The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Prophet Jones
Before a sex scandal brought him down, the 'Messiah in Mink' was one of the more prominent black celebrity preachers of midcentury America
A catheter, IV drips, and a flickering TV screen. For the Universal Dominion Ruler, this was no way to celebrate Philamathyu.
For years, the Rev. James Francis “Prophet” Jones had presided over the eight days of festivities that commenced on his Nov. 24 birthday. During Philamathyu, which by his decree had replaced Christmas on his Detroit-based sect’s calendar, the self-styled messiah was presented with a 10-foot cake, mounds of cash, and a pile of expensive gifts — some of them bought on credit by devout followers who struggled for years to make the payments.
For Dominionites, such sacrifices were a small price to pay to be part of the Prophet’s fantastic religious kingdom.
“All is well,” Jones would reassuringly tell them. “All is well,” they would repeat.
Proclaiming himself “God’s sole representative on earth,” with the power to mend the sick and foresee the future, Prophet Jones displayed an ostentatiousness that enthralled worshippers and drew the attention of the press.
At the height of his fame in the 1950s, until a sex scandal brought heaven crashing down on him, Jones lived in a magnificently appointed Boston-Edison mansion, was attended to by a dozen uniformed servants, ate off gold plates, and was chauffeured around in a fleet of Cadillacs.
With hundreds of finely tailored suits to choose from, he favored wearing green because, as an aide once said, “It’s the color of money.”
The Prophet’s “blessings for sale” approach to redemption (“An open mind, a clean heart, and one dollar, please”) was an inspiration to future televangelist Reverend Ike, who explained his own transparent money-grubbing ways with the saying: “The best thing you can do for the poor is not to be one of them.”
The Prophet typically sported a flowing silk robe — some of which took his full-time seamstress months to create — a velvet-lined white mink coat, a gold-handled cane, and a jewel-encrusted turban. His willowy, 6-foot frame glistened with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry, including a topaz earring, diamond and ruby rings, diamond bracelets, and heavy gold chains.
He wore his bling exclusively on his left side, he explained, because God always approached him from the right. Even his gold fillings were limited to the left side of his jaw.
Now, though, in the closing weeks of 1970, with the right side of his body crippled by a stroke, his valuables ransacked by relatives, and his ministry adrift, the Prophet spent his last Philamathyu on earth confined to a bed at Henry Ford Hospital. Unable to walk or speak, he passed most of his time watching TV, including reruns of one of his favorite shows, It Takes a Thief.
The Rise of the Prophet
Jones was born into a poor Birmingham, Ala., family in 1907. He earned his nickname as a 2-year-old when one day he said, “Poppa tum home buddy.” His mother translated the words as “Papa come home bloody,” which is exactly what Jones’ father did, having gotten into a fight at work.
Convinced of his mystical powers, Jones dropped out of school at age 11 to evangelize full time for a Pentecostal sect known as Triumph the Church and Kingdom of God in Christ.
Jones came to Detroit as a 21-year-old ordained missionary. Within a few years he started his own sect, prompted, he said, by a direct call from God.
At exactly 1 a.m. on Sept. 28, 1944, the Almighty fanned a breeze in his right ear, telling him that he was being granted special powers. His first “thankful center” — his name for a church — was a nondescript frame building on the lower east side.
As the freshly minted Dominion Ruler of the Church of the Universal Triumph, the Dominion of God, Inc., of Detroit, Jones issued a set of 50 decrees. Only by strictly following them could Dominionites hope to stay alive until the year 2000, when all beings would become immortal as heaven came to earth.
Tobacco, alcohol, coffee, and tea were banned. Dominionites were prohibited from playing checkers, poker, and other games, and from socializing with non-Dominionites. Also, nobody could have a baby out of wedlock or marry until the Prophet first approved it.
The decrees also covered the mandatory wearing of girdles and the proper application of nail polish. “Everyone must be 100-percent with the Dominion Ruler,” stated Decree No. 50. “All disobedience to God is a sin. … The wages of sin is death.”
As one of the more prominent black celebrity preachers of midcentury America, Jones ranked just a notch below Father Divine and Sweet Daddy Grace. Marie Dallam, author of a biography of Grace, says the Prophet’s two more famous contemporaries had larger followings for longer periods of time and died multimillionaires.
