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Preachers of Salvation and Grassroots Movements

By Adib Rashad (
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Southern segregation and its attendant white racist oppression as well as northern economic deprivation and racist discrimination contributed to a number of Black grassroots organizations and Black preachers of salvation; these organizations satisfied Blacks' quest for emotional and psychological solace, and they also offered Blacks' economic and spiritual uplift. Each one of these organizations gave Black people a God-filled euphoria. Some such as the Peace Movement of Ethiopia supported repatriation to Africa.

The National Movement for the Establishment of the 49th state sought to create a Black State within the United States. In addition to the Honorable Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Noble Drew Ali's Moorish Science Temple, Farad Muhammad and later Honorable Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam (NOI), which offered Blacks a strong sense of racial pride, courage, and a sense of dutifulness, there was the Father Divine Peace Missions. Father Divine (George Baker) was shrewd enough to capitalize on the economic crisis and the spiritual void of illiterate, economically deprived Black southern migrants.

Father Divine ordained himself one specifically guided by God. He preached a fusion of Christianity and mysticism; he was so adept that his congregation believed him to be God in person. He was clever enough to know that when you feed a person when he or she is starving you have indeed won his or her loyalty. Thus during the Depression Father Divine provided his followers with employment through his Sayville Employment Center, and he provided them food, shelter and weekly prayer services. To the rejected and despised Blacks, their prayers had been answered, and as a consequence his followers worshipped him as God. He subsequently changed his name to Father God Major J. Divine, Dean of the Universe. He called his followers "Angels" and they were required to adhere to strict discipline. He promised his true followers eternal life, for he considered death the final weakness. His sacred text was titled "The New Day."

In the beginning, Father Divine referred to himself as the "Messenger" of God. At that stage of his leadership, he taught his followers that God is in every person, but later he changed from this concept of God to the idea that God is in Father Divine. As a leader, Divine created a patriarchal and messianic image that transcended his theological and intellectual limitations by denying the pervasiveness of color and race, as well as the dominance of white society and the marginal nature of Black society. He went on to state that everyone could be a part of the American society. However, this could only be actualized in a government under God, and Father Divine was God. Father Divine was conceptually contradictory. On the one hand, he was attracted to white America, and he even married white American women; on the other hand, he accentuated and actualized Mr. Garvey's position which stated Black people were superior and whites were inferior. Divine declared that he was Negro and God dwelled in him; to his followers and other Negroes/Black people, he declared that they were also Negroes and they were like unto him.

Another person who emerged on the scene at this time was one Marcelino ManuelDe Graca (Sweet Daddy Grace). He came to America in the 1900s from the Cape Verde Islands. He proclaimed himself a healer of mind and body. There is no doubt that he had some knowledge of herbs and African theological systems.
Also, because of his mixed ancestry (African and Portuguese), his physical demeanor appealed to most of those Blacks that had internalized a light skin versus dark skin caste concept. His followers believed he was capable of performing miracles such as bringing the dead back to life as well as healing. He taught from the Bible and accentuated his doctrine on the Biblical "grace." He told his followers that he was the "Grace of the World" and only he had the divine power to wash away their sins. He did not advocate an African or nationalist philosophy of any kind; nor did he preach any kind of race pride. His success was based on the emotional needs of his followers that required illusionary fulfillment. For Daddy Grace, religion was quintessentially his persona. From a materialistic standpoint, he provided his followers with shelter, food and employment.

Undoubtedly, some of these preachers of salvation and their grassroots movements exemplified contradictions in their programmatic approach to the socioeconomic liberation of Black people. What should not be overlooked or dismissed is that all of these individuals, to some extent, shared a domestic self-help philosophy and program. They instituted a collectivist economy among their followers; they rejected white dependency; they rejected the white concept of God, and they differentiated their followers from the Black American subculture.

One common theme that those grassroots religious organizations expressed was the need for a deliverer. Therefore, many Black migrants were attracted to the Holiness, Pentecostal, Spiritual, Judaic, Farad Muhammad's Temple of Islam--later the Nation of Islam--Father Divine's Peace Mission, Marcus Garvey's UNIA, Drew Ali's Moorish Science Temple, and the African Orthodox Church and other sects which proliferated not only in the industrial north, but also in many cities in the South.

The objective of these grassroots movements and their leaders was to establish a religion which could make the new and strange burdens of harsh urban life somehow tolerable. Hans A. Baer in his classic study, "The Black Spiritual Movement: A Religious Response to Racism" (pp. 12-17) contends that the grassroots religious organizations--sometimes called cults and sects--were a spiritual movement based on the Black religious experience which exhibited a common theme, namely the element of protest against the racist and socially stratified structure of American society.

