The Children of God continue to attain notoriety for their unconventional practices. Recently the media have carried stories about efforts of opponents of COG to help members leave the group. Opponents see the sect as diabolically evil; COG members see themselves as the only remnant faithful to Jesus Christ in these evil end times, and they have supporters outside the group.
What is the truth about COG? How can observers come to such diametrically opposite views of the subject? The explanation, we believe, lies in the fact that COG leaders speak out of both sides of their mouths; one of their statements will contradict another. This is not because it is impossible to coordinate all statements emanating from a group scattered around the world. Rather, it is because the Children of God deliberately set out to deceive outsiders about their true nature. We ourselves have been recipients of what COG calls the “Selah treatment”: sweet-talk given to visitors to COG colonies in an effort to convince them that the organization is harmless.
Recently a number of “Mo Letters”—missives written by COG’s unchallenged ruler, David Berg (alias Moses), to members of the group—have come into our possession. A comparison of what Mo tells his followers in these epistles with what he and they say to outsiders makes perfectly clear COG’s efforts to deceive. This article is devoted to documenting these deceptions.
Recently COG sent out to its mailing list an intriguing “Open Letter to Our Friends” written by Berg. He admits the pressing need for outside support. He also concedes that some statements emanating from COG have discouraged such vital support. However, he excuses himself by attributing the offending statement to his subordinates—the first crack in the solid front presented by COG leadership to the outside world. Declaring that Christians do not have to agree totally on all minor doctrines to work together, he asserts his “personal policy” of “tolerance and broadmindedness” and blames any misunderstanding on remarks by “sincerely zealous, but sometimes sadly unwise, lesser leaders.” He then proceeds to deny certain teachings ascribed to him.
Unfortunately, other writings of his contradict his denials. For instance, Berg categorically denies the “flagrantly defiant and erroneous slogan with which I have never had anything to do whatsoever,” namely, “My family, my family—right or wrong, my family!” What Berg actually said, in his Mo Letter “There Are No Neutrals” was, “You’re either for us or you’re against us … ‘My country, my country, right or wrong, my country.’ ” Is there a substantive difference between these statements, one of which Berg made and the other of which he denies? Or did Berg just forget what he had said earlier? (If so, he does not read his “Mo Letters” as religiously as do his followers, whom he tells to read the same way they read the Bible.) Or is he consciously trying to deceive? Or is there some other alternative?
Berg also asserts that he is “diametrically opposed to the dangerous, erroneous and false teaching … of which I myself have often been very falsely accused” and which he ascribes to “an incorrigible few” of his subordinates “who have disregarded many reproofs,” namely, “That it’s alright [sic] to lie, cheat, steal, and perhaps even commit violence in the name of Jesus as long as it’s good for the cause.” He declares that he never taught this and that it can be found “in absolutely no Mo letter in existence,” and he challenges followers “to prove in writing that I have ever indicated such a thing.…” Berg professes shock that some COGs said on a national telecast in Canada “that they were so loyal to Moses and so obedient that even if he told them to kill their parents, they would do so!” He declares, “I have never even suggested such unquestioning, blind and implicit obedience!”
First, it is strange that followers in a rigidly authoritarian sect would so flagrantly misrepresent the man whom they revere as God’s anointed prophet for the last days and on whose word they have given up everything. Second, numbers of COGs and ex-COGs have reiterated what was said on the Canadian telecast about total obedience to Berg, even to the point of killing on command. One ex-COG testified on NBC’s “Chronolog” program in the summer of 1972:
I was taught in the Children of God I would have to commit adultery, theft, and murder during the last seven years of the world because of the fact that we would be under cover, and there would be things like this that would have to be done in order to sustain our group.
Numerous newspapers have reported COG members were asked if they would kill (their parents or national leaders, for example) if their elder ordered them to do so. Invariably the answer was yes. It is clear that an affirmative answer to this presumably hypothetical question was expected if they wanted to retain their good standing.
