmosphere created by the consciousness of the Presence of GOD.
Though operating under the jurisdiction of Father and Mother Divine, the churches, hotels, sorority and fraternity homes, and small businesses are owned and operated by followers, and only bona fide church members are permitted to donate for their maintenance. No donations are solicited or accepted from non-members or foundations, nor are government grants accepted. Names of members are not registered and there is no record of how many there are. Everyone is free to participate in church services or educational programs without charge.
Within ten years after Father Divine had established his personal residence at Circle Mission Church, 764-72 South Broad Street, groups of followers, paying in cash without mortgages, purchased the following properties in Philadelphia:
Churches: Unity Mission Church, Home and Training School, Inc. 907 North Forty-first Street;
Unity Mission Church, Home and Training School, Inc. Bible Institute, 1530 North Sixteenth Street;
Unity Mission Church, Home and Training School, Inc. Annex 511-17 South Twenty-first Street; and
Nazareth Mission Church, Home and Training School, Inc., 1600-1614 West Oxford Street;
Hotels catering to the general public:
Divine Lorraine Hotel, Broad Street at Fairmont Avenue; and
Divine Tracy Hotel, 20 South Thirty-sixth Street.
Hotels exclusively for followers:
True American Peace Mission Evangelical Hotel, 2052-54 Catharine Street;
International Peace Mission Evangelical Hotel, 1808 Ridge Avenue; and
Peace Mission Fraternity Hotel Poplar, 1618-20 Poplar Street;
Homes and business:
Cafeteria, Grocery Store and ‘Rosebuds’ Rest,” 751-55 South Nineteenth Street;
Fraternity Peace Mission Evangelical Home, 507 South Broad Street;
Westminster Apartments, 1893-905 North Forty-first Street;
Unity Co-op Grocery Store and Sorority Apartments, 900 North Forty-first Street;
Fraternity Unity Apartments, 1892 North Forty-first Street;
Sorority Home, 4112 Ogden Street and 1869 North Fortieth Street;
Evangelical, Fraternity Peace Mission Interracial Apartments, 1745 West Diamond Street;
Sorority Home, 1609 Allegheny Avenue;
Junior Sorority Peace Mission Home, 920 North Nineteenth Street; and
International House, Palace Mission Inc., 1430 North Broad Street.
Note: At this time some of the previous places are no longer in operation and since then others have been added.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the True American Peace Mission Evangelical Hotel, the grocery store on South Nineteenth Street, Unity Co-op Grocery Store and the Sorority homes on Ogden and Fortieth Streets were closed. The Hotel Poplar was given in 1984 to Trevor Ferrell’s campaign for the homeless for use as a shelter and is now know as Trevor’s Place [see Trevor’s Campaign) .
Palace Mission Inc. purchased Woodmont, the Alan Wood estate of seventy three acres in Gladwyne on Philadelphia’s Main Line, in 1952, and dedicated it the next year as the Mount of the House of the Lord. Here moral and spiritual values coalesce with elegance and grandeur; unity and harmony of all races and religions replace segregation and discrimination. The fine Victorian architecture and interior of this mansion, and at least three Mission gathering places in Philadelphia, attract teachers with student groups and experts to study their style and craftsmanship.
At the time of the purchase of the Divine Lorraine Hotel (1948) and the Divine Tracy Hotel, adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania (1949), there were no first class hotels in the city that would accommodate dark complexioned people. From their inception, the Peace Mission hotels had an international clientele and were integrated. Father Divine’s International Modest Code requiring separate floors for men and women and modesty of attire provided a moral standard. While on these premises, residents adhere to requirements of no smoking, no drinking, no obscenity, no vulgarity, no profanity, no undue mixing of sexes, no receiving of gifts, presents, tips, or bribes.
In spite of predictions that no hotel could long survive the imposition of such strict rules, the doors of both were still open and they maintain a waiting list for reservations. Father Divine’s policy of giving the most for the least has proved to be a blessing to many, especially to young students and many dark-complexioned professionals, government officials, and businessmen and women in Philadelphia. Many received their start in life by being reasonably housed and fed in these hotels. Students from overseas as well appreciate their security and cleanliness and the honesty of their staffs as much as, or perhaps even more, than the low prices.
