The divine inspiration of Jim Jones: Inside the mind of one of history's deadliest cult leaders

Before Jonestown, before "Flavor Aid," the People's Temple leader found God in a Philadelphia-based religious sect

Published October 21, 2015 8:00AM (EDT)


This piece originally appeared in The Believer's summer issue.

The BelieverJuly 2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple to California, and in September, it will be half a century since the death of a nearly forgotten spiritual leader whom Jones admired and emulated: Father Divine, founder of the Peace Mission movement. Retracing a journey made by Jones and his followers, I recently traveled from California to Woodmont, a nineteenth-century French Gothic manor in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, a wealthy suburb on Philadelphia’s Main Line. Woodmont is the last stronghold of the Peace Mission movement and the residence of its aged matriarch, Mother Divine. Despite Jones’s obsession with Father Divine, the connection between these two charismatic leaders was not well understood at the time of the Jonestown massacre, or even in the decades that followed. Recent studies authored by a pseudonymous researcher named E. Black and published on San Diego State University’s webpage “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” have illuminated this compelling link—the potential wellspring of Jones’s messianic claims.

We’ve all heard the phrase about drinking the Kool-Aid, since that’s what finished off most of the settlers at the agricultural commune founded by Peoples Temple in Guyana. A cyanide-laced beverage—Flavor Aid, for the record—was consumed by more than nine hundred members of the Temple there in November 1978, killing them all within minutes. Now synecdoche for undergoing indoctrination by hypnotic forces, usually emanating from a cultish leader, “drinking the Kool-Aid” was a ritual of faith for members of the Peoples Temple. In the legendary “white nights” at Jonestown, colonists rehearsed this act of mass suicide in the months preceding their deaths. Simulated suicide was considered proof of their devotion to the revolutionary mission of the Peoples Temple. They’d already dedicated their lives to the Temple’s cause. But, Jones instructed, they must always be prepared to die for it.

Though obscure in popular memory, the “cause” advocated by the Peoples Temple was nothing less than total revolution: the Jonestown agricultural settlement was intended as a utopian social experiment in communism. Jones adapted the notion of “revolutionary suicide” from Huey Newton’s autobiographical account of the early days of the Black Panther Party and his personal crusade against American imperialism and racism. The young Reverend Jones may have started out preaching in the McCarthy-era Midwest, but he claimed to have held socialist and communist convictions ever since he was a child. He was a notorious liar, but if this was one of Jones’s overstatements, it was only a slight one: his wife, Marceline, recalled that her husband had privately expressed his admiration for Mao Zedong just after they were married, in 1949, when Jones was only eighteen years old.

Peoples Temple was nominally a church that originated with a core of Pentecostal followers in Indianapolis. But the Temple’s classification as a religious organization overdetermined its representation in the American media in the 1970s. Indeed, the conservative media watchdog Accuracy in Media complained that the group’s radical Marxist objectives were mostly lost in the general confusion surrounding the Jonestown massacre. Considering Peoples Temple a religious cult rather than a political collective allowed Americans a more comfortable psychological distance from the revolutionary suicides undertaken in the Guyanese jungle. Surely, their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives were not so feeble-minded as to be taken in by a phony messiah. Yet Jones had abandoned all but the pretext of religion by the time he founded the Guyana settlement. After gaining a significant following that rallied around his calls for social justice, Jones no longer bothered to conceal his enthusiasm for communism. Religious rhetoric had only ever been a bait-and-switch that would lead his followers to embrace the socialist ideas he’d advocated since his days as a Methodist student pastor in Indiana. In fact, Jones privately declared his atheism even before he was ordained, and periodically confided this secret to his close disciples. Seen in this light, the Guyana massacre cannot be considered merely the eschatological flare-out of an irrational “religious cult.” It was also a perverse display of commitment made by determined political activists.

