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The Children of God/The Family



Cultic Studies Review, 5(1), 2006, 29-72

The Children of God/The Family: A Discussion of Recent Research 

Susan Raine


The Children of God/The Family has provoked much debate and discussion among scholars over many years. These debates have centered upon numerous issues including sexual sharing, Flirty Fishing (FFing), adult-child sex, childcare, education, and discipline. The academic polarization of perspectives on these topics has been persistent and has not well served newer researchers.  The purpose of this article is to provide an examination of contemporary literature on COG/The Family that scholars and ex-members have produced since 1998. I take a holistic approach to the research and attempt to bring together the findings to produce a more complete picture of COG/The Family’s history and current manifestation.  As a result, I address some of the specific divisive issues that pervade approaches to this NRM. Additionally, I provide a summary of some of the concordant and discordant research findings.

In January 2005, Ricky Rodriguez killed Angela Smith, who until recently was the executive secretary to Rodriguez's mother, Karen Zerby (Maria), the spiritual leader of The Family International. Rodriguez then drove to the California border town of Blythe, where he killed himself with a single shot from a semiautomatic handgun (Goodstein, 2005). The murder-suicide propelled the Children of God/The Family back into the spotlight and ignited a new wave of popular media attention. [1] Although popular media coverage of the group tends to appear only during periods of intense controversy, academic scholarship on this new religious movement (NRM) has been continuous over the years.

The Children of God/The Family (COG/The Family hereafter) has engendered many debates among scholars. Some of these debates have centered upon Rodriguez (known as Davidito in the group) and whether one of the group’s publications about him (The Story of Davidito) sanctioned adult-child sex. Sexual sharing, Flirty Fishing (FFing), [2] childcare, education, and discipline have all been subject to academic scrutiny, as well. The academic polarization of perspectives on these topics has been persistent and has not well served newer researchers. Navigating the divergent perspectives sometimes leaves one frustrated because it is difficult to find an approach that fairly and fully discusses both the positive and negative aspects of this enduring movement. Hence, one faces the arduous task of trying to reconcile what at times are exceedingly disparate research findings.

With these difficulties in mind, the purpose of this article is to provide an examination of contemporary literature on COG/The Family that scholars and ex-members have produced since 1998. [3] I take a holistic approach to the research and attempt to bring together the findings to produce a more complete picture of COG/The Family’s history and current manifestation. In this way, I address some of the specific divisive issues that pervade approaches to this NRM.

Discussing each work by its publication format, I begin with an analysis of recent books, followed by book chapters and, finally, academic journal articles. James D. Chancellor’s Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God (2000) traces the development of the movement from its inception to its status into the late 1990s. Because of the book’s comparative comprehensiveness, I devote more discussion to his work than to others. Next is the autobiographical account of former member (and now sociologist) Miriam Williams (now “Williams Boeri”). Her book Heaven’s Harlots: My Fifteen Years in a Sex Cult (1998) traces her own personal history with the group from her initial years as a young idealist through her sometimes happy and at other times painful experiences as an active member of the group. Third, William Sims Bainbridge’s The Endtime Family: Children of God (2002) analyses the group using primarily survey data as a means to compare attitudes and beliefs of contemporary COG/The Family members with those of the general American population. The final book under consideration is J. Gordon Melton’s The Children of God: The Family (2004). This publication is the most recent of contemporary books on the group. In it, Melton provides a concise history of the group and includes some excellent old and more up-to-date photographs of the movement’s leaders and disciples.

Stephen Kent dedicates a subsection of one chapter of his book From Slogans to Mantras: Social Protest and Religious Conversion in the Late Vietnam War Era (2001) to COG/The Family. Kent explores the group’s emergence and early development in the context of the political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Miriam Williams Borei’s contribution to Christel Manning and Phil Zuckerman’s edited volume, Sex & Religion (2005), begins with a discussion of COG/The Family within the context of the historical tradition of communes and utopian communities. She then explores the sexual socialization process that produced the sexual norms of the movement. Using a linguistic analysis, Annabelle Mooney addresses the emotionally laden language and the specific structure of the Mo Letter “The Big Lie—Exposed!”  Mooney provides a detailed discussion of this publication in her chapter, “The Family,” which is part of her book The Rhetoric of Religious Cults (2005). She examines the specific devices that Berg used in his effort to discredit evolutionary theory while postulating not only that Creationism reveals the truth of human life, but also that it answers those questions that evolutionary theory cannot.

Of the four journal articles under consideration, the first that this article explores is Stephen Kent and Deana Hall’s (2000) discussion of the efficacy of the “brainwashing” concept to COG/The Family’s Teen Training Programs and Victor Camps. Second is Williams Boeri’s (2002) ethnographic study of the everyday life experiences and self-perceptions of 15 women who have left COG/The Family. Third, Stephen Kent (2004) examines the conditions that produced the second generation’s discontent with, and rejection of, the movement. Fourth, Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd (2005) analyse the group’s changing relationship to society. The authors observe not only how the movement has revised its organizational structure to accommodate other domains of society, but also how it has then responded to the perceived problems and tensions that have arisen as a result of this changed relationship.

Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God (2000) by James D. Chancellor

James Chancellor’s book often does exactly what he designed it to do—it bridges the gap that he identified between COG/The Family literature, ex-member accounts, academic literature that is favourable to the group, and that which is critical of it (p. xviii). Chancellor’s goal then has been to produce a more inclusive account, one that discusses the positive aspects of life in COG/The Family but that simultaneously does not shy from probing its controversial past. Having interviewed more than 200 disciples, his book affords current members (but not ex-members) a platform from which to express their perspectives on life in COG/The Family.

Whilst visiting more than 30 homes around the globe (and associating with close to 1,000 disciples total), Chancellor participated in many aspects of COG/The Family’s life, and he gained the confidence of many people, including leaders Maria (founder, David Berg’s, long-time partner) and her husband Peter. Participant observation and a close examination of the literature also contribute to Chancellor’s research endeavour. Importantly, Chancellor acknowledges the difficulty that closeness to one’s subject can bring, and he also addresses his own position as a religious historian. Furthermore, he understands that his account, although comprehensive, is still only part of the story, and “It may be that everyone’s personal history undergoes constant reconstruction” (pp. xxi–xxii). (This latter insight is vital to critically evaluating what the “truth” is in any context.) Finally, Chancellor states for the record that he received no financial remuneration from the group for his work (p. xix).

Chapter 1 presents a history of COG/The Family, tracing the group from its inception in the late 1960s through its early years, reorganization, and current manifestation. Chancellor introduces many topics that he revisits in detail in subsequent chapters. Then, in the second chapter, he explores who joined COG/The Family and why, arguing that those who initially joined this NRM came from a variety of backgrounds and thus do not comprise a homogenous group that scholars and others can define (and stereotype) easily. For example, some of the converts were single and others were married; some were college educated and others were not. Moreover, Chancellor identifies that a range of personality types joined (p. 34). He does note, however, that several themes emerged during his interviews, including a “shallowness in meaningful personal relationships” coupled with loneliness and “active search[ing]”; a personal desire to “follow Jesus”; and the attraction of the group’s communal atmosphere in tandem with its rejection of mainstream religions (pp. 35–36). Most of the converts had a religious upbringing of one type or another (including Baptist, Jewish, and Catholic); and, of course, once the movement expanded overseas, the variety of converts’ backgrounds increased considerably. Notable also is that in some cases these variables were coupled with more intense problems. Of the 10 interviews that Chancellor included in this chapter, four of the members stated that they were suicidal when they joined the group (Lydia, p. 37; Jonathon, p. 48; Priscilla, p. 51; and June, p. 58) and one other was “constantly depressed” (Faith, p. 49). Thus, from this selection at least, a pattern of emotional and psychological vulnerability emerges. Nonetheless, Chancellor provides us with enough background information (through the interviews) to challenge some of the negative cult-member stereotypes that the popular media has disseminated.

In chapter 3, Chancellor examines some of the core components of the group’s doctrines, noting how they have influenced the disciples’ beliefs and behaviours. Raising the topic of Berg’s authority, he notes, “Once Berg had clarified his status as God’s unique prophet for the End Time, all disciples were called upon to submit fully to his absolute spiritual authority. He left no room for ambiguity at all” (p. 65). Chancellor observes also that “acceptance of The Prophet’s role and status was a central component of the socialization process” (p. 70). Coupled with these insights, Chancellor explores the variable interpretations of Berg’s doctrines and the taken-for-granted assumptions disciples made of the infallibility of Berg. Moreover, he does a good job of illustrating why many members were willing to obey Berg completely and commit to his belief system. Contributing factors to members’ obedience include their genuine faith in selflessness as a means to bring people to Jesus and salvation (pp. 59–62), their conviction that Berg was God’s Prophet (p. 65), their acceptance of an imminent End Time (p. 84), and their perceptions of their own unique position in God’s plan (p. 87).

