From Sex Fiends to Family Values: the LDS and The Family International
Religious doctrines abandoned for political or legal reasons, like Zombies, never die
by Perry Bulwer
A recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune discusses the doctrine of polygamy in the mainstream Mormon church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
If polygamy became legal in this country, would the LDS Church, which abandoned it in 1890, embrace it again?
After all, some say, it remains part of Mormon doctrine, enshrined in LDS scripture, and many Latter-day Saints believe it will exist in the afterlife. Even the late Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that the “holy practice” would resume after Jesus Christ’s Second Coming.
Of course, Mormon leaders abandoned polygamy strictly for political reasons in 1890. If the U.S. government had not criminalized plural marriages and aggressively fought for over 40 years to end the practice, the LDS would likely still practice polygamy as a divine dogma today. As much as they have tried to reinterpret history and claim there were theological reasons for ending polygamy, the reality is that the political and legal consequences of continuing it jeopardized their church. It was self-preservation, not spiritual awakening.
David Berg, the deceased founder and self-proclaimed end-time prophet of the Children of God, now known as The Family International, greatly admired Joseph Smith. There are numerous references and discussions of Mormon history in his writings, and Berg often compared his cult to Joseph Smith's. It's true, there are many similarities between the two evangelical Christian sects, particularly in the way the two founding leaders created sexual doctrines to justify their own licentiousness. And just like Mormon leaders did, Family International leaders were willing to abandon a core doctrine for mere political and legal expediency in order to save their 'new religious movement'. However, doctrines abandoned for those reasons often do not die, especially when they are written into so-called holy texts. They either get reinterpreted or remain dormant until it is safe to revive them, or they continue being practised by individuals and splinter groups, such as the fundamentalist Mormons that still consider polygamy a religious imperative today.
The Family International does not have a specific 'holy book' like the Book of Mormon, but they do consider Berg's writings to be divinely inspired and as important as the Bible (both groups use the King James Bible). Berg even wrote that if it came down to a choice between one or the other, his followers should read his writings before the Bible. One of The Family International's foundational doctrines is the Law of Love, deviously devised by Berg to justify his own acts of incest and adultery. Essentially, the doctrine purported to provide divine approval for all sexual activity between anyone of any age, whether related or not. As Berg wrote to his followers in 1980:
As far as God’s concerned, there are no more sexual prohibitions hardly of any kind … there’s nothing in the world at all wrong with sex as long as it’s practiced in love, whatever it is, whoever it’s with, no matter who or what age or what relative or what manner! … There are no relationship restrictions or age limitations in His law of love....
The only activity Berg clearly condemned was male homosexuality, which he considered worse than rape. However, as reports of child abuse began to emerge in the 1980s, political and legal reactions resulted in raids of the group's communes in several countries. This forced the group's leaders to reinterpret the doctrine so that sex between adults and minors is prohibited. At least that's what they claim, that all adult-child sexual conduct was finally prohibited in1989, that they renounced certain sexual doctrines and that they have left their past far behind. However, such a claim coming from a group that has absolutely no oversight from or accountability to any external authority for its activities, and has an official policy of deceiving and lying to outsiders, including law enforcement and government officials, simply cannot be trusted when they say they have changed. In the years that followed, Family International leaders developed a new doctrine that continued the sexualization of children, even while they were insisting in a court of law that children were now protected from the sexual doctrines.
After Berg's death in 1994, the current leaders of the cult, Karen Zerby, aka Maria Fontaine, and Steven Kelly, aka Peter Amsterdam, carried on his sexual extremism. Even while they were trying to convince a judge in a British custody case that they had now safe-guarded children from the sexual doctrines, Zerby and Kelly were secretly devising a new sexual doctrine they called Loving Jesus, which among other things, encourages members, including children, to imagine having sex with Jesus while masturbating or during sexual intercourse. Zerby, like Berg, does not believe adult sexual molestation of children is wrong, stating that “... a little fondling & sweet affection is not wrong in the eyes of God, & if they have experienced the same in the past they weren’t 'abused'”. She also wrote, as cited by the judge: “This is the very thing the system would like to use against us—sex with minors which they always term child abuse although in our loving Family there would be very little possibility of genuine abuse…”. In order for men to practice the Loving Jesus doctrine they are required to imagine themselves as 'females in the spirit' because male homosexuality is one of the few sexual practices the group considers sinful.