Though his biographers emphasize Jones’s strange childhood devotion to and obsession with the Bible—this despite his irreligious parents—they also record his long-standing commitment to achieving racial equality. Jones was an integrationist in 1950s Indianapolis, the capital of a state whose countryside was stalked by the Klan. Although Methodists were among the most socially progressive Protestants in the 1950s, Jones’s push as a student pastor to integrate that city’s Somerset Methodist Church was a controversial and risky move in the young preacher’s fledgling career. Certainly, it was proof of his unshakable belief in integration. In tape transcripts published by the Georgetown Chronicle after the massacre, a candid and typically foulmouthed Jones described his struggle to integrate the Indianapolis congregation: “What a hell of a battle that was, I thought, ‘I’ll never make a revolution. I can’t even get these f——rs to integrate much less get them to get any Communist philosophy.’” Even racial integration was a means to Marxist ends. As Jones observed, “There’s no way I’m going to politicize these f——rs if I can’t get them to sit together.”

Jones acted strategically. After envying the huge congregations that Pentecostal ministers were beginning to attract with their preaching about the Holy Spirit’s everyday presence, Jones peeled off from the Methodists to found his own Pentecostalist-style church. Initially called “Community Unity,” this flock would soon become Peoples Temple. For Jones, the embrace of Pentecostalism was not just a numbers game: he was also encouraged by its success in both white and black churches. As Martin Luther King Jr. observed, Sunday morning was still the most segregated time in America—but Jones believed that a Pentecostalist church with a strong program of social activism would break down de facto church segregation. He was right. Paired with strategic outreach to black churches, Jones’s admixture of Holy Rolling and civil rights rhetoric quickly assembled a progressive and integrated congregation. He never believed in the tongues, clairvoyance, or healings practiced by Pentecostals, but nevertheless played the part convincingly, thanks in part to his nearly infallible memory and trusted network of spies. Deft maneuvers with bloody meat in the Temple bathroom even led to some Temple members’ conviction that he was helping them pass malignant cancers from their bowels.

Jones tired of performing miracles, though, and knew his ambitions could never be sustained by sleight of hand. He devoted hours of study to successful religious movements from around the world, assembling a syncretic, universalist doctrine of “religious communalism.” He later referred to his movement as “apostolic socialism,” and quoted the Acts of the Apostles alongside Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program for ecclesiastical and intellectual cred.

As racial equality was an integral objective of Peoples Temple, Jones shrewdly adopted tropes of black spiritual traditions in the United States. One movement in particular dominated his interests: the Peace Mission Movement, a racially integrated spiritual empire headquartered in Philadelphia. Jones was so keen on the Peace Mission that he modeled Peoples Temple after many of its core traits, and even attempted to wrest control of the organization by claiming to be the reincarnation of its founder, Father Divine.

By the time Jones became obsessed with the Peace Mission, in the late 1950s, the movement was already beginning its decline. Even so, it still counted tens of thousands—perhaps even millions—of followers. These disciples believed that God had returned to earth once more, in the body of their patriarch, Father Divine. Though his followers disavow any claims about Divine’s past, court documents from the early days of the Peace Mission identify Father Major Jealous Divine as George Baker Jr., the son of freedman sharecroppers. His terrestrial date of birth, however, remains wildly imprecise. Divine himself claimed to remember nothing of his past before he was “combusted” into his 5'2" black body on Seventh Avenue and 134th Street in Harlem one fine day in 1900.

Divine’s early biographers tell how he left his wife and children while still a young man, and resettled in Baltimore. Later biographies dispute this timeline, claiming instead that he abandoned relatives in Rockville, Maryland, following the death of his 480-pound mother, Nancy. But it was in Baltimore that he met an itinerant preacher named Samuel Morris, a tall and light-skinned black man who had likewise abandoned a family, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, to take up his spiritual calling. After alighting on a verse in 1 Corinthians that asked, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you?,” Morris became convinced he was God in the flesh. He then dreamed that a voice told him to “go to Baltimore and save them.” Morris went south with a new mission and a new identity: he called himself “Father Jehovia.”

Baker was an instant believer in Morris’s claims of divinity, and thus became one of Jehovia’s first adherents. Rechristening himself “the Messenger” of Jehovia’s teachings, Baker first struck out south with the good news. In Georgia he spent six weeks on a chain gang for an unknown crime, and was ordered to leave the state after being declared of “unsound mind” by a jury that tried him as a public menace: it seemed Baker’s followers now believed he, the Messenger, was God. The Messenger and his band of adherents ended up in New York, where they lived communally in a flat near the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, founded by a rival student of Jehovia’s named the Reverend Bishop St. John the Vine—or just “the Vine” for short. Preaching an adaptation of Jehovia’s verse in Corinthians to followers clad in yellow turbans and pink hoods, the Vine told his adherents that God dwells in every man.