Chancellor addresses the structural abuses of power that occurred, noting the resultant change of the authority structure (through the Reorganization and Nationalization Revolution [RNR]), and the more recent implementation of The Love Charter. In his discussion of the group’s problems, he notes that the “trials, trauma, and abuse” (p. 92) originated not only from Berg and his writings, but also from various levels of leadership throughout the group, and that abuses and problems happened both before, and after, the RNR. He observes also that

...even in the face of serious abuse and profound personal loss, disciples consistently attribute [italics added] these difficulties to the character flaws of individuals. They do not find fault with the nature of the community, and especially not with the leadership of Father David.” (p. 92)

Chancellor might have explored this attribution process further; certainly, others have tackled it using theories that dissect the role of attribution to religious commitment in COG/The Family and in other religious settings (see Kent, 1994a; Spilka, Shaver, and Kirkpatrick, 1985).

Chancellor delves into the most controversial facets of COG/The Family’s life in chapter 4. Many scholars have debated the impact of Berg’s sexual ideology and his dissemination of it to his disciples through the Mo Letters (see, for example, Kent, 1994b; Lewis and Melton, 1994; and Van Zandt, 1991). Indeed, in substantial part this subject has contributed to the polemic surrounding the group. Chancellor describes his work as “neither an apology nor a tabloid expose” (p. 96)—an accurate statement in terms of his treatment of sexuality (sexual sharing, FFing, and child sexuality) and of other facets of his research. Many of the interviews are extremely revealing in terms of members’ experiences of child sexual abuse and of the expectations that Berg placed upon the women of the group. The sexual ethos of the group originated in Berg’s household, where, by the early 1970s, his “startling new conclusions on the relationship between sex and religion” (p. 97) soon became part of his dialogue in the Mo Letters. Ultimately, Chancellor concludes that sexual sharing, instead of emerging as a communally sanctioned experience, became for some members a painful period of adjustment.

With the institution of FFing, the role of women in the group came to the fore. Chancellor interviewed many female disciples on this topic and provides an overview of the extent of its practice. His discussion, however, lacks a level of critical analysis that one might expect in a comprehensive text such as this. One gets the sense that the close relationship Chancellor developed with the women whom he interviewed has prevented him from being fully analytical (he discusses methodological problems such as subject-researcher closeness early in his book). For example, he appears to fall just short of describing FFing as prostitution (pp. 120, 121). Perhaps his hesitancy is borne out of a sense of loyalty to those who revealed to him what they have discussed with no one else. Accepting the explanations of the women who describe and rationalize their experiences, Chancellor does not explore issues of power, patriarchy, authority, and control in terms of the leadership’s expectations that women FF—initially as a means to save souls and recruit—but later, also to “Make it Pay” (Berg, 1978a).

One could argue that the disciples’ denials that FFing constituted prostitution are testimony to the success of Berg’s socialization of the women’s beliefs and actions; previously, Chancellor noted the extent of Berg’s authority in the socialization process. [4] Moreover, it may be very difficult for some of the women to accept psychologically that they did indeed engage in a form of prostitution whereby they exchanged sexual acts for money and other favours. Miriam Williams’ (1998) discussion of FFing (which I discuss later) helps to elucidate the tension between belief, behaviour, and self-perception. Despite Chancellor’s reluctance to analyse FFing critically, his account is still a valuable contribution to the literature that deals with this highly emotive subject. [5]

Even more contentious than FFing was Berg’s promotion of adult-child sexual relations. Although the full extent of this abuse is unknown, the interviewees reveal their knowledge of its existence. (Many disciples, however, appear in a state of denial or self-deception about the abuses and the fact that they existed beyond Berg’s own household—a state that Williams also experienced for a time [Williams, 1998:221].)  Chancellor posits that despite the reactions of some members, “The Family has come full face to the reality that literature such as ‘Heaven’s Girl,’ ‘The Little Girl Dream,’ ‘The Devil Hates Sex,’ and ‘The Story of Davidito’ did sanction adult sexual contact with minors” (p. 138). Furthermore, later in the book, Chancellor asserts that “throughout the late 1970s and the early 1980s, sexual activity between adults and children was an accepted practice in a number of communities” (p. 223). With these and other discussions, Chancellor has tackled this thorny issue, and he appears to have put to rest the ongoing debate about whether or not relatively extensive child sexual abuse occurred. This book makes clear (within the context of a balanced discussion) that many members of the second generation suffered greatly—not only in terms of sexual abuse, but also physically and emotionally; in fact, so much so, that comparatively few of those born in the 1970s stayed with the group.

One strength of Chancellor’s study is that he brings us up to date. Chapter 5 looks at how current members live—the interviews paint a human and at times even a mundane picture of life in the movement. Daily routines and the importance of prayer (p. 152), the continued significance of the Mo Letters (p. 152), the disciples’ concepts of self and their belief in their special role in Jesus’ service (p. 153)—all contribute to our understanding of the movement’s current form. Finally, as Chancellor notes, the group still rejects mainstream values (for the most part), but disciples typically enjoy a more comfortable life than they did during the movement’s early days (p. 159).

Chapter 6 considers the consequences of giving up one’s life in the “System.” [6] Perhaps the most contentious aspect of doing so is the ‘forsake all’ policy that stipulates that disciples must relinquish contact with friends and family (for the most part), and forsake worldly possessions and services, as well. In 1971, concerned parents organised to form FREECOG (Free our Children from the Children of God) because they believed that their children had been “brainwashed” into committing to COG/The Family. Some fearful parents employed others to kidnap and “deprogram” their children. Chancellor sides with Berg in his disdain for FREECOG’s efforts (p. 182) and the efforts of all those involved in what he terms the “anticult industry” (p. 186). No doubt many kidnapping and deprogramming efforts were misguided and harmful, but it seems only fair to acknowledge the anguish that families felt not knowing where their children were or how they were doing—something Chancellor fails to do.

The second generation is the subject of chapter 7. Chancellor reviews their current activities (including overseas’ ministry), and contemporary attitudes toward sexuality among the younger members of the second generation (which are considerably more conservative than those embraced by their parents [p. 230]).  He reveals how approaches toward authority have changed: The hierarchy is less authoritative, less demanding, and seems to have accepted that the members of the second generation who chose to stay must share in the process of forging the future evolution of the movement.

Chancellor uncovers some of the sexual abuses and harsh disciplines that the second generation endured. (He conceptualizes these abuses as “cost factors” [p. 222].)  His interviews reveal stories of people who lived through the abuse but ultimately chose to stay, although, as Chancellor notes, most members (both young and old) were disinclined to discuss the more serious abuses that occurred (p. 222). Other disciples affirm that they never witnessed any of the abuses first-hand, but they concede they had heard of their existence in other homes (p. 223). And as Chancellor remarks, even those who escaped abuse experienced the sexualized atmosphere that the group fostered (pp. 227–228).

Berg condoned the use of physical punishment on children. Hence, extreme discipline occurred not only within individual homes but also in the Victor Programs and Teen Training Camps (set up to keep rebellious teens in the group), where some adolescents experienced “silence restriction,” hard physical labour, humiliation, paddling, the discontinuation of their educations, and verbal abuse (pp. 236–240). Chancellor comments on the group’s past: “Family youth have certainly been consistently subjected to intense indoctrination into the ideology and norms of the group” (p. 240). The interviews, along with his discussion, expose the harsh realities that sometimes were a part of life for many children born into the group.

In summary, Chancellor’s many years of research have produced a comprehensive and valuable account of COG/The Family, one that allows the reader to integrate previous scholarship in such a way as to create a more holistic portrait of Berg, of his disciples, and of the group as a whole. His publication stands as the most balanced and accessible of academic books on this ever-evolving NRM.

Heaven’s Harlots: My Fifteen Years in a Sex Cult (1998) by Miriam Williams

Some academics may have a problem with Miriam Williams’ status as an ex-member and therefore classify her as a “career apostate”  [7], but I found her account a useful complementary read to Chancellor’s book for two main reasons. First, Williams provides an oral history that is personal, and thus reads like an expanded version of one of Chancellor’s interviews. Her account, of course, is a subjective one, but for the most part her narrative is particularly nuanced, despite her prior involvement with, and subsequent detachment from, the movement. Moreover, in her self-reflection, Williams displays vulnerability that lends legitimacy to her analysis. She fully acknowledges her own role and makes clear that she was a part of the decision-making process when she chose to participate in various disciple activities. She demonstrates an ability to recognise to what extent she felt pressured to conform, and to what extent she believed the path she took was the right one for her at the time. With the hindsight of maturity, she notes also that her youthful idealism contributed to some of those decisions.

Second, Williams recounts both her positive and negative experiences, and so examines both the advantages and drawbacks of belonging to COG/The Family. One gets the sense that she still advocates the benefits one can gain from communal living. She states quite frequently that one main appeal of the group was its communal approach to life; others were the opportunity it gave disciples to talk about Jesus and God to Systemites and the promise of being able to help people in tangible, meaningful ways. Throughout her account, Williams portrays both the joyful and the heart-rending times during which she tried to realise these goals, and she expresses her own inner conflicts and mixed feelings about her journey. COG/The Family was an enormous part of her life for 15 years, and she does not reject the group out of hand; nor does she portray the group as having realised fully the utopian ideals that she hoped it would.

