From Love to Sexual Abuse:
How Berg lead his followers to questionable levels of sexual liberation
David Berg was able to convince his followers to engage in deviant sexual activities through a methodical and relatively slow process of pushing their ideas of love and sexual relationships further and further from the societal norm. As the leader of the Children of God, Berg spent much of his time warning his followers of his apocalyptic prophesies. The idea of the impending apocalypse had an effect on their importance of education, child rearing, and what they believed was appropriate sexual behavior for the small remainder of their lives. If you simply type “The Children of God” into a Google search bar you will immediately see the phrase “sex cult” repeated all over the page. The Children of God is most well known for their sexually liberating ideas, which turned almost an entire religious movement from love to deviant and even criminal activities. These activities included, but were not limited to, partner sharing, orgies, and reports of sexual assault on minors. The leader of Children of God at this time, David Berg, or Moses David as he was called by followers, was a failed preacher and an advocate against “the system” and “churchianity” in the 1960’s. The Children of God still operate today under the name The Family, but for consistency the name Children of God will be used throughout the paper. The new leaders took over upon Berg’s death in 1994 and the leadership has recognized that members were hurt by the previous policies implemented and have openly issued apologizes. The Children of God of today is almost unrecognizable from the Children of God under Berg’s reign.
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Born in 1919, Berg was raised in a very religious and strict home by his mother Virginia Brandt Berg and father Hjalmar Berg. He was a self-proclaimed chronic masturbator, which his mother tried vehemently to end. Berg claims that when he was six, his mother called the family into his room while he was masturbating, held a knife to his penis and told him that if he did not stop she would cut it off. He could not stop. In his words “it felt too good to quit! I just kept it up in secret. My terrible secret sin” (ML 779: My Childhood Sex, #36, 1978). There was a supposed story that his mother caught him again and forced him to masturbate in front of his father to climax in order to shame him into quitting, however Berg himself had never confirmed the story was true. Although Virginia Brandt Berg might have been doing what she thought was best for her son in order to curb his sinful obsession, she may have inadvertently ignited Berg’s desires for deviant sex. Berg claims that he had a nanny that would perform sexual acts on him in order to get him to calm down and go to bed. He went on to state that his mother found out about the acts and fired the woman immediately. Berg also stated that he was engaging in a sexual relationship with a cousin at the age of 7 (ML 779: My Childhood Sex, #57, 1978). It is hard to know if these claims are fact or fiction, however, if they are true it would help explain some of Berg’s behaviors. If these stories are true Berg was a victim of sexual abuse. David Berg had also reported that one of the biggest regrets of his life was not attempting to have a sexual relationship with his own mother. In a Mo Letter titled “Sex with Grandmother” he stated:
“And perhaps if I had not been so conservative and extremely narrow-minded in my theology and religion at that time and so absolutely frightened by my Mother’s seeming abandon at the moment, I might have reacted a little more responsively and perhaps have satisfied both of us and our tremendous sexual needs, and it could have developed into a beautiful sexual relationship!”
(David Berg, ML 1535: Sex With Grandmother, #11, 1982)
It is not difficult to recognize Berg’s unhealthy ideas of sex. As Berg grew older his outright sexual deviance was greatly diminished or at least suppressed. In later years Berg told his followers that he had sex with prostitutes and engaged in adulterous affairs while traveling. According to Berg’s immediate family, he had also slept with housekeepers. There is a supposed incidence of an adulterous relationship with a woman in his church at the time, Missionary Alliance’s leadership. According to his family these claims ended with Berg being asked to leave the church. Although Berg claims that his leaving the Missionary Alliance’s leadership church was due to disagreements in segregation policies and his strong preaching methods. One thing is certain, this incident lead to a deeper hatred for “churchianity” and the system. Berg began to detest the ideas of the system and what he believed they had done to Christianity. Berg blamed the system and Systemites for spending millions of dollars constructing churches and enforcing rules on Christians that were never part of God’s message. He believed the system was evil and oddly enough his ideas happened to fall almost in line with the hippie counter culture of Huntington Beach, California.
