Born Hulon Mitchell Jr. in Kingfisher, Okla., he was the eldest of 15 children and the son of a Pentecostal minister. Mitchell spent much of his childhood studying religion and singing in the church choir, and claimed he knew he was divine when he was only three years old. He served a stint in the U.S. Air Force and earned a psychology degree from Phillips College in Oklahoma.
During the civil rights era, Mitchell helped organize sit-ins in the South, but he became disillusioned with the movement, calling the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “that dead dog preacher.” He returned to school to study law at the University of Oklahoma, and economics at Atlanta University, and joined the Nation of Islam, adopting the name “Hulon X.” He then preached as “Father Michael” and “Brother Love” before moving to Miami in 1976. There the self-proclaimed “Black Messiah” changed his name yet again, this time to “Yahweh Ben Yahweh,” the Hebrew words for “God, son of God,” and became the founder and spiritual leader of the Nation of Yahweh.
Unlike leaders of other religious sects, Yahweh didn’t believe in celibacy. Twice married and the father of four children, he frequently slept with many of his female followers, some as young as 10 years old. The charismatic leader, who was known for wearing jeweled turbans and flowing white robes, often called himself the “Original Jew,” and said his disciples were the true descendants of a long-lost tribe of Israel. He was always guarded by a group of men called the Circle of 10, each of whom were armed with a six-foot wooden staff. Many of Yahweh’s teachings were laid out in his book, “You Are Not A Nigger! The Original Black Bible (Our True History, The World’s Best Kept Secret).”
Formed in 1979, the Nation of Yahweh is a cult of Christianity. Although based on teachings of the Bible, the group believes Yahweh was the son of God, and that God, Jesus and the apostles were all black. Followers were urged to break from the “immoral world” and publicly state that they would die and/or kill for God/Yahweh. Each male member was also required to drop their “slave name” and adopt “Israel” as a surname.
Also known as the Church of Love, the Nation of Yahweh promoted Christian teachings, family values and urged kids to stay away from drugs. At its height in the 1980s, the cult claimed thousands of members and built an empire of businesses worth approximately $100 million. Community leaders praised the organization for helping to rejuvenate several blighted Miami neighborhoods. In 1987, the Miami Urban League presented Yahweh with its highest humanitarian award. Three years later, Miami Mayor Xavier L. Suarez declared Oct. 7 to be Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day and gave him the keys to the city.
The Nation of Yahweh also preached hatred and religious separatism for blacks. The group was linked to nearly two dozen brutal murders and the fire bombing of a Delray Beach, Fla., neighborhood. Yahweh was accused of sending followers to kill “white devils” as part of an initiation rite, and ordered victims’ ears or heads cut off as proof they were slain. In Nov. 1990, he and 15 followers were indicted on three counts of federal racketeering and extortion charges. The indictment mentioned 18 instances of racketeering that included 14 killings, two attempted killings, extortion and arson. Although he was defended by former federal judge and current U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), Yahweh was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, but not racketeering, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. He served 11 years before being released on parole in 2001.
The Nation of Yahweh is still active, with chapters in the United States and Canada. While members continue to view Yahweh as the “Grand Master of All, the God of the Universe, the Grand Potentate, the Everlasting Father and the persecuted Messiah,” many have since abandoned the cult’s racist tenets. Yahweh’s final years were spent landscaping, reading and writing.