I, Rev. M.J. Divine, known throughout the universe as FATHER DIVINE, for humanity’s sake and the redemption of millions of human bodies, do hereby request, appeal and demand of you and yours an immediate unconditional surrender …
So begins the letter that spiritual leader Father Divine wrote to Emperor Hirohito at the close of World War II. His message is brief but substantial, and indicative of the Reverend’s strange, undeniable power with language. It’s unsurprising that he tended to be a bit grand — he had declared himself a god in 1912.
In a café in Fairmount, Bob Beaty, founder of Provenance Architecturals, shows me a framed, enlarged copy of the letter he and his fellow salvagers found when clearing out the ruins of the Divine Lorraine. Reverend Major Jealous Divine passed away in 1965, but his presence is still felt in vacant Philly landmarks like the Divine Lorraine and Divine Tracy hotels. He’s buried in Gladwyne at the Woodmont Estate, where his widow, Mother Divine, and the dwindling remnants of the Peace Mission Movement still live and work in communal peace.
His movement has often been called a cult, and like many cult leaders before and after him, he and his followers believed he was God in human form. (Jim Jones tried to co-opt the Peace Mission Movement in 1971, claiming to be Father Divine reincarnated.) Similarly, every Japanese Emperor was believed to be a living god or, at least, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Hirohito, though he didn’t believe it personally, was required to claim divinity as justification for the throne and for Japanese imperialism.
So what happens when a god in Philadelphia challenges the legitimacy of a god in Japan? One of them becomes human.
Father Divine penned his letter on May 7, 1945. Three months later, Japan surrendered. In January 1946, Hirohito issued, at the request of General MacArthur, his famous “Humanity Declaration,” an imperial rescript renouncing his god-status.
The outcome seems perfectly natural to Roger Klaus, who lives at the Woodmont Estate and does odd jobs there. “[The letter] was a word of warning to Hirohito that he should surrender unconditionally,” Klaus says. “I don’t know if at that time the prediction of the atomic bomb was in the media. But Father Divine had an intuition, that’s for sure.” Still a devout believer, Klaus recently emailed President Obama regarding the North Korean threat, including the contents of Father Divine’s letter as an example.
As with most holy relics, the origins of the letter are mysterious at best. We know for sure that it was published in the Mission’s newspaper, The New Day. Bob Beaty keeps his particular framed copy in his home for safekeeping. A digital version of the letter may be read at what appears to be an older Peace Mission Movement website. As for as the original, handwritten letter, it’s believed to be in Woodmont’s archives, but it’s hard to say.
Did the letter actually reach the Emperor Hirohito? Did it even leave the U.S.? According to a May 26 edition of Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper, the letter was deemed “not deliverable” under the era’s wartime “post office rulings.” It’s possible the letter reached the Japanese Embassy in Washington, but the building was in a constant state of flux, held by neutral parties like Spain and Switzerland while many of its personnel were interned elsewhere. It’s not clear whether Father Divine even attempted to mail his letter given these conditions.
Like Father Divine himself — whose birth name and hometown have never been verified — the letter’s murky history is a large part of its fascination. But its power goes deeper than mere curiosity. Leonard Primiano, chair of Religious Studies at Cabrini College, is a leading expert on the Peace Mission Movement and has much to say about the letter’s greater significance to Divine’s camp and to the American public.
Divine, according to Primiano, may have wanted to demonstrate his awareness of the suffering and anxieties in this period of world conflict, and actually spoke about German and Japanese aggression often during his weekly sermons. “[He] was appreciated as a protector of his adherents,” Primiano explains, “and big public statements like the proclamation of this letter accentuated that he was an ‘ON-TIME GOD,’ as the members proclaim, that he was watching over the world and using his power to protect righteous people ‘right here and right now.’” Whether or not he was a charlatan, as some have said, Divine’s letter was one of many grand gestures that, to his people, represented a triumph for peace and ethnic harmony.
Got a Show + Tell suggestion? Write to ten.repapytic@gylime, or on Twitter @emilygee.
First Friday Focus: Camden up close, prejudice in photography and "skate of the art" installation
+ GRAVY STUDIO & GALLERY Vice named Gabriel Angemi, a city firefighter, its favorite street...
The Way Women See It: Reviewing "The Lady From the Sea"
EgoPo Classic Theater may be Philadelphia’s most intellectually bracing company. Artistic...
Painting the Town: Artists' views on Northern Liberties' changes
There’s a sort of privilege in listening in on the conversation between Ira Upin, Jennifer Baker,...