Historian Carleton Mabee chronicles Father Divine

Historians in the News

In the 1930s, Gardiner town historian and former SUNY New Paltz history professor Carleton Mabee was a student at Columbia University. Possessing a sense of racial justice not in fashion at the time, Mabee often took the short trek uptown to Harlem, where a startling urban renaissance offered jazz, gospel, theater, and art. Mabee was fascinated with this flowering of Negro culture, and breathed freely of its perfume. He would attend the Abyssinian Baptist Church on Sundays, where gospel masses shook the rafters. One of the most compelling uptown attractions, however, was Father Divine.

A short African-American man dressed in a tailored suit and radiating charisma, Divine drew people because he offered low-cost feasts (25 cents or less) at a time when the Depression had emptied most pockets. Mabee, whose modest budget was gobbled up by the cost of college books, was grateful for the bountiful meals of chicken, gravy, and mashed potatoes.

In addition to a full belly, Mabee also received an earful of rhetoric. Father Major Jealous Divine (1880-1965) was the head of a religious sect called the Peace Mission Movement. Preaching a combination of Old and New Testament scriptures, Divine gathered followers and organized utopian communities. Here, black and white people lived together—a startling proposal during this racially charged era. Mabee was fascinated by this emerging sect. He heard Father Divine fulminate only once, speaking of the enduring power of God’s love, but the memory of that magnetic preacher persisted.

Seven decades later, Mabee (who turns 95 on Christmas Day) has returned to the story of Father Divine. A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian (for a 1943 biography of Samuel F. B. Morse), Mabee has completed a book on Father Divine, who had a community of followers in Ulster County.

The result of six years of research by Mabee—often by poking through old newspapers and musty county records and by interviewing survivors of the sect—is Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York (Purple Mountain Press, 2008)...
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