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The Children of God - Gottfried Oosterwal

1. Stories about the Children of God (COG) continue to make headlines in the press and the media. "Parents Fight Cults to Save Children," reads one of those recent headlines. "Freedom of Religion Suppressed," read another. There are stories of brainwashings and deprogramming, reports of kidnapping and rescue missions, but also testimonies of communal happiness and "festivals of love."

From a wandering band of about fifty young disciples in 1968, the COG have grown to a "Family of Love" of nearly 9,000 members today (1978), inc1uding nearly 4,000 adults. From a loose assortment of society-dropouts in California. the movement developed into a rigidly structured communion of believers with "homes" ("colonies") in 73 countries of the world. And though defections are on the increase, so is their membership and geographic expansion, especially in Europe and South America.

Who are these Children of God, or this "Family of Love," as they call themselves now? The story of the new religious movements is to a large extent the story of their founders and leaders. This is particularly true for the founder and leader of the COG, David Brandt Berg, "God's mouthpiece," as his followers call him. "He is our prophet, Moses and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel all in one, the king of God's nation on earth." With "his Mo-letters (from Moses, the name he says God Himself has given him), Berg rules his kingdom absolutely and exerts total control over the "family's" life, from the way people dress to w hat they eat to how often they may have sex and with whom. The Children of God, though they call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ, are first and foremost "servants of King David." His prophecies and special revelations determine their lifestyle and beliefs, their relationships with others, and their goal in life. They are, in fact, the very principle by which they live, the only true criterion also, by which the Bible is interpreted.

2. In his book, Survival! the True Story of Moses and the Children of God, David Berg says of himself: "During the first years of my life"--he was born on February 18, 1919, in Melrose, Oakland, California--"there was little to indicate that greater things were about to happen, except some strange prophecies." By these he means: "It was said that I would achieve many great things and several of these are already fulfilled ... There were prophecies claiming that I would become like Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and even David in the task set before me by God." Berg's family was poor, all the time living in old cars, tents, and caravans, while travelling as itinerant missionaries through the U.S. and Canada. David, bright, and a real bookworm, was a rather sensitive and somewhat dreamy child, who "loved to be alone," spending "hours and days in studying the beauty and miracles in God's nature and in listening to His silent voice, which explained what I saw." The poverty, prayer, and prophecy in his home left an indelible impression on him. They are still the hallmark of the Children of God.

In 1941, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, David is drafted for military service. He is soon dismissed, however, "as completely unfit" for any form of service because of a serious heart trouble. In fact, David was so ill when he left the army that doctors expected him to die at any moment. "I earnestly prayed to God," David would write later. And "when I finally promised God to serve Him truthfully all my life if He would save my heart, I was cured immediately like an answer to prayer." He immediately rose from his deathbed, against the wishes of his family, and began a full-time career as an evangelist. Ordained by the "Christian and Missionary Alliance," Berg first worked in Valley Farm, Arizona, where he raised a whole new church. Berg looks back at these experiences with rather mixed emotions. There were tensions in his church: racial tensions between Mexicans, Indians, and white Southerners; tensions between the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated. Berg's "radical preaching"--Christ chose the poor of this earth--and his "policy of integration"--we are all one in Jesus Christ--brought him into conflict with the leaders of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. He dropped out of that organization with feelings of bitterness and contempt for all institutionalized religion and clerical structures. Here he was: a preacher, with a lot of zeal, but without much training; a family of four children, but no place to live and without income or support from anyone. For even a large number of his own parishioners had turned against him after his church had fired him. This experience, and his strong conviction that "the clerical system was ineffective, contrary to the Bible and politically corrupt," made him turn against the church. "I got so enraged, bitter and sick with the whole hypocritical church system," Berg writes, "that I nearly became a communist."

