|The Family International|
|Leader||Karen Zerby (1994–present)|
|Branched from||The Family|
The Family International (TFI) is an American new religious movement founded in 1968 by David Brandt Berg. The group has gone under a number of different names since its inception, including Teens for Christ, The Children of God (COG), The Family of Love, or simply The Family.
Former members have accused TFI of being an authoritarian cult which engages in the systematic physical and sexual abuse of children, resulting in lasting trauma among survivors. The group has also been accused of targeting vulnerable people.
According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, "at its height" the Family movement had "tens of thousands of members, including River and Joaquin Phoenix, Rose McGowan and Jeremy Spencer". TFI initially spread a message of salvation, apocalypticism, spiritual "revolution and happiness" and distrust of the outside world, which the members called The System. Like some other fundamentalist groups, it "foretold the coming of a dictator called the anti-Christ, the rise of a brutal One World Government and its eventual overthrow by Jesus Christ, in the Second Coming".
In 1976, it began a method of evangelism called Flirty Fishing that used sex to "show God's love and mercy" and win converts, resulting in controversy. TFI's founder and prophetic leader, David Berg (who adopted the name "Moses David" while in Laurentide, Canada), and was also referred to "Father David" by members), gave himself the titles of "King", "The Last Endtime Prophet", "Moses", and "David".
Berg communicated with his followers via "Mo Letters"—letters of instruction and counsel on myriad spiritual and practical subjects—until his death in late 1994. After his death, his widow Karen Zerby became the leader of TFI, taking the titles of "Queen" and "Prophetess". Zerby married Steve Kelly (also known as Peter Amsterdam), an assistant of Berg's whom Berg had handpicked as her "consort". Kelly took the title of "King Peter" and became the face of TFI, speaking in public more often than either Berg or Zerby. There have been multiple allegations of child sexual abuse made by past members.
Berg preached a combination of traditional Christian evangelism, with elements popular with the Counterculture of the 1960s. There was much "end-of-the-world imagery" found in the Book of Revelation of the New Testament, preaching of impending doom for America and the ineffectiveness of established churches. Berg "urged a return to the early Christian community described in the Bible's Book of Acts, in which believers lived together and shared all", resembling communal living of late 1960s hippies.
The Children of God (1968–1977)
The founder of the movement, David Brandt Berg (1919–1994), was a former Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor. Berg started in 1968 as an evangelical preacher with a following of "born-again hippies" who gathered at a coffeehouse in Huntington Beach, in Orange County, California. In 1969, after having a revelation "that California would be hit by a major earthquake", he left Huntington Beach and "took his followers on the road".
They would proselytize in the streets and distribute pamphlets. Leaders within COG were referred to as The Chain. Members of The Children of God (COG) founded communes, first called colonies (now referred to as homes), in various cities.
Berg communicated with his followers by writing letters. He published nearly 3,000 letters over a period of 24 years, referred to as the Mo Letters. In a letter written in January 1972, Berg stated that he was God's prophet for the contemporary world, attempting to further solidify his spiritual authority within the group. Berg's letters also contained public acknowledgement of his own failings and weaknesses,[verification needed] (for example, he issued a Mo Letter entitled "My confession -- I was an alcoholic!" (ML #1406 Summer 1982) relating his depression after some of his closest supporters quit in 1978.
In 1972, a Mo Letter reportedly entitled "Flee as a Bird to Your Mountain" was interpreted by some members (such as Ruth Gordon) as a warning to leave America. "God was going to destroy the U.S. ... and we had to get out." This, along with the pressure members felt that parents were trying to "rescue" children who had joined CoG, encouraged members to "[migrate] abroad -- first to Europe, eventually to Latin America and East Asia".
In 1976, Berg had introduced a new proselytizing method called Flirty Fishing (or FFing), which encouraged female members to "show God's love" through sexual relationships with potential converts. Flirty Fishing was practiced by members of Berg's inner circle starting in 1973, and was introduced to the general membership in 1976.
The Family of Love (1978–1981)
The Children of God was abolished in February 1978, and Berg renamed his group "The Family of Love" In what Berg called the "Re-organization Nationalization Revolution" (or RNR). Berg reorganized the movement, dismissing "more than 300 leading members after hearing unspecified 'reports of serious misconduct and abuse of their positions." Reportedly involved were The Chain's abuse of authority, and disagreements within it about the continued use of Flirty Fishing. The group was also accused of sexually abusing and raping minors within the organization, with considerable evidence to support this claim. One eighth of the total membership left the movement. Those who remained became part of a reorganized movement called the Family of Love, and later, The Family. The majority of the group's beliefs remained the same.