The majority of the book focuses on FFing, although she does also provide some valuable insights into other aspects of the group, including her role as a childcare worker and the strain of frequent moves. She reveals her own initial nonchalant response to sexual sharing and FFing, stating that the Biblical and spiritual dimensions of these practices made them seem (for her, at least) like an acceptable dimension of life in the movement (p. 77). Williams comments on her sexual relations with the men she FFed:

Whether I was rationalizing or not, I finally concluded that I was helping the men I loved through a sexual channel. I personally believed in Jesus’ salvation message, and even if these men had not asked Jesus into their heart, at least they had heard the message. (p. 112)

Only later, when the full ramifications of such a lifestyle began to take its toll on her, did she gain insights into how these ideals played out like a social experiment gone awry: “...I gradually came to realize that the leaders seemed to be using sex as a tool to gain powerful friends and contacts...” (p. 113). Her description of her time FFing in the French Riviera is particularly significant because in it she reveals both the enjoyable and the difficult experiences she and other members had there.

Abuses of power and the authoritative nature of leadership are part of Williams’s story, although she fails to contextualize them within the structural conditions of the group. Absent from her narrative is a discussion of the Reorganization and Nationalization Revolution (RNR) and other organizational changes in the movement. She does discuss, however, the differential nature of power within different COG/Family homes, depending on their geographic location and the status of members who lived there. Thus, she describes the often substantial differences that existed among the various homes, and she discloses her own shock upon reaching South America, where, confronted with squalor, she realised that she had led a relatively privileged way of life, having lived mostly in band homes that were more liberal and better funded than those she encountered there. [8]

Eventually Williams rejected the group because of the abuses taking place; but by her own admission, she and her husband chose to ignore some of the explicit indicators that Berg was advocating adult sexual contact with children (pp. 220–221). That she and others remained part of an organization that engaged in the sexualisation of young children (while personally finding such behaviours abhorrent) leads Williams to grapple with her own demons. After returning to the United States, she sought to confront her own family’s problems, including the child abuse that she suffered as a child.

Interestingly, Chancellor (2002) described Williams’ book as “feminist” (p. 194) in a way that suggests (to me) that he is slightly scornful, or at least suspicious, of it. Williams’ account is less a feminist analysis and more one woman’s autobiography of her experiences. Indeed, she seems quite loathe to place responsibility for some of the more problematic experiences that she endured solely on leadership, and when she does allocate culpability, she does so as part of her narrative rather than from a theoretical-feminist perspective. [9] This said, Williams does engage in more of a critical analysis toward the end of the book. A more rigorous critical feminist reading, however, would include thorough deconstructions of the power hierarchy, the patriarchal nature of the group, the bestowal of a misleading sense of female sexual empowerment (through FFing), the sexualisation of children at an early age, and the harsh discipline that Berg and others meted out to both children and adults.

Williams’ book, although not an academic account, does stand as a good illustration of conversion and commitment (during both happy and difficult times) to a new religious movement. Hence, her work is a worthy addition to the broad body of research on the group.

The Endtime Family: Children of God (2002) by William Sims Bainbridge

In The Endtime Family: Children of God (2002), William Sims Bainbridge presents the outcome of his statistical survey in which he compares the results of 1,000 completed questionnaires (from The Family) to responses compiled by the General Social Survey (GSS). [10] Bainbridge’s goal was to examine to what extent life in the group is different from or similar to life in general American society. As well, his aim was to apply a survey technique to an area to which scholars do not typically employ it—namely, new religious movements (p. xi). Bainbridge’s focus is the current, full-time members of the movement.

Despite his claim that the book is for a “diverse audience” (p. 25), for those unfamiliar with COG/The Family, this book does not contextualize its subject matter. [11] He makes few references to the larger history of COG/The Family, and the survey information tells us only about current beliefs and activities. The strength of this narrow temporal focus is that it provides a wealth of contemporary statistical information that might act as a catalyst for future quantitative and qualitative research. Indeed, the impressive amount of information that Bainbridge gathered likely shall provide springboards for a variety of detailed studies.

Bainbridge received more than 1,000 completed questionnaires, which provided him with information on many facets of the group’s beliefs and practices. The coverage is remarkable: Questions deal with topics such as frequency of prayer, beliefs about God, beliefs about Satan, spiritual experiences, alienation, government, the meaning of life, fate, morality, sexual attitudes, marriage, parenthood, and many more. The survey data reveals that members, like nonmembers, are not a homogeneous group; rather, they comprise a diversity of types of people who not only come from differing backgrounds, but also at times hold quite diverse views.

Similarities between the population and COG/The Family are evident. For example, in Bainbridge’s examination of people’s beliefs on “determinants of fate,” 56.2% of The Family members and 57.1% of GSS respondents believe that “Some people use their willpower and work harder than others” (p. 109). On matters of alienation from power structures, 54.3% of The Family respondents and 55.6% of GSS respondents believe that people in positions of power will attempt to take advantage of others. As well, 25.3% of The Family and 28.3% of GSS respondents felt “left out of things going on around [them]” (p. 93). Other topics that elicited comparable responses between The Family members and the general population include desirable qualities sought in friendship (p. 120), and the belief that God “reveals himself in and through the world” (p. 106).

Many of the findings illustrate interesting differences between GSS respondents and The Family members. For example, 95.6% of The Family respondents declared their unwavering belief in the existence of God, compared to 64.9% of GSS respondents (p. 46). As one might expect, attitudes toward sexuality were significantly different: Only 18.7% of The Family members thought it wrong for young teenagers (under the age of 16) to have sex, compared with 68.3% of GSS sample; and 1.2% of The Family members felt it was wrong for married couples to engage in extramarital sex, compared to 78.4% of the general population. Other major differences emerged, including (but not limited to) the belief in the reality of the devil (p. 53), frequency of prayer (p. 70), and attitudes about salvation (p. 77).

Bainbridge wrote in his foreword to Chancellor’s (2000) book that COG/The Family “institutionalized nuclear family” (Chancellor, 2000:xiii), a comment that seems quite discordant with the realities of familial dynamics within COG/The Family. For example, the “One Wife” doctrine (historically, a central COG/The Family tenet) in no way resembles the mainstream nuclear-family ethic. This Mo Letter remains part of The Love Charter and is “priority reading” for The Family members (The Family, 1995:201). In “One Wife,” Berg stated, “BUT GOD’S IN THE BUSINESS OF BREAKING UP LITTLE SELFISH PRIVATE WORDLY FAMILIES TO MAKE ... A LARGER UNIT—ONE FAMILY” (Berg, 1972:1368). Bainbridge’s findings on COG/The Family’s approach to nonmarital sex (p. 125), general “marriage–related attitudes” (p. 127), the “ideal and actual number of children” (p. 142), and morals for children (p. 154) illustrate more differences than similarities in terms of family structure and beliefs. I do not suggest though that the “nuclear” family is prevalent in mainstream society, either; family configurations in society are varied and fluid. The ideology of a nuclear family, however, is more prevalent in this setting than in COG/The Family. Moreover, Shepherd and Shepherd (2005) note that following the implementation of The Love Charter, the “increase in the number of single-family homes” has become one of Maria and Peter’s many concerns because it contravene[s] core Family values...” (p. 72).

Bainbridge concludes that “The Family is a novel religious movement in considerable tension with the surrounding sociocultural environment, yet its members are very similar to nonmembers in many respects” (p. 169). Although I agree that similarities exist, I found that his statistics point very clearly to more fundamental differences than similarities between The Family members and GSS respondents.

At the outset of the book, Bainbridge asserts that his work is “fair-minded and objective” (p. xii); but, unfortunately, at times he appears to take on an advocacy role for the movement, hence forsaking impartiality. Nonetheless, within the context of all literature on COG/The Family, Bainbridge has taken research on the group in a new direction by supplying researchers with an abundance of new information that addresses some new and previously unexplored facets of the group’s beliefs and practices.

The Children of God: “The Family” (2004) by J. Gordon Melton

At only 62 pages of full text, and 27 pages of appendices, J. Gordon Melton’s The Children of God: “The Family” (2004) provides a concise history of the movement. [12] Despite the brevity of the book, Melton touches on most of the pivotal points in the group’s development. Beginning with a discussion of COG/The Family’s evangelical foundations, Melton not only covers some familiar ground, but also injects some interesting historical information about the development of American Protestant fundamentalism during the early and mid-twentieth century and its relationship to the Jesus People movement from which COG/The Family emerged. [13] He proceeds to discuss the group’s development from its foundations through various organizational evolutions, and he posits that the Reorganization Nationalization Revolution (RNR) “disbanded the Children of God” (pp. 9, 16). Certainly, Berg removed many of those leaders who were abusing their positions of power; but, as Melton states, “most of the deposed leaders became members again” (p. 8). Hence, it might be more accurate to say that, while the group went through a period of restructuring (including name changing), a complete disbandment overstates the extent of the changes.

