FAMILY, THE . The religious movement that calls itself "the Family" (though it has also been called the Children of God since its inception) began in the 1960s as the ministry of a particular family and the related musical evangelism called Teens for Christ. Positioning itself in radical opposition to the mainstream churches, which it scorned as worldly "churchianity," it rapidly recruited young adults from the 1960s counterculture and spread beyond its origins in the United States to establish communes around the world. Its visibility made it a target both for secularists aligned with the psychotherapy movement and for some conventional Christians who assumed its unusually high levels of member commitment were caused by brainwashing. Thus, members of the Family were the first victims of forcible "deprogramming," and over a period of years fully six hundred of the group's children were seized by authorities, inadvertently traumatized by their captivity, then returned after the legal basis for holding them proved spurious. The Family remains an intriguing challenge for scholars and social scientists, because it claims to be authentically Christian yet rejects the standard denominations' limits on erotic and spiritual communion, practicing a form of free love and professing to communicate on a regular basis with Jesus and with deceased persons.
David Brandt Berg, founder of the Family and variously called Moses David or Father David, was the grandson of John Lincoln Brandt, a leader in the Disciples of Christ, and the son of Virginia Brandt Berg, a radio evangelist and faith healer in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, part of the Holiness movement. After serving as a minister of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Arizona, Father David worked for a decade in the Soul Clinic, a Pentecostal movement. A break with the Soul Clinic and a "Warning Prophecy" channeled by his mother at the end of 1967 delivered Berg and his family to Huntington Beach, near Los Angeles, where they encountered the hippie movement.
A cultural historian might say the Family was an amalgam of the Holiness movement and the hippie movement, both of which stressed intense, intimate spiritual experiences. However, this analysis may be too facile, because not all the new recruits could be described as hippies and much of the religious inspiration came from the personal experiences of Father David rather than merely reflecting his denominational background. For example, from its formative period in California, the Family has always been profoundly millenarian, yet Father David had no connections to Adventism, and his Holiness tradition was not millenarian. Possibly inspired by the quite different millenarian quality of the hippie movement and the revolutionary anarchism of the associated New Left, Father David studied the books of Daniel and Revelation to develop his own perspective on the imminence of the apocalypse.
Soon Father David's growing movement was staging colorful public protests, marching in red robes while pounding seven-foot staves on the ground in tempo with shouts of "Woe!" or arguing with ministers of conventional churches during their sermons. A few horrified parents sought the aid of Ted Patrick and other deprogrammers to rescue their sons and daughters from the group, thereby giving birth to the American anticult movement. In 1970 Father David flew to Israel for a temporary visit (his subsequent whereabouts were usually secret, but outside the United States), and his followers began moving first into Europe and then across Asia and Latin America. The highly committed membership living in communes and supporting themselves entirely through missionary work and donations reached ten thousand in 1983 and remained at about that level through the remainder of the twentieth century.
The Law of Love
After a celibate period during its formation, the Family developed a theology that endorsed giving erotic satisfaction to other people and sharing sexual experiences beyond marriage with the consent of all parties. In 1969, in a tract called "Scriptural, Revolutionary Love-Making," Father David argued that the biblical Song of Solomon was sacred instruction for sexual intercourse. From other parts of the Bible (for example, Matt. 22:36–40; Gal. 5:14, 22–23; Titus 1:15) he derived the Law of Love: that any harmless sexual act can be good if performed in God's love and with the agreement of those people involved. In 1974, while living in Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Father David developed a new method of witnessing for Jesus, called "flirty-fishing" or "Ffing," in which women of the group offered themselves sexually to selected nonmember men as samples of the Lord's love.
Over the next few years this practice spread to many, but by no means all, of the far-flung communes and became a significant part of the group's relationship with the surrounding world (in some geographic areas more than others) before being abandoned in 1987. Some former members claim they were sexually exploited during this period, but their testimonies are somewhat lacking in detail, and the central organization has generally had difficulty imposing policies on the highly dispersed local groups except through example and exhortation. Interviews by social scientists with women who had engaged in flirty-fishing reveal a variety of relationships with the men involved, and many of them seem to have been sincere supporters of the group. By one internal estimate, 200,000 men received flirty-fishing, but only a vanishingly small fraction became committed members afterward.
In the 1990s, strict rules were instituted to limit sexual contact outside the Family and, at times, even outside the particular communal group. Perhaps in compensation for these limitations, insiders were encouraged to share erotically beyond the married dyad. A questionnaire was administered to 1,025 members of the Family in 1997, based on items from the General Social Survey that had earlier been administrated to a random sample of American adults. One battery of items inquired about various sexual relationships, including, "What about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than his or her husband or wife?" (Bainbridge, 2002, p. 125). Of American adults, 78 percent said this would always be wrong, compared with only 1 percent of members of the Family.
Ritual, in the conventional sense of the term, is almost completely absent in the Family, except for giving thanks at meals and occasional spontaneous communion experiences within a home (in spontaneous communion somebody will, on impulse, suggest passing a cup of wine with prayers). Ritual's function is taken by various forms of emotional sharing among members, including not only eroticism but also an extensive repertoire of member-created music, a vast internal literature provided by the central organization, and (since the death of Father David in 1994) a remarkable flood of explicit communications that members believe they receive directly from the supernatural.