The Family of Love era was characterized by international expansion.
After 1978 Flirty Fishing "increased drastically" and became common practice within the group. A Mo Letter from 1980 (ML #999 May 1980) for example was headlined "The Devil Hates Sex! --- But God Loves It!". In some areas flirty fishers used escort agencies to meet potential converts. According to TFI "over 100,000 received God's gift of salvation through Jesus, and some chose to live the life of a disciple and missionary" as a result of Flirty Fishing. Researcher Bill Bainbridge obtained data from TFI suggesting that, from 1974 until 1987, members had sexual contact with 223,989 people while practicing Flirty Fishing.
The Family (1982–1994)
According to the Family's official history, the group had "far fewer common standards of conduct" during The Family of Love stage than it had previously. In the late 1980s the group "tightened its standards" "to ensure that all member communities provide a very wholesome environment for all, particularly the children", and changed its name to "The Family". In March 1989, TF issued a statement that, in "early 1985", an urgent memorandum had been sent to all members "reminding them that any such activities [adult–child sexual contact] are strictly forbidden within our group" (emphasis in original), and such activities were grounds for immediate excommunication from the group. In January 2005, Claire Borowik, a spokesperson for TFI, stated:
Due to the fact that our current zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual interaction between adults and underage minors was not in our literature published before 1986, we came to the realization that during a transitional stage of our movement, from 1978 until 1986, there were cases when some minors were subject to sexually inappropriate advances ... This was corrected officially in 1986, when any contact between an adult and minor (any person under 21 years of age) was declared an excommunicable offense.
In the early 1990s, the group broke "years of virtual silence" and began "inviting reporters and religious scholars" to visit its commune in La Habra, California, where at least a Washington Post journalist (Gustav Niebuhr) found its members to be "a clean-cut bunch, friendly and courteous". At that time The Family claimed to have "about 9,000 members worldwide, with about 750 scattered across the United States". The group emphasized its mainstream Christian opposition to abortion, homosexuality, drugs and drunkenness and its respect for Rev. Billy Graham.
The Family (1995–2003)
After Berg's death in October 1994, Karen Zerby (known in the group as Mama Maria, Queen Maria, Maria David, or Maria Fontaine) assumed leadership of the group.
In February 1995, the group introduced the Love Charter, which defined the rights and responsibilities of Charter Members and Homes. The Charter also included the Fundamental Family Rules, a summary of rules and guidelines from past TF publications which were still in effect.
In the 1994–95 British court case, the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Alan Ward ruled that the group, including some of its top leaders, had in the past engaged in abusive sexual practices involving minors and had also used severe corporal punishment and sequestration of minors. He found that by 1995 TF had abandoned these practices and concluded that they were a safe environment for children. Nevertheless, he did require that the group cease all corporal punishment of children in the United Kingdom and denounce any of Berg's writings that were "responsible for children in TF having been subjected to sexually inappropriate behaviour".
The Family International (2004–present)
The Love Charter is The Family's set governing document that entails each member's rights, responsibilities and requirements, while the Missionary Member Statutes and Fellow Member Statutes were written for the governance of TFI's Missionary member and Fellow Member circles, respectively. FD Homes were reviewed every six months against a published set of criteria. The Love Charter increased the number of single family homes as well as homes that relied on jobs such as self-employment.
TFI's recent teachings are based on beliefs which they term the "new [spiritual] weapons". TFI members believe that they are soldiers in the spiritual war of good versus evil for the souls and hearts of men.
"Spirit Helpers" include angels, other religious and mythical figures, and departed humans, including celebrities; for example the goddess Aphrodite, the Snowman, Merlin, the Sphinx, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Richard Nixon, and Winston Churchill.
The Keys of the Kingdom
TFI believes that the Biblical passage "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven", (Matthew 16:19) refers to an increasing amount of spiritual authority that was given to Peter and the early disciples. According to TFI beliefs, this passage refers to keys that were hidden and unused in the centuries that followed, but were again revealed through Karen Zerby as more power to pray and obtain miracles. TFI members call on the various Keys of the Kingdom for extra effect during prayer. The Keys, like most TFI beliefs, were published in magazines that looked like comic-books in order to make them teachable to children.
