Since 1977, Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement has celebrated “American Christmas” on Dec. 19.

It was the date on which Mother Divine became a naturalized American citizen during a public ceremony at Valley Forge Park. Though the former Edna Rose Hitchings became a U.S. citizen when she married Divine in 1946, it wasn’t until 1977 that she became formally naturalized and legalized the name “Sweet Angel Divine.”

In a statement that can be found on Libertynet, former website of the International Peace Mission Movement, Mother Divine wrote: “It was a date to be memorialized ‘calendarly’ as the AMERICAN CHRISTMAS! Why? Because the Angelship Degree of expression had been legalized! Because CHRIST is being brought to fruition in the children of men-the very purpose for which Jesus was born into the world. This could come about only through the Democracy that was born at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777. …The United States of America is the Birthplace of the Kingdom of GOD on Earth! So it is a MERRY AMERICAN CHRISTMAS! MERRY ALWAYS !”

This blend of spiritual observance and patriotic celebration sums up much of the Peace Mission’s religious doctrine. Followers of Father Divine and the International Peace Mission Movement were encouraged to refer to themselves, first and foremost, as Americans.

According to Divine, America was the birthplace of the “Kingdom of God,” and he believed the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights were the building blocks of an ideal spiritual existence. The themes of equality and brotherhood in each document, he believed, would eventually lead the country to embrace “the truths of all major religious principles” — along with racial equality and civil rights.

During a 1944 Christmas/New Year’s greeting, he told listeners to “Recognize the Declaration of Independence Within You”:

“Patriotically and politically equivalently may I say, your Declaration of Independence to be united to these two great events and incidents, and recognize your Declaration of Independence within you, and you as real American citizens learn to express your citizenry not merely documentally, to be patriotic, but express your citizenry by living your Constitution and living your Bill of Rights and by being the personification of our Declaration of Independence, and be the living reality of it now, henceforth and forever!”

They were bold words at a time when many based the definition of “American citizen” solely on the color of a person’s skin.