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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8.3 (2002) 271-296

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"Seer Or Queer?"
Postwar Fascination With Detroit's Prophet Jones

Tim Retzloff


Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., writing in the November 1951 issue of Ebony, began an article about the need for sex education in the African American church with a story about an unidentified pastor's grief at the death of his handsome, talented young male assistant. In describing the funeral, Powell stressed the preacher's quavering voice, his tear-soaked eyes, his shaking body, and his attempt to leap into the grave with the coffin. "The minister's broken sobs sounded as if they had been wrung from the tragedy-twisted heart of one who has lost his lover," Powell wrote. He then played his narrative trump: "Actually, the two had been sharing an unnatural relationship for a number of years. The entire congregation knew about it. The whole community knew about it—and yet, that minister was and is today one of the most powerful and 'respected' Negro pastors in all America." 1 Falling within the purview of Powell's attack on "a tiny minority of degenerate ministers," and the likely focus of his wrath, was Prophet James Francis Jones of Detroit.

Prophet Jones, or, as some accounts said he preferred, "His Holiness the Rt. Rev. Dr. James F. Jones, D.D., Universal Dominion Ruler, Internationally Known as Prophet Jones," drew national attention for his extravagance and flamboyance during the 1940s and 1950s. His antics, fanciful teachings, and immoderate lifestyle were noted in Time and Newsweek. Life profiled him as one of the most prosperous evangelists in the country. The Saturday Evening Post dubbed him the "Messiah in Mink." Such exposure made Jones one of the most visible, if most curious, African Americans in the white-controlled mass media during the Truman and Eisenhower years. 2

The self-styled preacher's rise to prominence was partly due to a strong homosexual subtext. His congregation and his community knew about, or at least suspected, his same-sex desire. Jones used the tensions surrounding his near- public [End Page 271] sexuality to gain access to the white and African American press, yet the same press that propelled his career also destroyed it with sensational coverage of his 1956 morals arrest (fig. 1). The scandal not only dramatizes the potency of homosexual accusation in the 1950s but demonstrates the key role played by the mass media in constructing, and constricting, the boundaries of sexuality in the United States during the mid-twentieth century.

"Gorgeously at Ease"

According to the biographical information Jones often embellished for the press, he made his first prophecy at the age of two, when he told his mother, "Papa tum home buddy," meaning that his father would come home bloody. That night his father, a railroad brakeman, did come home with a gash on his head from a brick hurled at him by a hobo. 3

Jones claimed that his religious awakening occurred at a tent revival in his native Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, when he was six years old. In 1930 Bishop D. H. Harris formally licensed him to preach in Triumph the Church and Kingdom of God in Christ, an African American Pentecostal sect. Jones left Birmingham five years later on an evangelical tour through St. Louis, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, starting north, as he once told Ebony, "with $1.47 in the pockets of his rummage-sale pants." 4

In June 1938 Jones and his private secretary, James Walton, arrived in Detroit as missionaries for Triumph the Church and Kingdom of God in Christ. By the end of 1939 he was sufficiently savvy at attracting media attention to have the Detroit Tribune, one of two local African American newspapers, report on his birthday party, complete with the guest list. 5 A year later, at the time that Father Coughlin was driven off Detroit's airwaves, Jones began broadcasting over Canadian radio station CKLW, whose fifty-thousand-watt signal reached several midwestern states. His...


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