"Loving Jesus" is a term TFI members use to describe their intimate, sexual relationship with Jesus. TFI describes its "Loving Jesus" teaching as a radical form of bridal theology. They believe the church of followers is Christ's bride, called to love and serve him with wifely fervor; however, this bridal theology is taken further, encouraging members to imagine Jesus is joining them during sexual intercourse and masturbation. Male members are cautioned to visualize themselves as women, in order to avoid a homosexual relationship with Jesus. Many TFI publications, and spirit messages claimed to be from Jesus himself, elaborate this intimate, sexual relation they believe Jesus desires and needs. TFI imagines itself as his special "bride" in graphic poetry, guided visualizations, artwork, and songs. Some TFI literature is not brought into conservative countries for fear it may be classified at customs as pornography. The literature outlining this view of Jesus and his desire for a sexual relationship with believers was edited for younger teens, then further edited for children.
The Family has been criticized by the press and the anti-cult movement. Ex-members have accused the Family's leadership of following "a policy of lying to outsiders," being "steeped in a history of sexual deviance" and even meddling "in Third World politics". The Family replies that it is a victim of "persecution."
Allegations of abuse and mistreatment have been publicly expressed by some who have left the group; examples include sisters Celeste Jones, Kristina Jones, and Juliana Buhring, who wrote a book on their lives in TFI.
At least one individual growing up in the family (Verity Carter) during the Children of God era described being sexually abused "from the age of four by members of the... cult, including her own father". She blames the philosophy of David Berg, who told members that "God was love and love was sex", so that sex should not be limited by age or relationship. Carter also complains of being "repeatedly beaten and whipped for the smallest of transgressions", being denied "music or television or culture," or other "contact with the outside world," so that she had "no idea how the world worked" other than how to manipulate the "systemites" (outsiders), like social workers.
Author Don Lattin interviewed numerous members of the Family for his book Jesus Freaks. In a review of his book, Paul Burgarino describes Berg as "drawing from the remnants of hippie life—people with nothing to lose, nowhere to go, and no Christian background" to alert them to deviations in Berg's preaching. One ex-Children of God member, Jerry Golland, describes himself at the time of joining the group as penniless and so depressed that the Children of God scraped him "off the street". Members would "learn to spot, you know... a vulnerable person. We called them sheep", Golland told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Pressure to raise money could also be intense. Ex-member Golland says that members who were good at raising money and distributing the pamphlets were called "Shiners". Those with poor sales were called "Shamers". "If you missed your quota you could not come home for dinner", he said.
Notable members (past and present)
Joined in adulthood
- Jeremy Spencer, blues slide guitarist and a founding member of Fleetwood Mac, which he left in 1971 when he joined TFI.
Raised in the COG and later left
- Christopher Owens: musician, of US indie band Girls, was brought up in TFI by his parents.
- Rose McGowan: film actress, described her TFI childhood in interviews with Howard Stern, People magazine and later in her book Brave.
- River Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, Rain Phoenix, Liberty Phoenix and Summer Phoenix, actors, were members of the group from 1972 to 1978. River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in 1993, told Details magazine in November 1991 that "they're ruining people's lives."
- Susan Justice: American pop rock singer-songwriter and guitarist, known best for her debut self-recorded album, The Subway Recordings.
- Tina Dupuy: American journalist and syndicated columnist.
- Ricky Rodriguez: subject of the suppressed manual advocating adult-child sexual contact, committed a murder-suicide in 2005, killing one of the women who raised and allegedly sexually abused him, then himself.
- Davida Kelley: eldest daughter of Sara Kelley, who was David Berg's nanny and raised Davida and Ricky Rodriguez in a highly abuse environment. Davida has been outspoken about the group's abuse in public media such as Larry King Live and accused Berg of sexually abusing her as a child in a June 2005 Rolling Stone article.
- Celeste Jones and Kristina Jones: co-authors, along with Juliana Buhring, of Not Without My Sister, an autobiography detailing extensive abuse they suffered in COG. This book is used by the organization RAINN as a reference for child sexual abuse victims.
- Juliana Buhring: first woman to bicycle around the world and co-author of Not Without My Sister.