During the 1960’s, many citizens began to have a distrust for the government and also began demanding more rights and protesting for civil liberties. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s came about from the feminist movement which had evolved into woman questioning tradition gender roles and sexual needs. “Central to the sexual revolution was the growing acceptance of sexual encounters between unmarried adults. Throughout this period young men and women engaged in their first acts of sexual intercourse at increasingly younger ages” (Escoffier). Mostly comprised of feminists, hippies, and those advocating for gay rights, the sexual revolution was a political movement for change. Liberalism took a great hold during this time which helped facilitate the momentum of the sexual revolution. The people involved in the movement created a dialogue that expressed the ideas of the counter culture in regards to the roles of women, both domestically and sexually. “The sexual revolution was initiated by those who shared a belief in the detrimental impact of sexual repression, a view that had previously been argued by Wilhelm Reich, D. H. Lawrence, Sigmund Freud, and the Surrealist movement” (Kapila). Reich believed that being sexually repressed would have profound negative impacts on psychological development and could lead to authoritarian behavior. Those advocating for change wanted to be liberated from the constraints of morality as described by either the government or the church. The invention of The Pill was highly controversial, especially in regards to the church; sex is for procreation not recreation and any sexual activity before marriage is wrong. There was a major clash in traditional religious and societal norms versus those advocating for change. The counter culture had an outstanding impact on society which is evident in the invention of The Pill. There were many factors leading to the sexual revolution, and the effects are vast. These effects were most notable in non-monogamous relationships, marriage, divorce, and parenting.
The ideas of the sexual revolution may not seem to be something a religious leader would be willing to promote, however, Berg did in his own way. Berg was able to gain the trust of those in the counter culture by dressing like a hippie, voicing his distrust for the system, and by combining aspects of the hippie lifestyle into his movement. Berg was an educated man speaking on a friendly level to the hippies and other members of the counter culture about a way to find Jesus without the “churchianity” associated with what Christianity had become. The Children of God began in 1968 upon Berg’s intuition that his calling was to guide those he considered to be the lost sheep of the counter culture. He was able to convert people by offering music, food, and shelter to those in need while spreading his message. Berg had developed a group of about thirty-five followers and told them to move with him. He wanted the converts to devote their life to Christ and to forsake their previous life and all the trappings that accompanied it. The Children of God expanded and began communities all around the United States and eventually the world. Shortly thereafter in 1969, David Berg began spreading his messages to his followers via Mo Letters. These Mo Letters contained expectations and norms for the Children of God, as well as providing some of the most damning evidence in regards to the sexual deviance surrounding the Children of God.
The first Mo letter is entitled “A Prophecy of God on the Old Church and the New Church.” This document marks the very beginning of Berg’s biblical justifications for his personal sexual practices and beliefs which he would spread to his followers. Berg claims that he had received the message from God and it was his duty to send it down to his followers. This claim made his followers hold his word to a much higher regard, almost comparable to gospel. It seemed as though they would trust Berg more than they would any Systemite or even fellow member of the Children of God. The Mo letter discussed moving away from the traditional ideas of the old church and embracing the new church. For Berg this gave him the justification he needed to leave his old wife for a newer and younger wife, or more accurately, wives. Berg married several women although the one who had made the biggest impact was Karen Zerby, who still leads the Children of God today under the name Maria. It is believed that this Mo letter led to partner sharing and other sexually liberating activities among the leadership. However, these activities were not known and open to the general population for a few more years to come. Berg sent out another Mo letter in 1970 titled “I Gotta Split.” In it he explains to his followers that he and a few of his closest confidants were going to go into hiding but that he would remain in touch. The Children of God had made a name for themselves and Berg was growing paranoid. Although, it was for good reason. FREECOG, an anti-cult group specifically against the Children of God, formed the following year in 1971. By 1972 Berg’s Mo letters became as important as scripture to the Children of God. He had major influence over his followers by continuing to stress that his word was straight from God, and that God wanted the things Berg was writing in the Mo letters. He began warning members about the end of the world, which was much sooner than anyone would want to believe. This prophecy made things like education seem unimportant, and perhaps led some followers to lose their inhibitions in regards to sexuality. Around 1973 the Mo letters became more provocative and sexual in nature. Some of the titles include “Revolutionary Sex,” “Come On Ma! Burn Your Bra,” and “Revolutionary Love Making.” Another Mo letter titled “One Wife” was sent out with the purpose to break up nuclear families under the guise that the Children of God was all one family. This separated children from the parents they could feel secure and safe with, while also making it easier to normalize partner-sharing. “As 1973 drew to a close, the children of god had approximately 2400 full-time members, living in 140 colonies in 40 different countries” (Van Zandt, pp 43, 1991). Berg was just beginning to push his ideas of deviance onto his followers.