However, Jones’ ministry was characterized by the same kind of charismatic synergy. “A leader needs people,” Dallam says, “but people need a leader. They feed off each other.” Jones’ followers were principally poorly educated Southern blacks who had moved to Detroit to work in the defense plants during World War II. Women were a slight majority. About 10 percent of the congregation was white.
The inner circle of family members, sycophants, and aides were given royal titles, such as “Prince,” “Princess,” “Lord,” and “Lady.” Some lived with Jones in “The Castle,” a magnificent French chateau-style mansion at 75 Arden Park in Boston-Edison. Among its 54 finely furnished rooms were a barber shop, ballroom, and perfume room.
“The Prophet proudly showed us around the house, which he personally decorated, with his followers footing the bills,” Herbert Brean reported in a 1944 article in Life, shortly after Jones paid $30,000 for the property. “Its furnishing were an ingenious blend of modern decor and Louis XV. Prophet Jones was able to recite from memory the price of virtually every object in the room.”
Supporting a Lavish Lifestyle
Jones controlled all of the sect’s finances. In 1952, he bought the 2,000-seat Oriole Theater on Linwood. (Since 1963 the building has been the New Bethel Baptist Church.) Jones had a plushly upholstered canopied throne modeled after King Solomon’s built for him. Up to 2,500 people would attend a service. One attendee recalled Jones giving part of his sermon “in a chanting, rhythmic ‘unknown tongue’ peppered with phrases like ‘cosmic illuminability’ and ‘the lubritorium of lubrimentality.’ It has the same electrifying effect on his listeners as red-hot jazz.”
Thanks to his singular flair and weekly radio broadcasts on CKLW, Prophet’s notoriety grew. He was invited to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration and hosted jazz great Lionel Hampton. Local politicians cozied up to him. Jones’ activities became a staple in the black press. Moreover, he was one of the few prominent blacks to appear in mainstream white publications. The Saturday Evening Post dubbed him “The Messiah in Mink.”
Jones always went first class. When he visited Father Divine in New York, he brought along four valets, four bodyguards, three secretaries, his housekeeper, a hairdresser, three musicians, 60 singers, a personal cook, and a dietitian.
Supporting such a lifestyle required various revenue streams. He bought miniature salt and pepper shakers for pennies apiece and sold the “blessed” versions for several dollars each. He offered pictures of Christ on the cross. Aware that many of his followers played the illegal daily three-digit lottery known as “the numbers,” he explained: “These are lucky pictures. On the back of each one are some numbers. They have nothin’ to do with any kind of gamblin’, but people who have sent in a donation and got a picture say these numbers have been lucky for them.”
By 1955, Jones was boasting of 425 thankful centers around the country with a combined membership of 6 million. In reality, there were about 50 self-governing churches, none with more than a few hundred members. Thankful Center No. 1 in Detroit was the largest.
That year, Jones began buying airtime on Sunday nights on WXYZ, making him the first black minister to host a TV program in Detroit. Ron David was the stage manager for these holy-rolling spectacles, which he described as “wild and fun to watch.”
As the service reached its end, Jones would make his pitch for contributions, recalls David, now retired and living in Rochester Hills. “He’d say, ‘I really need your help to keep spreading the word of God. I want you to give $20 and I’ll give each of you a blessing.’ A tarp would be spread out in front of his throne and some people would line up and drop their $20 on it. Then he’d tell them to go out in the lobby, have a drink of water, and wait and he’d come out and give them his blessing. He’d have his assistants close the doors between the lobby and the auditorium.
“Then Prophet would say, ‘I understand that not everybody can afford $20, but certainly you can afford $10.’ So some more people would come up and drop a $10 bill, then go out and join the others in the lobby. He’d repeat his pitch, this time for $5. By now the pile of green is growing and people are packed like sardines in the lobby. All that’s left are the pikers. They’re standing there, looking around at each other, and Prophet would say, ‘Now, I know the rest of you can at least afford $3. I’m asking for $3 — one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost.’”
When the shakedown fell short of expectations, Jones had ushers lock the theater’s exit doors until the faithful coughed up a satisfactory amount. Only then could congregants, drained of energy and cash after a rousing five-hour service, stumble out into the predawn air. David laughs at the memory.