- Lauren Hough: author of Leaving is Not the Hardest Thing, brought up in TFI.
- Flor Edwards, author, who was raised inside the group before her parents moved out.
- Dawn Watson: victim of sexual abuse while living in a TFI community.
- Taylor Stevens: author, raised in the group from age 12 until she left in her 20's with her 2 children.
- Bexy Cameron: British child member who left aged 15 and later wrote a book about her experiences.
- Faith Jones: a lawyer, was raised in the group in Macau before leaving. She wrote about her life in the book Sex Cult Nun.
- Davis, Deborah (Linda Berg) (1984). THE CHILDREN OF GOD: The Inside Story. Zondervan Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan. ISBN 0-310-27840-6. Expose by the founder's eldest daughter who left the cult.
- Connolly, Ray (2011). Something Somebody Stole. ISBN 978-1460922545.. Expose by a senior member who left after 20+ years.
- Young, Daniella Mestyanek (2022). Uncultured: A Memoir. ISBN 978-1250280114.Young was born and raised in The Children of God cult. She's the eldest daughter of a second generation cult member who was 14 when she was impregnated by an older cult member.
Media featuring the group
- The Jesus Trip (1971): a documentary by Denis Tuohy that has interviews with Children of God members.
- Children of God (1994): a 63-minute Channel 4 documentary by John Smithson; detailing the Padilla family and the abuse of their three underage daughters and the death of another.
- Children of God: Lost and Found: a 75-minute documentary by Noah Thomson, featured at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival.
- Cult Killer: The Rick Rodriguez Story: a 53-minute UK documentary with a transcript.
- In the first episode of Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, "Born Again Christians", Louis visits a Texas TFI family.
- Buzzcocks mentions the group (as "Children Of God") in their song, "Orgasm Addict".
- RedLetterMedia featured the Family International video "S.O.S." on an episode of "Best of the Worst."
- Mentioned in Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru documentary at 52:00 of the film as an organization where children are forced to have sex from the age of six.
- The Parcast Podcast Cults: Episodes 11 and 12.
- Citizen Rose: A five part documentary series shown on the E! Channel. The first episode premiered on January 30, 2018. The series follows actress Rose McGowan who was born into the cult.
- The Last Podcast on the Left did a four part series on the cult: Episodes 248-251
- Dan Cummins' podcast Timesuck covered the cult in episode 104, "The Children of God Sex Cult."
- AJJ released a song entitled "Children of God" on their 2014 album Christmas Island.
- A&E's Cults and Extreme Belief, episode 3 (2018) is about the Children of God.
- Children of the Cult: this 5-part series charts the remarkable story of some of the 2nd generation member’s experiences of abuse and their fight for survival, escape, and quest for justice.
- Comet Kohoutek was viewed by David Berg as a prophetic sign of imminent disaster.
- Jim Palosaari co-formed the Jesus People Army, left it before the group joined the Children of God, and tried to convince Linda Meissner not to join it.
- Love bombing describes a manipulative style of recruiting.
- Panton Hill, Victoria is the location of one of the communes, where a large government raid occurred and many children were removed by social services.
- The Clearing ITV series)
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- Moreton, Cole (December 22, 2012). "Juliana Buhring becomes first woman to cycle round the world as she pedals into Naples after 152 days on the road". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on January 12, 2022.
- Hough, Lauren (November 27, 2016). "Work, pray, fear: my life in the Family cult". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on December 6, 2016. Retrieved December 6, 2016.
- "Apocalypse Child". June 24, 2017. Archived from the original on February 17, 2020. Retrieved February 17, 2020.
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- Children of God: Lost and Found at IMDb
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- Chancellor, James (2000). Life in The Family: An Oral History of the Children of God. University of Syracuse Press, Syracuse, NY.
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- Bainbridge, William Sims (1996). The Sociology of Religious Movements. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-91202-4.
- Barker, Eileen. (1989). New Religious Movements, A Practical Introduction. Her Majesty's Stationery Office. ISBN 0-11-340927-3.
- Barker, Eileen. (2021). "Children of God/The Family International Armageddon" Archived April 26, 2021, at the Wayback Machine. In James Crossley and Alastair Lockhart (eds.) Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements.
- Barrett, DV (1996). Sects, Cults and Alternative Religions. Blandford A. Cassell. ISBN 0-7137-2567-2.
