One Celebrity Preacher to Lead Them All
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because one of the country’s first celebrity preachers had a hustle that couldn’t be beat.
By Eugene S. Robinson
God spoke directly to Marcelino Manuel da Graça.
You see when he was small, a child back in the Cape Verde Islands, God issued da Graça a directive: Become a preacher.
And if the Creator has taken the time to weigh in, who is to stand against His career counseling? Because whether da Graça was a divine instrument or not, what is certain is that he took the art of preaching to never-before-seen heights of showmanship and prosperity.
Where I came from and where I am going, I don’t need money.
— Marcelino Manuel da Graça
Having arrived in the U.S. as a child with his parents and siblings at the turn of the 20th century, the adult da Graça worked a series of odd jobs, including making his living as a railway cook. He was in his late 20s in 1919 when he quit the cook gig, dubbed himself a bishop, and scratched together $39 to open his very first house of worship, the House of Prayer — in Wareham, Massachusetts.
Not exactly a hotbed of charismatic Pentecostal evangelism, which had just begun to gain a foothold in the Southeast and California during the early decades of the century. It was an unlikely spot for an African immigrant to begin his ministry, but there’s a lot about the man who was soon to be known only by his altar name, Sweet Daddy Grace, that was unlikely.
“People say Grace got money,” he said in one of his sermons while he theatrically shoved his hands deep into his pockets, yanking them up and turning them inside out. “I have nothing, but the House of Prayer has. Where I came from and where I am going, I don’t need money. I came from the land beyond the sea. People call me ‘Bishop.’ I’m no Bishop. There isn’t but one Bishop, God. Any man who walks around calling himself God is a liar.”
He’d built a massive following — some 3 million at its highest point — drawing in new congregants with his very specific and unique flair for religious spectacle. There were fire hose baptisms that he charged a dollar for and which were exactly what they sound like: baptisms performed with a fire hose, dousing hundreds at once.But by 1940, Grace had started to have different ideas.
And he had a bent for the theatrical that included costumes; long, flowing hair; two-inch-long lacquered fingernails painted red, white and blue; and a stage act so good James Brown even “borrowed” his Cape Routine. And always the endless passing of the platter. But along with the crowd-pleasing came new lines of thought that were orders of magnitude removed from his earlier “I’m no Bishop” modesty.
“Salvation is by Grace only. Grace has given God a vacation, and since He is on vacation, don’t worry about Him. If you sin against God, Grace can save you, but if you sin against Grace, God cannot save you.”
Cue: hot water.
His unorthodox message caused an uproar that, while significant among his critics, did nothing to dampen adherents’ fervor for the House of Prayer or Grace’s faith healing, which was purported to have raised parishioners from the dead. Nor did it stem Grace’s almost explosive hustle.
Experience what it was like to sit inside the Temple of Grace, as documented by the WPA Folklore Project in 1938.
Money was made not only inside the church but outside of it, as well, fueled partially by Grace Magazine (it was claimed to be a curative if held against afflicted body parts) and a plethora of consumer products: from soap that made you thinner to toothpaste, tea, coffee, hair creams, face powders and cookies. And those were in addition to Grace’s home-buying associations, insurance companies, funeral services, badges, banners, costumes, swords and walking sticks.
The church, now called the United House of Prayer for All People, rested firmly on the shoulders of the 5-foot-8 giant, Sweet Daddy Grace, who by the 1950s could claim to be not only the “boyfriend of the world” but also the proud owner of a fleet of chauffeur-driven luxury autos, with bodyguards, assistants, 42 mansions, apartment buildings and churches spread well beyond Massachusetts. All during a time when it was noteworthy if any American had this kind of swag, never mind an African-American.
But since all good things do come to an end, so it was that in 1960 Grace finally passed on. His name is now remembered as the first of many that included contemporary Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, and latter-day fellow travelers Reverend Ike, Jim Bakker et al. Grace had built an empire over the last 40 years, and left behind some $25 million in the church coffers — along with millions in debts and unpaid taxes, launching IRS claims and lawsuits to sort out his affairs.
And the United House of Prayer for All People?
At last check, there were 110 of his houses of worship in the U.S. and a smattering of them in Cape Verde, Egypt, Portugal and the U.K. That makes it much more clear than not that Sweet Daddy Grace, abiding still in spirit if not flesh, got some straight up and savvy career advice way back when