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Divine, Father (1877?–10 September 1965), religious cult leader, was born George Baker, apparently on Hutchinson Island, Georgia, in obscure and indeterminate circumstances. It is difficult to recover specifics about Divine, a black sharecropper’s son who spent his youth in the rural, post-Reconstruction South. This difficulty has been compounded by his own efforts to hide his prosaic origins because he eventually claimed to be God on earth. Most inquirers agree, however, that until the early 1900s the subsequently acclaimed deity was probably George Baker, who in his early life experienced racial prejudice, inadequate education, and poverty. By 1899 he resided in Baltimore, Maryland, where he taught Sunday school and preached occasionally at a Baptist church. Around 1906 he came under the influence of Samuel Morris, who took the biblical passage about the spirit of God dwelling within and arrogated it to himself alone. Baker served as “the Messenger” for Morris, but by 1912 he began claiming his own divinity. Such preaching in Valdosta, Georgia, two years later resulted in a lawsuit that listed Baker’s identity as “John Doe, alias God.” Jurors found the defendant (who was charged with disrupting congregations and general troublemaking) of unsound mind but recommended leniency if he left the state....

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Jones, Jim (13 May 1931–18 November 1978), religious cult leader, was born James Warren Jones in Crete, Indiana, the son of James Thurman Jones, a road construction worker, and Lynetta Putnam. While still a teenager Jones developed a vaguely focused social conscience and a wish to help the needy through volunteer work. By 1947 he was serving as a hospital orderly in Richmond, Indiana, where he met Marceline Baldwin, a student nurse. They married in 1949, and for the next three years Jones studied at Indiana University in Bloomington. By 1952 the couple had moved to Indianapolis, where Jones pursued his humanitarian goals as a student pastor of the Somerset Methodist Church. Though earlier he had been highly critical of organized religion, the Methodist social creed of 1952 changed his mind. His ministry in a poor section of town helped bring his views on racism and poverty to maturity. As an advocate of racial integration and community sharing, he organized an independent congregation, which he named “Community Unity” in 1954, “Wings of Deliverance” in 1956, and sometime thereafter “Peoples Temple.” Jones had been something of an outsider while growing up, and he entreated those on the margins of society to seek psychological acceptance, physical welfare, and spiritual improvement on common ground in the Peoples Temple. He also began displaying eclectic religious tastes by adding Pentecostal emphases to his social gospel....

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Koresh, David (17 August 1959–19 April 1993), religious leader, was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston, Texas, the son of Bobby Howell, a student, and Bonnie Clark. His mother, fourteen years old at the time of his birth, dropped out of school and married Joe Golden, a nightclub owner, after ending her relationship with Howell. She soon divorced the allegedly abusive Golden, left her two-year-old son with her mother, Earline Clark, and moved to Dallas....

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Laveau, Marie (1794?–16 June 1881), voodoo queen, was born in New Orleans about 1794, the illegitimate daughter, part black, part Native American, part white, of Charles Laveau and Marguerite Carcantel Laveau. This Roman Catholic “free woman of color” developed into a statuesque beauty with fine facial features and curly black hair. In 1819 she married Jacques Paris, a free quadroon Catholic carpenter from Santo Domingo (now Haiti). They lived in New Orleans in a house given her by her father. Paris soon disappeared and was reported dead. Calling herself “Veuve [Widow] Paris,” she became a hairdresser for white and Creole women in New Orleans....