Time Magazine: Whose Children?

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Whose Children?

Time Magazine/1972-01-24

Jesus did not always speak of love. In his harsher moments, he reminded his disciples that he had come to bring not peace but a sword. He predicted that he would set son against father, daughter against mother. Christianity has often explained those "dark sayings" as angry hyperbole or simple pessimism about the acceptance of his revolutionary teachings, but from time to time a hard core of believers has chosen to take the Nazarene at his grimmest word. The latest group to do so is a controversial sect of young Christians who call themselves, with grand self-righteousness, the Children of God.

The name is meant to describe their single-minded determination to "forsake all" for God—family, friends and personal belongings. The Children of God are the storm troopers of the Jesus Revolution (TIME cover, June 21), its most forceful and most criticized zealots. Though the membership numbers only about 2,000 worldwide, it is vigorous and farflung: about 60 colonies are scattered from Seattle to Essen, Germany, from Jerusalem to Viet Nam. A London colony founded a few months ago has already sent missionaries to Stockholm, Oslo, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, Amsterdam and Brussels. Liberia is the next target.

Woe! Woe! The Children attack all worldly society with the fierce zeal of the Weatherman, using the cherished King James Bible as their proof text. They demand a strictly communal life as practiced by the early Christians according to the Book of Acts ("they held everything in common"). They avoid work except as it relates to their own communes, lest their members be forced to choose between God and mammon. Yet they badger businessmen to support them with handouts of money and supplies, while raging against a sinful America and proclaiming its—and the world's—imminent doom. In their most apocalyptic moments, they dress in red sackcloth (a sign of warning), daub themselves with ashes, put yokes around their necks. With the prophet's traditional staff, they stand silent vigils in public places, breaking their silence only to utter an occasional "Woe! Woe!"

Such theatrics might seem merely eccentric to Americans if they came from, say, an exotic sect such as Hare Krishna. When they are presented in the name of Christianity, however, people who consider themselves good churchgoing Christians resent the purer-than-thou attitude—and the appeal it seems to hold for their children. Nonetheless, the group in some cases has had more success than parents in winning young people from drugs, casual sex and drifting. They also have potent precedents in St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas, both of whom had to break with their families over their vocations.

Some of the most vehement parental critics in California banded together in an organization called the Parents' Committee to Free Our Children from the Children of God—a movement that has since spread to other parts of the country. The parents' group charges, among other things, that the Children stoop to kidnaping, hypnotizing and even drugging to keep youngsters in the sect. The outcry has driven many of the Children from California; Ted Patrick, a San Diego aide to Governor Ronald Reagan, has accused them of trying to "destroy the United States."

Not exactly turning the other cheek, the Children have slapped four leaders of the parents' group with a $1,100,000 suit for libel and slander, and have brought a $300,000 suit against Texas officials and a mother for allegedly railroading one 18-year-old member into a mental institution.

While there seems to be no hard evidence of kidnaping, drugging or genuine hypnotism so far, a broader charge of "brainwashing" may be closer to the truth, at least in the sense of relentless exposure to the sect's propaganda. At special communes for "babes" (new converts), the apprentice memorizes the requisite Bible passages by reading them aloud while simultaneously listening to them on tape. Bible texts also blare from loudspeakers all day long. Each new convert takes a biblical name, usually from the Old Testament (Caleb, Shadrach, Deborah), and drops his old name as a remnant of the past.

None except the "elders"—experienced Children who apparently "grow" into authority—goes anywhere alone. Married couples share rooms within the commune, but single members are rigidly separated in male and female dormitories. Letters to and from home are censored by the elders. Many of the Children insist that the rigorous life is necessary to prepare themselves for the Communist takeover that they expect to come before doomsday.

The beginnings of the Children are already obscured by legend. The core of initial apostles seems to have gathered around a fundamentalist preacher named David Berg, now in his fifties, his four children and their mates in 1967-68. As Teens for Christ, they built up a small group of followers in California, where one of their early—and since abandoned —tactics was to disrupt services at local churches. In 1969, after Berg had a vision of imminent earthquake, about 50 of the band embarked on a period of wandering, during which, legend has it, they had to eat grass to survive.

Berg, who had once worked for TV Evangelist J. Fred Jordan, soon secured the use of Jordan's Texas and California properties for the Children of God, as they had come to call themselves. In return, Jordan displayed the youngsters, most of them in their late teens and 20s, in his televised fund-raising pitches. The arrangement lasted about a year and a half. An argument over the properties precipitated a clash, and Jordan ordered the Children off his land last September.

The Children have won over two important figures in the broader Jesus movement: David Hoyt, of Atlanta's street ministries, and Linda Meissner, of Seattle's Jesus People Army. Both apparently decided that their own methods were not producing enough lasting converts; Hoyt pointedly blamed his "watered-down Gospel." When he entered the Children of God, he took many of the Atlanta Jesus People with him. Linda Meissner, however, took far fewer of her Jesus People Army along—and indeed the feud between the mainstream Army (including Linda's husband John Salvesen) and her splinter group has scandalized Seattle's Jesus People.

Founder Berg, under his sect name of Moses, regularly produces a patriarchal stream of crotchety, sometimes profane "Mo-letters" advising his far-flung Children on everything from visa restrictions to buying a boat. A growing consciousness of publicity may modify the Children's behavior in the future —as it has apparently begun to do. To offset attacks by parents, the colonies sent members home for the holidays; while quite a few stayed home, many returned more zealous than before. Berg has also discouraged clashes with other Jesus People.

Not all families, for that matter, are disappointed with the results the Children of God produce. Ed Rees, vice president for public relations of the Flying Tiger Line in Los Angeles, watched his son drift from medical studies into drugs, and finally into the Children sect. Rees still finds "a depressing sameness" in the members, "either sucking up this excessive religion or spitting it out," but he also allows that "they are totally without guile, without games. They really believe. They are prepared to die." So far, however, the question is whether they are prepared to live more fully in the world if doomsday does not come as expected.