It came as a bolt from the blue. On Aug. 7, 1946, Father Divine, the charismatic leader of the International Peace Mission Movement, introduced his new wife as “the Spotless Virgin Bride” to a gathering of stunned followers at a Philadelphia banquet.
The Rev. Major Jealous Divine, regarded as God incarnate by his disciples, had further news. Sweet Angel, as his 21-year-old former stenographer was known to the movement, had taken into herself the spirit of Father Divine’s first wife, Peninnah, or Sister Penny, who had died in 1943. The two women were one and the same, he announced. Moreover, his union with the woman henceforth known as Mother Divine would be chaste — a marriage in name only, he said — because “God is not married.”
“When Father married me, he symbolically married everyone else,” Mother Divine told Newsday in 2005. “It’s not a personal marriage. It’s Christ married to his church.”
Mother Divine was a mysterious figure. Little is known about her early life. She was born Edna Rose Ritchings on April 4, 1925, in Vancouver, where her father, Charles, ran the Strathcona Floral Company, a nursery and flower shop. Her mother was the former Mabel Farr.
At 15, she became fascinated by Father Divine and his religion, which preached a gospel of self-help, abstinence, economic independence and social equality. By providing cheap meals and social services during the Depression, he attracted a large following in Harlem, where he maintained his headquarters, and through his many missions, known as heavens, elsewhere in the United States.
The revelation came to her, she wrote in Ebony magazine in 1950, “that Father Divine is God Almighty personified in a beautiful, holy body.”
According to Sara Harris, the author of “Father Divine: Holy Husband” (1953), Edna Rose left home for Montreal, where she moved in with a family of Father Divine’s disciples, took the name Sweet Angel and found work as a stenographer at a costume jewelry business. She then made her way to Philadelphia to meet Father Divine and was hired as his personal stenographer. The marriage quickly followed.
Unknown to the faithful who had assembled on Aug. 7, the marriage had taken place on April 29 in Washington, at the house of the Rev. Albert L. Shadd, a recent convert.
For months, the news remained secret. “We could not have released it,” Sister Mary, a member of Father Divine’s inner circle, told Ms. Harris. “If we had, there would have been no telling what might have happened. The marriage was such a world-shaking event, it might have made followers vibrate strongly enough to destroy themselves.”
The much-loved Sister Penny was black, for one thing, and her death had never been announced. The new Mother Divine was white, and although the Peace Mission regarded the idea of race as sinful, nearly three-quarters of the membership was black, and the sudden appearance of a white replacement came as a shock to the Peace Mission and to the black news media.
At her presentation as Mother Divine, Sweet Angel made a striking impression. “She wore no makeup, but her blond hair was waved and beautifully arranged, accentuating her blue eyes and a profile of classic regularity,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Of good figure, she wore a flowered dress in lavender green on cream, set off by a gold brooch on her bosom and two rings, one a large diamond.”
For followers confused by the merging of Sweet Angel’s identity with that of his first wife, Father Divine offered clarification.
“The individual is the personification of that which expresses personification,” he said. “Therefore he comes to be personally the expression of that which was impersonal, and he is the personal expression of it and the personification of the pre-personification of God Almighty! Peace, it’s wonderful!”
Mother Divine traveled with her husband as he toured the Peace Mission’s outposts, presided with him over ritual “communion banquets” and, as his health declined, took over the management of the enterprise, now shrinking.
In the glory days of the 1930s, the Peace Mission amassed a sizable real estate portfolio, including large hotels in Philadelphia. The movement’s members, required to turn over their worldly possessions and, in many cases, their earnings, added to the coffers.
Woodmont, a French Gothic confection built in 1892 by a steel baron, sat on 73 lush acres. Visitors were welcome, as long as they adhered to the movement’s tenets, posted in the parking lot: no smoking, drinking, profanity or undue mixing of the sexes.
As the United States left the hardships of the Depression behind, the Peace Mission lost some of its appeal, and the rising civil rights movement drained much of its support. Father Divine did not recognize race, referring to black Americans as “dark-complected.” Like the Shakers, Peace Mission followers did not procreate, which further thinned their ranks.
As years went by, Mother Divine sold off the Peace Mission’s holdings and gathered a dwindling number of older adherents around her at Woodmont, where she ruled in sovereign fashion.
In 1971, her mettle was tested when Jim Jones, a cult leader who borrowed many of his ideas from Father Divine, tried to take over the Peace Mission. With 200 followers who had traveled by bus to Philadelphia from California, he attended a weekly banquet at the Divine Lorraine Hotel.
After listening to fawning praise offered by his disciples, he rose and said: “Father Divine has conferred his mantle on me. We are from the same celestial plane and are messengers. His spirit has come to rest in my body.”
Mother Divine ordered him and his entourage off the premises. Mr. Jones mounted a six-year campaign of sabotage, on one occasion sending empty buses to spirit away members of the Peace Mission. His efforts came to little. The mass suicide of the Jones cult in Guyana in 1978, and Mr. Jones’s death by a gunshot wound to the head at the time, ended the threat.
Mother Divine rarely spoke to the news media and fended off questions about herself and her past. “What’s important is what we are now and what we aspire to be,” she told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988.
Father Divine, she insisted, never left the Peace Mission, as his death was a merely physical event. In spirit, he continued to guide the mission. “God’s going to have his way, with or without us,” Mother Divine told Newsday. “The more I learn about Father and what he did, the more I know that he’s God. That’s my satisfaction.”