3. The G.I. Bill made it possible for him to go to college, where he "mainly studied socialism and communism." He soon realized, however, that "the so-called altruistic aims of these political systems never could be reached without the love of God in the hearts of men, which we find in the genuine communion of the first church, and which was only effective through the power of the Spirit of God!" Berg also came to the conclusion, however, that a "democratic system of government will never be able to produce a perfect rule, complete peace on earth, a just economy, a healthy ecology, God-fearing education or a just religion." This will be accomplished only when Jesus returns to establish His kingdom under the authoritative government of "King Jesus." Berg became convinced that the Second Coming of Christ is very near. The signs of His coming abound everywhere: the waves of secularism and ungodliness, the increase in crime and hypocrisy and greed, the rise of ungodly totalitarian systems of government, and the inability of the churches and of organized religion to help people to cope with these satanic influences and powers, and to prepare them for the soon coming of Christ. Berg felt a call from God to do something about this situation: to warn the churches, denounce the evil structures, proclaim a new message of hope and love, and to call the honest children of God out of the confusion of this world to prepare them for a new world to come.

Between the late 1940's and 1968, when the movement started, Berg claims to have received several special revelations that prepared him for his mission. These started with the "Key of David," a reference to Revelation 3:7,8: "The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens. I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut; I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name." Berg heard in these words a clear call to his special mission, and a rejection of the churches who in practice and in thought had denied the name of God. In 1952 he received the "Call of Ezekiel," and in 1962 the "Message of Jeremiah." In this latter revelation, Berg claims that God has given him "the last warning message" to a doomed nation and the prophetic calling to prepare a special people to meet its soon coming Lord.

About the same time, Berg's mother, the former radio evangelist Virginia Brandt Berg, also received some special revelations concerning the last-day events, especially about the confusion in the world that would precede the coming of Christ. In 1966 she prophesied that her son had been favored with "the understanding of Daniel," a reference to the prophetic-historical events mentioned in this Old Testament book, and to the times in which they would be fulfilled (the 2,300 days, the 70 weeks, the 3.5 months, etc.).

In 1968, at the urging of his mother, David Berg moved to Huntington Beach, California, to start his work among hippies, drug freaks, and other drop-outs from society. In Berg's own words: "The Jesus revolution started with a gang of wild, red radicals from some of the lowest strata of human society, our time's most despised generation."

4. Berg won a following: first slowly, then swelling to a real movement which centers in the apocalyptic message of "the soon coming of Christ, the end of the world, the evils of our present materialistic, individual-oriented society, the degeneration of the conventional churches, and the call to become separate from these decadent structures and organizations to form a new Family of Love. To that end, the new believers had to "forsake all" and follow "God's chosen vessel," David Berg, God's prophet for this time. After having received a revelation that California would soon slide into the ocean as a result of a great earthquake, Berg left the state with a group of about fifty followers. For several months they traveled across the United States and Canada, as Berg's parents once did before, witnessing to their new-found faith and demonstrating their new fellowship of love. It was during this period that the followers of Berg began to call themselves Children of God, a name first used by a journalist and then adopted by them.

In 1969, already, the Children of God held their first congress. It took place in Laurentide, near Montreal, where the group became organized into a well-structured religious communion, with bishops and elders, ministers and shepherds. Berg himself adopted the name "Moses David"--Mo, for short--and became the great prophet-king-shepherd of the rapidly expanding movement.

In a way, the success of the movement is still a bit puzzling. The young people attracted to the organization literally have to "forsake all": their job, their studies, their home, their parents, their relatives, their friends. They live together in communes--"colonies" was the word used until it was recently changed to "homes"--and hand over all their worldly possessions to the elders and bishops. When a young person joins the COG, he or she signs the statement: "I promise to give all my goods and income, let you open my mail, obey rules and officers." That statement is part of a much larger application form, in which the COG describe themselves as "revolutionary Christian nomads," who are "bypassing the hopeless, unresponsive, older generation and church people and bringing 'new-time religion' to a new 'now generation'!" The statement continues: "We have declared war of the Spirit on the system's godless schools, Christian churches, and heartless Mammon: We long to return to the Truth, Love, Peace and Beauty of our ancients in dress, customs, appearance, and the simple Life of True Happiness in God and love for our fellow man!" This total surrender of their possessions and personhood has led to strongly polarized reactions: on the one hand, the "FREECOG," the "Parents' Committee to Free Our Sons and Daughters from the Children of God," which claims that their children have been brainwashed and are kept in physical and mental "slavery." On the other hand, a group emerged which calls itself "THANKCOG," consisting of parents and others who praise the COG for w hat they have done for their sons and daughters. "From a junky and dope addict," writes one father, "they have made my son a child of God." "Formerly depressed and withdrawn, selfish and suicidal," writes another parent, "my daughter turned in to a happy, beautiful, joyful gal."

