With so many beautiful, historic churches in Harlem, it’s hard for me to pick a favorite, but it’s a snap to pick my least favorite. That would be the ATLAH Church on the corner of 123rd and Malcolm X Boulevard.
But look beyond the offensive sign, and you’ll find more than a century’s worth of history on this corner.
The Harlem Club was founded in 1879 by a group of white Protestant businessmen and politicians, predominantly Democratic. As their ranks and respective wealth grew, their headquarters at 127th and 5th became insufficient. The architectural firm Lamb & Rich won a bid to build their new clubhouse on the southeast corner of Lenox and 123rd, beating out the illustrious McKim, Mead & White. The five-story structure, done in opulent Byzantine and Romanesque Revival style, opened in 1889 with nearly 800 attending the opening gala. For a $50 initiation fee (and $40 in annual dues), the clubhouse offered a library, a dining room, billiards parlors, even bowling alleys in the basement. There were ten dormitories in the clubhouse proper, but the Harlem Club also rented bachelor pads next door above Andrew Carnegie’s new Harlem Free Library at 34 West 123rd Street, now the Greater Bethel AME Church.By 1907, Harlem demographics had changed substantially, but the Harlem Club refused to change with it. Though the neighborhood was predominantly Irish, Italian, and Eastern European, the Harlem Club adamantly refused membership to Catholics and Jews. As the founding members left for new neighborhoods, the Harlem Club dissolved and the Eastman Business College purchased the building. Much like the Harlem Club, the college had a nasty habit of ethnic exclusion. The Eastman catalogue noted, “These schools do not receive students of the Negro Race.” A one-two punch of the Great Depression and the Great Migration (over 200,000 African-Americans now lived in Harlem) shuttered the branch in 1931.
In 1935, the former college became the headquarters of a charismatic preacher, the most powerful man in Harlem since Marcus Garvey. He was a short man, just over four feet tall, light-skinned, bald, fond of flashy clothes and big cars. His churches were Peace Kingdoms and his followers “angels.” Many took new names like Glorious Illumination, Pleasing Joy, and Heavenly Dove. “He has the world in a jug and the stopper in his hand” went a common chant. His name was Father Divine, but believers called him God.
“Who is this God of Harlem?” asked the great Claude McKay in his 1935 book Negro Metropolis. The truth is, no one really knows, though the Encyclopedia of New York claims he was born George Baker in 1879. Few records of Divine exist before the 1920s when he proclaimed himself God and started preaching a gospel of peace, love, and racial equality in Long Island. This gospel that did not please local white authorities. In 1931, Divine was arrested for “invading the county with his religious practices.” Judge Lewis J. Smith sentenced him to one year in jail, a sentence that was immediately challenged. Four days later, Smith suffered a fatal heart attack, the supposed victim of Divine justice. His followers chanted, “He sentenced God to prison and God sentenced him to death!” When asked for comment, Father Divine just shrugged. “I hated to do it,” he sighed.
When Father Divine arrived in Harlem, throngs greeted him like, well, a God. Critics accused Divine of running a cult (and to be honest, he DID claim he could smite his enemies with heart attacks), but this was a cult that got results. “Because your god would not feed the people, I came and I am feeding them,” he proclaimed. “Because your god kept such as you segregated and discriminated, I came and I am unifying all nations together.” In the depths of the Depression, Divine operated Peace Kitchens that served thousands of meals a day, offering visitors chicken or veal cutlets, vegetables, bread, and coffee for 15 cents a plate. He placed his congregations’ funds into a blind trust, which he used to run dormitories for two dollars a week where poor whites and blacks could live together in harmony (though not men and women – Divinists adhered to a strict vow of celibacy.) He set up scores of black-owned businesses in Harlem when department stores on 125th wouldn’t dream of hiring black employees. Joseph Mitchell reported, “it is safe to say that he operates at least six grocery stores, ten barber shops, ten cleaning and pressing shops and a score of pushcarts selling ‘Peace Father fresh vegetables.’” The produce came from over 1,000 acres of farmland Divine owned in upstate New York. At the height of his glory, Time Magazine estimated he had two million angels in 150 Peace Kingdoms worldwide.
How did Father Divine become so popular? A lot of reasons, but I think a lot of it comes down to economic strife. The Great Depression hit white America hard but black America harder. 30% of whites were unemployed compared to 50% for African-Americans. Blacks were last hired, first fired, and the few jobs they could take were scab jobs, where they were subjected to scorn at best and violence at worst at the hands of white union men. Many became disillusioned with mainline Christianity, converting to Islam, Hinduism, and Orthodox Judaism. Others turned to the occult charms of fortune-telling, palmistry, Voodoo “fetiches,” and dream journals. (It’s no coincidence that charms and dream journals coincided with the popularity of playing “the numbers,” or illegal lotteries.) Still others looked toward charismatic preachers like Sister Josephine Becton, Mother Horne, Sweet Daddy Grace, Sufi Abdul Hamid, and of course, Father Divine. “There are two types of churches in Harlem,” wrote the authors of 1938’s New York Panorama, “the conventional, which embraces the long-established organizations…and the unconventional, consisting of the tabernacles of ‘prophets,’ the ‘storefront’ meeting places, the synagogues of Black Jews, and the houses of various sects and cults.”
James Weldon Johnson had a low opinion of these alternative religions, calling them “fakers, even downright scoundrels” and “bootleggers of religion” in Black Manhattan. Claude McKay took a much more understanding point of view:
“The condition of Harlem itself is key to the understanding of Father Divine. The hosts of occultists and the industrious preoccupation of all the people with supernatural elements reveal them as eternal God-seekers. They consult the occultists in the hope of obtaining work and food, love and peace and contact with dead relatives. Actually they are seeking intercourse with God. And it is the good God they are chasing, an intimate God who will pity and help them in time of trouble…If Father Divine should some day withdraw his bodily form from this world, his Peace Mission may continue to flourish, even as has Mrs. Eddy’s Christian Science. His spirit is in all his angels, and in the event of his ‘withdrawal’ they might simply agree to elect the worthiest among them to the throne of God.”
McKay’s prediction was premature. The 1940s saw trouble in Divine’s paradise, as he was bombarded with lawsuits from disillusioned followers trying to get their money back from Divine’s blind trust. Divine finally fled New York in 1942 after a court ordered him to return property a follower had previously entrusted to him. He died in 1965, prompting thousands of “God is Dead” puns in the headlines.
After the Peace Kingdoms fluttered away, more traditional churches held sway until Pastor David Manning founded the ATLAH Church (an acronym for “All the Land Anointed Holy”) in 1981. Over the years, Manning’s accused gay baristas of putting semen into Starbucks lattes, transgender women of convincing boys into cutting off their own penises, and Barack Obama of being the “son of Satan.” The messages have been so virulent that the Greater Bethel AME Church next door had to put up this sign in 2008.
Unsurprisingly, Manning supported Trump in the 2016 election.
In recent years, ATLAH has come under scrutiny for tax evasion. While courts have stalled out in their decision-making, the Ali Forney Center is prepared to buy the building at auction and turn it into a center for homeless LGBT youth. It would be a fitting tribute to the neighborhood that gave us James Baldwin, Gladys Bentley, Countee Cullen, and Bayard Rustin.