ABOUT "THE FAMILY"
Origins and history of the Christian denomination
History of the denomination:
The roots of The Family can be traced back to the counter-culture movement of the late
1960's. Many young adults, called flower children, or hippies, left the middle-class life
of their families of origin and sought a simpler lifestyle in the form of communal life in
southern California. Out of this hippie movement came a loosely connected group of
Evangelical Christian organizations collectively known as The Jesus People, which
were described as "a diverse collection of pastors, street-preachers, oddballs and
intellectuals all trying to communicate the gospel to the counterculture." 1
The Children of God movement was started by one of these individuals
The founder of the Children of God was David Berg (1919 - 1994). He began his professional
life as an evangelist for the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
According to xFamily.org:
"Between 1948 and 1954, Berg, like his father, became a minister in the
Christian and Missionary Alliance and was placed at Valley Farms,
Arizona. Berg was eventually expelled from the organization for differences
in teachings and alleged sexual misconduct with a church employee."
In 1964. He became
the leader of a Teen Challenge chapter in Huntington Beach, CA. in 1967.
Challenge was a youth ministry of the Assemblies of God denomination. He separated
the group from the national Teen Challenge organization in 1968 and renamed it Light
Club. Members were called "Lightclubbers." Many flower children were
encouraged by rock music and free peanut butter sandwiches to spend some time in the
coffee house. Some were "saved", and abandoned their hippie life of alcohol,
other drugs and free love. Some evangelized other hippies; a few committed
themselves on a full time basis.
Berg received a revelation from God in 1969 that a disastrous earthquake was about to hit
California, and cause part of the state to slide into the ocean. He led the group out of
Huntington Beach to wander throughout the American southwest for 8 months. During that
time, they changed their name to the Children of God -- a name
originally created by the news media. The earthquake never
materialized. If a major earthquake had hit, the land movement that it would have caused
would probably have been only a few feet.
The group gained media attention by their "sackcloth vigils" in which
members dressed in "sackcloths, carried staffs and declared that American society
was doomed for turning its back on God" 3
Also in 1969, David Berg became a polygynist by marrying a second wife, Maria. He based
this decision on passages from the Hebrew Scriptures which permitted multiple wives. He
received revelations from God identifying himself as the "End Time Prophet"
who would play a major role in the Second Coming -- the long anticipated return to earth of
In the early 1970's, David Berg and his group settled in three intentional communities
in Los Angeles, CA, Coachella, CA and Thurer, TX. They came under attack from an
organization of parents of Children of God (COG) members which had been founded by Ian Haworth. It was
called FREECOG, "Free Our Children From the Children of God." This was
the first of the anti-cult organizations -- a movement
which has since grown to become international in scope and which teaches that
many new religious movements psychologically abuse their members. The FREECOG parents were
distressed at what the felt were the alleged mind control
practices of the COG. New members had been encouraged to sever all contact with their families
of origin, to donate almost their entire possessions to the group, and become full time
evangelists. Their parents were justifiably concerned about the status, future and safety
of their adult children.
David Berg, now called Moses David (or Father David, MO or Dad), first attempted to disperse the membership among
many communes (called colonies) throughout the United States. He later prophesied that a
comet would hit the United States and destroy all life. This motivated the group to
organize the "Great Escape", an exodus whereby almost all of the members left
the US and settled in various countries in Europe, South America, India and Australia. The
parents' anxiety over their children became heightened; some families had no idea even
what country their children were living in.
Berg made contact with Abrahim, a spirit guide, which he had acquired in a
Roma (Gypsy) camp.
Later he revealed "other spiritual contacts with the dead."
In 1973, Berg introduced "litnessing." This was a method of Christian
witnessing through the distribution of literature in exchange for donations. Berg wrote
many "Mo Letters" for this outreach. He eventually produced in excess of
2,500 letters. 5
In 1976, Berg encouraged the women members of the group to engage in "flirty
fishing". The term was based on Jesus' injunction "Follow Me, and I will
make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19). Women members were urged to go into bars
and befriend men. They were expected to seduce potential male converts, if necessary, in
order to encourage them to experience a religious conversion and membership in the organization.
