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The Invincibility Serenade

BY Pete Ehrmann ON March 11, 2006
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Lord knows, if ever a sport cried out for Divine intervention it’s boxing. But with terrorism, war, famine and pestilence rampant around the globe, apparently the myriad problems of the Sweet Science aren’t even blips on the celestial radar screen.

Either that, or 62 years ago Melio Bettina loused it up for good by knocking out the only Divinely-anointed candidate for the heavyweight championship of the world.

That’s Divine, by the way, as in Father Major Jealous Divine, a short, bald, charismatic man whose disciples fervently proclaimed him to be God in earthly form, and who proclaimed himself “the infinite dean of the universe” and “a free gift to mankind.”

His “Peace Mission Movement” still has a determined corps of believers today, but nothing like in the 1920s, ‘-30s and ‘-40s, when Father Divine cut a wide swath on the American religious, political and social landscape.

According to most accepted sources, Father Divine was born George Baker in Georgia in the late 19th century, and was first heard from in the early 1900s when he was arrested as a public nuisance while evangelizing in Valdosta and booked as “John Doe, alias God.” Given the choice of banishment from the Peach State for good or being sentenced to the state loony bin, Baker hotfooted it for New York.

There he changed his name, proclaimed his own divinity and promised life everlasting to those who threw in with him. What firmly cemented his credentials in the eyes of the growing faithful was what happened when Divine was arrested in 1929 on charges of disorderly conduct after the long and boisterous services over which he presided at the movement’s “heaven” in Saylesville, New York, became very unpopular with his mostly white neighbors.

Judge Lewis J. Smith found him guilty and sentenced Divine to a year behind bars. Four days later, the judge suffered a massive heart attack and croaked.

Commented Father Divine primly: “I hated to do it.”

That was actually one of the more succinct and comprehensible pronouncements of the man the Saturday Evening Post called in 1939 “the most successful and illustrious of America’s superheated evangelists.” Oftentimes, Father Divine sounded eerily like a baldheaded version of Don King, as when he offered this explanation of his divinity:

“God is personified and rematerialized. He rematerialates and he is rematerializatable. He repersonificates and he repersonifitizes.”

For all its leader’s grandiosity and his followers’ eccentricities – instead of “Hello,” their standard greeting was “Peace!”, because unlike the other it didn’t contain a swear word – the Divine cult generally was a positive force in the communities in which it flourished as the United States entered the Depression era.

Father Divine preached unabashed patriotism, racial harmony, and a code of personal responsibility and conduct that today would be regarded as downright antediluvian. His “angels” were expected to work hard, behave and atone for past misdeeds. “Before gaining admission to the fold,” noted the Saturday Evening Post, “an applicant who has been on relief must first pay back all the money he has received from the public treasury. He must also settle any bills he owes and must restore money or property which has been dishonestly obtained. These rules lead to strange results. Grocery and undertaking bills from five to thirty years old, which the creditors have long since written off an uncollectible, are settled in full. Railroads receive payments for rides which were sneaked when the penitents were in kneepants. Fire-insurance companies get back money they paid out years before to homeowners whom they suspected of committing arson, but could not trap into admitting it.”

According to the Post story, one “angel” even confessed to a murder he had committed 20 years earlier. But when he turned himself in, the charge was mysteriously dropped, and Father Divine took a bow for another “miracle.”

When “reborn” into the Peace Mission Movement, members not only renounced their past lives and behavior, but also the names by which they had been known up to then. The new names they adopted reflected their new lives and personalities, such as “Blessed Faithful,” “Satisfied Dove” and “Patience Simplicity.”

And, in the case of the 200-pound boxer born Thomas Reed in Newman, Georgia 86 years ago, “Saint Thomas.”

Reed began boxing in 1939, winning five amateur bouts and a Golden Gloves heavyweight title in Dayton, Ohio. In 1941 he moved to New York City, where he joined the Peace Mission Movement and changed his name. Thomas turned pro on February 2, 1943, knocking out Tony Diacco in one round.

By August of that year, he was 5-0, and in that month’s issue of The Ring magazine Thomas was showcased as an up-and-coming heavyweight. “Not only is ‘Saint’ Thomas a good drawing card because of the nationwide publicity he’s been getting [on account of his affiliation with Father Divine],” noted the article, “but (also) because he can really fight; has a thrilling style and a chilling wallop.” It also helped that he was managed by Jack Curley, an old hand at moving fighters and maximizing their exposure.

But Thomas’s life inside the ring and out was about to hit a bump. First, fighting Danny Cox at the Lido Arena in Harlem on August 16, 1943, he was knocked down in the second round of the scheduled eight-round main event. Thomas got up and made a fight of it, but the decision was a draw.