Melton then tackles sexuality in the movement, tracing the development of Berg’s prescriptions and proscriptions for the disciples’ sexual relationships. He describes how one of the key Mo Letters, “Love vs. Law,” presented Berg’s nascent sexual tenets as the antithesis of Mosaic Law. In this way, Melton illustrates Berg’s intent that the group’s doctrines based on “The Law of Love” integrate sexual freedom with Berg’s interpretation of Christian scripture. Although Melton articulates that love rather than lust was the guiding force for the group’s sexual ethos (pp. 15–16), he acknowledges that lust became a factor. Melton raises the issue of rape, stating merely that Berg “condemned” it (p. 16). Contrary to this assertion are Berg’s own words in a Mo Letter simply titled “Rape!” In this publication, Berg warned female disciples that FFing might lead to rape or attempted rape. In addition to saying that forced sex garners women no respect from God (Berg, 1974:3825), Berg stated, “THE GIRL WHO DOES ALL THE REST AND THEN SUDDENLY DOESN’T WANT TO GO ALL THE WAY, IS REALLY GOING TO HAVE NOBODY BUT HERSELF TO BLAME” (Berg, 1974:3821). Actual incidences of rape while FFing are undocumented (as far as I am aware), but even the idea that women should accept it and take blame for it is abusive.

Melton proceeds to a brief overview of the proliferation and subsequent decline of FFing, [14] the increased need for organized childcare (p. 17), Berg’s views on child sexuality (p. 18), the group’s views on teen marriage (p. 19), and the implementation of the video ministry (including the controversial images of children engaged in sexually provocative veiled dance routines) (p. 20). Melton has been a prominent contributor to research on the group in the past, and academics that study COG/The Family are aware of his involvement in projects such as the volume that he co-edited with James R. Lewis, Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating the Family/Children of God (1994). Much of his discussion of sexuality in this latest book (2004) is a reiteration of his contributing chapter, “Sexuality and the Maturation of The Family” (1994b) in the earlier one. In this most recent work, Melton reframes an earlier conclusion: “In a decade’s worth of writing on child and youth sexuality, Berg had assumed that sexual activity involving children or youth would be between individuals of compatible age” (p. 24. See also Melton, 1994b:91 for his earlier, comparable comment).  Given Chancellor’s assertion that even COG/The Family members now admit that certain Mo Letters did advocate adult-child sexual relationships, it is puzzling that Melton continues to state otherwise (see Chancellor, 2000:138). [15]

Melton then turns his attention to The Story of Davidito. He correctly claims of this book that “most of the content was innocuous”; however, he downplays the degree to which the text advocated sexual contact between adults and minors, citing that only 20 or so pages discuss child sexuality. [16] Moreover, he contends that Davidito (Ricky Rodriguez) “...appears to have sexual access to the women of the group” (p. 30). This is a disturbing statement indeed. The group produced the text and photographs that describe and depict Davidito in sexually explicit ways when he was between the ages of about two years to about three-and-one-half years. I suggest, rather, that the adult women of the group had sexual access to him. A three-year-old child does not possess the sexual or emotional maturity required to make decisions about sexual relationships. In other areas, too, Melton uses language to minimize the atmosphere of child sexualisation (for example, pp. 31–32).

The police raids on COG/The Family homes around the globe resulted in the physical and emotional maltreatment of many adults and children. Melton recounts the events that occurred in Spain, Argentina, and France, detailing some of the terrible abuses that transpired. These details include the separation of children from their parents (often for extremely prolonged periods), judicial misconduct, physical and emotional abuse, interrogations, and neglect. In one instance, “A fifteen-year-old girl was handcuffed for four hours clad only in her underwear” (p. 36). The raids on COG/The Family homes occurred at a time when the movement had already undergone many institutional changes and had purged much of its more controversial literature. In retrospect, the raids on homes not only occurred at the wrong time, but many of the authorities involved also conducted them in a wholly inappropriate and at times brutal manner.

Melton concludes with a look at how COG/The Family lives today. Then, following the main body of text and before the appendices, he includes a series of 18 photographs. These fascinating images are an appreciated inclusion to this concise account.

Book Chapters

‘The Children of God’ section of “Conversions,” in From Slogans to Mantras: Social Protest and Religious Conversion in the Late Vietnam War Era (2001a) by Stephen A. Kent

Kent discusses the emergence of COG/The Family within the context of the shift from youth involvement in social and political protest movements of the 1960s to the proliferation of new religious movements that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Against the background of the Vietnam War, he provides a compelling argument that the youth of this time underwent a “crisis of means” (p. 5) (as opposed to a “crisis of meaning”). He posits that religion became the new means to try to achieve the same ends—radical social and political change. Hence, new religions like the COG with their political and, indeed, revolutionary rhetoric appealed to the disenchanted activist youth of that era. Moreover, as Kent comments, Berg offered a radically different platform from which to worship and spread the word of God. Rather than provide a traditional image of Jesus, Berg offered a revolutionary one that coincided with countercultural values and imagery (p. 149).

A combination of interviews, Mo Letters, academic literature, and rare publications from the era help Kent develop his argument that the COG’s anti-American (and specifically, anti-Nixon) posture, along with its explicit advice for avoiding the draft, added to the movement’s appeal (pp. 144–145). Critically, he highlights the cognitive and behavioural consistency that the transition from political protest to spiritual engagement with the COG afforded. Centralising the role of youthful idealism [17] in an era in which anything seemed possible, he notes: “Idealistic youth—sometimes propelled by the perceived shortcomings of their own generation, and always compelled by promises of dramatic social change—chose to commit themselves to high-demand beliefs that always rested upon supernatural claims” (p. 150). Likewise, Williams (1998) observes the role of idealism, remarking that although she had never met Berg,

Whenever doubts entered my mind about following a “personality,” I reminded myself that it was the ideal [italics in the original] I was following, not the person who expressed it.... I thought the ideals he preached could change the world. (Williams, 1998:38)

Kent turns his attention to the movement again in the concluding chapter, where he discusses the group’s millenarian position (p. 154), as well as their “...manipulative use of feminist rhetoric against women...” (p. 163). On this latter point, Kent explores the apparent paradox that emerged: At a time when women were striving to achieve social and political gains, many of them were joining very patriarchal groups (such as COG/The Family), where they had to rescind their hopes for equality for positions of subservience. The rhetoric of Berg’s works illustrates this paradox. On one hand, he described his female followers as “Revolutionary Women.” On the other hand, in at least two Mo Letters he expressed his disdain for the women’s movement: He commanded women to “PROVE YOUR LOVE WITH SEX” because “THEY [MEN] GET FED UP WITH THESE SICKENING SELFISH WOMEN” (Berg, 1976b:4134). The “sickening selfish” women he refers to are the women who were part of the feminist movement. He criticized them for not looking after men “properly.” Likewise, in “Real Mothers,” Berg derided “THIS WOMEN’S LIB IDEA!” Maria and Berg wrote that women had been “brainwashed” into liberation, and that it was their [COG/The Family’s] duty to “brainwash” them back into motherhood (Berg, 1975:3521).

Kent’s discussion deals with a specific era, and he explains well why the youth of that time joined this particular NRM. His work does not address the appeal that the movement held for converts in the late 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and the contemporary period. Has the movement replaced the rhetoric of protest and revolution with other equally appealing positions during these periods? Should Kent or other researchers choose to tackle this and other questions, we will have a more complete picture of the reasons for the group’s continued appeal to new converts.

“The Children of God” by Miriam Williams Boeri; in Sex and Religion (2005), Christel Manning and Phil Zuckerman (Eds.)

Williams Boeri [18] returns her attention to COG/The Family in her chapter, “Children of God” in Christel Manning and Phil Zuckerman’s edited volume, Sex and Religion (2005). Positioning COG/The Family within the history of communal experimentation, Williams Boeri identifies The Family’s sexual ethos as a part of a larger tradition of sexual experimentation in such social groups (p. 160). She expands her discussion (from 1998) of the socialization process that facilitated and legitimated the acceptance of overt sexuality paired with Christian-inspired doctrine. She discusses the combined effects of Berg’s charismatic leadership and the tight COG/The Family hierarchy of authority, as well. Critical to this power structure was the public humiliation (via Mo Letters) that Berg instituted as a powerful form of punishment for dissenting leaders at all levels. Coupled with this discipline was the resocialization of new disciples, a process that Williams Boeri describes using Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s discussion of commitment (pp. 162–163).

