The Children of God: Fewer and Far Out
by Joseph M. Hopkins
Correspondent Joseph M. Hopkins filed this report, updating information on the Children of God, a radical sect that emerged from the fringes of the Jesus movement in the late 1960s. Hopkins has written numerous articles (issue of Feb. 24, 1978, p. 44) and a book about the group.
"Moses" David Berg cites persecution as the reason for strategy and organizational changes in the Children of God. "The system is out to get us, and they are driving us from the streets," complained Berg, 60, the founder-leader of the small, but international group.
In an "MO Letter" dated December 31, 1978, Berg told his disciples, "Beloved, we have had our good years! - our fat years and our famous years!... I believe that we’re now entering into our worldwide persecution lean years! Jonestown is their excuse to attack all the cults, and the cults are their excuse to attack us! Because there is not one of them that preaches Christ like we do."
Berg, who two years ago renamed the group "Family of Love", has ordered COG members into newly-formed small groups - "for security, smaller families more difficult to find." His new strategy calls for door-to-door witnessing, peddling cult literature, organizing home Bible studies, and pushing the Worldwide Mail Ministry.
He also called for stepping up the "Flirty Fishing" outreach to older men who are lonely and sufficiently affluent. (Under the Flirty Fishing policy, COG members use sex to win a hearing for the gospel. Their sexual contacts are asked for money "gifts", which COG members give to their church.)
In a bitter blast at the news media last May, Berg revealed the firing in 1978 of 300 COG leaders. He said, "You (media) can’t hurt us anymore! We’ve already disbanded.... Go to Hell where you belong! We’re on our way to heaven in spite of you! Thank God."
Hundreds of family members have defected. From January 1978 to May 1979, total membership fell from 8,068 to 4,958; the number of live-in adults dropped from 3,650 to 3,259. (The number of children increased slightly from 1,451 to 1,699.) Despite the exodus, Berg exulted, "Our worldwide Mail Ministry is absolutely booming at the rate of ... 300 new members per month." The October Family News reported 6,700 "workers" in 83 countries.
A former top COG executive believes those figures are inflated. He estimates that only about 1,000 hard-core disciples remain. Literature distribution plummeted from a high of 8 million pieces per month to 3 million by December 1978 and to 1.5 million by August 1979. Last May Berg chided his followers, "Our world income is off over 25 percent this year."
Casualties of the 1978 purge included Berg’s daughter Linda ("Queen Debbie") and her ex-husband ("Jethro") , together with their present spouses Bill ("Isaiah") and Melissa ("Joy"). Deborah (now Linda’s legal name) had pioneered a number of schools for COG children, six in Italy alone. Jethro has instituted and administrated the group’s computerized accounting system. Isaiah and Berg’s son Jonathan ("Hosea") had launched the sect’s monthly pictorial New Nation News. Melissa, daughter of former senior vice-president John Moody of Mobil Oil, gained national attention when in 1971 she married David "Michael" Senek, a Newton Falls, Ohio COG convert. The two couples now are living in the U.S. Berg banished them from South America. Barbara Kaliher Cancaro ("Queen Rachel") was the heir apparent to "King" David’s throne until her defection several months ago. Mike Sweeney ("Timothy Concerned") assumed Rachel’s leadership post, only to be axed a short time later when he refused to sign a "MO Letter" defaming Rachel. He and his wife Debbie ("Cornia") now are involved in social work in Europe.
Recent castoffs are Berg’s legal wife Jane ("Mother Eve") and her consort Stephen Ferguson ("Stephen David"). Jane and a team of disciples spent the past few years ministering to Arabs in North Africa, southern France, and the Mediterranean island of Malta, where last spring she was granted an audience with Libyan dictator Muammar El Qaddafi.
In an open letter last February to Qaddafi, a long-time COG booster, Berg shared his pleasure over the ouster of the Shah of Iran. Berg is rumored to be hiding out in Switzerland, although he wrote Qaddafi that he could be reached in Madrid. COG world publication headquarters has been moved from Rome to Zurich.
Bizarre aberrations continue surfacing in the "MO Letters". The letters are extolled by their author as "God’s word for today," and therefore of greater relevance than "God’s word for yesterday," the Bible. In Berg’s latest revelations:
- The Trinity consists of Father, Mother and Son. The female member, the Holy Spirit, is described as the "Holy Queen of Love" and is portrayed by an artist as a beautiful, near-naked woman.
- Homosexuality and oral sodomy are acceptable under certain conditions as being "within the limits of the love of God".
- Children conceived through Flirty Fishing are called "Jesus Babies." Childhood sex is encouraged. A recent "MO Letter" contains an explicit photograph of the practice. Berg relates that he was introduced to the oral sex at the age of three by a "little Mexican girl" babysitter. (This perhaps is a clue to his early and lifelong obsession with sex.)
In an interview, Berg’s daughter Deborah attested growing up in a wholesome Christian home. However, it is no secret that in recent years Berg became deeply involved with wine, the occult, and women (he has admitted in print that he and his mistress "Maria" have been inflicted with venereal disease). What went wrong? How did this apparently authentic Christian ministry get off track?
A former high-ranking leader theorized that Berg fell victim to delusions of self-importance, and power, of divinely conferred authority, and of messianic identity and mission. Like the late Jim Jones, Berg submitted to no higher authority, but forced his authority upon his disciples, while demanding total obedience.
A former top COG executive says COG is not a potential People’s Temple - mainly because cult members are dispersed throughout the world. But there are many parallels, including: supplanting biblical revelations with cult teaching; sexual and financial exploitation; manipulation of minds, bodies, spirits stifling of dissent; paranoid hatred, suspicion, and fear of "outsiders"-and preoccupation with death. (In letters to Qaddafi and to his followers Berg has alluded to the approaching end of his earthly ministry and to "sweet release to a new world and a new life!")