That was nothing compared to what happened next. Thomas was expelled from Fr. Divine’s “heaven” for violating the latter’s rule that male and female “angels” – including the married ones – abstain from “self-indulgence and sex indulgence, human affection, lust and passion and all those detestable tendencies.”

According to many accounts, Father Divine himself had repeated problems with that one. (Reported Newsweek magazine: “When (Divine) seemed to be violating his own tenets he would explain to his female partner of the moment, ‘I am bringing your desire to the surface so that I can eliminate it.’”) But what was apparently only a venial sin for him was a mortal one for his disciples.

In his next fight – his first “as an earthly mortal,” according to The Ring’s Irving Rudd – Thomas was knocked down again, but came back to stop Johnny Tuck in the second round. His next three fights were in Chicago and Detroit, with Thomas beating Lou Thomas, Eddie Sarkesian and Johnny Denson. Then he won a decision over Danny Cox in a rematch.

Thomas was still on the outs with his spiritual mentor when he fought former heavyweight title challenger Gus Dorazio at St. Nick’s Arena on May 1, 1944, but after he stopped Dorazio on cuts in the fourth round Rudd reported overhearing someone say, “Now the Father probably will forgive his misbehavior and take him back into the flock.” Then somebody else answered, “You mean, the Saint will take Father Divine back!”

Whichever way it happened, heading into the biggest fight of his career five months later against Melio Bettina, the top-ranked heavyweight contender and former light heavyweight champion, Thomas was in fact once again in the good graces of Father Divine. In fact, announced the fighter, “Now that I’ve been blessed by Father Divine, I know I can’t lose. I feel sorry for Melio.”

When Thomas arrived in Philadelphia for the October 16 fight, he disconcerted promoter Pete Moran by demanding that violinists be rounded up to serenade him every night at his room in the Hotel Chesterfield. “I’ve got to have a violinist to play for me every night from now until (the fight),” Thomas said, explaining that to him that “sweet violin music” was akin to hearing angels sing. Two cult violinists, “Little David” and “Papa Dee,” were quickly imported from New York, and in Thomas’s dressing room before the fight they played him an “Invincibility Serenade” potent enough, the fighter exalted, for him to whip “10 Bettinas.”

On the whole, the month was kind of a wash for the Peace Mission Movement. In Philadelphia on October 10, reported the Associated Press, “74 followers of Father Divine were struck off the voter rolls for registering under such names as ‘Lily Love,’ ‘Anointed Cherub,’ and ‘Peace, Joy, Happiness.’” But 10 days later, the U.S. Treasury in Washington, D.C. received $27.10 from an unidentified Harlem man. “This is being given voluntarily by me to the United States Treasury as a retribution for misdeeds perpetrated years before I learned of Father Divine,” said the accompanying note.

In the ring at Convention Hall, however, the violin music of Little David and Papa Dee was no match for the chin music of Melio Bettina. Father Divine’s invincible warrior was knocked down in the first minute of the fight, and put out for good in the fourth round. “Now the fiddle’s notes were stilled,” wrote John Webster in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Only the symphony of the little people between his ears soothed the giant Negro as he lay stretched upon the floor – one might say a fallen Angel in the Kingdom of Father Divine.”

Father Divine died on September 10, 1965. Since then his second wife, known as Mother Divine, has presided over the dwindling cult from its headquarters in a plush mansion outside of Philadelphia. But a place at the feasting table is always set for the founder of the Peace Mission Movement whose death, a spokesman said, was “only the throwing off the physical body.”

There is no record that St. Thomas ever entered the ring again after the Bettina fight, but for all the damage they did to his physical body the fists of Melio Bettina couldn’t dent his absolute faith in Father Divine. Just one month later, Thomas showed up at the Criminal Courts Building in New York City. “My conscience is troubling me,” he told detectives. “I wish to give myself up. I’m wanted for robbery, and I’m studying to be a minister. I’ve been a follower of Father Divine. I can’t continue my studies with this on my conscience.”

Between 1936 and ‘-41, he told the cops, he and two other men had pulled off no fewer than 50 holdups back in Dayton.

After he was booked under his secular name as a fugitive from justice, Thomas said, “I feel better. I’m willing to pay whatever penalty is necessary that will ease my conscience.”

A week later, though – cue the “Twilight Zone” theme – St. Thomas was back on the street, a free man. The Dayton authorities could find nothing on him. A thorough search of their files found no outstanding warrants or record of any holdups committed by Tommy Reed.

Maybe that “Invincibility Serenade” just kicked in a little late.

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