Sweet Angel Divine, who was the “Spotless Virgin Bride” and for five decades the widow of Father Divine, a self-styled religious figure who proclaimed himself God in the 1930s and led one of the most unusual cults of personality in the country’s history, died March 4 at her estate in Gladwyne, Pa., outside Philadelphia. She was about 91. (One of the tenets of her religious movement was a disregard for chronological age.)
The Philadelphia Inquirer first reported her death. The cause was not disclosed.
Mother Divine, as she was generally known, was a tall, blond 21-year-old Canadian when she married Father Divine, the aging, rotund 5-foot-2 African American founder of a religious movement called the International Peace Mission.
A charismatic preacher since the early 1900s, Father Divine — or the Rev. Major Jealous Divine, to give him his full title — declared in 1932 that he was God and attracted legions of devotees drawn by his message of racial equality, clean living, communal living and cash-only financial transactions.
Among other strictures, his supporters could not drink, smoke or curse and were required to be celibate. Married couples who joined the flock were separated and given new names — including Edna Rose Ritchings, who legally changed her name to Sweet Angel Divine after she and her husband were married in Washington in 1946.
Historian Jill Watts, who wrote a biography of Father Divine, believes he was born in Rockville, Md., in 1879 and was named George Baker Jr. at birth. Other accounts suggest that he was born in Georgia, anytime from the 1860s to the 1880s.
He was living in Baltimore in about 1900 when he began to preach. He borrowed from several Christian denominations and other popular philosophies of the time to develop his set of beliefs, which included the idea that a divine spirit resided within each person.
Spreading the word from coast to coast, he was often accused of blasphemy and was jailed on occasion, but at the height of his glory in the 1930s he claimed to have millions of followers of all races.
At a time when Jim Crow practices were widespread, Father Divine rejected the concept of racial identity, and his message of self-empowerment had wide appeal.
His supporters, many of whom were women, were expected to turn most of their earnings over to him. He opened a network of religious centers and cafeterias around the country, offering free meals to anyone who wanted them.
Through hard-to-trace cash arrangements, Father Divine controlled dozens of businesses, including hotels, barbershops, dry-cleaning establishments, apartment buildings and restaurants. He was surrounded by an adoring entourage and was driven around in a Rolls-Royce.
“How big a figure was he in the 1930s? Huge,” Robert Weisbrot, a history professor at Colby College in Maine, told Newsday in 2005. “He was one of very few African American leaders who were frequently in the news in mainstream papers, not simply African American journals.”
Father Divine’s organization was based at a mansion in Sayville, N.Y., in the early 1930s when he was convicted of maintaining a public nuisance. The judge who sentenced him to a year in jail died within days.
“I hated to do it,” Father Divine reportedly said, although historians have cast doubt on the statement’s veracity.
After losing a court case filed by a onetime disciple who grew disillusioned and wanted her money back, Father Divine moved his headquarters to Philadelphia in the early 1940s, while continuing to preach all over the world.
His future wife first heard him speak in her native Vancouver when she was 15.
“When I heard about Father Divine and what he was doing, intuitively, I felt like he had the answers,” she told Newsday. “Father was for peace, and people of all nations and of all races coming together.”
She was 20 when she and a friend took a bus to Philadelphia. She and Father Divine were married on April 29, 1946, which became a sacred day in the movement’s history. (The first Mother Divine had died in 1943.)
At the time of the marriage, her father, a florist in Vancouver, said, “Everyone liked her. She was a fine, healthy girl . . . perfectly normal.”
She eventually lost touch with her Canadian family.
In 1950, Mother Divine wrote about her marriage in Ebony magazine, answering the question about whether she and her husband led “lives of purity and chastity.”
“I am as virtuous today as the day Father took me unto himself as his spotless bride,” she wrote. “I am a sample and example for all to copy if they desire to be supernaturally and eternally blessed.”
Edna Rose Ritchings was born in Vancouver in April 1925, according to public records. She may have worked in Montreal before moving to the United States.
Father Divine died in 1965, although his adherents disavow the concept of earthly death.
“He has just gone away for a spell and he will come back to earth in bodily form,” Mother Divine said soon afterward.
She became the leader of her husband’s organization and the heir to his estate, worth an estimated $10 million. She lived with her aging staff in the lavishly appointed Pennsylvania mansion, called Woodmont. To maintain solvency, she sold off properties from Father Divine’s vast holdings.
In 1971, cult leader Jim Jones tried to take control of the dwindling movement, claiming he was the reincarnation of Father Divine. His efforts were rebuffed by Mother Divine. Jones moved on to California and later to Guyana, where he and about 900 followers died in a mass suicide in 1978.
At home in Pennsylvania, Mother Divine continued to address her husband in the present tense, and a place was set for him at every meal. His bedroom was left unchanged after his death, and during interviews, Mother Divine sat next to his chair, occasionally seeking his guidance.
“I represent the angelic race. We’re married to God. We don’t procreate,” she said in 2005.
“It was just my calling,” she added. “I think I’m a pretty balanced person. I don’t go off the deep end one way or another.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sweet Angel Divine and Father Divine were married in Washington in 1946 because because Pennsylvania did not allow interracial marriage at the time. That information was based on numerous articles written about the couple. Interracial marriage has been legal in Pennsylvania since 1780.