Flirty Fishing and the Law of Love became topics in 1974. The Law of Love stated that members must be willing to sacrifice everything in the name of love while Flirty Fishing involved a member of the Children of God having sexual encounters with a non-member in order to convert them or gain their support. Berg initially tested out this method with Karen Zarby and it wasn’t available for non-elite members until 1976. The justification for such a sexually deviant activity for a religious movement could be found in the Mo letters titled “King Arthur’s Nights” which includes 23 chapters. In the first chapter Berg states:
“And what are you going to do as more and more countries are closed to us and open litnessing and witnessing is forbidden, and religious gatherings, meetings and worship services of another faith are highly restricted or completely forbidden, your churches or colonies closed, your literature banned and your meetings forbidden, as will be more and more the case in the worsening days to come…”
(David Berg, DFO No. 501, “King Arthur’s Nights,” pp. 3, 1976)
Berg further goes on to say that word of mouth is the only safe way to continue converting members however, it is hard to find the time to speak to possible converts one on one and maintain their interest long enough. His solution was simply to offer God’s Love and then speak to them about the Children of God after they have already been baited with sex. Many followers were disenchanted with the movement and Berg as the teachings became more and more sexual in nature. Flirty Fishing came to an end in 1987 because of external pressures to end the practice, the internal struggles women felt; i.e.: women who were more successful in their Flirty Fishing endeavors were held in higher regard than those who were not as successful, as well as the spread of STD’s. However, 300 children were born because of Flirty Fishing encounters by 1981. Berg called these children Jesus babies.
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With the influx of children in the movement, child rearing became a very important aspect of life and teachings. A Mo letter titled “The Devil Hates Sex—But God Loves It,” discusses both incest and pedophilia. It also discusses the ideas that these practices are in the Bible yet the system has turned them into acts that are unnatural or taboo.
When [Paul] said “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (1 COR 6: 12), he was as good as saying, “I can indulge in any kind of sex I want to, but I’ve got to watch out for the System because it’s against the law!” (Maria/Zerby: At least not let’em find out if you do it!) Yes. He said, “Against such there is not law” (Gal. 5:23)- against those things that are done in love. How can there be any law against love? Well, because of the Devil, he hates it.”
(David Berg, DFO #999 “The Devil Hates Sex — But God Loves It,” 1980)
Because he had such a strong hold on his followers’ ideas of what love is he was able to endorse incest and pedophilia. It also didn’t hurt that he had frequently used Bible verses to justify the acts. Also, his followers had a continued hatred for the system who deemed these acts as taboo. It is worth noting not all members of the Children of God engaged in these acts. As stated before, a great number had left and some who stayed decided that these were not acts they would practice in their own homes. David Berg adopted one of Karen’s Jesus babies. Berg and other elite members close enough to the baby, Ricky Rodriguez (or Davidito) wrote a childrearing book with him as their subject. The explicit guide was handed out to members in 1982. It contains not only graphic accounts of sexual acts on children but it also includes images. Leaders of the Children of God later ordered the books to be destroyed, however, some ex-members had retained their copies for proof of the child abuse accusations. In 1986 Berg officially banned any adult sexual relations with minors. In the following year Flirty Fishing was brought to an end as well. However, there is some question on whether or not these practices were truly banned at this time. A Mo letter in 1992 stated that the Children of God was only playing along with the system and their ideas of sexual contact between adults and children. Furthermore, it goes on to say “any experience they [the children] may have had along these lines, if it was loving and was desired, was not wrong” (Zerby, “Summit ‘93, Mama Jewels #2” pp. 19, 1992).
