Throughout human history, there are those — driven by profit, madness, divine provenance, or a proclivity to exert control over others — who have proclaimed themselves to be supernatural beings. Some of these soothsayers, the successful ones, have attracted large numbers acolytes who are in search of sort of meaning or shelter amidst the storms of life, Religions were built up around them while others faded into the sands of time. In Lenny Feinberg’s 2018 riveting documentary Father’s Kingdom, he provides a deep dive into the Peace Mission, a spiritual movement birthed in the 1930’s by Father Divine, the son of former slaves who claimed to be God incarnate. Over the course of his lifetime, Father Divine amassed an international following of devotees who to this day believe him to be a living god despite his physical death some 50 years ago. More than a superficial expose or freakshow, Feinberg masterfully shows why the movement and its belief system held such sway and still persists amongst the dwindling members of his Peace Mission.
Born George Baker in the antebellum south, Father Divine’s messages of gender and racial parity, devotion to social service, economic uplift and empowerment, and progressive political activism were groundbreakings at the time. In fact, the filmmaker posits that Divine was, in fact, one of the earliest and most consequential civil rights leaders in the nation’s history. He was also the progenitor of what he called New Thought, what today is called “prosperity gospel” a la Joel Osteen — that all people can manifest their own reality through positive thinking. Interestingly, Father Divine never took the mantle of the second coming of Christ, the Messiah, etc. Instead, perhaps as a result of growing up as a black man in Jim Crow America, he created a belief system that was something new, woven out of whole cloth.
“…the Peace Mission, a spiritual movement birthed in the 1930’s by Father Divine, the son of former slaves who claimed to be God incarnate.”
As an immortal being, Divine saw no cause to appoint a successor as he would never die (in fact, all his followers regard themselves as immortal. To them, death is indicative that one has committed sin somewhere along the way). Furthermore, all those who came to follow Father Divine took a vow of chastity. These two facts mean that the number of adherents to this faith are mostly quite elderly and their numbers continue to dwindle as the years go on. Watching the octogenarian Sister Meeks Faith — adorned as she is in the same red dress and black beret that we see her in photographs from decades earlier as one of Divine’s “Rosebuds” — is akin to looking at a creature trapped in amber, frozen in time. When Father Devine does shuffle off this mortal coil in 1965, his followers refused — and continue to refuse — to believe that he has passed on. Rather, they adhere to the mantra that he has merely transcended this earthly plane to a higher consciousness. So fervently do this embrace this ideology, that in one amazing scene in the film his remaining adherents — who live on his once palatial estate outside of Philadelphia — set out an empty dinner chair for him to which they address glowing speeches and praise as if Divine was sitting there with them at that very moment.
“…about race, community, faith, and our need as humans to be part of something larger than ourselves.”
To be sure there are elements of the Peace Mission that strike one as cult-like: married believers were instructed to regard their former spouses as brothers and sisters and not intimate partners, bonds between parents and the few children were severed, and acolytes were generally cut off from the outside world. Just as all this started to remind me of the devastating documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple about the murderous cult leader Jim Jones, the filmmaker brings Jones himself into the narrative. Jones, who also espoused racial integration and equality, actually believed himself to be Father Divine reincarnated. Apparently, he tried to woo away Devine’s followers to join his community in Guyana with some small success.
On so many levels, this is an engrossing and rich film that sheds light on a unique and little known historic American figure. But, it is also about race, community, faith, and our need as humans to be part of something larger than ourselves. Superbly directed, paced, and scripted, with a master integration of contemporary interviews and archival footage, this is a film that stays with the viewer long after the credits have ended. It demands to be seen. “Father’s presence remains,” says Sister Meeks Faith, “and we live and die by that.”
Father’s Kingdom (2018) Directed and Produced by Lenny Feinberg.
9 out of 10 stars