Berg wrote: "What better way to show them the Love of God than to do your
best to supply their desperately hungry needs for love, fellowship,
companionship, mental and spiritual communication, and physical needs such as
food, clothing, shelter, warmth, affection, a tender loving kiss, a soft warm
embrace, the healing touch of your loving hands, the comforting feeling of your
body next to theirs -- and yes, even sex if need be!" 6 The media had a feeding frenzy with this innovative form of
Christianity which combined the conservative, Evangelical wing of the religion
with a free attitude towards sexual behavior. The press portrayed the COG
women as "Hookers for Jesus." In his 1979 annual report, Berg stated that
his "FFers" (Flirty Fishers) had "witnessed to over a quarter of
a million souls, loved over 25,000 of them and won about 19,000 to the Lord."
The COG was formally dissolved after some "abuses
of authority" were revealed among the leadership. A new group, the Family of Love,
was founded in 1978. The original autocratic
organization of Dad (David Berg), apostles, elders, and deacons was replaced by a
democratic structure. Each commune (called a "home") became an autonomous unit.
Their organizational name was later shortened to The Family. At this time, Berg
introduced "sexual sharing", which is free consensual sexual activity
among the adult members. "The free expression of sexuality, including fornication,
adultery, lesbianism (though not male homosexuality), and incest were not just permitted
but encouraged." 4 Some members interpreted a few of
the Mo Letters as approving of adult-child incest. Some child sexual abuse appears to have
been practiced in some of the homes, but the level at which it occurred is unknown.
In 1985, David and Maria Berg organized a central office called "World
Services". Organization reverted to a more autocratic model. Flirty fishing was
terminated in 1987 partly because of the extreme adverse reaction from outsiders and
because of the rapid spread of sexually transmitted disease among the membership.
The Family states that the main reason was "the need to spend more time in other forms
of outreach." Also in 1987, incest and other sexual abuse of children was
specifically banned; any adult having sex with a person under the age of 21 is instantly
David Berg died in 1994 at the age of about 75 of undisclosed causes. He had shared power with
Maria Berg in his last years.
In 1977, The Family had about 7,500 members of which 7,000 lived in over 70 colonies
around the world. 7
The COG claimed 12,390 full time members, including 6,833 children in 1988. Current membership estimates from non-Family
sources vary from 9,000 8 to 12,000. 9
As of 2005-OCT, the Family claims 12,000 full-time and associate adult volunteer
members in over 1,400 centers or communities, located in over 100 countries.
The Family is currently led by his widow, Karen Zerby (a.k.a. Mama
Maria, Queen Maria) and Steven Douglas Kelly (a.k.a. Peter Amsterdam, King
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Unfortunately, many of the references to the Family on the Internet are written by
anti-cult and counter-cult groups and are somewhat lacking in objectivity. Others are
prepared by individuals who seem to have left the Family with a major grudge.
- David Di Sabatino, "THE JESUS PEOPLE MOVEMENT (1967 - 1973)", is an
on-line essay about the Jesus People which discusses their interaction with the COG. See: http://www.best.com/~dolphin/jp03.html
- "David Berg," XFamily.org, at:
- D.E. Van Zandt, "The Children of God", Chapter 12 in Timothy Miller,
Editor, "America's Alternative Religions", SUNY Press, Albany NY, (1995),
- Richard Kyle, "The Religious Fringe: A History of Alternative Religions in
America" InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, (1993), Pages 361 - 367.
- "Our Founder," A collection of "MO Letters," at:
http://www.thefamily.org/. See also
http://www.exfamily.org/pubs/pubs_list.shtml for a more complete list,
including some letters categorized as "DO." These are "disciples only" letters
for internal circulation only.
- "Flirty Fishing," at:
- J. Gordon Melton, Editor, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions",
Volume III, Triumph Books, New York NY (1991), Pages 292 - 293.
- The Observer, a British newspaper, describes many new religious movements which
they call "cults". They had a brief description of the COG at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/cults/a-z-cults/c_cults.html.
Essay is no longer available.
- The Watchman Fellowship, a counter-cult group, has what appears to be a very
biased essay by Ruth Gordon on the COG at: http://www.watchman.org/famlove.htm
Copyright 1998 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson