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ABOUT "THE FAMILY"

Origins and history of the Christian denomination

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History of the denomination:

The roots of The Family can be traced back to the counter-culture movement of the late 1960's. Many young adults, called flower children, or hippies, left the middle-class life of their families of origin and sought a simpler lifestyle in the form of communal life in southern California. Out of this hippie movement came a loosely connected group of Evangelical Christian organizations collectively known as The Jesus People, which were described as "a diverse collection of pastors, street-preachers, oddballs and intellectuals all trying to communicate the gospel to the counterculture." 1 The Children of God movement was started by one of these individuals

The founder of the Children of God was David Berg (1919 - 1994). He began his professional life as an evangelist for the Christian and Missionary Alliance. According to xFamily.org:

"Between 1948 and 1954, Berg, like his father, became a minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance and was placed at Valley Farms, Arizona. Berg was eventually expelled from the organization for differences in teachings and alleged sexual misconduct with a church employee." 2

In 1964. He became the leader of a Teen Challenge chapter in Huntington Beach, CA. in 1967. Teen Challenge was a youth ministry of the Assemblies of God denomination. He separated the group from the national Teen Challenge organization in 1968 and renamed it Light Club. Members were called "Lightclubbers." Many flower children were encouraged by rock music and free peanut butter sandwiches to spend some time in the coffee house. Some were "saved", and abandoned their hippie life of alcohol, other drugs and free love. Some evangelized other hippies; a few committed themselves on a full time basis.

Berg received a revelation from God in 1969 that a disastrous earthquake was about to hit California, and cause part of the state to slide into the ocean. He led the group out of Huntington Beach to wander throughout the American southwest for 8 months. During that time, they changed their name to the Children of God -- a name originally created by the news media. The earthquake never materialized. If a major earthquake had hit, the land movement that it would have caused would probably have been only a few feet.

The group gained media attention by their "sackcloth vigils" in which members dressed in "sackcloths, carried staffs and declared that American society was doomed for turning its back on God" 3

Also in 1969, David Berg became a polygynist by marrying a second wife, Maria. He based this decision on passages from the Hebrew Scriptures which permitted multiple wives. He received revelations from God identifying himself as the "End Time Prophet" who would play a major role in the Second Coming -- the long anticipated return to earth of Jesus Christ.

In the early 1970's, David Berg and his group settled in three intentional communities in Los Angeles, CA, Coachella, CA and Thurer, TX. They came under attack from an organization of parents of Children of God (COG) members which had been founded by Ian Haworth. It was called FREECOG, "Free Our Children From the Children of God." This was the first of the anti-cult organizations -- a movement which has since grown to become international in scope and which teaches that many new religious movements psychologically abuse their members. The FREECOG parents were distressed at what the felt were the alleged mind control practices of the COG. New members had been encouraged to sever all contact with their families of origin, to donate almost their entire possessions to the group, and become full time evangelists. Their parents were justifiably concerned about the status, future and safety of their adult children.

David Berg, now called Moses David (or Father David, MO or Dad), first attempted to disperse the membership among many communes (called colonies) throughout the United States. He later prophesied that a comet would hit the United States and destroy all life. This motivated the group to organize the "Great Escape", an exodus whereby almost all of the members left the US and settled in various countries in Europe, South America, India and Australia. The parents' anxiety over their children became heightened; some families had no idea even what country their children were living in.

Berg made contact with Abrahim, a spirit guide, which he had acquired in a Roma (Gypsy) camp. Later he revealed "other spiritual contacts with the dead." 4

In 1973, Berg introduced "litnessing." This was a method of Christian witnessing through the distribution of literature in exchange for donations. Berg wrote many "Mo Letters" for this outreach. He eventually produced in excess of 2,500 letters. 5

In 1976, Berg encouraged the women members of the group to engage in "flirty fishing".  The term was based on Jesus' injunction "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19). Women members were urged to go into bars and befriend men. They were expected to seduce potential male converts, if necessary, in order to encourage them to experience a religious conversion and membership in the organization. Berg wrote: "What better way to show them the Love of God than to do your best to supply their desperately hungry needs for love, fellowship, companionship, mental and spiritual communication, and physical needs such as food, clothing, shelter, warmth, affection, a tender loving kiss, a soft warm embrace, the healing touch of your loving hands, the comforting feeling of your body next to theirs -- and yes, even sex if need be!" 6 The media had a feeding frenzy with this innovative form of Christianity which combined the conservative, Evangelical wing of the religion with a free attitude towards sexual behavior. The press portrayed the COG women as "Hookers for Jesus." In his 1979 annual report, Berg stated that his "FFers" (Flirty Fishers) had "witnessed to over a quarter of a million souls, loved over 25,000 of them and won about 19,000 to the Lord."

