Detroit's flamboyant Prophet Jones

Prophet Jones lived in this 54-room French chateau-style mansion at 75 Arden Park.

When James Francis Marion Jones was almost two years old  he reportedly told his mother that his daddy would come home bloody.  That evening his father, a railroad brakeman, staggered home, bleeding from the scalp where a hobo whom he had ejected from a boxcar had hit him with  a chunk of coal.

This prophesy began the long, flamboyant career of Detroit’s Rev. James F. (Prophet) Jones, who at the height of his popularity claimed to have six million followers nationally.

Rev. James F. (Prophet) Jones

Jones was born Nov.. 24, 1907, in Birmingham, Alabama, to the railroad brakeman and a school teacher.

Already recognized as a prophet, at the age of six he joined and began preaching sermons to a Birmingham sect known as Triumph the Church and Kingdom of God in Church, similar in character to the one he later founded in Detroit. At 11 he quit school to devote full time to preaching.

In 1938 The Triumph sect sent the 21-year-old Jones to Detroit as a missionary where enthusiastic converts soon pressed expensive gifts upon him. The gifts, his superiors ruled, were rightfully the property of the church. Rather than give them up, Jones broke away to launch his own sect.

Prophet Jones founded the Church of Universal Triumph, the Dominion of God Inc. in 1938 in Detroit. Originally headquartered in the old Oriole Theater at 8450 Linwood, the church later moved above the Fine Arts Theater at 2940 Woodward. He blessed his inner circle with royal and noble titles, such as “Sir,” “Prince” and “Princess,” “Lord” and “Lady” and other majestic appellations. His mother who died in 1951 was known as Grace Rev. Lady Catherine Jones. He called his flock “Citizens.” At one time, Jones claimed he had six million followers nationwide spread among 35 “thankful centers,” or local churches. Detroit’s membership was about 1,500.

Jones reached his peak as a religious leader in the 1940s and late ’50s, and lived like a millionaire. He resided in an 18th century-style French castle at 75 Arden Park. The three-story, 54-room graystone chateau had been built in 1917 by Edmund A. Vier, a General Motors Corp. executive, at a cost of $100,000.

The interior of the home boasted hand-carved woodwork, gold-painted ceilings, ornate brocade drapes and wall-to-wall carpeting with pile as deep as an English lawn. Furnished with a $7,000 grand piano, $8,000 worth of silver plate, a stained glass window installed at a cost of $1,200 and rooms of expensive furniture, it awed visitors. A massive double door guarded the entrance to the Castle, and Lady Burton, the receptionist, scrutinized callers carefully through a glass panel before she unlocked it. But of all Prophet Jones’ possessions, it was said he cherished his wardrobe the most.

The Prophet received visitors in a small paneled study, dominated by a life-size portrait of himself in a white robe. The room was stifling because a gas fire burned in the fireplace 24 hours a day. Jones explained to visitors that God had told him never to let it go out. Permanently arranged in front of the fireplace were dozens of children’s toys meant to symbolize the lack of toys in Jones own impoverished boyhood.

Although Jones lived like a millionaire, he would often say “I am only rich in wisdom and the knowledge of God.” During his heyday, he had 12 servants, five Cadillacs, each with its own chauffeur, a wardrobe of 400 suits, a white mink coat, jewelry, and thousands of dollars worth of perfumes.

Prophet Jones held five services a week in Detroit’s old Oriole Theater, which cost $300,000 to redecorate. It included a $5,000 crimson and gold throne supposedly patterned after King Solomon’s. Fitted in the canopy arching overhead, was a telephone “in case anyone should want to call during service.” The temple also provided 2,000 plush seats and luxurious carpeting.

Prophet Jones converted the Oriole Theater at Linwood and Virginia Park into his church.

      In the showcases outside the theater where movie posters were once displayed, were large portraits of the prophet in his many costumes. After his mother died, Jones renamed the theater “The Shrine of Lady Catherine.” The shrine had a capacity of 2,500 and was frequently packed. The congregation, about 10 percent of them white, nearly always out-numbered available seats, but the services were broadcast outside over loudspeakers.

The service started about 10 p.m. under the leadership of an assistant preacher, Rev. Lady Mattie Usher, and often lasted until 7 or 8 the following morning. Jones himself did not show up until, as he explained, God ordered him to, which was at midnight or later. He said he took no step without God’s explicit instructions, which were transmitted to him in the form of a breeze fanning his right ear.

“Introducing God’s one and only divine prophet!” Lady Usher announced, when Jones finally made his appearance.

“Let’s give God a great big hand!” The worshippers then leaped to their feet, and welcomed Jones with excitement.

Flanked by princes and princesses, lords and ladies, Jones strolled down the center aisle to the stage to sit on his throne. An ankle-length, red-velvet coat with white silk lining, one of many ensembles he owned, draped his lean, six-foot frame. Underneath he wore a robe of red crepe aglitter with sequins. His graying locks were neatly arranged under his favorite headdress, a gem-encrusted white beret. He wore a topaz earring only on the left ear, so as not to interfere with God’s messages to his right ear.