First introduced to members in 1995, the development of this new sexual doctrine was directly related to the central role of the Law of Love in The Family International. Zerby was determined that members become even more sexually active by obeying and living the Law of Love more fully. To that end, in 1998, she published an 11-part series entitled Living the Lord’s Law of Love in an internal publication. There are censored versions of all 11 parts of that series at the following archive, numbered 3199 to 3212. These letters were required reading and came with special instructions that the series had to be read by each home as a group, not individually, thus increasing the peer pressure to conform. The group's leaders did manage to convince that British judge, Justice Ward referenced above, that the child at the center of the child custody case was no longer in danger from the practice of the Law of Love. However, he did express some apprehension at the possibility of abandoned or denounced doctrines resurfacing in the future. It now seems that Justice Ward was quite prescient when he referred to the possible “resurrection of the freedoms given by the Law of Love”. He certainly would have been concerned about the effect of the new Loving Jesus doctrine on children, and if he had known it was in development even while the custody case was ongoing he surely would have ruled against returning the child to his cult mother. But he did not know because Family International members who testified in the case lied to him on the witness stand and in affidavits, as I have previously pointed out:
Near the beginning of the 295-page judgment in that case, in a section titled “The Family’s Attitude to Lies and Deception,” Justice Ward speaks to the issue of the veracity of Family witnesses by specific reference to the deceivers-yet-true doctrine, stating, “I regret to find that in many instances there has been a lack of frankness and a failure to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” He then gives six specific examples of how The Family’s witnesses were less than honest in the proceedings and goes on to say, “These are worrying examples and they are not the only ones of the ingrained habit of lying if they have to and of telling half the truth if they can get away with it.” Throughout the judgment, Ward provides further examples of Family witnesses “dissembling the truth—deceiving yet true” and withholding incriminating documentary evidence from the court.
Another controversial Berg doctrine The Family International supposedly abandoned, but could be resurrected at any time, was the practice of religious prostitution known as Flirty Fishing. Based on Jesus' command to his disciples to become fishers of men, and expanding on the Law of Love doctrine, it became a way to not only 'win souls' but to gain protection and financial support. In the early days of the Children of God sex between unmarried regular members was forbidden, but the Law of Love changed that, and then Flirty Fishing opened the door to sex with outsiders. A scandal on the Canary Island of Tenerife in the 1970s exposed Flirty Fishing to the world (I have an explosive post in the works on that) and then as child abuse began to be exposed and the AIDS epidemic was taking hold around the world, Family leaders decided it was no longer in their best interest to continue the practice. Here's an official statement from the group on why they stopped it:
In 1987 the Family discontinued FFing to emphasize other means of ministering the Word of God to others, as well as to take advantage of opportunities to reach more people than the very personalized ministry of FFing allowed. At that time as well, the plague of AIDS had begun its rampage through the world—another indication that it was time to reconsider Family policy of allowing sexual interaction outside our communities.
Although we no longer practice FFing, we believe the scriptural principles behind the ministry remain sound.
However, Berg predicted in 1978 that Flirty Fishing through escort services would be one of the group's main sources of support during the Great Tribulation, which he taught would occur during the 3 1/2 years prior to Jesus' return in 1993. That obviously never happened, but for many years after that failed date leaders continued to manipulate their followers into believing those events were just around the corner. But like all prognosticators do who make specific predictions of Biblical end time events, The Family International leaders recently changed their predictions once again. They have now given their members 50 more years before Jesus returns, even though Berg and Zerby both prophesied that Zerby would be living when Jesus returned. Karen Zerby and Peter Kelly will be conveniently dead in 50 years, however, so they conveniently won't have to face more accusations of manipulating members with false prophecies. Meanwhile, the Zombie doctrine of Flirty Fishing could easily be resurrected at any time, just like Mormon polygamy.
The Family International's explanation for why they abandoned Flirty Fishing sounds a lot like what some Mormons say about polygamy, that they no longer practice it, though they still believe it is scripturally sound. The Family International has been trying for many years now to rewrite their corporate history, white-wash their past abuses, and remake their image as a sex-obsessed cult that destroyed individuals and families into that of a respectable family-values missionary movement. Part of that public relations effort included contacting academic apologists to write favourable reports on them. James Chancellor's book, Life in The Family: an Oral History of the Children of God, is one result of those efforts. William Sims Bainbridge, who wrote another inaccurate book about that group, wrote the forward to Chancellor's book. That short foreword contains several uninformed assertions and factual errors concerning The Family International that not only further undermine Bainbridge’s reliability on the subject, but also reflect badly on Chancellor’s effort to convey a realistic portrait of the group.