The Messenger observed meetings at the Vine’s church, but fear of losing his followers to a rival kept him from inviting them along. Opportunity then came knocking when the Vine was arrested on charges of a statutory violation, and Steamboat Bill, another pretender to local spiritual leadership, turned to voodoo. The Messenger answered with a name change, adopting the title Major Morgan J. Devine. The homophony of “Devine” and “the Vine” was, of course, more than mere coincidence. Aside from the slight but important orthographical adjustment—from “Devine” to “Divine”—and the later addition of “Father,” this was the name Baker used for the rest of his long career. From Jehovia and the Vine, Divine borrowed the traits that would define his spiritual empire and would later be copied by Jones into the doctrinal architecture of Peoples Temple. The first of these was the doctrine of God-in-the-body, which asserts that God might come to dwell in a man—a belief derived from an arcane theological heresy called monophysitism. Jehovia also disavowed racial categories and assembled his disciples in a communal living arrangement—two characteristics that would propel the success of the nascent Peace Mission.

Devine moved his followers to a flat on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, where he set up a combination boardinghouse and employment agency. Religious meetings were held over dinner each night, after his disciples returned from the jobs he snagged for them out of the help-wanted ads. By 1919, his following had outgrown its city residence, and Devine and his disciple-wife, Peninnah, pulled up stakes and transplanted the whole enterprise to a house they purchased in Sayville, a Long Island summer resort town.

It was in Sayville that Devine became “Father Divine”; it was also where he developed the commercial and spiritual formula that Jim Jones later came to admire. His followers shared the house communally, donating back to the Mission 100 percent of the earnings they received from the clerical and domestic-service jobs that Divine arranged for them. Divine used the money to build additions to the Sayville house, known as “heaven.” Mission coffers also provided lavish Sunday banquets, free of charge, for all of his adherents and their visitors. Peace became the watchword of the movement, replacing hello as the standard greeting between brothers and sisters: they preferred to avoid uttering the name of “the other place” opposite heaven. (It is still how Father’s remaining geriatric disciples greet visitors to Woodmont, address their emails, and answer the telephone.)

Communal living came with two important strings attached: followers were asked to forsake their kinship relations as well as to shun sexual intercourse. Their new family consisted of their spiritual “brothers” and “sisters”—and Father and Mother (formerly Peninnah) Divine. Those who accepted these conditions were reborn as Father Divine’s “angels” and were given angelic names like Onward Universe, Holy Shinelight, Sister Everjoy, Pearly Gates, and Sister Who Stood By the Way. Even with these strictures in place, the movement grew steadily. Then came the crash of 1929, and along with it the Great Depression. Before long, busloads of Harlemites were being shuttled every weekend from upper Manhattan to the Sayville banquets. After Divine learned that drivers were advertising “$2.40 round trip with all the fixin’s for nothin’,” he hired his own buses to carry hundreds of passengers without charge. Divine blessed each dish by placing a serving spoon or fork in it, and served the coffee himself. Together with the chastity rule, the fortune that founded these feasts was part of the movement’s intrigue. But perhaps chief among its curiosities was the group’s racial makeup: from its early Sayville days, the Peace Mission was racially integrated. This, in fact, was the most likely motive behind the celibacy rule: an interracial religious commune was already pushing the envelope. Miscegenation would surely have invited trouble.

Conflict nevertheless arose. After the economic bust generated a boom in Divine’s following, the people of Sayville began to worry about the weekly influx of black visitors. As John Hoshor records in his deprecating 1936 book on Divine, residents wanted to make sure their summer resort town was not going to be “overrun with hysterical, shouting colored people and crazy whites.” Neighbors complained to authorities that “jazz hymns” sung by Divine’s followers after dinner climaxed in shouts of “joy and delirium” that kept them awake at night. Along with a lawsuit raised by a former follower, organized resistance to the Mission attracted the attention of the DA, who was suspicious of Divine’s inexplicable wealth. The DA sent his “voluptuous” detective Rose Burrows—specially selected because her mixed-race background allowed her to “pass for any nationality in which duskiness is an important feature”—to infiltrate “heaven.” Disguised in an old print dress, worn-out shoes, torn stockings, and carrying a pawnshop purse, Burrows turned up in Sayville as a poor girl seeking work. But Burrows was bothered by her failure to seduce Divine or any of the “brothers,” nearly causing her to lose confidence in her sex appeal. With no smoking gun, the DA opted instead to have Divine and seventy-seven followers arrested for “contributing to the maintenance of a public nuisance.” In a show of what would become his typical grandiloquence, Divine offered to pay cash for the three dollars each that his followers were assigned in fines, but the court lacked change for his five-hundred-dollar bill.

