More than 70 percent of Americans say religion is important in their lives, but this year’s obituaries reveal the vast diversity of religious life in American culture.
Spirituality takes a lot of different shapes in America. Some people preach, some pray and some evangelize. Some break the law. Some serve an institution and a hierarchy while others build individualized cathedrals.
A number of fascinating figures died this year. Their lives show the real range of religious life in this country:
Sweet Angel Divine
Like a lot of immigrants, Edna Rose Ritchings came to the United States looking for a better life. That better life included a wedding to the man she believed to be God.
Ritchings first heard Father Major Jealous Divine speak in Vancouver, B.C., when she was 15. Divine was a black man who said he was God and called his followers to abstain from sex and partake of feasts. Ritchings joined a group of Divine’s followers in Montreal, taking the name Sweet Angel. In 1946, she traveled to the United States and married Divine.
Mother Divine led Divine’s New Religious Movement, headquartered in Philadelphia, after his death in 1965. She played recordings of his talks and spoke of him in the present tense until her death in Gladwyne, Pa., at 91.
Patrick Fernández Flores
Patrick Fernández Flores was the first Mexican American in the hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic Church. Born to migrant workers, Flores wanted to be a priest from childhood, even though he had a limited education and Anglo clerics discouraged him. He was ordained in 1957 and made a bishop in 1970, rising to the level of archbishop of San Antonio in 1979.
No stranger to political controversy, Flores was an advocate for Hispanics and the poor. “If you reject the poor,” he once told the city of San Antonio, “you reject Jesus.”
Flores co-founded the influential Catholic Television of San Antonio in 1981 and brought Pope John Paul II to Texas in 1987. In 2000, he was held hostage by a Salvadoran man who feared deportation. The man surrendered to police after nine hours. Flores supported the man’s family for years after. He died in San Antonio at 87.
Gelek Rimpoche served as a leading teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in America. He was one of the last Buddhist teachers to be fully educated in Tibet. He entered monastery at the age of 5, leaving at age 19 when the Chinese Communists killed monks and shelled monasteries in 1959. As a refugee in India, Rimpoche played a crucial role in preserving the tradition, editing and publishing 170 volumes of rare manuscripts. He also wrote a popular book on reincarnation.
In 1987, at the instruction of his superiors, Rimpoche moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to teach Buddhism to Americans. He became a U.S. citizen and worked hard to understand American culture, watching “Days of Our Lives” and televangelist Jim Bakker on TV. Rimpoche established Buddhist communities in Ann Arbor, Chicago and New York City, teaching a number of notable Americans, including composer Philip Glass. He died in Ann Arbor at 77.
Frank Worthen was first told he was gay by his pastor at age 13. At the time, Worthen recalled, he didn’t know what the word “homosexual” meant. He accepted his gay identity until his evangelical conversion in 1973.
Worthen recorded a cassette tape recounting his experience and advertised it in a gay newspaper popular in San Francisco. “Do you want out of homosexuality?” the ad read. “Send for a Brother Frank tape on a Christ-centered way out of homosexuality.” About 60 men asked for copies the first year and Worthen launched a group called Love in Action. A network of similar ministries was formed in 1976 with the name Exodus International. “Conversion therapy,” as it came to be known, became increasingly controversial. Exodus International closed in 2013, apologizing to those who had been a part of its ministry.
Worthen continued to believe Jesus could free people from same-sex attraction until his death in San Rafael, Calif., at 87.
Maxine Grimm, a pioneering but unofficial Mormon missionary to the Philippines — born Maxine Tate — was widowed in 1940 at the age of 25 and then joined the Red Cross. The Red Cross sent her to the Philippines at the start of World War II. In 1945, she led a seamstress to join the Mormon Church, the first Filipino to become Mormon.
She married a non-Mormon army colonel, E.M. Grimm and remained in Manila after the war. Though the church never formally recognized her as a missionary, Grimm continued to convert Filipinos. About 2,000 were baptized in her swimming pool by the end of the 1950s. “I know the Church is true and I have always wanted to show that,” Grimm said. Today, there are more than 745,000 Latter-day Saints in the country. Grimm died in Tooele, Utah, at 102.
Michael “M.J.” Sharp believed in the power of peace. That’s why the Mennonite from Indiana would walk deep into the Congo forest, sit beneath a banana tree and talk to armed rebels.
Sharp started his career as a peacemaker after graduating from Eastern Mennonite University in 2005. He counseled U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany, telling them how to declare themselves conscientious objectors. Then, in 2012, Sharp went to the Democratic Republic of Congo. With a budget of $12,000 per month, he coordinated a group of Christian volunteers who would talk to rebel fighters. In three years, they convinced 1,600 rebels to lay down their arms. When funding was canceled, Sharp contracted as a United Nations observer, investigating rapes, massacres and child soldiers in Congo.