Bainbridge declares that The Family International “institutionalized nuclear family.” Certainly, the opposite is true. One of the most fundamental tenets of The Family’s theology is their One Wife doctrine based on a publication of that name, which remains required reading for new members:
But God’s in the business of breaking up little selfish private worldly families to make of their yielded broken pieces a larger unit—one Family! He’s in the business of destroying the relationships of many wives in order to make them One Wife—God’s Wife—The Bride of Christ. God is not averse to breaking up selfish little families for His glory, to make of the pieces a much larger unselfish unit—the Whole Family—the entire Bride—the One Wife instead of many wives!
One Wife is one of The Family’s foundational doctrines, out of which grew even more bizarre and controversial sexual doctrines, such as the Law of Love, Flirty Fishing, and Loving Jesus discussed above. Far from institutionalizing the nuclear family, The Family’s leadership has never hesitated to separate husbands from wives, and children from parents, or otherwise manipulate the parent-child relationship. If The Family International places any importance at all in the nuclear family, it is only within the following context, described by Wendell W. Watters, M.D.:
…[S]o powerful is the family in human society that many revolutionary political movements have, in their initial stages, attempted to destroy its power to maintain the status quo, by appealing directly to children over the heads of their parents.
The present-day religious cults are noted for creating rifts between parents and their adolescent children. However, once a movement achieves its revolutionary goals, as in the case of Christianity and communism, it reverses this position and attempts once more to use the family as an ally in maintaining and extending its power.
Wendell Watters, M.D., Deadly Doctrine: Health, Illness and Christian God-Talk (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992), 47-49.
That is exactly what David Berg's cult did. They started out as the Children of God (who needs parents when you have God?), destroying the institutions of monogamous marriage and nuclear families, and then remade themselves as The Family International, supposedly upholding family values. Berg likened himself to a modern day Pied Piper. He claimed to have many spiritual helpers (many of them fictional characters such as Don Quixote and the Abominable Snowman), which were revealed to him in séances with current leader, Karen Zerby, known as Maria to members. There are references to the Pied Piper throughout Berg's writings. Here are a few excerpts to highlight just how deliberately this cult set out to manipulate young people and destroy their familial relationships (MO is David Berg, emphasis in the original):
8. MARIA: DOES PETER THE HERMIT COUNSEL DAVID? MO smiles as he observes the Heavenly counselors, and answers slowly ... NO, BUT THE PIED PIPER DOES! MO chuckles as he continues to see the Pied Piper: He has big ears and a funny tall hat, and long blond hair. He plays the flute, and all the children like to dance and sing--'cause he likes children. My children dance! http://www.exfamily.org/pubs/ml/b4/ml0102.shtml
18. THE LORD HAS SPOKEN THROUGH ME FOR A PURPOSE, FOR THE PURPOSE OF CAUSING YOUTH TO BELIEVE & YOUTH TO FOLLOW! If God has made me the Pied Piper, so to speak, to jump & dance & play His tune to lead His children, why not? http://www.exfamily.org/pubs/ml/b5/ml1410.shtml
10. THANK YOU FOR THE PIED PIPER, LORD! Bless him, in Jesus name! Help him to charm the children by the Spirit. Help him to make the kids leave their parents to drown in the river like rats! ... (Surprised, MO continues:) I didn't know that, but all the parents who tried to chase their children fell in the river and drowned like rats! The Lord lets all the parents who chase us drown like rats! http://www.exfamily.org/pubs/ml/b4/ml0111.shtml
The Family International's history sounds an awful lot like the history of the LDS, as this quotation from a Boston Globe article indicates: "... as so-called “family values’’ came to dominate US political rhetoric, the Mormons who were once hounded as sex fiends were reborn as the American family ideal." The early Mormon church under Joseph Smith's leadership started out destroying the institutions of monogamous marriage and nuclear families. Under political and legal pressure the church then reversed their position and began "to use the family as an ally in maintaining and extending its power." As the article goes on to explain:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has adapted to survive. Has it done so at the expense of core, if unpopular, convictions? ... Mormonism has a mechanism for change that is unique among religions, with church leaders empowered to receive fresh revelations that can overturn doctrine on a dime. It happened most famously in 1890 on polygamy, and again in 1978 when the church admitted blacks to the LDS priesthood (a revelation, Romney says, that made him weep with relief). When other religions change, it is often with the pretense that the new dogma is not really new.