The ensuing trial brought Divine into the Harlem headlines. Sayville witnesses ridiculed the notion that Divine’s house was “heaven.” One went so far as to testify that the noise from the house had driven his wife to attempt suicide. A witness for the defense denied these claims, insisting that members of the house lived in “blessed quietness.” A woman named Lillian Cox of East Orange, New Jersey, testified that Father Divine had cured her “petrified” leg, which had literally been turned to stone. Meanwhile, the prosecution attempted to portray some of Divine’s followers as escapees from a nearby “insane institution.” Questioned about race, many of the witnesses recited Divine’s belief that there was no such thing, and claimed that they did not “recognize color.” The jury found Father Divine guilty, but as the charge involved “no moral turpitude,” they recommended leniency in the sentence. Nevertheless, before a crowd of hundreds of Divine’s followers, Judge Smith delivered the maximum penalty under the law: a year in the Suffolk county jail in Riverhead, and a five-hundred-dollar fine. Four days later, Smith dropped dead from heart failure. Legend has it that Father Divine’s only comment was “I hated to do it.”

This fantastic turn of events cemented Divine’s reputation, and spread wide the belief many of his followers already held: Father Divine was God. Before being re-released on bail pending the outcome of his appeal, Divine served five weeks in jail, and even managed to convert some of his fellow prisoners. Harlem was sensationalized by the news of the black messiah, jailed as a pariah after smiting the judge who sentenced him. Hadn’t Marcus Garvey promised the advent of a black God? In Jesus of Nazareth, hadn’t God already shown that when he came to earth, it was in the body of a man from a dispossessed and subjugated people? When he emerged triumphant from Riverhead, Father Divine went straight to Harlem to greet the new legions of his followers. For the day after his release, they had arranged a daylong celebration at Rockland Palace in Harlem—a venue also known in the 1930s for hosting huge drag balls. The event was billed as a “Monster Glory to Our Lord,” and Father Divine’s angels had already lined up at the entrance by 5 a.m. When Divine arrived to deliver his address at noon, it was to a crowd of seven thousand worshipers, chanting things like “He’s God, he’s God,” “Peace, Father,” “It’s Wonderful,” and “Thank You, Father.” The celebration lasted till midnight. Crucially for the movement’s legacy—and for its later interest to Jim Jones—the black messiah’s fame resulted in numerous white converts. At a meeting at Chester Dance Palace the night after the Rockland celebration, a journalist reported that the half-white crowd was swept up in hysterical worship: they shouted, rolled on the floor, and stomped their feet.

In Harlem, Father Divine established his new headquarters at 20 West 115th Street. Thousands were fed at the Peace Mission’s daily banquets, though Divine needed to begin charging ten to fifteen cents for those who had not yet become angels. Drawn in by the food, visitors were inspired by the wholesome, happy lives the angels appeared to be leading. Divine’s disciples spoke of the blessings of meaningful employment, secure housing, and stable social relationships. The Peace Mission quickly outgrew its headquarters, and began snapping up buildings across Harlem that would be suitable for new “heavens,” including a former Turkish bath. Smaller buildings and brownstones were run by trusted angels as boardinghouses to shelter the swelling ranks of disciples. Father Divine quickly became one of the largest property holders in Harlem. His army of secretaries, called the Sweets, continued to procure employment for the angels, who were in demand across New York: Peace Mission workers were known to be trustworthy and honest, excellent candidates for domestic service. Entrepreneurial followers started their own food carts, groceries, barbershops, and restaurants—and donated the proceeds to Divine. Money, in the form of donations from wealthy converts and the wages of the angels, kept rolling in. One estimate put the Peace Mission’s income at ten thousand dollars a week in 1936 (about one hundred and seventy thousand in today’s currency).

