Sweet Angel Divine, the widow of a major 1930s religious leader who attracted legions of adoring women followers, has died at 91- or 92-years-old. Known to her followers as “Mother Divine,” Sweet Angel was married to the Rev. Major Jealous Divine, who was the leader of the eccentric International Peace Movement, and who claimed to be God. The Peace Movement didn’t allow its adherents to have sex, and Mother Divine claimed to have been a virgin all her life.
The Philadelphia Inquirer was first to report Sweet Angel’s death; she passed away in a mansion in the Philadelphia suburbs where she lived with the last remaining adherents of the Peace Movement.
As the Washington Post explains, Rev. Major Jealous Divine, who was black, began his career as a humble preacher in Baltimore around 1900. By the 1930s, he had attracted a sizable following with a message of racial equality and a promise that every person held the spirit of the divine within them. Particularly him: Father Divine claimed to be a living incarnation of God and his followers believed him to be the Messiah.
It was a successful sales pitch, the Washington Post adds. Divine attracted a legion of followers, mainly women, who turned their earnings over to him, and a large group of businesses and properties:
Through hard-to-trace cash arrangements, Father Divine controlled dozens of businesses, including hotels, barbershops, dry-cleaning establishments, apartment buildings and restaurants. He was surrounded by an adoring entourage and was driven around in a Rolls-Royce.
“How big a figure was he in the 1930s? Huge,” Robert Weisbrot, a history professor at Colby College in Maine, told Newsday in 2005. “He was one of very few African American leaders who were frequently in the news in mainstream papers, not simply African American journals.”
Though the church was based for at time in Harlem, they relocated to Philadelphia around 1953. As ABC 6 reported, Father Divine also founded the Divine Lorraine and the Divine Tracy hotels, two beloved Philly institutions that were the first racially integrated hotels in the city. The movement also used to feed thousands of people at enormous banquets throughout the 1930s.
Mother Divine was born Edna Rose Ritchings in Canada around 1925, but met the man who would become her husband in the early 1940s, when she was still in high school. She traveled to the Peace Movement’s headquarters, drawn by Father Divine’s message, and changed her name to “Sweet Angel.” She was, Father Divine claimed, the reincarnation of his first wife, Peninniah, who had died a few years before. Sweet Angel is said to have proposed marriage to Father Divine, telling him, “I want to marry you because I know you are God.” The couple were married in secret in Washington, one of the few places where interracial marriage was legal at the time.
Much was made of Sweet Angel’s “spotless virginity;” in a 1946 sermon, Father Divine emphasized that his reincarnated bride was physically and spiritually pure, as well as a loyal converted American. The text of the sermon was later reproduced in the movement’s newspaper, The New Day:
MY Spirit went across the border and taught this virtuous, untouched, incorruptible and undefiled Bride from infancy taught Her Americanism and the documents of our great Government until She was converted into Americanism so vividly and so conscientiously and sincerely, She desired to be an American citizen.
The couple said they never consummated their marriage, in keeping with the precepts of the movement.
Here’s some video, uploaded to YouTube by the Peace Movement, of Mother and Father Divine around 1947, when the group was based in Harlem:
Father Divine died himself in 1965, and Mother Divine led the dwindling movement from then on. She rebuffed cult leader Jim Jones when he tried to take over the church beginning in the 1950s, and ultimately expelled Jones and his followers from the organization. (They went to Guyana and settled the infamous Jonestown compound, where over 900 people died by mass suicide in 1978.)
For most of her days, Mother Divine lived with fellow adherents in a vast estate called Woodmont, located in the Philadelpia suburb of Gladwyne. In 2009, a reporter from Mainline Today found the aging Mother and a group of adherents still living by the Peace Movement principles, namely that celibacy was vital and time didn’t strictly exist:
Yet Peace Mission members continue to live at Woodmont and various Philadelphia outposts with same-sex, “opposite-complected” (Peace Mission speak) roommates. They practice celibacy. Followers say they neither look back nor forward. Ideologically, there’s no past or future. There are no time lines, no seasons. They do not reminisce. Heaven is on Earth—or at least atop the Mount of the House of the Lord.
Mainline also reported that a man named Tommy Garcia, who lived for a time at Woodmont as a child and claimed to have been taken under Father Divine’s wing as his spiritual son, wanted to take over the movement. He didn’t succeed. He and other people who left the Peace Movement said there was sexual abuse within the church, as well as a practice of separating children from their parents.
In 2003, Mother Divine told a reporter “Father is still here with us,” pulling up an empty chair for his spirit to take a seat in during an interview. (She also still had a place set for him at every meal.) In January 2015, photographer Kristin Bedford found Mother Divine and 18 remaining followers still at Woodmont: the photos, published by the New York Times, are stunning.
An archivist for the Peace Movement told the Philadelphia Inquirer Mother Divine’s death was due to complications from old age.