Promised Land - Purple Mountain Press

Father Divine's Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York

by Carleton Mabee

From the Preface:

Father Divine lifted the despairing from the gutter to self-respect, but his methods troubled many observers. He commanded substantial wealth, but he mystified much of the world as to how he acquired it. He had charismatic power, but his talk of his supernatural abilities was difficult for the public to accept. His movement constituted one of the most completely interracial groups in America in its time, yet large numbers of Americans found this to be offensive. One of Divine's associates claimed that Divine probably met "more opposition than anyone upon the face of the earth."

This book deals with Father Divine's movement beginning in the 1930s during the Great Depression. At that time, when the movement was providing free food to thousands of the unemployed, journalist George Sokolsky, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, called it the nation's "most successful religious movement." This book also deals with Divine's movement during World War II, when he continued to teach, as he long had, that his true followers would not fight. This book also deals with Divine's movement soon after the war, when a newspaper prominent among blacks, the Pittsburgh Courier, called Divine's Peace Mission "the only organization in America" that has achieved "racial integration." This book also deals with Divine's impact after his death when the political scientist Leo Rosten declared that while Divine was "adorable," and taught "a sweet and beneficent faith," he was also a fraud, a "mountebank."

Divine was long based in Harlem, and, to use a term he himself favored, he was an "Afro-American." This book, however, focuses on him as he led in creating interracial, utopian communities in overwhelmingly white Ulster County, New York, a hundred miles north of Harlem, up the Hudson River. By 1939, Divine had led in creating some thirty such communities in the county-they were experimental, cooperative, and nonviolent, and about 2,300 people were living in them. While the settled population of the county was disturbed by the arrival of these communities, Divine had high hopes for them as models for the world. Divine and his followers called them a Promised Land to which God was now leading his followers as God had once led the ancient Hebrews to their Promised Land.

This book concentrates on Divine's movement in the period from 1935, when it established its first community in Ulster County, in New Paltz, until 1985, when it sold off its last community in the county, in Kingston. This book tells how the Ulster County communities were founded and what they did. It tells the stories of selected individuals related to these communities as helping to illuminate the whole movement. It follows interconnections between Divine's movement in Ulster County and elsewhere, especially in the two metropolitan areas where Divine had his headquarters, first New York City, later Philadelphia. It spotlights the movement's nonviolent character, as has seldom been done, including how the movement applied nonviolence to World War II.

I have been drawn to this topic for several reasons. Intentional, utopian communities fascinate me. I am attracted to their idealism. I want to understand their successes and their failures. Moreover, Divine is not well enough known, I believe, in our time. His communities in Ulster County have been little written about. What participants remember about these communities needs to be recorded while the participants still survive. I myself have long lived in Ulster County, and have already written considerably on its history, as well as on themes related to the Divine movement such as the struggle for racial integration and the application of non-violence to social change.

Moreover, Divine touched me and my family, albeit in limited ways. When I was a student at Columbia University, despite the prevailing segregation, I occasionally joined friends in visiting Harlem, including eating the inexpensive food at Divine Peace Mission restaurants. The service was courteous and the diners sang fervently as they waited at length for Divine to appear. When at last he suddenly arrived, what I recall is not what he said, but that the crowd greeted hm with frenzy. During World War II, because Divine taught nonviolence, many of his followers were conscientious objectors, and since I was one myself, I did alternate service alongside them. In the 1950s, my niece, while she was a student in a Quaker school near Philadelphia, participated in Quaker work camps rehabilitating slum housing in Philadelphia; when the students took meals at nearby Divine sites, they were impressed by the interracial brotherhood they found there. In the early 1970s, when my son and his girl friend, who later became his wife, were both students at the University of Pennsylvania, they frequented an inexpensive nearby restaurant run by Divine followers at the Tracy Hotel. They recall that once when they held hands there, a restaurant worker interrupted them, saying that they did not allow such displays of affection.

While it has been difficult to deal with the many controversies surrounding this subject, the difficulties have made the subject more compelling. They have led me to seek help, which I have abundantly received. They have led me to invite readers to make their own judgments about many issues. In the 1930s a Divine movement periodical declared that when the story of Divine's communities in Ulster County comes to be told, "it must have a book all by itself." Here is the first one

Carleton Mabee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. A retired Professor of History at SUNY, New Paltz, Mabee is the author of several books related to the mid-Hudson region. He lives in Ulster County, in Gardiner. His previous books include two biographies, one of Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and an artist, the other of Sojourner Truth, who grew up a slave but remade herself into a national figure as an advocate for blacks and women. They also include two books on railroad history, one on the Wallkill Valley Railroad, which ran from Kingston through Rosendale, New Paltz, and Gardiner, into Orange County, the other on the old railroad bridge over the Hudson at Poughkeepsie which is now being remodeled into a public walkway.

248 pages, illustrated, 8.5 x 11, index, 2008
$22.50 paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original

Portrait of Father Divine courtesy Emory University.

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Copyright © 2008 Purple Mountain Press. All rights reserved.