In addition to the banquets in Harlem, Divine’s famous Easter parades were a prime source of recruitment. The first parade took place in Harlem in 1932. Just shy of five thousand disciples marched. The next year there were over ten thousand participants; Father and Mother Divine rode in a limousine with a liveried chauffeur, and cars with license plates from all over the country rolled through Harlem. The 1934 parade was even more spectacular: more than fifteen thousand disciples turned out. Thousands of the female angels marched in matching costumes, and Father Divine flew over the crowd in a twelve-passenger red monoplane piloted by the Trinidadian American aviator Colonel Hubert Julian. Known as “the Black Eagle,” Julian was a former Garveyite famous for having piloted for Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. The plane trailed a banner that read PEACE TO THE WORLD—FATHER DIVINE’S MISSION.

The strength of this following also gave Divine political clout. He had amassed enough followers for a journalist to write, “The little black lord of a Harlem heaven has become a force to be recognized.” A 1936 New Yorker profile of Divine recounted Fiorello La Guardia’s trek to Harlem to curry favor with Divine. Then a candidate for mayor of New York City, La Guardia announced to the assembled angels that he had come “to ask Father Divine’s help and counsel.” The New York Timesreported the incident in an article titled “La Guardia ‘Lost’ in Harlem ‘Heaven,’” prompting other candidates to seek out Divine, who soon began to encourage his followers to attend night school in order to pass the voting tests in New York City.

Heavens continued to spring up across New York and New Jersey, and then across the country. Hoshor’s book includes a partial list of Peace Missions across North America in 1936, counting one hundred fifty-eight establishments (forty-seven in New York, twenty-five in California, thirteen in New Jersey, twelve in Washington State, and the rest scattered across the country). Membership rolls were never maintained and estimates of the number of adherents wildly diverged. Father Divine claimed twenty million followers, but even conservative estimates made by critics of the movement counted as many as two million (compared to the total US population of one hundred thirty-two million in 1940). Father Divine acquired an airfield, his own private plane, luxury cars donated by wealthy followers, and vast holdings in real estate. The Mission also owned hundreds of acres of land in the Wallkill Valley in upstate New York, which Divine had rechristened as the “Promised Land” agricultural colony. The tract included the historic Hasbrouck Manor, one of the oldest homes in the United States, which became a Divine heaven. With an eye to the movement’s longevity and self-sufficiency, Divine offered each disciple a one-hundred-by-one-hundred-foot lot to build their own home and live sustainably off his land. Colonists who didn’t spend the day farming would work in nearby factories and offices and live in a Mission-run group home. This, of course, was the model Jones later reproduced in California.

The success of the movement in organizing the black community in Harlem led some to speculate that Divine was an operative controlled by the Kremlin, or was at least accepting Soviet funding. After all, Divine had made public displays of support for the US Communist Party, and had marched with his angels in a May Day parade. Divine denied rumors that Moscow was behind the Peace Mission. He stated, on the contrary, that he had lent his financial support to the social work of New York communists. Though this doubtless did not endear him any further to authorities, he justified his collaboration with the communists by declaring solidarity with their cause: “I am representing God on earth among men and I will cooperate with any organization that will stand for the right and deal justly,” he said. “I find fault with the Communist methods, but not their aims. I teach Peace. There will be an end to all oppression and suppression and race prejudice and I will bring it about personally.” Unsurprisingly, Divine’s FBI file grew to over twelve hundred pages by the time of his death.

Father Divine did not become one of the wealthiest and most influential men in America without acquiring powerful enemies. The insurance industry, which then maintained a sizable presence in Newark, New Jersey, was one. Divine had encouraged thousands of followers to cancel their insurance policies and donate the dividends to the Peace Mission: what more insurance did his angels need than living in one of God’s heavens? The industry was likely behind a 1932 conspiracy to keep Divine out of the Garden State, when a neglected 1898 New Jersey law was invoked to prosecute him. As Section 72 of the 1898 Crimes Act of New Jersey proclaimed, “All impostors in religion, such as pretend to personate Jesus Christ, or suffer their followers to worship or pay them divine honors, or who terrify, delude or abuse the people by false denunciations of judgments, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” Divine failed to appear in court after the complaint was lodged. East Orange authorities closed the local heaven and sentenced Father Divine, in absentia, to thirty days in jail. The warrant for his arrest was later withdrawn, but these and subsequent legal problems in New York persuaded him to move the Mission’s headquarters to Philadelphia in 1942.