And while Berg claims that nothing in the “Mo Letters” supports the teaching of such implicit obedience, the hard evidence indicates otherwise. The “Revolutionary Contract,” which all new members must sign, declares that “instant obedience is imperative.” It elaborates: “You must obey: implicitly, quickly and without question your officers in the Lord, if you wish to remain a member of this Team.…” Elsewhere Berg instructs, “… obedience is not enough.… To ‘submit yourself’ means put your whole body, soul and spirit into complete subjection to the spirit of God in your leader.” Lest one might find “the spirit of God in your leader” an escape clause for Berg, we cite another statement in a “Mo Letter”:
The Bible talks about obeying your parents in the Lord (which is your leadership, not your ungodly fleshly parents). It says obey them in all things, even if they are wrong! If a leader tells you to do something wrong you are justified before God for obeying leadership.…
Now, which is the more valid reading of these statements—the members’ declaration that they would obey every order of their superiors in COG, even one to kill, or Berg’s argument that he never taught blind, implicit obedience?
In his “Open Letter” Berg also denies that he “ever claimed that the final Kingdom of Christ has already arrived on earth.” What he did say was, “We agree with 95% of the radical revolutionaries’ goals, but their goal of utopia, they cannot reach, while we have reached it already.… We are practicing the only pure form of communism …” (“The Rise of the Reactionary Right”).
Nor are Berg’s denials in his recent “Open Letter” the only examples of the deception running through COG’s operation. Berg has instructed his lieutenants to say that he is no longer actively in control of COG. So on NBC’s “Chronolog” program, Berg’s son “Hosea” dutifully declared that his father “does not take an active part in our COG activities.” As if Berg’s recent “Open Letter” were not in itself enough to give the lie to this announcement, several “Mo Letters” verify his active leadership. In “General Letter on Various Business,” designed only for overseers to read, Berg gives detailed instructions to leaders in various places; discussions of money predominate. For instance: they are “never to discuss your finances with outsiders, at least not the specifics, such as Ben’s inheritance.…” Berg sends checks to various leaders, according to this epistle. In it he also instructs his immediate subordinates whom to appoint as overall overseer for the United States. He scolds those in charge of absorbing Linda Meissner’s Jesus People’s Army of the Pacific Northwest for moving too fast and kicking recalcitrant kids off the property before COG had legal ownership of it, since that move left the COG leaders open to trespassing charges. He adds, “I wonder if you would have been so ready to run them out of the building, if you’d known this?” When Berg wrote an emergency letter to send all COGs home for the holidays in late 1971, he threatened elders who did not comply with removal from office. All the members went home.
A flyer designed for outsiders, entitled “What the Children of God Really Believe,” says, “Nothing is kept hidden or secret about their way of life.…” Why, then, the “Selah treatment”? Also, why the following in Mo’s “Pointers for Leaders”: “Don’t tell people more than you have to, to accomplish the needed purpose”?
Berg evidences a paranoid desire for secrecy concerning his own whereabouts. His “Pointers for Leaders” warns, “Always protect your leader’s security! (For example, don’t broad-cast their whereabouts on shortwave!) Remember—it’s a small world, and they’re always out to get the leaders!” Berg coaches his followers on how to answer probing questions about his identity: “ ‘Who is Moses?’—I can’t really tell you! ‘Is he so-and-so?’—I really don’t know—He’s never really told us, and even if he had, he wouldn’t want us to tell.… ‘Is he really your leader?’—Jesus Christ is my leader!” (“Public Relations”). While elders say they do not know their leader’s identity, COG has recently published some of the more innocuous “Mo Letters” as a book entitled LettersFrom a Shepherd, the cover of which lists the author as “David Brandt Berg, also known as Moses.” The strategy shifts to fit the situation.
In “Public Relations” Berg gives his subordinates detailed instructions on how to handle reporters. He tells them not to cooperate with any media that publish hostile stories, but to promise scoops to reporters who treat them kindly, suggesting that the elders “could even furnish them with a few harmless ones [“Mo Letters”] like ‘Diamonds of Dust,’ if they would promise to continue to treat them fairly!” He then provides a list of typical questions and the prescribed answers, along with a demonstration of how to go on the offensive in an interview, speak with conviction, and badger the reporter. After intricate examples of how to deceive reporters, he asserts, “Honesty is usually the best policy in dealing with the Press,” then two paragraphs later explicates his ideal of honesty: “… you can just stall, evade, or lead them off on another track.…” He continues: “Give them a good story. Try not to be negative in knocking the system, its churches, etc.—even public education!… It’s OK to talk like this to each other, but not to outsiders!” Further, “Don’t use what they call ‘bad language’ and four letter words within their hearing!”