Initially, this praise came from various sources. The youngsters who were attracted by the movement--usually in their late teens and early twenties--came from the fringes of the American, white, middle-class society: dope addicts, loners, runaways, etc. In the COG they became "whole beings" again, with love and peace and joy in their hearts. In these early years of their existence, the COG were in the forefront of the Jesus Movement. TV evangelist G.F. Jordan used them in his Los Angeles TV program, "Church in the Home," a smiling, happy-looking group of people. Jordan allowed the COG to live on the properties he owned in Thurber, Texas, and in Los Angeles and Coachella, California. These ranches became widely known as the Tex as Soul Clinic and the American Soul Clinic. In October 1971, however, conflicts over finances and the administrative control over these properties led to a fall-out between Berg and Jordan. The Lefkowitz report--named after Louis Lefkowitz, the New York Attorney General who investigated charges against the COG--speaks only of a controversy over finances. Berg himself explains, however, that the money Jordan earned came from contributions given to the COG and that Jordan, therefore, was not entitled to the sole ownership of the Texas and California properties. The result of the conflict was, however, that the COG were ordered off Jordan's properties to become wanderers again, setting up "colonies" wherever people let them and were willing to donate goods and money. It was at this time that the idea arose to establish regular "Christian homes" for the Children of God, not only in America, but all over the world. In 1972, already, the movement spread to England, and from there to the continent of Europe. Today the COG have some 850 "homes" in 73 countries of the world. In fact, the majority of David Berg's followers is now found outside of the United States, where the movement first began. Even Berg himself is no longer residing here, but keeps his headquarters in Europe (Italy).

5. What is it that attracts people to the COG? Many observers think it is the aggressive witnessing of the group, and especially the "Flirty Fish" approach suggested in Berg's Mo-letter "Flirty, Flirty, Little Fishy." In this letter Moses David advises his disciples to "go to bed ... if necessary" with potential converts or donors in an "all-out effort" to "win their souls for Jesus." It cannot be denied that "The Look of Love"--from another Mo-letter--and other special "sexual approaches" do indeed attract a number of potential converts. But that is a partial answer only to the question: "What causes the rapid spread of the movement?" especially in light of the fact that the believers also have to give up so many (other) things. Moreover, the "sexual approach" in recruiting members is far from universal, and it occurs rather infrequently. Reports from converts tell another story: "I joined the COG because they gave me a new goal and a new meaning in life," is the answer of some. Others say: "The thing that attracted roe to the COG was their love and happiness, their genuine care and their warm fellowship." These two reasons stand out very clearly: People are finding a new meaning of life, and the warm fellowship with others.

The directives given in the Mo-letters apply to every detail of a person's life, from the brushing of teeth to the kind of clothing one should wear to one's relationships with other people. Almost nothing is left to the individual's own decision. "Mental control," some observers shout; "Nazi methods," "brainwashing." "For the first time in my life I really feel secure," others say. "I know where I am going; I know what I am living for." Rules in the "homes" are strict, indeed, and life seems rigidly ordered and regimented: wash-up time, early morning prayers, meditation, memorization of Mo-letters, breakfast, Bible reading, study, and meditation, preparation for witnessing, "litnessing" (the COG's word for witnessing-fund-raising-evangelism and dispensing of literature), dinner, classes, "home" service of various kinds (cooking, cleaning, etc.), prayers and meditation.

Life progresses according to definite rules: The new convert enters as a "babe," and is given certain routines to perform. After three months one enters the stage of L.T., leadership training. And if a person does well as a leader, he can climb up to higher ministerial positions. "Doing well" here means: excelling in handing out literature, fund-raising and witnessing, memorizing Scripture and Mo-letters, strictly obeying the rules of the home, not doubting the teachings and counsels of the elders and bishops, and bringing others into the Family of Love.

Life in the Family is a total experience. Most converts think that they have gained far more than they have given up, even if giving up means surrendering one's possessions and ambitions. For, by doing so, the COG claim that they have not only found real joy and happiness, peace and love. They have found themselves in the fellowship with others. "We are just one big family, all brothers and sisters, loving each other and caring for each other. Here I can truly be myself." It is this love and concern for others that really continue to attract the lonely and the confused, the alienated and the drop-outs. In fact, these aspects of the movement seem far more important than the COG's emphasis on the soon coming apocalypse or the destruction of the world.