Jim Jones learned of Father Divine’s interracial empire from his extensive readings on world religions, a study in search of practices and doctrines that might be assembled into an organizational structure that would help Peoples Temple grow and prosper on its path to self-sustainable socialism. His fascination with Divine would last a lifetime: allegedly found among Jones’s personal effects at Jonestown was a copy of Sara Harris’s 1953 book, Father Divine: Holy Husband, in which she suggested, erroneously, that mass suicides of Divine’s followers might follow upon his death. Peninnah’s death had already caused a stir among some of Father’s closest angels: her passing was kept a secret until Father Divine announced to his followers that Peninnah’s spirit had decided to reincarnate in the body of Sweet Angel, one of his winsome white secretaries, to whom he was already secretly married.

By the mid-1950s, Jones already helmed an integrated congregation, advertised as an environment free of racism and sexism, but his ambitions of establishing apostolic socialism on a massive scale required further innovation. His first trip to Peace Mission headquarters, in the late 1950s, began as a fact-finding mission: Jones abhorred the idea of gullible followers worshipping a man and calling him “Father.” At the time, he even prohibited his own followers from calling him “Reverend.” But after firsthand experience of the angels’ joy and radiance, he became an instant admirer. Jones’s change of heart was also due to the Mission’s stunning success at creating an enduring following that practiced racially integrated communalism. He called the Mission “a flower garden of integration,” which was exemplary of the “cooperative communalism” he wished to emulate with Peoples Temple.

Jones also managed a personal audience with God—not an easy task in those days. Father Divine received him in his elegant oak-paneled office at Woodmont. Jones flattered the elderly messiah by discussing concerns the two shared: segregation and overpopulation. (Amazingly, but not that surprisingly, the man cast to play Divine in this scene for the 1980 made-for-TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones is none other than James Earl Jones.) Divine approved of Jones, and even invited him to deliver a sermon to his angels. Jones’s visit was reported in the Peace Mission newspaper the New Day—photo and all.

Jones returned to Indiana full of enthusiasm—and already plotting to supersede Father Divine. By then, the aging Divine was too old to preach. Tape recordings of his sermons were played over loudspeakers at the Peace Mission banquets—as they still are today—and Father Divine seldom ventured beyond Woodmont. The movement, Jones believed, was ripe for a takeover, and he was the man for the job. He began to study Divine’s sermons and writings, which were assiduously recorded by the Sweets. (Today, angels are digitizing these artifacts for free perusal online.) He spoke and wrote in praise of Divine to his Temple flock, preparing them for an eventual merger. He introduced Divine hymns and began to encourage his aides and congregation to call each other “Brother” and “Sister.” He even had them call him “Father” and his wife, Marceline, “Mother.” Jones also began to urge members to give everything they had to Peoples Temple and live in Temple-provided housing. He stepped up his sermons on overpopulation by asking that his followers refrain from sex and adopt children instead of having their own. Jones’s position on sex would fluctuate to accommodate his wife’s subsequent pregnancy, and would later mutate again when the Temple courted believers in free-love San Francisco. But adoption was a cause that Jones espoused in word and deed: shortly after his first contact with Divine, the Joneses adopted a black son and two orphaned girls from Korea. This “Rainbow Family” would become an emblem of the Temple’s racial progressivism. Jones even adapted his integrationist rhetoric to Divine’s disavowal of race, once claiming in a sermon that his followers did not describe each other as “Negro” or “white.” “We call ’em by name,” he declared, a coded reference to the Peace Mission’s unique angelic nomenclature.

In 1959, Jones returned to Philadelphia with a Peoples Temple contingent. His delegation was housed in one of the Peace Mission’s Philadelphia hotels, and they attended the Mission banquets. At a private meeting with Mother and Father Divine, Jones made his offer: he was ready to assume the leadership of the Peace Mission when Father Divine decided to leave his earthly body. While Father Divine did not take the suggestion seriously, it raised the suspicions of Mother Divine, planting the seed for what would later become a war between the two movements. Perhaps in response to this veiled threat, Mother and Father Divine “adopted” the eight-year-old Mexican American son of a follower who had arrived with her children from Los Angeles in 1962. Father Divine brought the boy to live at Woodmont, discouraged contact with his biological mother and sister, and allowed him special privileges, including the services of a valet named Happy Love. Though Mother Divine firmly denied it, some followers suspected that young Tommy García was being groomed to lead the movement in order to fend off the interloping Jones, who traveled to Woodmont as many as six times between 1958 and 1965. But the boy was uninterested, and ran away to Los Angeles in 1968.

Jones set about reproducing some of the operations that had made the Peace Mission so successful. In February 1960, just after the ascension of the Castro government, Jones went to Cuba with the idea of recruiting forty black Cuban families for an agricultural colony in Indiana that would support Peoples Temple, similar to the Peace Mission’s Promised Land. (Jones would later boast that he met Castro, but the photograph of him with the Cuban leader that Jones reportedly showed to friends has been lost.) Though this venture failed, the more pragmatic adaptations flourished: a free restaurant was opened in Indianapolis in February 1960, serving one hundred meals on its second day, and expanded to serve hundreds shortly thereafter. A free grocery store and a free clothing shop were also later added. Jones also began to confide to top associates his plan to usurp Mother Divine. But he would need to wait for Father Divine’s death.

When Father Divine finally “sacrificed” his body, in September 1965, Mother Divine assumed immediate control and spiritual leadership of the Peace Mission. This was inconvenient timing for the impatient Jones, who had just moved the core of his flock to Mendocino County, California. In the early 1960s, Jones had begun to make prophecies about impending nuclear holocaust. Fear-mongering over nuclear warfare had become a part of his recruitment strategy as well as his plan for establishing a functioning and isolated commune. Almost immediately after the publication of a January 1962 Esquirereport listing the nine safest places to weather global nuclear fallout, Jones began his campaign to relocate Peoples Temple to a safe zone. A self-sufficient agricultural commune would survive the nuclear winter that Jones claimed would begin on July 15, 1967. After the fallout, his followers would lead the world into its next phase of civilization with their example of apostolic socialism. Jones stopped in Cuba and Guyana on the way to Brazil, where he investigated the possibility of establishing a Temple outpost in Belo Horizonte, one of the cities listed in the Esquire report. He eventually settled for the most practical option, close to one of the sites on the list: Mendocino County. Jones asked his followers to leave everything they had—their jobs, their families, and even spouses and children who were unwilling to come along—to begin anew in California.

It was amid the free love, drugs, antiwar activism, women’s liberation, and black power of civil rights–era California that the Temple really hit its stride. Membership boomed nearly as fast as Divine’s had in Depression-era New York and New Jersey. Like Divine, Jones acquired significant influence in local politics. But membership rolls were never long enough for him. Having perfected his pitch on racial integration, Jones began conducting membership raids on black churches in San Francisco. His coveting eye inevitably wandered back east. Jones still lusted after the Peace Mission’s membership and resources, and the possibility of converting the vast holdings of the Peace Mission movement to apostolic socialism irresistibly enticed him.

In 1971, busloads of more than two hundred of Jones’s followers rolled into Philadelphia, where they were graciously lodged in the Mission’s downtown hotels. As they socialized with the angels, Jones’s disciples took the names of Divinites they thought they could recruit. They also visited Woodmont. Jones had been preaching an anti-materialist socialism that helped justify the occasionally squalid living conditions of his California commune, and wished for his followers to view Woodmont’s opulent spires as a sign of the Peace Mission’s waywardness and need for his principled leadership.

At Woodmont, Mother Divine led Jones privately into the “Shrine to Life” that held Father Divine’s earthly body. Inside the mausoleum, Jones told her he would take control of the Peace Mission. She politely declined, still unaware of the lengths Jones would go to oust her. The scales fell from her disbelieving eyes later that night, however, when Jones and his followers staged the big act they’d come prepared to perform. During a Mission banquet in the grand Crystal Ballroom of the Divine Lorraine Hotel, Peoples Temple members interrupted the praises that the angels were singing to Father Divine with shouts and moans, rapturously waving their arms at Jones. Then, in the Peace Mission tradition that Jones had adapted for his Temple followers, they began to testify about how Jones had changed their lives. Jones then stood to declare that Father Divine’s spirit had come to rest in his body. Cruelly, Jones was using Mother Divine’s own legitimacy against her: before hosting the spirit of Mother Divine, Sweet Angel had been just another of Father’s doting secretaries.