Then we get to the heart of the discussion—sexuality in the Children of God. Williams Boeri examines the sexual mores of the group and identifies that the shift from “marriage and sexual chastity” to “sexual liberation” mirrored “parallel developments in the life of the group’s leader” (p. 165). She comments, “The frequent reversals on official sexual practices are consistent with Berg’s early writings that claim that ‘all things change’ in the Children of God/Family” (p. 167). Williams Boeri addresses many aspects of sexuality in the movement, including the sexual revolution (pp. 165–167), homosexuality (p. 167), FFing (pp. 167–169), contraception (p. 169), sexual teachings and children (including a specific examination of The Book of Davidito) (pp. 169–172), Teen Training Camps, and the Justice Ward case in the United Kingdom (pp. 172–174). The main strength of her discussion is that she brings together an analysis of all aspects of sexuality in the group in a concise format that outlines clearly the progression and development of Berg’s sexual vision for the group, and how he implemented the socialization of his vision, via the Mo Letters and through his hierarchy of leaders. Like Chancellor (2000), Williams Boeri’s discussion of abuse is authoritative—she leaves no room for doubt about the reality and extent of the problems.

In her analysis of The Book of Davidito, Williams Boeri comments that some mothers and their teens believe “that the Davidito letters gave adults who desired sexual activity with children the freedom to do so” (p. 171). I would like to see Williams Boeri, Chancellor, and others explore this facilitation process further (although Williams Boeri does refer to “sexual opportunism” [p. 174]). A large body of research on child abuse, incest, and pedophilia has emerged over the past few decades, and much of it explores the many and varied rationalization processes that adults engage in when they sexually abuse minors (for example, see DeYoung, 1982; DeChesnay, 1985; and Mayer, 1985). Moreover, eminent sociologist of child abuse, David Finklehor (1984), has discussed child abuse in group settings. He posits that often in these contexts too much research focuses on the alleged psychopathology of the individual. He argues in favour of a model that looks to the social conditions that facilitate child sexual abuse. He claims, “It is clear that cultural forces can modify the propensity of large numbers of adults to be sexually interested in children” (Finklehor, 1984:35). Finklehor’s insights may help to explain why some group members of COG/The Family engaged in sexual relationships with children (specifically those adults in the group who would not otherwise have engaged in sexual relationships with children had Berg not sanctioned it). Simply put, it may be the case that because Berg advocated adult-child relationships (and within a religious framework), he made it an acceptable practice within their closed group culture. [19]

Williams Boeri closes her chapter with some comments on scholarship focused on NRMs. While recognizing that scholars should approach their subject matter carefully and not cause any unwarranted alarm or criticism, she posits that over-caution “...risk[s] obscuring or downplaying real violations of members rights...” (p. 174). Williams Boeri explores these problems from the perspective of a sociologist, while having the additional insights of a former member.

“The Family,” in The Rhetoric of Religious Cults: Terms of Use and Abuse (2005) by Annabelle Mooney

Mooney’s approach to COG/The Family is somewhat unique—she is not a scholar of religion; rather, she is a linguist. In her chapter on COG/The Family, Mooney draws on linguistic analyses to deconstruct the Mo Letter, “The Big Lie!” In this way, she identifies the specific ways that Berg employs language as a means to appeal to his readers in a manner that is both emotionally attractive and manipulative. She identifies that emotion alone is not enough as a rhetorical technique, but that it must be paired with other strategies “such as arguments from character” (p. 108). Moreover, implicit in Berg’s dialogue is a “perlocutionary effect”—that is, he intends his words to have a particular purpose. In this case, the purpose is that the reader should develop a positive opinion about the group and its beliefs because of this particular Mo Letter (p. 109).

In the “The Big Lie!” Berg sets evolutionary theory and Creationism against one another in a manner that presupposes a Christian audience (p. 109). Indeed, “Because of the way in which Berg attributes the doctrine of evolution to Satan and Creationism to God, he need not worry that Christians will disagree with his arguments” (p. 105). Furthermore, while the text does not demand adherence to the group, Mooney identifies that Berg shapes his argument such that if one does not agree with his argument, “one is a false Christian” (p. 110).

Mooney analyses the way Berg uses three specific techniques to imitate actual spoken speech in his writing. First, his frequent use of capitalizations allows him to emphasize words and sentences in the same way one can when talking. Second, his proclivity for exclamation marks bolsters the power of the message he relates, although Mooney identifies that his overuse of them reduces their effectiveness “unless the text is read as verging on the hysterical” (p. 111). Third, Berg’s lexical (word) choices often serve to ridicule evolutionary theory and “contribute to the exploitation of emotion as they are highly value laden” (p. 111).

Berg uses other means to legitimate his position. For example, he structures the text using paragraph numbering that is similar to Biblical arrangements (p. 112). In addition, he sets up his argument using a “claim/denial structure” that allows him to establish an “us” (true Christians) versus “them” (false Christians and non-Christians) dichotomy (p. 113). Interestingly, he also identifies evolutionary theory not only as “evil” and Satanic (p. 115), but also as both a false religion (p. 117) and a false science (p. 119). Mooney notes that by using scientific rhetoric to discuss both Creationism and evolutionary theory, Berg establishes that Creationism is “true science” (p. 117) and that evolutionary theory is “false science.” Moreover, Berg claims that the logic of Creationism clearly shows the shortcomings of evolutionary theory; indeed, he argues that one need look only to Creationism for all one’s answers. Strengthening this position is Berg’s discussion of the apparent absurdity of evolutionary theory and the impossibility of it (pp. 120–121). Berg declares as well that evolutionary scientists and palaeontologists are professional liars who deliberately misguide and miseducate people (p. 123). They are, he states, in no way connected to “true” scientists who merely observe what God has created. The emotional potency of the piece is bolstered further by Berg’s connecting evolutionary theory to Hitler (p. 118), and his ability to instil shame in those who have any doubts about Creationism (p. 121).

Mooney’s discussion is valuable because she addresses the role of language in community making. She identifies how language, when emotionally laden and skilfully used, can help to foster allegiance with, and commitment to, ideas and belief systems. Mooney systematically dissects Berg’s work, concluding that, despite the circular nature of Berg’s arguments (p. 128), he convinces his readership of his authority. Moreover, although Mooney examines only one Mo letter, it seems quite plausible that her analyses could be generalized to the study of other Mo letters, given that Berg uses similar rhetorical devices in most, if not all, of his publications.

Journal Articles

“Brainwashing and Re-Indoctrination Programs in the Children of God/The Family,” by Stephen A. Kent and Deana Hall. In Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 17 (2000) [20] 

This article examines the Teen Training Centres (TTC) and Victor Camps that the movement’s leadership instituted to overcome “the classic problem that confronts sects, which involves the cultivation of commitment and devotion among a second generation born to parents who are members already” (p. 57). Thus, the purpose of the camps was to reestablish Berg’s authority and renew teen commitment to him. The authors note that, despite the prevalence of these programs, only one other researcher—James Chancellor (2000)—has explored them in any detail. They do provide, however, an overview and critique of other scholars who make brief mentions of the programs (pp. 59–63).

A main concern of the authors is the propensity of other academics to negate or downplay the effects that the programs had on the first wave of second-generation members. Hence, Kent and Hall take seriously the concerns and ongoing problems that the second generation experienced and continue to endure. They use the controversial concept of “brainwashing” as a theoretical framework in which to locate the programs. Aware of the polemic that surrounds the construct, they apply “...the most restrictive definition of brainwashing...” (p. 57). [21] They do not provide a definition of “re-indoctrination” though, and they do not explain the difference between the two concepts. [22]

The authors base their findings on carefully designed interviews (which Kent conducted over a six-year period) with former members (pp. 58–59). They also integrate many of the movement’s own publications that deal with the problem of teenage revolt, and the methods that the group’s leadership used to try to reverse the rebellious actions. Of particular interest is the authors’ inclusion of the experiences of Merry Berg (David Berg’s granddaughter). Her disenchantment and subsequent “crisis of faith” (p. 65) at the age of 14 resulted in horrific punishments in an attempt to re-indoctrinate her. These harsh disciplines included several exorcisms, physical beatings, and finally her banishment to Macao, where her uncle implemented a program of punishment, discipline, intense and psychologically demanding questioning, and re-education in Berg’s doctrines and beliefs (pp. 66–68). Merry remained there for three years, and she and others state that they endured physical confinement, “silence restrictions,” intense labour, surveillance, physical beatings, and at times, sexual abuse in these settings (p. 67). (The Victor Camps and the TTCs emerged out of the early experimentation with Merry.) The physical confinement and abuse that the children endured prompt Kent and Hall to conclude that even the most narrow definition of the brainwashing thesis is indeed applicable not only to Merry’s case but also to many of the teens who went through the TTCs and Victor Programs.

