Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York

From the Preface of Promised Land:

Promised LandFather Divine lifted the despairing from the gutter to self-respect, but his methods troubled many observers. He commanded substantial wealth, but he mystified much of the world as to how he acquired it. He had charismatic power, but his talk of his supernatural abilities was difficult for the public to accept. His movement constituted one of the most completely interracial groups in America in its time, yet large numbers of Americans found this to be offensive. One of Divine’s associates claimed that Divine probably met “more opposition than anyone upon the face of the earth.”

This book deals with Father Divine’s movement beginning in the 1930s during the Great Depression. At that time, when the movement was providing free food to thousands of the unemployed, journalist George Sokolsky, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, called it the nation’s “most successful religious movement.” This book also deals with Divine’s movement during World War II, when he continued to teach, as he long had, that his true followers would not fight. This book also deals with Divine’s movement soon after the war, when a newspaper prominent among blacks, the Pittsburgh Courier, called Divine’s Peace Mission “the only organization in America” that has achieved “racial integration.” This book also deals with Divine’s impact after his death when the political scientist Leo Rosten declared that while Divine was “adorable,” and taught “a sweet and beneficent faith,” he was also a fraud, a “mountebank.”

Divine was long based in Harlem, and, to use a term he himself favored, he was an “Afro-American.” This book, however, focuses on him as he led in creating interracial, utopian communities in overwhelmingly white Ulster County, New York, a hundred miles north of Harlem, up the Hudson River. By 1939, Divine had led in creating some thirty such communities in the county-they were experimental, cooperative, and nonviolent, and about 2,300 people were living in them. While the settled population of the county was disturbed by the arrival of these communities, Divine had high hopes for them as models for the world. Divine and his followers called them a Promised Land to which God was now leading his followers as God had once led the ancient Hebrews to their Promised Land.

This book concentrates on Divine’s movement in the period from 1935, when it established its first community in Ulster County, in New Paltz, until 1985, when it sold off its last community in the county, in Kingston. This book tells how the Ulster County communities were founded and what they did. It tells the stories of selected individuals related to these communities as helping to illuminate the whole movement. It follows interconnections between Divine’s movement in Ulster County and elsewhere, especially in the two metropolitan areas where Divine had his headquarters, first New York City, later Philadelphia. It spotlights the movement’s nonviolent character, as has seldom been done, including how the movement applied nonviolence to World War II.

I have been drawn to this topic for several reasons. Intentional, utopian communities fascinate me. I am attracted to their idealism. I want to understand their successes and their failures. Moreover, Divine is not well enough known, I believe, in our time. His communities in Ulster County have been little written about. What participants remember about these communities needs to be recorded while the participants still survive. I myself have long lived in Ulster County, and have already written considerably on its history, as well as on themes related to the Divine movement such as the struggle for racial integration and the application of non-violence to social change.


Available from Purple Mountain Press at 845-254-4062, or from the author, 845-255-1968, pick up in Gardiner