It then becomes clear why the Honorable Marcus Garvey and Father Divine were spiritually exalted. Garvey was hailed as the mighty prophet; his mission and work was compared to that of Jesus. On another level, his followers looked upon him as a demigod from heaven to dispense political and economic salvation to a rejected, exploited, and despised people.

As stated earlier, Father Divine was both a "Messenger of God" and later honored as "God." Another preacher of salvation was one George Willie Hurley, popularly known as Father Hurley; he was also a self-proclaimed prophet and God. However, Hurley and Father Divine were by no means the first Black men to claim to be God incarnate.

As early as 1899, Blacks in the country side of Savannah, Georgia, began to worship DuPont Bell, a self-proclaimed son of God. Bell was later committed to an asylum; immediately afterwards, other self-proclaimed gods or messiahs appeared in various parts of Georgia until 1916. It was highly possible that George Baker (Father Divine) as a young man born and raised in Georgia (some say he was born in Maryland; however he did spend considerable time in Georgia), heard of these messianic predecessors. Additionally, while serving as an assistant preacher in a Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, Baker/Divine met and later became the disciple of one Samuel Morris, a Black man who also claimed to be God.

Around 1907, Morris took on the name of Father Jehovah and designated George Baker the "Messenger." John Hickerson, also known as Bishop St. John the Vine, was an assistant to Morris who later severed his connection to him, and subsequently established his own church. Interestingly, Baker/Divine was forced to leave Georgia on the premise that he was a public menace. He traveled to New York where St. John the Vine was teaching his congregation the belief that God resides in everyone and therefore everyone is in essence God or part of God.

This, I believe, was the beginning of the God-incarnate concept that permeated the religious nationalist, or grassroots movements (Baer, pp. 140-142).

In all likelihood, Farad Muhammad who was hailed as Allah in person, or rather Allah who came in the person of Master Farad Muhammad was probably influenced by the teachings of Hurley. As we will see, there are some striking similarities to be found in Hurley's teachings and those found in Farad's Temple of Islam--later Nation of Islam--and Drew Ali's Moorish Science Temple.

For the sake of informational clarity, it is imperative that we now scrutinize the similarities and dissimilarities between Hurley and other grassroot, religious, or messianic nationalist organizations. The major similarity between Father Hurley and Noble Drew Ali--there were others--was their use of Levi Dowling's "Aquarian Gospel." Hurley frequently quoted from the Aquarian Gospel and encouraged his followers to study its passages. Similar to Noble Drew Ali, Hurley claimed to have been a mason and a former member of the Mystical Brotherhood of India.

He utilized, in addition to the Aquarian Gospel, astrology, esotericism, theosophy, messianic nationalism, Christianity in the form of Black spirituality, aspects of masonry and other belief systems. Father Hurley called his places of worship temples and assigned numbers to each one. Drew Ali, Farad Muhammad and later Elijah Muhammad did the exact same thing.

The influence that Marcus Garvey, Noble Drew Ali, Farad Muhammad and Father Hurley had on each other is somewhat difficult to fully ascertain; however, one of the early temples of the Moorish Scientists was located in Detroit and perhaps predated Hurley's arrival in 1919 and his establishment of his Universal Hagar's Spiritual Church in 1923. On the other hand, one factor seems quite clear and that is by the time Farad Muhammad had started his temple in Detroit in the early 1930s, Father Hurley had established temples in several other cities. Thus it seems more convincing that Farad was, in all probability, influenced to some degree by Hurley.

And at some point during Hurley's mission Farad and Drew Ali's doctrine had an impact on the programmatic direction and thinking of Father Hurley. All three organizations revolved ideologically around each other. One thing is definite and that is that the linkage or continuum of these grassroot movements remained unsevered.

Note: Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was curiously similar to the Universal Association for the Moral Improvement of Mankind established in 1905 by the Haitian Pan-Africanist, Benito Sylvain. Notice also that Hurley used the name Hagar for his church; Hagar was the mother of Ishmael, who was according to religious history the father of the Arabs and most definitely a Cushite/African. Noble Drew Ali devised his own version of a Koran; similarly, Father Hurley devised his own version of the Ten Commandments.

