Living in the Children of God

Living in the Children of God

David E. Van Zandt
Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7ztt8h
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Living in the Children of God
    Book Description:

    At the height of the religious ferment of the 1970s, David Van Zandt studied firsthand the most vilified of the new radical religious movements--the Children of God, or the Family of Love. First feigning membership and later gaining the permission of the Family, the author lived full-time in COG colonies in England and the Netherlands. From that experience, he has produced an informed, insightful, and humane report on how COG members function in what seems at first to be a completely bizarre setting. The COG, an offshoot of the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s, was one of the first radical religious groups to be accused of "brainwashing." Led by the charismatic David Berg, known as Moses David, the group demands total commitment from its full-time members and proselytizes continuously. Until recently the COG used sex as a proselytizing tool, and it continues to encourage full sexual sharing among group members. Instead of examining the COG's ideology in the abstract, Van Zandt analyzes how its ideas are understood and used by ordinary members in their daily lives. For them the Family is its practical, day-to-day, and all-consuming activities, such as "litnessing" (the street sale of COG literature). This is a vivid eyewitness account that will fascinate anyone interested in life in modern radical communal religions, such as the Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas, as well as in other radical, Christian-based, total-commitment groups. Van Zandt's frank reflections on his near-conversion experience and on the ethics of his covert observation enrich our knowledge of doing research with such groups.

    Originally published in 1991.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6215-3
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION STUDYING THE CHILDREN OF GOD
    (pp. 3-17)

    OF THE cultish religious groups that blossomed in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Children of God (the COG, also the “Family of Love” or the “Family”)¹ was certainly one of the most radical and controversial. Its requirement that members “drop out” of conventional society to “serve God” on a full-time basis drew the ire of parents and more mainline religious leaders, as did its later advocacy of sex as a method to attract converts. It was constantly cited by the press as a symptom of some darker strain in American culture, and it spawned a thriving business in “deprogramming,”...

  5. ONE IDEOLOGY AND PROSELYTIZATION
    (pp. 18-29)

    TO THE outsider, the religious beliefs of Family members are extreme. Ideas such as the imminent onset of the millennium, the necessity for total commitment to a proselytizing life-style, and the irredeemably evil nature of the secular world are not widely shared in our society. From the perspective of this study, however, what is important is the role these beliefs, eccentric as they are, play in the everyday life of COG members; that is, how do members comprehend and use the COG ideology in daily life? (I define “ideology” as the set of beliefs members have at their disposal to...

  6. TWO A SHORT HISTORY OF THE CHILDREN OF GOD
    (pp. 30-55)

    THE BASIC ideological activities and interactional patterns that make up the everyday life of Family members—the subject matter of this book—have remained relatively stable over the years. Around this core, however, the Family has experienced a series of changes in its access strategies, sources of recruitment, the doctrinal emphases of its kerygma, and its organization and authority structure. As I have already suggested, proselytization has oscillated between proclamatory and more intensive conversion efforts. In fact, most Family members would say that radical or “revolutionary” change has been the constant feature of the COG from its beginning.¹

    Dominating almost...

  7. THREE THE ORGANIZATIONAL SETTING OF EVERYDAY LIFE
    (pp. 56-71)

    BEFORE analyzing specific everyday activities in subsequent chapters, I here describe some of the organizational features of everyday life in the Family.¹ The social organization of the Family is not dictated in toto by the formal ideology (cf. Durkheim and Mauss 1963:62–66): specific organizational forms are judged within the Family by their instrumentality in achieving ideological goals, not by their consistency with some ideological picture of the perfect society. Of course, the social organization must satisfy the demands of the formal ideology—in particular, the ideological imperative to proselytize. But more secular factors also affect the actual organization of...

  8. FOUR SOCIAL RELATIONS IN EVERYDAY LIFE
    (pp. 72-82)

    THE TOTAL commitment feature of life in COG colonies has spawned a specific type of interaction within the group between super- and subordinates. In addition, even interactions between Family members are starkly different from those between members and nonmembers; while the former are generally relaxed interactions between people sharing common ground, the latter are intense and involve more stylized behavior on the part of members.