Berg had died in 1994 leaving Karen Zerby and her new husband, Peter Amsterdam, as the leaders of the movement. The two leaders have “established a Ministry of Reconciliation to redress the failures of the past” (Cowan, Bromley, pp 118, 2015). They have issued apologies for any member that was hurt under Berg’s policies as well as implemented new policies against sexual relations with minors. They have also admitted that some children were abused during the time that Berg was the leader. Minors living in the Children of God are aware of the abuse that had once taken place, however they say those are not things that are happening anymore. A young woman interviewed by James Chancellor stated “one of the reasons I can talk about this [sexual misconduct] now is that The Family has really changed. All the sexual stuff with kids has definitely stopped… I think there’s far less now in The Family than in the System” (Chancellor, pp 226, 2000). To this, Chancellor himself agrees “I am confident that child sexual abuse is less frequent in The Family than in society at large” (Chancellor, pp 244, 2000).
The Children of God under David Berg was very different from the movement today. Berg slowly lead his followers to a deviant place by claiming his word was straight from God, breaking up homes, and slowly pushing members closer and closer to engage in questionable acts. The transition from a promising new religious movement to something worse can be recognized in Bergs extensive collection of Mo letters. Berg started pushing members with innocent enough ideas of burning one’s bra to protest gender roles, yet ending with The Story of Davidito, which reads like a child-rearing guide for the practicing pedophile. Although any deviant activity in the Children of God involving minors is now an act that will end in excommunication, they have retained this horrible stain from a relatively short period of the movement’s life. As Peter Amsterdam had said:
“We know that many people were mistreated and hurt by things The Family did, particularly the leadership. That was never Father David’s intent, but it
happened. We cannot undo those things. But we can try to find as many as we can and to let them know we are deeply sorry. And also that we have changed. We have learned from our mistakes.”
(Chancellor, pp 34, 2000).
- Bromley, David G. and Cowan, Douglas E. “The Children of God/The Family International: The Issue of Sexuality.” Cults and New Religions: A Brief History, by Douglas E Cowan, Second ed., Blackwell, 2015, pp. 99-118.
- Berg, David. “King Arthur’s Nights.” Mo Letter, DFO # 501, pp. 3, 12. 1976. web accessed. https://media.xfamily.org/docs/fam/ml/ml-501.pdf. 25 November 2018.
- Berg, David. “My Childhood Sex.” Mo Letter, ML #779, pp. 5919, 36. 1978. Web accessed. http://www.exfamily.org/pubs/ml/ml779.html. 25 November 2018.
- Berg, David. “My Childhood Sex.” Mo Letter, ML #779, pp. 5920, 57. 1978. Web accessed. http://www.exfamily.org/pubs/ml/ml779.html. 25 November 2018.
- Berg, David. “Sex With Grandmother.” Mo Letter, ML #1535, pp 100, 11. 1982. web accessed. https://www.xfamily.org/index.php?title=File:Sex_With_Grandmother-03.jpg&filetimestamp=20050408155428&. 25 November 2018.
- Berg, David. “The Devil Hates Sex — But God Loves It.” Mo Letter, DFO #999, 77. 1980. Web accessed. https://www.xfamily.org/index.php/The_Devil_Hates_Sex. 25 November 2018
- Chancellor, James. “Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God.” Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God, Syracuse University Press, 2000, pp. 34.
- Chancellor, James. “Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God.” Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God, Syracuse University Press, 2000, pp. 226.
- Chancellor, James. “Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God.” Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God, Syracuse University Press, 2000, pp. 244.
- Escoffier, Jeffrey. “The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980.” Web accessed. Glbtqarchive.com, 2004, www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/sexual_revolution_S.pdf. 25 November 2018.
- Kapila, Guatami and Arun Kumar. “Homosexuality: The Road to Visibility.” Web accessed. Oaij.net, The International Journal of Indian Psychology , 2015, oaji.net/articles/2015/1170-1449166623.pdf. 25 November 2018.
- Van Zandt, David. “Litnessing: February 1973 through February 1975.” Princeton Legacy Library: Living in the Children of God, Princeton University Press, 1991, pp. 43.
- Zerby, Karen. “Summit ‘93, Mama Jewels #2.” pp. 19, 137. 1992. Web accessed. https://www.xfamily.org/images/3/36/Summit_93_mama_jewels.pdf. pp. 1-20, #137. 25 November 2018.
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