“… and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints … and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints …” (Revelation 8:3, 4).
From this sunrise angle
the chipped cup rim
shapes coffee mist to an ellipse
holding the morning odor
in brief order to the eye
before my nostrils inhale
and make its rising incense
a part of morning adoration
to the Holy God who can
make me a hale fellow.
EUGENE H. PETERSON
What goes for managing the news applies also to what is variously called “procuring” or “spoiling Egypt.” Since COG members do not hold paying jobs, they must try to get free food from local merchants. The colony member assigned to this task is called the procurer. He is given specific instructions on his appearance, dress, and manner: neat haircut, coat and tie, clean, conservative shirt, no jeans or far-out pants and shirts, shoes shined, teeth brushed, mouthwash used. “Don’t be afraid to put on a camouflage to put on the system” (“Procuring”). In many localities procurers represent the group by some name other than “Children of God,” lest COG’s bad publicity inhibit their efforts. Procurers say that the group are Bible-college students, that the ministry is taking young people off drugs and training them in “a certain trade to teach the young people how to become productive members in society” (“Procuring”). Never mind that one of COG’s main teachings is that it is sinful to hold a job in society. Procurers show pictures of their work, but they are selective, as per Berg’s advice: for example, “… lay off the dancing, you’re a Bible oriented group …” (“Procuring”).
The Children of God have had some success in their efforts to recruit from other Jesus-people groups, whom they consider “compromisers.” Again, deception is part and parcel of their method of operating. When Linda Meissner joined COG, she brought with her an underground newspaper re-christened “New Improved Truth.” It quotes establishment newspaper stories on COG, but wherever the name “Children of God” appeared in the original, it is blocked out and a substitution like “Jesus Revolution” or “Jesus Freaks” appears in its place. Nowhere is the paper declared to belong to COG. The mild “Mo Letters” carried in it are ascribed cryptically to M. L. In “Other Sheep” Berg, reacting to published criticism of COG, scolds his subordinates for their excessive exclusivism, which detracts from the effort to bring other Jesus people into COG. Of course, they learned their exclusivism from Berg himself, and what he calls for is not a change of beliefs but only one of tactics. The idea is to avoid doctrinal arguments and condemnations, telling recruits the “heavy stuff” about COG’s view of Bible prophecy only after they are safely within COG’s fold. “You could even read them the lighter Mo Letters designed for babes and the general public!” Another thing Berg would not want prospects to know is that “it may be the Lord’s Will to take otherwise less desirable mothers or fathers, to get the children!—Kibbutzim do” (“Pointers for Leaders”). A strange statement coming from a man who prides himself and his group on being outcasts for whom established society has no use, the foolish and weak whom God is using to confound the wise and strong of this world.
The same deception is employed in dealing with parents of new members. COG leaders make a big point of their instructions that members are to write home weekly. However, we know from conversation with exmembers that this is not encouraged until converts are firmly in COG’s grasp. Further, “Public Relations” makes it clear that the main purpose of allowing members to write at all is to try to get money out of the parents for COG’s use. There is a second reason: to minimize bad publicity. In fact, since the holiday season of 1971, COG has taken to sending members home on occasion—again, for the same two reasons—a move Berg describes as “a masterful stroke of genius” (“by the Lord,” he adds) (“Public Relations”).
Parents who find out where their children are located and come to talk with them are often prevented from doing so. Although numerous cases can be documented, COG leaders publicly deny this. Yet Berg acknowledges this well-known fact in his “Public Relations” letter. However, the letter announces a shift in tactics because of the bad press that this practice incurred. It is necessary, he now says, to take a chance and let parents speak with their children, in private if they absolutely insist. This means risking “kidnapping” of the children by their parents, and so members receive detailed instructions about how to escape from parents and return to the colony.
