The Family International, better known as the Children of God, is one of several deviant sects (Note 1) that emerged from the Jesus People Movement - a religious revival among, for the most part, hippies (1967-1971).
The group was founded as "Teens for Christ," by David Brandt Berg (1919 -1994), formerly a pastor with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The name changed first to "Revolution for Jesus," then to "Children of God." Later the movement renamed itself to "Family of Love," and now "The Family International."
Other names used include "Heaven's Magic," "Martinelli," "World Services," and "Fellowship of Independent Christian Churches." (Click here for a full list)
Berg's followers founded communes (called "colonies"), rejected mainstream denominationalism, and led a lifestyle which they believed emulated that of early Christians.
Over time, Berg became known as Moses David, Moses David Berg, Father David, King David, or simply Mo. He viewed himself as "God's Endtime Prophet." Berg wrote over 3,000 so-called "Mo Letters," in which he communicated his increasingly bizarre and heretical brand of theology. These letters also included graphic descriptions and portrayal of sexual activities. Berg described God as a "sexy, naked god in a wild orgy of the Spirit" and as "[a] Pimp".
Berg was a false prophet. His prophecies included that California would be destroyed by an earthquake and that the USA would be destroyed by the comet Kohoutek by January 1974.
Berg's radical message to denounce what he called "The System" (systemites) included existing churches. His message to be a "revolutionary" for Jesus and to "forsake all and follow Him" included forsaking parents, jobs, school, and to turn over all possessions to the organization (Christianity Today, 18 February 1977, p. 18).
Berg began an affair with Karen Zerby (Maria) who became his common-law wife, or mistress. It was at this time that Berg's prolific Mo Letters began, and are considered to be continuing revelation for his followers. This also marked the decline in general morality of the movement.
Berg loosely associated himself with evangelist Fred Jordan and was allowed to establish communal living at Jordan's "Soul-Clinic Ranch" in Texas. After parents began to organize and raise very negative publicity concerning the "brainwashing" of their children, Jordan in 1971 asked Berg and his followers (between two and three thousand) to leave (The Mindbenders, Jack Sparks, pp. 158-159). Berg began to organize communes (colonies) with tight hierarchical control. According to The Family's statement there were 130 COG colonies in 15 countries in 1972 ("Our Family's Origins," World Services, April 1992). They raised money initially by fund-raising, forsaking all, then by "litnessing," that is, selling designated Mo Letters to the public.
About this time, Berg changed his name to Moses (God's prophet) and David (King of Israel). In 1972, Berg claimed to have the "understanding of Daniel" and began making false prophesies including that California would be destroyed by an earthquake, and that the United States would be destroyed by the comet Kohoutek by January 1974 (Mo Letter #280, para. 12). He also prophesied that Christ was to return in 1993 (Mo Letter #456, para. 25). During this time, Berg began his descent into the occult as he frequently wrote about his contacts and involvement with spirit guides (Another Gospel, Ruth Tucker, p. 233).
Berg once described America as "the whore" (as in the Book of Revelation's allegorical "whore of Babylon," a city that is destroyed) and warned that the comet Kohoutek, then due to appear shortly, would signal coming destruction in the United States.
Ruth Gordon, who joined the Children of God in 1972, recalls a Mo Letter that year titled "Flee as a Bird to Your Mountain," which she interpreted as "God was going to destroy the U.S. . . . and we had to get out."
Already under pressure from parents trying to "rescue" their children from the group, the Children of God followed Berg's warnings and migrated abroad -- first to Europe, eventually to Latin America and East Asia.
Gordon, who moved to Brazil, left the group in 1977 and since has become one of its fiercest critics. She calls The Family a "pseudo-Christian cult" that dabbles in occult beliefs and sanctions adultery. "They don't understand biblical Christianity apart from Berg's writings," she says.
By the mid-1970s, the Children of God had "colonies" in an estimated 70 countries. In 1977, its members were reported to be living in overwhelmingly Muslim Libya, apparently with approval of its leader, Moammar Gadhafi. Rarely heard from, the group continued to attract unflattering publicity. In 1984, one of Berg's daughters, Deborah Davis, wrote a book about her father, alleging sexual excesses.
By The Family's own account, these were productive years -- as the group spread out to preach on five continents -- but also a time of change and uncertainty.
In 1978, Berg dismissed more than 300 leading members after hearing unspecified "reports of serious misconduct and abuse of their positions." He renamed his followers The Family of Love.
Around this time, the group began its practice of "flirty fishing" ("FFing," many members called it), which won it an enduring notoriety.
To show God's love, members would offer sex as a way of evangelizing people. The idea was Berg's. The Family's history states that, based on his reading of Scripture, "Father David arrived at the rather shocking conclusion that Christians were therefore free through God's grace to go to great lengths to show the Love of God to others, even as far as meeting their sexual needs."
The Family's history acknowledges that this scandalized "many religious institutions," but notes that "many people, most of whom would never even go near a church, were reached and won to Christ through this very humble, honest, open and intimately human approach to witnessing." Partly in response to fears about AIDS, the practice was banned in 1987.
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