6. In no way is this an underestimation of the role of their theology. For the COG's fundamentalistic-Biblicistic system of belief really is the creative center of the movement. The Bible and the Mo-letters are the food they live by. "They are God's love letters to us," the believers say. The form of the Biblical love letter is the King James Version. All other versions are rejected. Their own literature explains why: "The Ring James Version was translated by fundamentalists at a time when heretics were burnt at the stake and the English language was most beautiful and pure, the time of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. The KJV has become the most used in the world today and sells more than all the other translations taken together ... it has stood the trial of time. Furthermore, the KJV has no copyright as most of the later translations have, which shows that it was not translated for mercenary reasons." Moses David even refers to the Dead Sea Scrolls and claims "they demonstrate also that the KJV is a unique, almost supernaturally precise translation." But the best reason to use the KJV is that it works! According to the Children, a passage read in this version is more apt to bring fruits than the same passage read in a modern translation. For "the KJV was inspired. This Bible is Jesus on paper."

What the Bible really teaches is explained, however, in the Mo-letters. To the COG these are in fact "the Bible of our generation, as Moses is the prophet of his generation." The letters are printed in the same manner as older editions of the Bible, in verses which are numbered. The opening phrases repeat the form and style used by the apostle Paul, which enhance the authoritative character of the Mo-letters even further. But these phrases are merely accidental, we are told. For the real authority of the Mo-letters lies in the fact that they are "inspired." God Himself has revealed the messages they contain to Moses, by visions, dreams, or "supernatural impressions of the mind." Many of these letters are meant for the general public. These are the ones that are sold in the streets, or busses, in airports and other places. Others are for "new members only," or for top leaders, or even for members of the Berg family only. When some of these Mo-letters, intended for leaders or members only, fell into the hands of the "Systemites," as the COG call the "outsiders," the movement became quite embarrassed sometimes, no matter what kind of explanation was offered. One of these was the "Flirty, Flirty, Little Fishy" letter, which rather explicitly teaches the believers has to attract new converts through the sexual approach ."His letters are blatantly pornographic, complete with sketches and diagrams. We didn't even want to reproduce them in our report," an investigator for the attorney general's office in New York commented. More recent examples are the Mo-letters on marriage and reorganization. From the first we learn that polygamy is recommended, a teaching Moses himself has been practicing for years now. "Trial marriages," the letter further states, are preferable to formal legal marriages to determine if the relationships will work.

From the Mo-letter on reorganization we learn that as of February 18, 1978 (Mo's birthday!), all ministers, shepherds, elders, bishops, and archbishops have been dismissed. From that day on, the "homes" will be led by "servants" and "handmaids," who will report directly to "king and queen counselorships," a sort of regional headquarters. Declared Berg: "The King is taking back the reins of government and we are going back to a direct dictatorship!"

Whether this will hinder or advance the work of the COG is hard to tell. As long as the message of the soon coming of Christ, the end of the world, and the evils of modern society, churches, and governments are giving people a new goal to live for, and as long as the "homes" of the "Family of Love" continue to absorb the lonely and the confused, the alienated and the drop-outs, this movement will continue to exist. Unless, of course, other Christian churches will rediscover their mission as giving fellowship to the lonely, a new identity to the downtrodden, and a new certainty to live by.
For further reading:

Enroth, R.: Youth, Brainwashing, and the Extremist Cults. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977.

Ericson, E.E., and MacPherson, P. "The Deceptions of the Children of God," Christianity Today, July 20, 1973, pp. 14-20.

Glock, Ch.Y., and Bellah, Robert. N.: The New Religious Consciousness. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Moore, Th.: "Where Have All the Children of God Gone?" New Times, October, 1974, pp. 32-41.

Moses, D.: Revolution for Jesus, 1972.

Moses, D.: Survival, the True Story of Moses and the COG, 1973

Moses, D.: Mo-letters, 1970-78.

Omdal, S.: Children of God. Stavanger, 1974

Stoner, C., and Parker, JoAnne.: All God's Children. Radnor, Pennsylvania: Chilton Book Company, 1977.