The choir exploded with hymns to the accompaniment of crashing cymbals and tambourines, organ and gut-bucket piano. On the stage and in the aisles voices burst out in song and shouting.

Once Jones took the floor to preach, he held it for five or six hours. “I stand longer than any other preacher,” he boasted. Part of his service he delivered in a chanting, rhythmic “unknown tongue” peppered with phrases like “cosmic illuminability” and “the lubritorium of lubrimentality.” The services gradually reached a pitch of shouting, stamping, and holy-rolling frenzy.

Prophet Jones’ main theological tenet decreed that in the year 2000 A.D. all men will become immortal. They will not go to heaven, however; heaven will come to them, abolishing forever, along with death, all the ills that flesh is heir to. The problem the followers faced, however, was staying alive until the new millennium.

The only way to succeed, the prophet warned, was to obey his approximately 50 decrees. For example, “No citizen must be the father or mother of a illegitimate child.” And “women should wear girdles, long enough to keep the stomach and buttocks from protruding.” Men must wear “health belts, or short stomach girdles.” He wanted women to wear clear nail polish for day, and red for evening. “Steam baths should be taken often, a laxative once or twice a week.”

Prophet Jones in his ankle-length, red-velvet coat with white silk lining. Underneath is a robe of red crepe aglitter with sequins. His graying locks are neatly arranged under a gem-encrusted white beret.

      Good “registrants,” as full-fledged Dominionites were called, “drink no alcohol, coffee or tea; do not smoke, play games of any kind, fraternize with non-Dominionites, attend any other church, or marry without the prophet’s consent.”

Jones dedicated Thursdays to dispensing solutions to personal problems of health, love and business. To a citizen with an ulcer, for example, he would say, “I adjust your stomach. It is adjusted.” Citizens wishing to pose their personal problems privately whispered them in the prophet’s ear. He allotted each petitioner one minute’s time, for a fee of ten dollars. On a busy Thursday his intake often reached $4,000.

Jones had ingenious ways of raising money. When a photograph of him appeared in the old Detroit Tribune, which sold for ten cents, he bought up hundreds of copies, reselling them to his congregation for five dollars a copy citing their “miraculous curative” properties. Rumor had it that Jones also dispensed lucky numbers to some of his followers for a fee, who then played them with numbers racketeers who often hung around outside the church.

Jones claimed to be the embodiment of the Savior. Many blacks and some whites believed fervently in his divinity. They expressed their adoration by lavishing him with costly gifts: a five-carat, $10,000 topaz ring, a $6,000 diamond bracelet watch, a $17,000 bracelet with 812 diamonds. A $13,500 mink coat was given to him in 1953 by two Chicago school teachers, who credited Jones with curing their sick mother.

When he traveled to New York in 1954 he rode in a Cadillac, carried a gold-handled cane and was accompanied by four valets, four bodyguards, three secretaries, a cook, a dietitian, a housekeeper, a hairdresser, three musicians and 60 singers.

No one ever knew what the prophet’s actual earnings were. He regularly filed income tax returns claiming income of less than $5,000 yearly. His sect was chartered under state law as a nonprofit corporation and the money taken in was presumed spent on organizational expenses only, making it tax exempt

The prophet’s popularity diminished in 1956 after he was accused of gross indecency. Although he was acquitted in Detroit’s Recorder’s Court, his influence waned, and he moved to Chicago, commuting between the two cities.

On one visit to Detroit in 1966 Jones predicted the war in Vietnam “will end soon with America triumphant.” Jones made his prediction before some 300 followers on the steps of the Old County Building. “This is the greatest country in the world,” he said, “and it offers freedom to anyone who will accept it. God has let this war go on because he wants to show the devil, who started it, that he can still master the world by stopping it.”

Jones’ only serious competitor in Detroit was the Rev. James Lofton, whose somewhat less sensational revivalist services attracted a large congregation two or three times a week in another former movie house not far from where the prophet preached. Jones offered Lofton a kind of reciprocal-trade agreement. Once a month, each preacher brought his congregation, donations and all, to the other’s service.

A stroke in October 1970, robbed Jones of his speech and ability to walk. He died Aug. 12, 1971, of a heart attack at the home of a friend on LaSalle Boulevard in Detroit.

Approximately 15,000 people paid their last respects, and more than 2,000 attended a three- hour service in the Adlai Stevenson Building Auditorium on Grand River. Twenty ministers came from 36 states and the West Indies to take part in the services. Detroit’s black community leaders also attended.

The Rev. John Smettler, who was once an altar boy for Jones, was among many who spoke at the service. He ended with Jones’ well-known phrase: “All is well, All is well, All is well.”

The prophet was buried in his silver-embroidered robe in a bronze coffin at Elmwood cemetery.

Prophet Jones on his throne inside the church. A telephone was nearby “in case anyone should want to call during service.”

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

By Zena Simmons / The Detroit News