The rest of the article outlines the many forms of disciplines and abuses that occurred in the programs. Many of the narratives that emerge concur with those that Chancellor (2000) includes in his book. Interestingly, the current members whom Chancellor interviewed cite two reasons why they remained with COG/The Family despite their traumatic experiences. First, they identify that the abuses were “not normative”; second, they say that they have accepted the apologies of those responsible for meting out the punishments (Chancellor, 2000:240). The difference in attitudes between the members (whom Chancellor interviewed) and the ex-members (whom Kent interviewed) leaves us with an interesting puzzle. Kent and Hall posit that teen compliance was essential to the maintenance of the group (p. 75). Hence, are the members who stayed more forgiving because the brainwashing/re-indoctrination programs were successful in their cases? Or did the ex-members leave because their experiences of abuse were more violent, more intense, or more protracted? Alternatively, perhaps personality differences and personal coping strategies are a variable. For academics with a stake in either supporting or refuting the brainwashing thesis, another question arises: Do the acts that Kent and Hall describe actually constitute brainwashing programs? It is likely impossible to reach agreement on this issue, given the investment that academics on both sides of the debate have made developing their own analyses.

By using brainwashing to contextualize this work, Kent and Hall have likely reduced the probability that some other scholars will use their article as a research resource. Had the authors chosen to explore the abuses and punishments within a different theoretical framework, they might have garnered wider readership. In addition, the term “brainwashing” (like the word “cult”) has become so loaded with varying definitions and problematic connotations that many new researchers are extremely wary of using it, or of even exploring the possibilities of using it. In conclusion, while this article does a good job of addressing the concerns of the second generation, it does so in a way that fails to appeal to those scholars who have overlooked this component of the movement’s history. Given the polemic surrounding the brainwashing concept  [23], alternative constructs might have been prudent in this instance.

“Women After the Utopia: The Gendered Lives of Former Cult Members,” by Miriam Williams Boeri. In Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 31(3) (2002)

Williams Boeri analyzes the daily lives of 15 female former members of COG/The Family. Centralising the importance of gender, she examines how these women have responded to the post-cult environment. Drawing from symbolic interactionism, feminist discourses, and grounded theory, Williams Boeri analyzes the women’s transitions from cult members to “cult survivors.” In this way, environmental context, socialization, and social relations are crucial to understanding the identities of the women. Critically, Williams asserts that her study marks a shift from psychological discussions to sociological analyses—she explores four general topics: “identities, roles, interactions, and contexts” (p. 331).

Framing her work within a detailed discussion of the methodologies that she employs (semi-structured interviews and participant observation at ex-member reunions), Williams Boeri’s ethnographic study provides a comprehensive amount of background information. The women’s age ranges, time spent in the group, time lapsed since leaving the group, reasons for leaving, whether each woman left with or without a partner, education levels, and so on are all taken into consideration (pp. 332–335).

Williams Boeri identifies COG/The Family as an extremely patriarchal environment in which males benefited more than females from the sexual freedom that the group embraced. Furthermore, she argues that the insular nature of the group fostered “male domination of women through normative and persuasive controls [which] often leads to violence” (p. 331). She asserts that in COG/The Family, “women were subordinate to their husbands . . . and were encouraged to bear as many babies as possible. The sexual exploitation of the women became excessive when the economy of prostitution was adopted by the group” (p. 330). Despite these convincing analyses, Williams Boeri does not address Maria’s role as a woman in the movement who wielded considerable power. Moreover, in Heaven’s Harlots, she discussed several other women who made life particularly hard for her in various homes.

The focus of the study is the lived experiences of the women because “few studies have focused on how the sexual environment of cults has influenced the everyday lives of females while in the group, and little is known about the long term effects of a cult experience on women who leave” (p. 326). Moreover, she notes that both COG/The Family environment and the post-group environment are gendered settings that shape male and female expectations in terms of roles (p. 326). Because the key focus was everyday life and post-group adjustment to society, sexuality was not part of the interview question set (p. 354). Williams Boeri found, however, that the women brought this topic up of their own volition. In this way, the women informed Williams Boeri of how the sexual nature of their previous identities interfered with their struggles to negotiate new identities.

In addition to depression, “extreme estrangement and isolation” (p. 339), and role confusion, the interviewees spoke of their “spiritual confusion.” The women missed the intensity of communion with God that the group fostered, as well as the sense of purpose that they gained. After leaving the group, many felt that somehow they had let God down (p. 340). Some women endured further problems, as well: lack of education, lack of work history, and poor access to healthcare—practical issues that influenced their adjustment to, and negotiation of, new social roles.

Williams Boeri’s study provides interesting insights into the daily problems as well as the emotional, physical, and psychological legacies that the women faced when entering into a new and confusing social domain. Her work yields data on yet another facet of this movement—the transition from female disciple to member of mainstream society, and all that this role transition entails. She acknowledges that the findings of this article are not generalizable to all female ex-members of COG/The Family or to all ex-members of other groups, but that some parallels are likely to emerge (pp. 333, 353).

“Generational Revolt by the Adult Children of First Generation Members of the Children of God/The Family,” by Stephen Kent. In Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 3 No. 2 (2004)

Kent returns to the experiences of the first wave of second-generation members in this discussion. He posits that core COG/The Family doctrines, along with specific policies and publications, had problematic implications for the children of the movement and hence contributed to their rejection of the group and its teachings. Kent begins his article with a reflection on the abuse that Ricky Rodriguez states that he and his half-sister Techi experienced at the hands of Berg, Maria, and other men and women in the leader’s home. Ironically, Berg intended that his adopted son would replace him as the group’s prophet and leader. Instead, Ricky and other second-generation members rejected the group’s belief system, left the group, and subsequently voiced their criticisms of the movement (pp. 56–57).

Kent identifies seven particularly problematic doctrines. First, he posits that the disciples’ unwavering acceptance of Berg as God’s prophet facilitated and legitimated the practice of punishment for “murmurings”—that is, “expressions of doubt[s]” about the reality of this claim (p. 58). Second, Kent asserts that the group’s conflation of love and sex shaped a “highly eroticized” environment in which adults socialized children into a range of sexual attitudes and behaviours. Third, because God’s words (as apparently mediated through Berg) were sacrosanct, they superseded all other responsibilities. Thus, parents frequently had to put the group’s work first, before their children. Moreover, many of the women had “Jesus babies” (that is, babies fathered by men that they had FFed). Because of this separation, “emotional bonds between children and their parents were severely strained, and many children did not know their biological fathers” (pp. 58–59). Fourth, because the group conceptualized society as the evil playground of the devil, disciples did not contact official channels when known or suspected abuses and crimes occurred. Fifth, to prevent members, including children, from being enticed into the outside world, leaders enacted harsh punishments for deviation from Berg and the group. Sixth, COG/The Family formed its own educational system—one that did not always meet with general standards, due to the lack of qualified teachers and a biased and inadequate curriculum. Moreover, children often were engaged in other COG/The Family activities that took them away from schooling. Finally, Kent notes that the itinerant nature of the group disturbed the children’s education (although it facilitated a global network of contacts among them).

Berg’s policies and publications reinforced the seven core doctrines. For example, Kent notes that when children became ill or were born with defects, Berg blamed the parents for poor disciplinary measures. He remarks that Berg believed that inadequate discipline made children vulnerable “to evil spirits or demonic possession”; hence, he advocated physical discipline, including “spankings and beatings ... to drive out the evil” (p. 61). These abuses have fostered a deep resentment in the second-generation members who endured them toward the parents and leaders who initiated them.

When Berg’s own daughter, Deborah, left the movement in 1978, he did not, however, blame himself for her defection. Indeed, Kent notes that in a 1983 publication, Berg asserts that he had not fallen short in his parental duties. In this same publication, Berg encourages the use of a “stick or rod” when disciplining children (Berg, 1983, cited in Kent, p. 62). Kent discusses Berg’s granddaughter, Merry, and the abuses she experienced (as discussed in Kent and Hall, 2000). In addition, he notes that when Merry left the group to live with her aunt (Deborah), Berg dismissed her, stating that she was “possessed.” Moreover, in a publication, he conceptualised her as a vampire—an image that the group drew on to debase future critics of the group (p. 64).

An important part of Kent’s discussion is his assertion that media and judicial pressures resulted in the demise of the Victor camps, and that

The Family, in response, burned controversial documents, published public denials of sexual impropriety between children and adults, and created media homes containing carefully selected teens who rehearsed probable questions and appropriate answers before reporters or academics arrived. (p. 65)

Thus, Kent provides another facet to the police raids and their aftermath. Furthermore, he notes that the teens endured “serious discrepancies between the group’s public posture and their own private experiences” (p. 65). Importantly, he observes that group policies and publications of this period attempted to deflect the blame away from leadership and onto the children. In this way, for instance, Maria blamed the girls for their own molestation. By the early 1990s, many of the second-generation youth were so disillusioned with their lives in the movement that they left. These ex-members hoped to receive some kind of justice for their abuses. Disturbingly, as recently as 2002, Maria and Peter issued a publication in which they demonized the former members, illustrating them as “blood-dripping grotesque demons named Vandari” (p. 68).

Kent’s article is important for several reasons. First, it addresses the concerns of the second generation that other researchers have alluded to but failed to focus on. Second, it provides further context to the raids on COG/The Family homes and reveals the movement’s efforts to negate the extent and impact of child abuse. Third, it gives credence to the concerns of the second generation, many of whom continue to deal with the torments of their upbringing (as Rodriguez’s death clearly illustrates). Fourth, it removes the responsibility for those abuses from the children and onto the adults who carried them out.

