A Riot in the Social Order: On Race, Religion, and Power

*A version of this essay originally appeared on The Immanent Frame, a forum of the Social Science Research Council, as part of the project “Is this all there is,” curated by Courtney Bender and Nancy Levene.

Father Divine (Photo: Historical Society of Montgomery Country).

On April 8, 1946, a Bahamian farmworker named Just John wrote to leader of the International Peace Mission Movement, Father Divine, from Miami, Florida to relay the story of his issues with United States naturalization officials. Like many of the letters sent from around the country and the world by the faithful, Just John’s letter primarily referred to his efforts to maintain righteousness and holiness. Having changed his name in the tradition of Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, Just John wanted his legal documentation to reflect his adherence to the faith. According to John, a naturalization agent told him that he must pay and go before a judge to officially complete the process. Just John decided instead to send the papers to Divine who he considered his “father an judge and [his] law and [his] savior and the all mighty [sic].”1

Just John exchanged his old name to reflect his new-found holiness, to demonstrate his faith in the teachings of Father Divine, and to establish his place among the flock. For adherents of the Peace Mission, the process of renaming served the dual purpose of disconnecting them from their old lives and further insulating them within the fabric of their new holy community among their sisters and brothers in the faith.

Yet as Just John’s letter also elaborates, he and the other faithful members of Father Divine’s Peace Mission exchanged their names in order to demonstrate their faith in Divine as a superordinate power above the governing legal, political, and social order of the United States. If the state, as well as the laws and policies that organize it, is understood to hold the ultimate power to name, and therefore also to differentiate, aggregate, or disaggregate groups, renaming oneself without recourse to the proper agencies of the state was an act of insurgency. To embrace as god and to recognize as the ultimate sovereign power a small-framed Black man without formal schooling who advocated full social (if not sexual) integration across the color-line invited controversy and danger in the 1940s.

Just John’s letter further elucidates the stakes of recognizing power above the law of the land in the post-World War II era for segregated Black communities. Just John went on to ask Divine to “take [him] out of this South land” so that “senator [Theodore] Bilbo and his gang can pick ther own cotten [sic].”2 Although not written from Mississippi where Senator Bilbo ran his Klan-backed, vitriolic 1946 Democratic primary campaign, Just John’s invocation of Divine’s intervention to liberate him from the conditions of anti-Black, economic oppression establishes the stakes of the processes by which Black religious communities have recognized powers beyond the state within their practices and beliefs.

Critically, in the recognition of some other power above the law, Black communities of faith imagined alternative possibilities for the present and the future in which the state would be disempowered in its routine proscription of all matters of Black life. Just John’s freedom dream included, as his letter describes, a world in which segregationists like Bilbo would “pick ther own cotten,” freeing him and other Black laborers to establish a new order of peace and abundance in the name of Divine.

In his 1942 assessment of Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and other similar non-institutional and unorthodox Black religious groups in Philadelphia, Arthur Huff Fauset, noted Black religionist and University of Pennsylvania trained anthropologist, wrote that “Cultism among Negroes, as I perceive it, is essentially a movement of ‘rebellion.’”3 Framed within the context of their vexed and often acrimonious relationship with institutional churches, Fauset’s interpretation of “cults” as insurgent primarily addressed their differences in matters of decorum and the class-based hierarchies used to exclude or marginalize poor people in more established congregations. But Fauset’s invocation of rebellion also provides an opening for thinking about how Black religious traditions, particularly those viewed as unorthodox, acted to incite generative social discord.

Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and a number of groups like it embraced heterodox visions of a new world order in which all manners of social hierarchy and the borders used to create them would be dissolved in the name of peace and under the power of Divine. Looking out from the spaces they created and inhabited, adherents saw a world in which dominant Christian morals and practices reinforced segregation and abetted white patriarchal control and capitalist exploitation. From this vantage, theologies countering the normative god and envisioning god as a social outsider were more than just curious formulations. The reformulation of Christian theology and cosmology exemplified by the Peace Mission opened spaces for singing and eating across the color line, subverting racist social hierarchy within the seemingly mundane acts of living and worshiping. These acts drew out the contradictions of a society ostensibly based on equality and justice but that routinely denied Black communities basic forms of substantive inclusion or access to primary modes of social connection and reciprocity.

Adherents of the Peace Mission did not stage a direct confrontation with the state or some other powerful agents invested in segregation and inequality. Rather, their rebellion was shaped from within the shadows of the wider civil-social order, where they formulated an alternative world in which the color line was remade through quotidian practices of eating, living, and worshiping together. Far from rendering working-class Black communities passive victims of oppression, consigning their redemption from poverty and segregation to a displaced heaven, heterodox Black religious communities of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s answered the query “is this it?” by creating a new incubated and insurgent world in which holiness and peace would reign and racist borders, war, and oppression would be dissolved.

Their answer to this query resonates forward into our own moment. What would it look like to take seriously radically heterodox sets of practice and formulations as part of our own tactical repertoire? How can the Peace Mission and other similar groups’ histories inspire us to be a riot in the face of the social order we face, one in which Black lives continue to not matter and a white supremacist has assumed the highest office in the land?

  1.  Letter from Just John to Father Divine, April 8, 1946, Box 1, Folder 5, Father Divine papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
  2.  Letter from Just John to Father Divine, April 8, 1946, Box 1, Folder 5, Father Divine papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
  3.  Draft Materials of Black Gods of the Metropolis, Box 5, Folder 97, Arthur Huff Fauset papers, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati. He is also part of the University’s urban futures initiative. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia, which historicizes multiple modes of insurgent spatial assemblage Black communities articulated in Philadelphia in the second half of the twentieth century. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.

Comments on “A Riot in the Social Order: On Race, Religion, and Power

  • Father Divine sounds like many of the ‘prophets’ and leaders of revivalist churches now termed that emerged out of the Ethiopianist movement in the early 20th century all over Southern Africa.
    But the story also reminds me of the founding fathers of the Rastafari movement in the Caribbean.
    In South Africa untl today we have millions of people worshiping Shembe as a Divine being send by Jehovah to be his representative on Earth. They performed miracles and have now become dynastic and friends of the establishment

    Reply

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