Note: Interestingly, Noble Drew Ali's Koran consisted of some chapters taken from Levi Dowling's "The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus The Christ." Noble Drew Ali's teachings were philosophically constructed to give his followers a sense of African pride which would transfer into human self-worth. The need to affirm African Americans' ancestral contributions to human civilization was of paramount concern for Drew. He railed against the names that Europeans used to designate African Americans and Africans in the Diaspora; he strongly believed that those names only perpetuated slavery in the mind.

Hurley's Ten Commandments are as follows:

1. Thou shall believe in Spirit (God) within matter.
2. Thou shall ignore a sky heaven for happiness and a downward hell for human punishment.
3. Thou shall believe in heaven and hell on earth.
4. Thou shall believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.
5. Thou shall believe that the Ethiopians and all Nations will rule the world in righteousness.
6. Thou shall believe in what you sow, you shall also reap.
7. Thou shall believe that the Universal Hagar's Spiritual Church was revealed to Father G. W. Hurley for the blessing of all nations that believe in him.
8. Thou shall not pray for God to bless your enemies.
9. Thou shall ask God to give you power to overcome them.
10. Thou shall believe that our relatives and friends, whose spirits have departed from the body, is within our own bodies to help us overcome all difficulties in life.

Father Hurley's movement was very much akin to Drew, Garvey, Farad, and later Elijah's insofar as dietary habits were concerned. Each group was commanded to abstain from pork and pork byproducts, tobacco and alcohol. However, Hurley allowed his followers to consume wine in moderation at special church functions. Each group encouraged fasting for health purposes as well as for spiritual advancement (Baer, 107-108).

According to Baer, Garvey's movement was the most influential source for Hurley. Baer is convinced that by the 1920s, if not earlier, Father Hurley and some of his early followers became members of Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Furthermore, Baer's research leads him to believe that Hurley was personally acquainted with Garvey. Baer is academically veracious enough to admit that he does not know the exact period during which Hurley might have been a member of the UNIA; however, there is ideological exactness as to the fact that Garvey had a definite impact on a number of Black grassroot movements.

Theodore Vincent in his "Black Power and The Garvey Movement" (1971, San Francisco Ramparts, pp. 221-222) wrote the following regarding this issue: "Among the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Black people who had joined the Garvey movement, few were willing to reject the movement's philosophical, political, and cultural outlook. When the UNIA could no longer coordinate this sentiment, its members moved to build new organizations based upon what they considered important in their Garveyite experience. Columnist, Samuel Haynes, condemned these deserters bitterly in the "Negro World." "Former Garveyites are now enrolled in the Moorish American Society, in the various Africa movements, most of them founded by ex-Garveyites themselves," wrote Haynes. Haynes also saw a move of thousands to new religious movements claiming to be associated with Garveyism. Former Garveyites see in Father Divine, evangelist, George Wilson, Bishop Grace, Father Hurley and others the incarnation of Marcus Garvey."

Like Garvey, Hurley, Drew Ali, and Farad Muhammad presented themselves as saviors for the race. Like Garvey, Hurley referred to Blacks as Ethiopians and whites as Gentiles. Like Garvey, Hurley, Drew, and Farad--later Elijah--expressed strong disapproval of interracial marriage and dating. Another obvious similarity between Hurley's group and Garvey's UNIA were the colors of their flags. Hurley's church carried the red, black and green as did the UNIA.

Another preacher of salvation was one Apostle Elias Dempsey Smith, who might have been another source of Ethiopianism for Hurley's ideological growth. Smith founded a church called Triumph the Church and the Kingdom of God in Christ of which Hurley was a member. Smith's international church included a church in Ethiopia, where he resided for a time. There is a prevailing assumption that Smith opted not to return to the United States. His doctrine also emphasized a theology for understanding the reality of God in man and a clarifying perspective on how God's presence is expressed through man. He established his church in January 20, 1904.

With the exception of Drew's esotericism and messianic nationalism and the striking impact of Garveyism on Hurley, Hurley to a certain degree, as well as Drew and Garvey, influenced Farad Muhammad. Hurley's so-called prophethood to God was gradual, but it coincided and preceded a Farad pattern; furthermore, Hurley's lesson on minor prophets continuing the work of his major and final prophethood was reflected in Farad's messianic preachments. Hurley taught his congregation that the spirit of God is embedded in each man. He preached that as the "major God" he brought the "true light into this age," and his believers in that true light were the minor gods and goddesses (consider Elijah Muhammad's pronouncement that "Whenever you see a Black man, you are looking at God.").