“Accommodation and Reformation in The Family/Children of God,” by Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd. In Nova Religio, 9(1) (2005)

In this article, the authors review and discuss COG/The Family’s ability to adapt and evolve in the post-Berg era. Shepherd and Shepherd identify that external and internal pressures have contributed to some of the many changes that have occurred during the past decade or so. The authors present their findings based on interviews with the movement’s current leaders (Maria and Peter), a viewing of The Family video material, and a close reading of the group’s publications (p. 69).

The crux of this article reveals an interesting paradox: As a means to overcome its problems and accommodate society, the movement has embraced a form of “democratic corporate rationality” (p. 68) that has revitalised and sustained it. Simultaneously, however, the leaders have instituted a “significant reformation (or purification) motif” (p. 68) to address the unintended and undesirable consequences that the institutional changes have brought about (for example, less communal living and more interaction with secular society). This dilemma affords an interesting research topic that the authors address with an in-depth examination of the external and internal pressures, the changing features of the relationship between The Family and the rest of society, the group’s ongoing core beliefs, the implementation of The Love Charter, the changes in membership status, and the new structural conditions (as manifested by The Family Board Vision and related councils). In addition, Shepherd and Shepherd examine specific responses to increased member interaction with the outside world, such as “retrenchment publications” (p. 78); the implementation of membership contracts for some levels of membership; and increased governance, regulation, and surveillance. At the same time, Maria and Peter have had to legitimate their positions of authority in the wake of Berg’s death, as well as grapple with the effects of failed prophecies and millennial expectations. Hence, the authors explore a substantial range of adjustments.

In their discussion of external pressures, the authors identify that “the most significant stemmed from charges of child abuse made by disgruntled former members in collaboration with anticult organizations” (p. 70). Like Melton (2004), Shepherd and Shepherd use language that attempts to delegitamize the rights of the second-generation children to tell their accounts of sexual abuse. One might expect that, after having endured sexual molestation (and perhaps also the harsh discipline of either the Teen Training Camps or the Victor Programs), one would be “disgruntled” to say the least. Nonetheless, the authors rightly assert that the public and police interest that the movement received at this time, and the subsequent raids that they endured, generated negative public perceptions of the group that the leadership had to address. Thus, The Love Charter emerged as the main organizing document for the group, outlining disciples’ “rights, responsibilities, and membership requirements” (p. 71). [24]

The authors do a good job of explaining the other changes that have taken place within COG/The Family. In particular, their discussion of previous and current membership statuses is useful. Shepherd and Shepherd explain that the newer category of “outside members” has been pivotal to the injection of new life into the movement. These members are individuals who are currently familiarizing themselves with the movement with a view to become part of a Family Home, those who subscribe to the movement’s publications, and those peripheral members who donate money to the group’s missionary efforts (p. 74). Concurrent with the expansion of this category of members is the development of churches, congregations, and pastoral positions for first-generation members. The authors note that this development is in stark contrast to Berg’s disdain for organized religion, particularly “Churchianity.” [25] Indeed, Shepherd and Shepherd note with interest that the very concept of “church” is assuming a more central role in COG/The Family’s evolution (p. 75).

Critically, “Family leaders are aware that membership expansion has the potential to diminish an intense sense of collective identity and core purpose” (p. 75). Hence, Maria and Peter have established The Family Board Vision, an administrative body comprising regional, national, and international boards, as well as councils. The purpose of this managerial network is to “oversee and approve policy recommendations” dealing with a range of issues including child rearing, adolescent guidance, home schooling, “church growth and missionary outreach programs,” monitoring of Family Homes, and “public relations” (p. 76). The authors identify the Board Vision as “a corporate model of organizational decision-making and control under the centralized authority and ultimate direction of Maria and Peter and their World Service advisors” (p. 77). Moreover, they analyze the ramifications of a bureaucratic structure such as this within the context of a movement that previously rejected some of these concepts. [26]

According to the authors, there are several sources of internal pressure. For example, a lack of “revolutionary motivation of the second generation,” change of leadership following Berg’s death, an aging first generation, and the failure of endtime prophecies to materialize. Moreover, accommodation to society has brought a weakening in commitment and belief so that Maria and Peter began distributing “retrenchment publications” and a number of mandates in order to instill and reaffirm some of the original characteristics and beliefs of the movement.

Shepherd and Shepherd have brought together a wealth of new material and insights on the current trajectory of COG/The Family that shall no doubt provide invaluable research information for others interested in the movement’s contemporary status (especially when one pairs this research with the new information that Bainbridge’s 2002 survey yielded).  

Conclusion

Early in this article, I commented on the wide range of research findings on COG/The Family, specifically the contradictory conclusions that sometimes emerge. As this article illustrates, however, despite the different research focuses, many concordant findings have surfaced also. In the following section, I address some areas in which there is consensus, and others where there is not.

Williams’ (1998) autobiographical account is a detailed description of FFing, a component of the movement’s history that all researchers acknowledge. Coupled with Chancellor’s (2000) analysis, a semantic puzzle emerges. Did FFing constitute prostitution or not? Clearly, Williams suggests that it did, while Chancellor remains unsure. Injecting a structural analysis, I suggested that, despite the religious framework and the women’s rationalization of the activity, the exchange of sexual activities for payment (both in cash and in goods and services) does indeed constitute prostitution, albeit for religious ends.

Williams Boeri (2005) speaks to this issue and others in her overview of the sexual socialization processes in the group. The process of socialization extends to members of the second generation—a particularly important part of the movement, given that they were born into the group; thus, they did not choose to live in this high-demand environment.

While Chancellor (2000), Kent and Hall (2000), and Kent (2004) recognise the severity of some of the disciplines and sexual abuses that the second generation endured, Chancellor’s account involves those who chose to remain in the group, while Kent and Hall’s covers the experiences of those who left. Despite the exodus of many of the second generation and the drop-out of first-generation members, the movement has survived. Shepherd and Shepherd (2005) describe and analyse the processes that have ensured the group’s continuance, one being the inclusion of the second generation in the decision-making hierarchy. From a combination of these readings, one can appreciate the variety of experiences of the second generation (both in the past, and at the present). It appears that although the movement has evolved such that the needs of the current second generation are being met, still deficient from the group’s history is adequate care and consideration for the traumas that some former members endured.

In 2002, long-time members of The Family, Lonnie Davis and Claire Borowik, presented a paper titled “The Family—1992–2002: A Decade of Transition” at a CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions) Conference. They outlined aspects of the movement’s history, including the recent organizational changes that Shepherd and Shepherd (2005) analyse.  They paid specific attention to some of the problems that these changes have engendered, particularly the struggle to achieve balance between individual autonomy for members and commitment to core group doctrines. Included too is a description of attempts by The Family to reconcile with former members, and a brief mention of the group’s “apology” to former members. Woefully absent is an explicit discussion of what the apology is for. Absent, too, is an adequate understanding and empathy for what some second-generation members endured and the consequences that have remained with many of them.

Prominent in Davis and Borowik’s (2002) presentation is their discussion of the series of raids that occurred in several communities of The Family around the world. Bainbridge (2002), Chancellor (2000), and Melton (2004) all discuss these raids in some detail, outlining their effects on members and their children. The mismanagement of the investigation into The Family homes has led many academics to strongly criticise them and to reveal some of the abuses they produced. Less evident is a discussion connecting COG/The Family violence against its own members to the ensuing raids, although Kent’s (2004) discussion does address this issue within the context of his discussion of second-generation defection from the movement. The raids had a great deal of influence on COG/The Family dynamics. Shepherd and Shepherd (2005) investigate what changes have occurred, and to what degree those changes have succeeded in directing The Family toward a viable future. Note that The Family conceptualizes the raids as part of the suffering one must endure as a dedicated follower of Christ (Davis and Borowik, 2002).

Bainbridge (2002) too has detailed the current characteristics of the group, although his conclusion that the group’s members are not that different from the general population is discordant from many of his own findings, and it does not concur with Maria and Peter’s goals for the group according to Shepherd and Shepherd’s (2005) analysis of current family objectives and strategies. Together, however, these two works provide an abundance of new information on the group, but both fail to adequately acknowledge prior abuses.

The Story of Davidito continues to generate different conclusions. Is this work largely a benign piece of childrearing literature, as Melton (2004:30) asserts, or did it sanction and encourage child adult sexual relationships, as Chancellor (2000:138) and Williams Boeri (1998:220-221; 2005:170-171 ) maintain? These different findings are part of a larger history of divisive scholarship on the group. For example, Zablocki and Robbins (2001b) suggest that policy considerations and legal testimonies act as polarizing agents among academics of NRMs.