“He’d do that every week and get away with it.”
Despite the Prophet’s regularly stated vow of celibacy, many suspected that the unmarried, self-described “savior of the dark boy” was gay. Indeed, the Prophet’s theatricality, over-the-top opulence, and overall swishiness were remindful of Liberace, the exemplar of 1950s “fruit-flavored” showmanship.
At a time when homosexuality was considered a crime and an indelible social stain, Jones’ “perversions” caused consternation among pastors and other prominent blacks. One bedroom in Jones’ mansion was set aside as a shrine to the late James Walton, an aide with whom the Prophet said he had enjoyed a “holy union” for many years.
In 1953, one of Prophet’s live-in valets was convicted of accosting an undercover cop inside a downtown men’s room. The judge put him on probation and ordered him to move out of Jones’ castle.
Two years later, a handsome army veteran named John A. Henry began visiting the Prophet, seeking “spiritual solace” for his ailing back. One time, alone inside the library, Jones suggested Henry disrobe, at which point he made an indecent proposal.
At least that was the testimony of Henry, who turned out to be a member of the Vice Bureau. When police came to arrest Jones several weeks later, they found him clad in pajamas, on his bed with two teenage boys he had just met that morning. He was giving them singing lessons, he said.
“He’s sick,” said a high-ranking police official. Later, as the humiliated preacher sat in a cell awaiting arraignment, his face buried in his hat, others in lockup mocked him. “The Lord can’t help you now!” they yelled. “All is not well!”
Jones was charged with gross indecency. He stood trial in July 1956, ailing and looking gaunt. He faced five years in prison and a $2,500 fine. After a week of testimony, the jury of seven men and five women deliberated only 95 minutes before issuing their verdict: not guilty.
“All is well!” Dominionites shouted as they followed the teary-eyed defendant out of Recorder’s Court and to a nearby flagpole, where they sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Prosecutors blamed the acquittal on a long delay in issuing a warrant, possibly because higher-ups with an eye on the ballot box were afraid of offending Prophet’s devotees.
A Soul-Saving Road Trip
Despite being legally exonerated, Jones took big hits to his image and his purse. He sold his mansion and church building to Sweet Daddy Grace. As the new owner threw shade (“Somebody around here has been making God look bad,” Grace said), Jones embarked on a national “soul-saving” tour, eager to escape pesky creditors and replenish his coffers.
“The Scriptures tell me that if a prophet is in a city and he is not wanted, then he must wipe the dust off his feet and go to another place,” he said.
The road proved unwelcoming. At one point Prophet and his retinue were stranded in St. Louis, too broke to continue. In Maryland, authorities accused Jones of “bewitching” a janitor into turning over his keys to be blessed in order to cure the man’s hand rash. One of the keys was used to break into a loan office. The man sent to prison in the break-in implicated Jones, who avoided prosecution.
Later, Jones stood trial in New Jersey, accused of “selling destinies” to a woman who, upon his advice, canceled a vital cancer operation. He was acquitted.
Jones spent his final years commuting between centers in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. He continued to administer to his shrinking flock in a hall above a Woodward Avenue movie house.
During one service in 1970, Prophet called for “50 people to run up here and leave $1 on the table so we can pay the light bills,” then cryptically instructed donors to mail a postcard with the word “sleep” on it to Pontiac “and everything will be all right.”
In October 1970, Jones suffered a crippling stroke. His throne was covered in plastic. As he lay in a private hospital room, out-of-town relatives swooped in and took jewelry and other valuables out of his home for “safekeeping.” While recuperating at the home of an aide on LaSalle Boulevard, Jones suffered a fatal heart attack on Aug. 12, 1971. He was 63.
The Prophet was laid out in a hot-pink embroidered robe. His white mink was draped over the casket. The Detroit Free Press described a “free-for-all dance arena” as the choir belted out “Oh Mighty God” before 2,500 hand-clapping devotees. Jones was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Eighteen months after his death, three large lockboxes stuffed with cash were opened in a Chicago bank. The boxes belonged to “Dr. Sterling,” the Prophet’s favorite alias.
Today, local Dominionites congregate in an unassuming one-story building on Ferry Park. Their founder is gone, but the refrain inside Thankful Center No. 1 is unchanged.
“All is well,” they rejoice, even when it isn’t.