But it was the service of substantial meals of high quality food in Peace Mission churches, hotels, and restaurants in the I930s and I940s, before the days of many government programs, that probably benefited the greatest number of people. At one time dining rooms in North, West, and South Philadelphia served meals for ten cents and fifteen cents which consisted of a generous serving of meat, chicken, or fish with a starch such as rice or potatoes, a vegetable, two pieces of bread, and coffee. Salads and desserts were extra. Meals were given free to those in need. Dining rooms, open from 6 A.M. to 11 P.M., 365 days of the year, were continually full and lines extended out into the street. Followers served voluntarily as waitresses and refused to accept tips.
Barber shops, at which a hair cut was five cents and a shave three cents, were also busy places, especially on Saturday when little boys lined up for a hair cut. Service was voluntarily given here also.
As living conditions have changed so has the service given by the Peace Mission, in order to meet the needs of the people. For approximately ten years, mainly during the 1950s, food was served on a donation basis; whatever was given, large or small, was accepted. Afterward the Mission set a price of fifty cents, which changed as the cost of living continued to increase, but is always low.
In the early 1940s, Father Divine opened his Holy Communion Hall in the churches to the general public. All could come and partake of the banquets, listen to his sermons, and participate in the singing and other volitional expressions of the service. Professors of theology, sociology, and comparative religion from universities, teachers’ colleges, the Society of Friends, churches of various denominations, and high schools included in their courses of study a visit to the Peace Mission year after year. Thereby, students had a opportunity to observe Christianity, Americanism, civil rights, and brotherhood in action, as well as to see the solution to the economic problems of the underprivileged. At that time, also, school children were given free lunches at the Holy Communion Table daily.
The Circle Mission Church in 1939 established a courtesy employment office free to employee as well as employer. Assisting particularly the underprivileged, it has helped to lift the wage scale by setting a standard for employer and employee, both of whom are required to give the best in service and expect the best in recompense.
Grocery stores, dress shops, barber shops, shoe repair shops dry cleaning establishments, gas stations, and other businesses that provide the necessities of life, supplying the most for the least, opened in Philadelphia to benefit the people by lowering the cost of living. These businesses were in operation from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Today only two businesses the Keyflower Dining Room at the Divine Tracy Hotel, 20 South Thirty-sixth Street, and the Peace Democratic Garage on South Broad Street remain in operation. Father Divines work and mission have encouraged people to be independent and honest. All enterprises are operated on an integrated basis and followers of differently hued complexions associate in their daily activities. By standing for their rights as American citizens, refusing segregation in restaurants, swimming pools or other public places, and taking the case to court if necessary, Peace Mission members have been influential in freeing the city from discriminatory customs.
The Unity Mission Church in West Philadelphia used its large gymnasium for the benefit of neighborhood children from 1946 to 1974. Supervised sports with awards and refreshments encouraged them to keep away from street gangs. From 1968 to 1974, a Fourth of July picnic at Woodmont on the Main Line was a reward for diligent efforts to live a clean life.
A group of followers comprise the New Day Publishing Company which publishes a bi-weekly newspaper, The New Day It contains sermons by Father and Mother Divine as well as some of their correspondence, transcripts of their interviews, and other features.
On April 29, 1946, Father Divine legally married Mother Divine, and two years later proclaimed this day to be an international, interracial holiday. Followers invite the public in various parts of America and the world to celebrate with them the Marriage of Christ to his church.
The marriage, secretly solemnized, was known only to an immediate circle of followers until August of that year, when it received much publicity, apparently contravening Father Divine’s own teaching of celibacy. In reality it advanced the moral life by providing a sample of chaste living for those already married and lifting a standard of virtue of mind and body in Mother Divine for the worlds’ youth, because it was a purely spiritual marriage without sexual union. It is the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of the Marriage of the Lamb and the Bride and the beginning of a new spiritual era during which mortal marriage will cease. Man, because of being united with his Creator within, becomes a balanced person and no longer seeks sexual gratification and marriage; human life is perfected and extended indefinitely as propagation ceases. Scientifically, the new era is marked by the splitting of the atom which unleashed infinite power to man and changed the course of history, bringing spiritual values into everyday life.