Hurley, like Farad, and later Elijah, taught that heaven and hell are "right here on earth within every man and woman." According to Hurley, "heaven is a state of peace, joy, happiness and success which is a satisfied mind on earth." Farad and Elijah specifically stated that hell was being the victim of white oppression; therefore, since the white man was the source of hell, then he was the most likely candidate to be the devil. Hurley did not go to this extreme. Actually, hell for Hurley and his followers was a condition of hatred, Jim Crowism, and prejudice created by racist white Christians. Hurley passionately argued that Europeans forced the Ethiopian/Black people to join their churches during slavery and then psychologically persuaded them to accept a "white God, a white Jesus, white prophets, and white prophetesses."

Moreover, Hurley, Farad, and Elijah considered the traditional Christian concepts of the afterlife as an instrument for oppressing Blacks with a pie-in-the-sky doctrine. Furthermore, they were very similar insofar as their forceful criticism of white Christian racism was concerned. Garvey, Hurley, Drew, Farad and Elijah contended that the white race all over the world assigned the Black race to a position of inferiority; their use of derogatory names such as nigger, Negress, coon, and samba contributed to the debasement of people of African descent.

Therefore, unlike Garvey, who held on to the word Negro, Drew Ali, Hurley, Farad and Elijah stressed that the term Negro must be eliminated from use; eradicated by law, and replaced by "Black" in Farad and Elijah's case, Ethiopian in Hurley's case, and Moor or Asiatic in Drew's case. Hurley taught that Ethiopians were the first people in the world, Farad and Elijah taught that the Black man and woman were the "Original People."

Father Hurley argued that whereas Blacks or Ethiopians were the first people; whites therefore, were the offspring of Cain, who had been cursed with a pale color because of leprosy. Farad expanded this theory by stating that the Black man was the original man and the white man was a hybrid or a grafted man.

Most of these preachers of salvation and race redemption said to the world or anybody who listened that the Black race had not been cursed, and that it once reigned supreme and was bound to reign again.

On a different note, Drew Ali who traveled extensively in the East and in Africa, concluded that Blacks were not Ethiopians as proclaimed by his contemporaries, but that they were Asiactics(Farad and Elijah used the term Asiatic Black man), specifically Moors from Morocco. He believed that the Continental Congress stripped American Blacks of their nationality and placed them in the menial role of a slave.

The dissimilarity between Hurley and Farad was Hurley's belief in the American political system and his support for capitalism. In this case, he was more in tune with Father Divine, Daddy Grace, and Noble Drew Ali. The other dissimilarity was that unlike Divine, Grace, Drew, Garvey and Elijah, Hurley did not provide his followers with an extensive economic base. He did not advocate the necessity for establishing self-help programs. He did not, as did Garvey and Farad, promote or promulgate a back to Africa or separatist program. While there are specific commonalties and differences among these preachers of salvation, their respective preachments contained profound lifesaving similarities:

1. They taught that Blacks have a Glorious African past.
2. The Black man and woman were the Original People of the earth.
3. The Black man was God and the Black woman was the Mother of Civilization, and all of the prophets were Black.
4. Blacks should renounce the white man's version of Christianity.
5. Blacks would again rise to their rightful place in the world.
6. Each preacher proclaimed himself to be a messenger, prophet, and God.

In conclusion, Garvey's pragmatic approach to religion was based on the argument that Christianity preached that man was made in the image and likeness of God; therefore, Black men should depict a God in their own image and likeness, which conclusively would be Black. The Black God concept for Garvey was incontrovertibly enmeshed with economic and political autonomy for the Black masses. It was also a means of dismantling the Caucasian image of God which psychologically impaired Black people. He insisted that if Negroes are in God's image and Negroes are Black, then God must be Black. He stated the following:

"If the white man has the idea of a white God, let him worship his God as he desires... We, as Negroes, have found a new ideal. Whilst our God has no color, yet it is human to see everything through one's own spectacles, we have only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles... We Negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God--God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, the one God of all ages. That is the God in whom we believe, but we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia."

Garvey loudly announced in Harlem at street rallies that "A Black God is coming. Be ready when he cometh."

Other sources:

1. "African American Religion in the Twentieth Century," By Hans A. Baer (University of Tennessee Press, 1992)
2. "Garveyism as a Religious Movement," By Randall Burkett (Scarecrow Press, New Jersey, 1978)
3. "Black Religion and Black Radicalism," By Gayraud S. Wilmore (Doubleday, New York, 1972)
4. "The Wings of Ethiopia," By Jeremiah Wilson Moses (Iowa State University Press, 1990)

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