Before Ricky Rodriguez killed Smith and himself, he made a video stating why he felt compelled to direct violence toward his abusers. Discussing his childhood sexual abuses and the anger he felt toward those who had molested him, he articulated his need for revenge, not just for himself, but also for all the other children who suffered because of the group’s policies. His estranged wife commented on his torment, citing that the many years of pain had left him unable to cope. At least 25 members of the first wave of the second generation have taken their own lives in the past 13 years (Goodstein, 2005). The Children of God/The Family has generated a good deal of negative popular press; but as this article shows, one must consider the many facets of this movement to come close to understanding the whole. Although more than two decades of research have brought to light many features of COG/The Family’s history, as Chancellor comments, The Family as it exists today is still a “secretive community” and “it may well be that there are yet secrets of Family life hidden from this study.” He adds to this observation, “What could they possibly be?”(Chancellor, 2000:xxii-xxiii).

Perhaps some former members are able to reveal some of these secrets. The Website movingon.org offers a space in which ex-members can both stay in touch with one another and offer each other support and advice. On this Website, additional accounts unheard in most academic literature emerge. Yet other ex-members likely remain silent, perhaps too embarrassed or ashamed to discuss their time spent in the movement. Some ex-members may simply want to put their past behind them, not wanting or not able to discuss the abuses they suffered. Yet others may have had positive life experiences in the group and merely left because they moved on to other things in life; perhaps they missed the freedoms of the outside world.

Like the scholarship of previous years, contemporary research on COG/The Family likely shall remain conflicted on certain issues. Some recent research provides evidence of change, though: Despite some shortcomings, Chancellor’s (2000) book alone examines the movement in a way that no other recent researchers have. [27] Navigating both the positive and negative facets of the group’s history, Chancellor has produced a more complete single analysis than any other academic. (Of course, journal articles and book chapters by their very nature typically focus on narrower topics.) Researchers of COG/The Family need to accept that the voices of the abused are just as important as the voices of those who experienced no abuse (or were abused, but managed to work through their pain to find new meaning in the group). Academics should consider that each person’s experience is different, that not all disciples were abusers, and not all children were abused. The group’s future, however, is not completely discrete from its past—and the movement’s past was at times highly abusive, leaving a legacy of pain and emotional turmoil for some former (and perhaps some current) members. The structural conditions of the group have at times encouraged and facilitated these abuses; but as some researchers have shown, these conditions have changed and continue to change. How the movement responds to the problems that Shepherd and Shepherd outline remains to be seen. The Family’s future likely shall continue to engage the interest of those scholars who have already dedicated much of their time to studying it. For new researchers to the field of NRMs generally, and to COG/The Family specifically, I hope this article helps to bring together some of the central themes of study thus far.

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[1]Notes

 For example, most of the major news networks carried the story. In addition, magazines such as Rolling Stone published lengthy accounts of the group’s history in relation to Rodriguez’s death (see Wilkinson, 2005).

[2] Flirty Fishing (FFing) was a practice whereby female members engaged in varying degrees of sexual contact with potential male recruits as a method of proselytization.

[3] Academic research on the movement began in the 1970s; thus, a large body of literature precedes the works that this article discusses. See, for example, Davis and Richardson (1976), Enroth, Ericson, and Breckinridge (1972), Kent (1994a), Kent (1994b), Lewis and Melton Eds (1994), Melton (1991), Wallis (1981), Wallis (1983), Van Zandt (1991), and Wangerin (1993).

[4] Williams Boeri (2005) discusses the sexual socialization process in detail.

[5] Of course, one might agree with Melton that FFing simply was a form of “evangelicalistic outreach” (Melton 1994b:74, 2004:13), or with Millikan, who frames his discussion of FFing in terms of “Women as Heroes” (Millikan, 1994:215–217). Note that Williams also did not initially find problem with the practice (Williams, 1998:96) until the effects of FFing began to take a toll on her both psychologically and physically.

[6] Berg termed contemporary society and the institutions that are a part of it the “System.” He named people who were a part of the System “Systemites.”

[7] See Bromley (1998) for a discussion of apostasy.

[8] Band homes housed the group’s musicians and dancers. Berg placed fewer restrictions on these homes because the members brought significant funds and positive attention to the movement. Williams provides a good account of one such home in France.

[9] Note that Williams does apply a critical feminist perspective in her 2002 article.

[10] The GSS is a data-gathering tool designed to garner American public opinion on a variety of domains of social life.

[11] For example, Bainbridge starts the book with an account of the raids on COG/The Family homes in Argentina, Australia, France, Spain, and Mexico. He raises some very important concerns about police brutality, criminal negligence, and the inappropriate separation of parents from their children. He does not discuss, however, COG/The Family’s abuses against children and adults in the movement; thus, we are left with a very unbalanced picture. A discussion of the events and circumstances that led up to the raids would have provided the uninformed reader with much-needed background information. Mishandling and mistreatment of adults and children are certainly not acceptable under any circumstances, but readers need to know the context of the raids, and that COG/The Family also has directed abuses at its own members. I return to a discussion of the raids in my review of J. Gordon Melton’s (2004) book. For Chancellor’s (2000) discussion of the raids, see pp. 195–204.

[12] The book is most likely designed to be an introductory text to the group. The publication is one of many brief texts that the Centre for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) has published in conjunction with Signature Books. It appears from the publication information that the book was first published in Italian. Melton (2000) has also produced a text on Scientology as part of this series.

[13] For an expansion of this discussion, see Melton (1994a).

[14] Note that Berg reviewed the topic of sexually transmitted diseases in the Mo Letter “Afflictions” (Berg, 1976a:4188–4219). In the letter, he claimed that he had considered stopping the practice of FFing because of the risks it posed to the women. As he contemplated the issue, however, he concluded that Jesus likely had contracted a venereal disease at some point, too; hence, there is no shame in it. He argued that just as Jesus suffered disease and, more importantly, crucifixion, the female disciples should continue to surrender their bodies, “even at the risk of afflictions!” (Berg, 1976a:4219). When the reality of venereal diseases became evident, Berg finally ordered an end to FFing.

[15] Note that although Melton’s book first appeared in Italian in 1997, this edition is published in 2004; thus, opportunities for revisions existed.

[16] Noted sociologist Roy Wallis (who researched extensively both COG/The Family and Scientology) commented on his Scientology research, “Had I wished for an analysis of the content of the documents, I would have conducted a content analysis. But something said only once in a body of documentation may have as much influence on organizational and individual behaviour as something said a thousand times” (Wallis, 1977:vii).

[17] Other contemporary accounts comment also on the group’s countercultural appeal to idealistic youth when they discuss the group’s early history and conversion motifs (for example, Chancellor, 2002:38–39, 41, 54; Williams, 1998:25), as have others in the past (for example, Bromley and Newton, 1994:42; Davis with Davis, 1984, pp. 36–43; Wallis, 1981:98–100; Wangerin, 1993).

[18] Miriam Williams Boeri is Miriam Williams’ (1998) married name.

[19] See Kent (1994b) for one perspective on Berg’s own sexuality.

[20] Note that Stephen Kent (2001b) integrated components of this article in his contribution to Zablocki and Robbins’ edited volume, Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field (2001a).

[21] Prior research favourable to the brainwashing thesis includes Kent (2001a), Kent (2001b), Scheflin and Opton (1978), Singer and Lalich (1995), and Zablocki (2001). For research critical of the brainwashing model, see Anthony (1990), Anthony (2001), Bromley (2001), and Dawson (2001). For a brief history of some key court cases in which brainwashing theory has played a role, see Melton (2002).

[22] Note that Chancellor (2000:180) rejects the brainwashing hypothesis and instead uses the term “indoctrination” on several occasions (pp. 58, 210, and 244). He does not define indoctrination.

[24] Note that The Love Charter still includes some controversial material in terms of child sexuality. For example, the Mo Letter “The Devil Hates Sex!” is still “priority reading” (The Family, 1995:205). This publication contains a dialogue between Berg and his mistress, Maria, in which they discuss societal taboos against incest. Maria states, “Well, we’ll just have to tell the kids that it’s not prohibited by God...” (Berg, 1980:7696). After a brief discussion, Berg adds, “I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL AGE HAS GOT TO DO WITH IT” (Berg, 1980:7697).

[25] Likely a play on the word “Christianity,” Berg coined the term “Churchianity” as a derogative way to refer to mainstream, traditional religion.

[26] For a discussion of COG/The Family’s early organizational structure, see Davis and Richardson (1976).

[27] From the earlier body of academic scholarship, Van Zandt’s Living in The Children of God (1991) is a comprehensive and balanced account. Van Zant spent a month undercover as a member in the 1970s, then spent several more months researching the group, with its permission.

Acknowledgements

I would like to extend my thanks to Jeffrey Kaplan for his time, consideration, and guidance during the preparation of this article.  I would like also to thank Paul Joose and Matt Unger for proofreading and suggestions.  Finally, I am indebted to the Stephen A. Kent Collection on Alternative Religions (housed at the University of Alberta) for access to original COG/The Family publications.