The COG was formally dissolved after some "abuses of authority" were revealed among the leadership. A new group, the Family of Love, was founded in 1978. The original autocratic organization of Dad (David Berg), apostles, elders, and deacons was replaced by a democratic structure. Each commune (called a "home") became an autonomous unit. Their organizational name was later shortened to The Family. At this time, Berg introduced "sexual sharing", which is free consensual sexual activity among the adult members. "The free expression of sexuality, including fornication, adultery, lesbianism (though not male homosexuality), and incest were not just permitted but encouraged." 4 Some members interpreted a few of the Mo Letters as approving of adult-child incest. Some child sexual abuse appears to have been practiced in some of the homes, but the level at which it occurred is unknown.

In 1985, David and Maria Berg organized a central office called "World Services". Organization reverted to a more autocratic model. Flirty fishing was terminated in 1987 partly because of the extreme adverse reaction from outsiders and because of the rapid spread of sexually transmitted disease among the membership. The Family states that the main reason was "the need to spend more time in other forms of outreach." Also in 1987, incest and other sexual abuse of children was specifically banned; any adult having sex with a person under the age of 21 is instantly excommunicated.

David Berg died in 1994 at the age of about 75 of undisclosed causes. He had shared power with Maria Berg in his last years.

In 1977, The Family had about 7,500 members of which 7,000 lived in over 70 colonies around the world. 7 The COG claimed 12,390 full time members, including 6,833 children in 1988. Current membership estimates from non-Family sources vary from 9,000 8 to 12,000. 9 As of 2005-OCT, the Family claims 12,000 full-time and associate adult volunteer members in over 1,400 centers or communities, located in over 100 countries.

The Family is currently led by his widow, Karen Zerby (a.k.a. Mama Maria, Queen Maria) and Steven Douglas Kelly (a.k.a. Peter Amsterdam, King Peter.) 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

Unfortunately, many of the references to the Family on the Internet are written by anti-cult and counter-cult groups and are somewhat lacking in objectivity. Others are prepared by individuals who seem to have left the Family with a major grudge.

  1. David Di Sabatino, "THE JESUS PEOPLE MOVEMENT (1967 - 1973)", is an on-line essay about the Jesus People which discusses their interaction with the COG. See: http://www.best.com/~dolphin/jp03.html
  2. "David Berg," XFamily.org, at: http://www.xfamily.org/
  3. D.E. Van Zandt, "The Children of God", Chapter 12 in Timothy Miller, Editor, "America's Alternative Religions", SUNY Press, Albany NY, (1995), Pages 127-132.
  4. Richard Kyle, "The Religious Fringe: A History of Alternative Religions in America" InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, (1993), Pages 361 - 367.
  5. "Our Founder," A collection of "MO Letters," at: http://www.thefamily.org/.  See also http://www.exfamily.org/pubs/pubs_list.shtml for a more complete list, including some letters categorized as "DO." These are "disciples only" letters for internal circulation only.
  6. "Flirty Fishing," at: http://www.thefamily.org/
  7. J. Gordon Melton, Editor, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions", Volume III, Triumph Books, New York NY (1991), Pages 292 - 293.
  8. The Observer, a British newspaper, describes many new religious movements which they call "cults". They had a brief description of the COG at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/cults/a-z-cults/c_cults.html. Essay is no longer available.
  9. The Watchman Fellowship, a counter-cult group, has what appears to be a very biased essay by Ruth Gordon on the COG at: http://www.watchman.org/famlove.htm

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Copyright 1998 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Updated: 2005-
OCT-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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