Mother Divine and enraged loyalists banished Jones and his followers from the Divine Lorraine, declaring that he was in fact “the other fellow”—Peace Mission slang for the fallen angel Lucifer. The Temple contingent departed, but the fight was far from over. Back in California, Jones told followers that Mother Divine had refused him only after he rebuffed her offers of sex. He spun the unlikely yarn that when the two were alone in Father Divine’s Shrine to Life at Woodmont, Mother Divine tore open her blouse and threw herself at him, begging him to have her. As Tim Reiterman reports in his biography of Jones, Temple members undertook a letter-writing campaign to Peace Mission members whose names they collected, “impugning Mother Divine’s purity and repeating Jones’s claims.” Reportedly, members of the Peoples Temple further lambasted Mother Divine as a racist “white mistress” who lived in a “castle” and exploited unpaid black labor.

The feud was still not over in June of 1972, when Jones sent several mostly empty Peoples Temple buses to Philadelphia in order to steal away Peace Mission members. Temple recruiters “invaded” the Mission hotels, armed with leaflets of propaganda. Upon being removed by Mission angels, Temple members circled the block in their buses, leaning out the windows to broadcast an offer of transit with megaphones: “This is Peoples Temple. The pastor is Jim Jones, the great humanitarian. We are leaving on Sunday at three p.m. You’re invited to Redwood Valley.”

The haul of new recruits was scarcely worth the trip. Still, several former angels remained with the Temple, convinced that Jones was the next incarnation of God. A few even made the trek to Guyana, perishing with the other disciples at Jonestown. Mother Divine never forgave Jones. In her personal response to the Guyana tragedy, she wrote that Jones and his followers were “destroyed” for daring to mock God and attempting to hijack Father Divine’s legacy.

Though the International Peace Mission Movement lives on, it has relinquished most of its property. The final Promised Land colony, in Ulster County, was sold in 1985. The last two Philadelphia hotels, the Divine Lorraine and the Divine Tracy, were closed in 1999 and 2006, respectively.

Mother Divine resides with a loyal coterie of followers at Woodmont. Not surprisingly, the celibate movement is aging and dying off in a programmed decline, just as the Shakers did earlier in the twentieth century. Funds, however, do not appear to be lacking. Woodmont is remarkably well preserved, despite the staggering sums that must be required to maintain it. During my tour of the estate, on the anniversary of Father and Mother’s wedding, I learned that an oil tycoon was one among the guests assembled at the celebratory banquet. Miss Sibyl, my tour guide, had remained mum about the identities of the guests, as she was about many of the things I asked. I’d made the mistake of jotting down my observations in a notebook—after seventy years of slander, writers are regarded suspiciously by Divinites. But in the driveway I met “Big Penny,” a local Philadelphia celebrity who provides private security and limousine service for the elite: “everybody from Oprah Winfrey to 10,000 Maniacs.” Looking down at me from the driver’s seat of a black Escalade, Big Penny told me, while wrapping brand-new hundred-dollar bills around a three-inch stack of credit cards, that his Texan client attended the banquet every year. He assured me that there was still “big money” behind the movement—the thirty-plus elderly angels I’d seen around the dining room table that day, he told me, were the bigwigs.

The Peace Mission shares a final poignant similarity with Peoples Temple. The Jonestown settlement, nearly forty years after its sudden abandonment, is being swallowed by the Guyanese jungle. Likewise, the once-opulent banquet hall at the Divine Lorraine on Broad Street in Philadelphia—the former residence of God—is now a beautiful ruin, being reclaimed by the concrete jungle that surrounds it. Graffiti and mold compete for the slowly unpeeling walls of the Crystal Ballroom, where Jim Jones once claimed to be God.

By Adam Morris

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Cult Father Divine Jim Jones Peace Mission The Believer