|Intl. Notebook||Oct 16 2011|
This Whisper from October 1955 examines Ava Gardner’s love life, Ernest Hemingway’s courage, and Marilyn Monroe’s mole, all of which, while worthwhile subjects, are less interesting to us than the piece on Father Divine. Who was Father Divine? Well, he was a preacher who claimed to be God and had as many as two million followers during his heyday in the 1930s. Of course, that number depends on where you do your research. Some sources try to distinguish between “true followers” and sympathizers who attended his rallies, but that’s like saying seventy percent of the people at a rock concert aren’t true fans. Attendance at events is an accepted method for determining popularity, and consideringthe fact that Father Divine had verifiable rallies in places as far away as Switzerland and Australia, we think the two million figure is accurate.
Why was he so popular? Hard to say. Charisma and an imaginative doctrine are givens. But it was national exposure that really helped swell the ranks of his followers. From the point of view of a typical magazine editor, you eventually can’t resist writing at least a blurb about a person who claims to be God. When that person proves to be polished and intelligent, and his belief system more nuanced than suspected, the article becomes its own public relations. Thanks to steady press coverage, what started as a local congregation in Brooklyn, New York eventually spread to become a multi-ethnic and pan-national movement. But with popularity came scandals. The most notorious of these was when a Divine follower named John Hunt, a California millionaire who had dubbed himself John the Revelator, kidnapped a 17-year-old girl named Delight Jewett and repeatedly had sex with her, either before or after brainwashing her into thinking she was to be the “mother of the new redeemer of the world,” i.e., a new Virgin Mary.
Father Divine’s ministry survived the Hunt scandal and others, and in fact only began to shrink as Divine himself aged and became less active. The cover of Whisper asks if he is dead. Fair question—he was pushing eighty by then and hadn’t been seen in public for months. But he would resurface weeks later in a flurry of press coverage, pronouncing himself“healthy in every organ, muscle, sinew, joint, limb, vein and bone, and even in every atom, fiber and cell of my bodily form.” But Divine was in fact in declining health and had been for some time. Ten years later he died of natural causes at the age of (because his exact birth date is unknown) eighty-nine or ninety. Or he left behind his corporeal form and permanently inhabited his spiritual one. Depending on whom you ask.