- Boeri, Miriam Williams (2002). "Women After the Utopia: The Gendered Lives of Former Cult Members". Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 31 (3): 323–360. doi:10.1177/0891241602031003003. S2CID 145652798.
- Kent, Stephen A. (1994). "Lustful prophet: A psycho-sexual historical study of the children of god's leader, David Berg". Cultic Studies Journal. 11 (2): 135–188. Archived from the original on February 28, 2005. Retrieved August 11, 2004.
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- Kent, Stephen A. (2000). "Brainwashing and re-indoctrination programs in the Children of God/The Family". Cultic Studies Journal. 17: 56–78. Archived from the original on February 28, 2005. Retrieved August 11, 2004.
- Lewis, James R, and Melton, J. Gordon (eds). (1994). Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating The Family/Children of God. Center for Academic Press, Stanford, CA.
- Lynch, Dalva, and Paul Carden (1990). "Inside the 'Heavenly Elite': The Children of God Today." Archived August 3, 2004, at the Wayback Machine. Christian Research Journal, pp 16.
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- Melton, J. Gordon (2004). The Children of God, "The Family" (Studies in Contemporary Religion vol. 7). Signature Books. ISBN 1-56085-180-5.
- Melton, J. Gordon (2004). The Family International Britannica Article Archived April 24, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
- Melton, J. Gordon and Robert L. Moore (1982). The Cult Experience: Responding to the New Religious Pluralism. The Pilgrim Press, New York, USA.
- Palmer, Susan J. (1994). "Heaven's Children: The Children of God's Second Generation" in Sex, Slander, and Salvation, op. cit.
- Palmer, Susan J., and Charlotte Hardman eds. (1999). Children in New Religions (3rd ed.). Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-2620-5.
- Shepherd, Gary, and Lawrence Lilliston (1994). "Field Observations of Young People's Experience and Role in The Family" in Sex, Slander, and Salvation, op. cit.
- Shepherd, Gary, and Shepherd, Gordon (August 2005). "Accommodation and Reformation in The Family/Children of God" Archived March 11, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, Nova Religio (Journal of the University of California)
- Shepherd, Gary and Shepherd, Gordon (Spring 2000)."The Moral Career of a New Religious Movement" The Oakland Journal.
- Wilson, Bryan and Jamie Cresswell, eds. (1999). New Religious Movements: Challenge and Response. Routledge, London, UK.
- Wright, Stuart (1987). Leaving Cults: The Dynamics of Defection. Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Washington, D.C., USA. ISBN 0-932566-06-5 (Contains interviews with ex-members of three groups, among others the Children of God)
- Van Zandt, David (1991). Living in the Children of God. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
- Young, Shawn David, Hippies, Jesus Freaks, and Music (Ann Arbor: Xanedu/Copley Original Works, 2005). ISBN 1-59399-201-7.
Journalistic and popular
- McManus, Una (1980). Not for a Million Dollars. Impact Books. ISBN 0-914850-54-7.
- Williams, Miriam (1999). Heaven's Harlots: My Fifteen Years As a Sacred Prostitute in the Children of God Cult. Quill. ISBN 0-688-17012-9.
- "30 Members of Children of God arrested" Archived December 14, 2017, at the Wayback Machine (September 2, 1993). Washington Post, pp. A05
- "The Family" and Final Harvest" Archived March 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine (June 2, 1993). Washington Post, pp. A01
- Goodstein, Laurie (2005), "Murder and Suicide Reviving Claims of Child Abuse in Cult Archived May 3, 2015, at the Wayback Machine", The New York Times, January 15, 2005, pg. A-1
- Don Lattin: Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge. HarperOne. ISBN 0-06-111804-4.
- Mahoney, Mary (2020). Abnormal Normal: My Life in the Children of God ISBN 979-8-6317-4606-0
- Official website
- DavidBerg.org – Official website explaining David Brandt Berg's mission, vision and message.
- KarenZerby.org – Karen Zerby's official site.
- TFICharter.com – Official Governing Documents of The Family International.
- Children of God.com – Official history of the COG (pre-TFI).
- xFamily – Wiki detailing TFI; includes large collections of multimedia, press coverage, and internal TFI publications.
- xFamily PubsDB – a near-complete database of all writings by David Berg and Karen Zerby.
- exfamily.org – information, forums, links, etc. about TFI by former first-generation members.