During the years he led the Family, Father David claimed to be in constant communication both with Jesus and with lesser spirit guides. The core leadership who lived with him accepted these claims and fully expected to receive his gift of prophecy after his passing. To their surprise, at first they had difficulty receiving messages from the spirit world, but prayer, experimentation, and patience eventually prevailed.
In general, established religious organizations discourage their membership from engaging in direct communication with the supernatural, reserving this function either for the priesthood or for ancient prophets of bygone days. The Family, however, encouraged all members to receive prophecies. The 1997 survey of members found that 95 percent "received prophecy, visions, or messages from the spirit world" (Bainbridge, 2002, p. 81). Interviews with members revealed that individuals mean a great variety of things by prophecy —all the way from literally seeing and hearing the voice of Jesus or a deceased relative to a vague intuitive sense of communion or guidance.
Members frequently write up the prophetic messages they receive and send them to the central organization, which is called World Services. It publishes selected examples within the group. Some of these messages ostensibly come from recently deceased loved ones, who report they are extremely happy in the afterlife, which grieving believers find quite comforting. Remarkably, other messages have been entire posthumous works of literature attributed to deceased authors of the past, including William Shakespeare, C. S. Lewis, and Sir Walter Scott.
The Family believes that the world has entered the end-time, and members frequently compare biblical passages with the latest news, identifying what may be signs and portents of the coming end. Although for a time they speculated about whether the antichrist might possibly establish his world government around 1985 or 1986, they have never confidently set a date, and they do not accept early Adventist traditions that it is possible to deduce the date through close analysis of the Bible. The group's image of the millennium and the paradise to follow is quite detailed, asserting, for example, that the holy city, New Jerusalem, will be a pyramid fifteen hundred miles along each edge. According to the beliefs of the group, all true members and others who sincerely accepted Jesus as their savior will be resurrected in spiritual bodies, enjoying all the pleasures of the flesh but suffering no sin.
For the first quarter century of its existence, the Family expected the consummation of the end-time at any moment. When members first began having children, they did not imagine the children would have the time to grow up. As the years passed, they began educating the children at home rather than enter schools operated by the detested "system." Second-generation adult respondents to the 1997 survey reported, on average, a total of ten years of home schooling but only one year of schooling outside the home, and 63 percent said they had never attended a non-Family school. This survey also revealed that only 3 percent of members have full-time jobs, other than their missionary work with the Family, and thus the overwhelming majority look toward the future not in terms of a secular career but in terms of saving souls in preparation for the end-time.
Over the years the Family has been able to maintain what sociologists call high tension with the surrounding sociocultural environment, living apart from the institutions of secular society and estranged from the conventional churches. It has done so by periodically launching revivals it calls revolutions and by refusing to compromise with the ambient culture. By placing high demands on membership, it sustains commitment but makes it difficult for people to join. The scholars and social scientists who have followed the Family over its history agree that it entered the twenty-first century facing some difficulty in keeping second-generation members as they enter adulthood and in preventing local schisms. The cultural milieu in which it was formed, California of the late 1960s, is long past, but comparable recruitment episodes may arise in one or more of the roughly ninety nations in which the Family's missionaries are seeking to save souls. Thus it is impossible to predict how much longer the Family will be able to sustain its revolutionary ministry.
There is no evidence that members of the Family consider that the continued existence of the sinful world contradicts their millenarian prophecies. Rather, the sin and misery of life on earth prove to them that each person must urgently accept Jesus. They note that the world does end for the thousands of people who die every day, and they stress that each person should not waste a single day further. In their worldwide ministry they tend to measure success in terms of the many people who kneel in prayer with them to let Jesus into their hearts, not in terms of recruits to Family membership. Social scientists have found the Family to be a veritable treasure trove of research challenges, and it will be interesting to see whether historians and theologians also benefit by studying this radical movement over the coming decades.
Bainbridge, William Sims. The Sociology of Religious Movements. New York, 1997. This general text on religious movements contains a chapter about the Family based on interviews and observation.
Bainbridge, William Sims. The Endtime Family: Children of God. Albany, N.Y., 2002. A study of the contemporary group largely based on a questionnaire completed by 1,025 members.
Chancellor, James D. Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God. Syracuse, N.Y., 2000. A scholarly study based on interviews and extensive observation.
Davis, Rex, and James T. Richardson. "The Organization and Functioning of the Children of God." Sociological Analysis 37 (1976): 321–339. An early examination of the group by social scientists.
Lewis, James R., and J. Gordon Melton, eds. Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating the Family/Children of God. Stanford, Calif., 1994. A collection of essays by scholars from various academic disciplines.
Patrick, Ted, with Tom Dulak. Let Our Children Go! New York, 1976. A book by the professional deprogrammer who first tried to deconvert members.
Van Zandt, David E. Living in the Children of God. Princeton, N.J., 1991. An early descriptive account.
Wallis, Roy. Salvation and Protest. New York, 1979. This book contains a section on the early group.
Williams, Miriam. Heaven's Harlots: My Fifteen Years as a Sacred Prostitute in the Children of God Cult. New York, 1998. A personal memoir, apparently packaged by the publisher to emphasize controversial aspects.
William Sims Bainbridge (2005)