He and a U.N. colleague, Zaida Catalán of Sweden, were kidnapped in Congo in March. Their bodies were found two weeks later in a shallow grave. Sharp was 34.
Donald Weiser was pivotal in the spread of occult beliefs in middle America. He published books on Western traditions of “secret knowledge,” including astrology, tarot, paganism, witchcraft and magick.
Weiser started as an antiquarian, taking over his father’s rare book business in New York in 1950. He specialized in acquiring occult libraries to sell to collectors. By 1957, however, Weiser realized there was a broader interest for these books. He started publishing 15 to 20 cheap editions per year and selling them to hippies, housewives, soldiers returning from Korea and Wall Street brokers looking for a supernatural advantage.
When mainstream publishers repackaged the occult as “New Age” in the 1970s, they recruited Weiser’s proteges to run them. They established New Age as an official category, so when Borders and Barnes & Noble launched their superstores in American suburbs in the 1980s, the occult was made widely available to middle America. Weiser died in Greenacres, Fla., at 89.
Katherine Dockens was the direct descendant of the slave who bought his own freedom and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church. As the sixth-generation granddaughter of Richard Allen, the church’s founding bishop, she worked tirelessly to preserve and promote her church’s history, leading regular tours of Mother Bethel A.M.E. in Philadelphia. Historians, documentarians and tourists sought her expertise.
Dockens helped organize a bicentennial celebration in 1987. The church reiterated its commitment to racial justice and reenacted the founder’s trek from Delaware, where he was a slave, to Philadelphia, where the A.M.E. began, to Baltimore, where the first conference of A.M.E. churches was held. Today the church has about 2.5 million members, according to the World Council of Churches. Dockens also served as president of the church’s missionary society, and was given the honorific “Mother Missionary” in Botswana in 1997. She died in Athens, Ga., at 95.
Leroy Jenkins’s life was full of sensational scandals, but he never stopped preaching miracles.
He started his ministry in 1960, saying God had healed his severed arm and called him to heal others. He built a cathedral in Ohio in 1968, but the building failed safety inspections, and it burned down in a suspected insurance scam. Jenkins made it big in the 1970s with a faith-healing TV show. Then he was convicted of plotting two arsons in South Carolina.
Jenkins served time in prison from 1979 to 1985, but he rebuilt his ministry and his cathedral with another TV show and sales of miracle water. In 2003, the Ohio Department of Agriculture reported Jenkins’s miracle water was contaminated with fecal bacteria. Unfazed, he continued preaching until 2015. Jenkins died in Apopka, Fla., at 83.
William Lombardy was the greatest chess-playing Catholic priest of the 20th century. He learned chess at 9 from a Jewish neighbor in the Bronx. At 19, he became the world junior champion, winning 11 games in a row, an unheard of feat. But he was quickly overshadowed by a young friend named Bobby Fischer.
A priest serving in the Bronx, he continued to play chess at the highest levels, even assisting Fischer in his famous Cold War victory over the Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky. The church, however, did not always approve of the priest’s games. A cardinal chided Lombardy for “pushing meaningless wooden pieces across a wooden board.”
Lombardy left the priesthood in 1977, criticizing the church’s wealth. He spent his later years in poverty. In 2016, he was evicted from his apartment, more than $27,000 behind in rent. Lombardy died in Martinez, Calif., at 79.
Betty Bone Schiess
Betty Bone Schiess was one of the first women ordained as an Episcopalian priest. Her 1974 ordination was, in the legal language of the church at the time, “irregular.” The House of Bishops, in an emergency meeting at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, declared the ordination invalid.
The church changed its position on women’s ordination two years later. Schiess was reordained and her sex-discrimination lawsuit was dropped. During her service, she was a chaplain at Syracuse University and Cornell University and as rector of a church in northeast New York.
By 1985, more than 600 women were Episcopalian priests. Today, more than 40 percent of the denomination’s priests are women. Schiess was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. She died in Syracuse, N.Y., at 94.
John Raines was an ordained Methodist minister who was an accomplice in a burglary that revealed FBI abuses. Raines, his wife, Bonnie, and six other peace activists stole 1,000 files from a Philadelphia office and mailed them to three newspapers reporters in 1971. The files revealed the FBI’s secret campaign to harass civil rights advocates, antiwar protesters and other “subversives.”
Born to a Methodist bishop, Raines followed his father into ministry. As a pastor, he became active in civil rights activism and joined the Freedom Rides to force the desegregation of public buses in 1961.
During the 1971 burglary, Raines drove the family’s station wagon as the getaway car. Sometimes, he said when the secret was revealed to a Washington Post reporter in 2014, breaking the law is the only way to stop a crime. Raines died in Philadelphia at 84.
Daniel Silliman is a Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University. A U.S. historian, he writes about American religion and culture. You can follow him on Twitter @danielsilliman.