Nevertheless, the old practice is still often in effect. An English newspaper, Sunday People, set up an experiment to see if COG dealt honestly with parents. A young reporter “joined” COG. The next day an older reporter, posing as his father, came seeking him. The elders denied that his “son” was there and denied even knowing him. While the “father” was being offered coffee, Bible verses, and a demonstration of love, the elders tried to get to the young reporter to let them hide him (Sunday People, Sept. 24, 1972, p. 4). When an English woman tried to retrieve her daughter, she was shoved by Berg’s wife, known in the group as “Mother Eve.” When the woman pressed charges over the incident, a COG elder warned her to drop the case and threatened: “If you don’t you will never see your daughter again.” Mother Eve subsequently fled the country.
One must understand the COG view of the older generation as a whole in order to understand this behavior. Adults are assumed to belong to the System, which manifests itself in government, jobs, schools, and (most evil of all) churches—all of which make up the Great Whore of Babylon. Duplicity is again the hallmark of COG operations. Berg speaks of the “goodwill visitations to local churches” in which COG engaged in the early days in southern California (“Survival”). Yet, referring to the same visits, he crows, “We thumbed our noses at the churches and the Establishment.” Berg’s letters regularly catalogue vitriolic diatribes against the church. Sample:
And the Church?—Ha!—The so-called church … is just an absolute ridiculous laugh!—A little holier-than-thou, do-gooder, social club and status symbol for the self-righteous, sanctimonious, Pharisaical, superannuated hypocrites!—a useless, ineffective, weak and ludicrous, dead and dying, paganistic hangover from the superstitious past! (“Survival”).
Berg writes to a potential donor about “as much as we love them [church people],” but elsewhere he calls them “these d—, fool, so-called Christians” and their churches “the moldy molds of the coffins of the dead”—hardly a place to which to pay good-will visits.
Parents are tarred with the same vitriolic brush. “The Revolutionary Contract” describes parents as “the rotten, decadent, decrepit, hypocritical, selfrighteous, inflexable [sic], affluent, selfsatisfied, proud, stubborn, disobedient, blind, bloodthirsty, Godless, dead, selfish, churchy, unchangeable older generation.” The “Mo Letter” “Who Are the Rebels?” blasts “this recent modern plastic, artificial man-made gadget-filled, money crazy, whoremongering sex-mad—religiously hyprocritical society of the parents”; and the “God forsaking, Bible-hating, anti-Christ selfish peace-defying, law breaking, man killing parents of today.” Berg’s condemnation follows. “You, my dear parents, are the greatest rebels against God and His Word and His Ways.… To Hell with your devilish system. May God damn your unbelieving hearts.… God is going to destroy you and save us.…”
Though COG members early learn proof-texts for home-breaking for the sake of Christ, Berg publicly denies it: “To say that we try to separate ‘children’ from their loved ones is ridiculous! We have actually done more in most cases to bring them back together …” (“Survival”). Yet in the same passage Berg admits that in extreme cases, when parents have threatened or attempted violent action to reclaim their children, COG has sequestered the children—at their own request and for their own safety, he explains. Then comes the threat: “… we have been compelled in several cases to file criminal action and … have [been] … forced to prosecute them to protect ourselves and put a stop to their lies.… Don’t try to stop them [the children] or us!” (“Survival”). No wonder COG leaders value their privacy: “And with such insane parents on the loose, is it any wonder that the poor hounded leaders of some suffering Colonies prefer to be unseen, unknown, or at least out of the reach of such demented fiends …” (“Survival”). What is true for his lieutenants is even more applicable to the chief. He has good reason to prefer “to remain anonymous, and in the utmost seclusion for both my health and safety’s sake when there are such crazy people like those we’ve been describing running around with guns in their hands actually threatening to kill me if they can find me” (“Survival”).
It is always difficult to judge the mind of another man. But it is difficult to read and compare the various statements of David Berg and not conclude that they demonstrate a conscious pattern of deviousness. How this can be squared with the teachings of the Bible that Berg claims to venerate we do not know. If Berg were to confess that he had been mistaken and overzealous in his past pronouncements and to promise to shift from deceptiveness to high Christian ethics, that would be one thing. Until he does, he stands exposed as practicing an unconscionable duplicity.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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