    In earlier days, authority in the Family was quasi-military: members were blindly obedient to their leaders, and orders were often shouted. This style contributed to the group’s self-perception as a revolutionary army for Jesus, challenging...

  9. FIVE LITNESSING: STREET PROSELYTIZATION AS AN ACCESS STRATEGY
    (pp. 83-97)

    PUBLIC streets have always been the marketplace of ideas as well as wares, and the sale of both has been vigorous. The COG in the early 1970s recognized this timeworn feature of the public street and set out to exploit it with litnessing, a form of street proselytization.¹ Litnessing, as I have discussed, is an access strategy in which a member stops a passerby on a public street by offering him or her a piece of COG literature, or “lit,” and asking the recipient for a donation. The encounter introduces the passerby to the Family and opens up the possibility...

  10. SIX WITNESSING: TECHNIQUES FOR CONVERSION
    (pp. 98-116)

    ONCE A prospect has been engaged through an access strategy such as litnessing, the member often attempts to convert the prospect. In sociological studies of religious behavior, conversion is frequently the paramount problem. To the outsider or observer, the question “why would anyone do such a thing?” immediately presents itself, particularly in the study of sects. However, for understanding the believer’s everyday life, far more salient from this perspective is the activity that is the obverse of the conversion event: witnessing, or the role played by the committed believer in trying to convert others. While conversion usually occurs only once...

  11. SEVEN READING RELIGIOUS LITERATURE
    (pp. 117-132)

    RELIGIOUS literature plays an important role in the day-to-day activities of many religious groups. The written word, as the supposed holder of high and sacred truths, has a long history. The control of reading and writing by an elite priesthood is a significant feature of many religious systems. In other traditions, access to such texts has been democratized. Protestantism, in certain lines of its development, has emphasized the necessity of the individual believer referring to the sacred sources in order to understand the truth. In such traditions, the problem of apprehending the “truth” through reading becomes critical.

    The importance of...

  12. EIGHT PRACTICAL RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY: CREATING AND MAINTAINING THE CHILDREN OF GOD REALITY
    (pp. 133-148)

    IN THE preceding chapters, I analyzed in some detail three fairly circumscribed sets of ideological activities in the Family. By engaging in such activities, members create and maintain the ongoing social reality that is “life in the Family.” In this chapter, I suggest that this sense of “living in the COG” is also created and maintained in the course of everyday interactions—even the most mundane—between members. Even when members are not engaged directly in an ideological activity such as litnessing, witnessing, or reading, they are constantly talking with each other. In this talk—practical religious reasoning—they reason...

  13. NINE SOCIALIZATION AND ROLE NEGOTIATION
    (pp. 149-165)

    HOW DOES a person become a Child of God? Sociologists use the concept of “socialization” to answer this question, and COG members have their own theory of socialization that is strikingly similar to the sociological theory. From my study, however, I found that becoming and remaining a Child of God is an ongoing, never ending process in the Family. I have described various activities that members engage in in everyday life in the COG. Being competent at these activities is the essence of what it is to be a Child of God. There is no discrete point in time when...

  14. POSTSCRIPT JANUARY 1991
    (pp. 166-172)

    IN THE period since I completed my study,¹ organizational aspects of the COG have continued to change with the same freneticism that marked change during my study.² However, the Family’s aphorism, “AU things change, but Jesus never!” still applies: while David Berg has run members through a gauntlet of changes, the same basic techniques of witnessing, litnessing, and reading still form the core of the COG experience. As of July 1988, the Family claimed to have 12,390 full-time members of which 6,833 were children, most of whom were born into the Family.³ The Family today is centered in Brazil and...

  15. APPENDIX A THE LIFE HISTORY OF THE RESEARCH AND ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
    (pp. 173-196)
  16. APPENDIX B SAMPLE MO LETTERS
    (pp. 197-212)
  17. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 213-224)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 225-232)