Three years later, in 1949, Father Divine suggested that Philadelphia be the home of the United Nations. When his advice was not followed, he proclaimed Philadelphia the acknowledged Cradle of Democracy to be the Country Seat of the World. The spiritual heritage of William Penn’s dream of 1682 when he founded Philadelphia for all men to live in brotherhood and to be governed by God had drawn Father Divine to Philadelphia.
Woodmont was dedicated in 1953 as the Mount of the House of the Lord to which all nations shall come to be taught of God’s ways in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 2:2-4). People congregate here annually from all parts of the world to celebrate the dedication on September 10, 11, 12, which along with April 29, the anniversary of the marriage of Father and Mother Divine, constitute the two most highly celebrated holidays of the Peace Mission Movement .
On September 10, 1965, Father Divine willed to lay his body down. It is enshrined at Woodmont in a simple, ancient/modern structure known as the Shrine to Life. This event, like his marriage, appeared to contradict his teaching of Eternal Life to those who will obey God implicitly, or as Jesus Christ expressed it, “He who keeps my saying shall never see death”. In reality, the event is for the spiritual advancement of the people. Critics were surprised to learn that Father Divine left no estate. To the question of incredulous observers of the many abundant banquets he served: ‘Where do you get so much money from?” he often responded “Where do I get so much love?”
He had pioneered an approach of giving the best for the least to all yet remaining independent financially. During the war years he encouraged everyone to buy bonds for victory and peace. His followers responded generously, many without thought of redeeming the bonds, so that millions of dollars were left with the government. The Brigantine Hotel near the Atlantic City Boardwalk, purchased by his followers to provide the first opportunity for the underprivileged to enjoy a first class shore resort hotel was given gratis to the Coast Guard, which needed accommodation during the war.
His staunch refusal to take up collections or participate with those who did made it impossible for Father Divine to cooperate with many churches and organizations. However, on the occasion of National Freedom Day, February 2, 1946, he did cooperate with Bishop R. R. Wright and shared the platform with then Governor of Pennsylvania Edward Martin, Francis J Meyers, United States senator from Pennsylvania, Bernard Samuel, Mayor of Philadelphia, and others, along with his international, interracial Rosebud Choir.
He gave counsel and support to such leaders as Dr. Leon Sullivan, founder of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers. Day and night, in personal interviews, Father Divine enlightened and instructed the sick and perplexed. Some categorized him and his followers as being of a dark-complexioned race, but he advocated the Impersonal Life. It is true that his followers on the East Coast are mainly dark complexioned, but those on the West Coast and in other countries are predominantly light complexioned.
By his life of selfless service, Father Divine demonstrated the law of life manifesting the material abundance created by obedience to it, and making it possible for all to follow in his footsteps.
The foundation and philosophy of the activities of the Peace Mission do not change neither do its policies. Only as the life style and thinking of the people change do the Peace Mission services change. For instance, the Divine Tracy Hotel dining room was completely renovated in line with the expansion of the community known as University City [See: A Walk Through West Philadelphia]. Instead of providing a square meal that catered to the taste of those of low incomes the dining staff prepares nutritious food to the health conscious and helps to educate people in the practice of preventive medicine and health care. It was one of the first such dining rooms to be opened in Philadelphia.
Though the numbers living in the churches and homes of the Peace Mission do not appear to be increasing, Father Divine’s ideas and opinions are being accepted and practiced much more readily in all fields of life. The doors of the Peace Mission churches are open to newcomers, but not everyone is willing to submit voluntarily to the discipline of living in the Virginity of Mary and the Holiness of Jesus as Father Divine’s true followers do.
On February’ 18, 1982, the Philadelphia City Council presented Father and Mother Divine with a resolution “lauding and commending the Peace Mission Movement for over a half century of dedication and service to God and the community”Print This Post