The Untold Truth Of The Children Of God Cult

The Children of God (later known as the Family, and now as the Family International) began in the 1960s. The cult blended Christian rhetoric and the illusion of forward-thinking free love to attract people who were disillusioned as the hippie movement dwindled. As noted by Last Podcast on the Left, it was one of many cults formed in California at this time, including Scientology and the Manson Family. The Children of God is characterized by the rampant sex abuse that was not only tolerated, but mandated by its doctrine. All spiritual abuse in the cult was abhorrent, but one of the most highly criticized was the sexualization of children. The Children of God abused all its members, and children were no exception.

Early on, many were lured into the group by teens singing pop songs and handing out coffee and snacks. At one time, there were 10,000 members worldwide.  According to the BBC, there are about 1,500 members today, and the movement continues as a "small online network." This is the untold truth of the Children of God cult.

The following article includes references to religious abuse.

If you or someone you know is dealing with spiritual abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

The Children of God was founded by David Berg

David Berg was the leader of the Children of God, and the origins of the system of control that he would use on his followers were in his childhood.

As detailed in episode 248 of Last Podcast on the Left, Berg's mother believed in spiritual healing, and even had a healer come to the family home to treat Berg as an infant. Later, his family became involved in the Pentecostal movement. When Berg was 6, the family moved to Miami, and started the Berg Evangalistic Dramatic Company. His mother acted as the preacher and his father was the "choreographer and music director." This blending of music and faith would later appear in the Children of God.

Berg had a "lifelong obsession with sex." His family was abusive, frequently shaming and abusing their son for exploring himself sexually. He often used his inappropriate, incestuous relationship with his family to justify the way people of all ages were abused in his cult.

As an adult, he experimented with different religious movements. He became a minister, but was quickly forced to give up his position at his first church. (Berg claimed that the town had resisted allowing American Indians in the congregation, but others said he was run out of town after allegations of sexual misconduct.) He spent time working with a faith healer and then an evangelist, and then independently, with his children performing as Teens for Christ.

Meanwhile Berg's mother preached to hippie youth about Christ. Ultimately, Berg joined her. Then, after her death, he expanded.

The Children of God was based in prophesies

"Who are the real rebels of today?" Rolling Stone reports Berg asking his followers. "We are the true lovers of peace and love and truth and beauty and God and freedom; whereas you, our parents ... are on the brink of destroying and polluting all of us and our world if we do not rise up against you in the name of God and try to stop you."

Berg, sometimes called Moses David by his followers, preached anti-establishment beliefs to his followers, and he also prophesied the end of the world. The cult leader told his followers that the apocalypse was coming, saying that "evil would fall and congregants would be lifted to the heavens." The followers of Children of God were told to expect the apocalypse in 1993, and they lived their lives as if they would soon be over. Children were barely educated, as it was seen as unnecessary so close to the end of the world.

"For many it was euphoric thinking about the afterlife," Flor Edwards, who was raised in the cult, told the LA Times. "We earned that spot in heaven — we were the chosen ones. But in my mind, I couldn't just think about the afterlife but that threshold we had to cross to get there. It plagued me as a child."

Many of these prophecies that Berg shared were racist. As reported by the LA Times, he convinced his followers that there was a conspiracy between Jewish and Black Americans to, "ruin the world."

David Berg used Mo Letters to communicate his vision

David Berg was almost never seen by members of the Children of God. As reported by the LA Times, even photos of him were altered to conceal his appearance –- often with a lion's face placed over his. Still, Berg was in constant communication with his followers, through what became known as Mo Letters.

Mo Letters, so called because of Berg's nickname, Moses David, were physical documents distributed among his followers. They contained doctrine that everyone in the cult was required to follow. Some, like "The Christmas Monster" include prophecies about the end of the world. Others, like "The Girl Who Wouldn't," functioned like a twisted "Dear Abby," in which Berg responded to letters from his members and gave them instructions. Many included illustrations that resemble pornographic comic book covers. According to exfamily.org, a group that provides resources to former members and has archived the Mo Letters, Berg wrote more than 3,000 during his lifetime.

Daily life in the Children of God

For members of the Children of God, every minute detail of their lives was controlled by the rules set by Berg, from how many sheets of toilet paper they should use to what their job was.

As explained by Last Podcast on the Left, they were split into 12 groups (inspired by the 12 tribes of Israel), each with a different role, such as cleaning or cooking for the cult. Some members were even given new names.

Traditional families weren't valued in Children of God. Instead, everyone was a member of one large "family" with Berg at the center. "Everything was broken down so the parents didn't have control over the raising of the children," Jeanette Solano, associate professor of religious studies at Cal State Fullerton, told the LA Times. "Parental authority was abdicated to the community."

The best food and supplies went to high-ranking members, and the majority had to get by with whatever was left. They were never permitted to be alone, even in the bedroom or bathroom. Members read Bible passages over loudspeakers, and prepped for the end of days.

The Children of God produced music videos

From Teens for Christ to members singing pop songs to lure people to talk about Jesus, Children of God has always been entwined with music. In the early 1980s, with the rise of music videos, the cult created numerous broadcasts. Its videos were advertised as "hours of delightful and wholesome entertainment." (Via the 1994 documentary "Children of God.")

Amy Bril was one of the first people to be born into the cult. At 8 years old, she moved from France to Greece with her parents to join a music recording unit. According to her interview in the docuseries "Cults and Extreme Belief," the shows they put together were broadcast internationally. Later, the cult insisted that Amy remain with the music unit, but her parents return to France. Alone in a foreign county, she recorded songs almost daily. "They used music a lot in their lifestyle and in their evangelism," Bril explains in the documentary.

Some songs released by the Children of God were simply Christian rock, but others specifically discussed the groups extreme beliefs in the lyrics. One such song is "Kathy Don't Go!," which foretells of a dystopian future where everyone has a barcode (which the cult equated with the sign of the beast) on their body, and urges the titular character not to go to the supermarket.

Several celebrities grew up in the Children of God

Several celebrities were raised in the Children of God, including actress and activist Rose McGowan. In an interview with the Irish Times, she described it as "very stressful, like a highwire act," where she was forced to be physically perfect, even recounting a story where someone cut her finger with a knife because she had a wart."What they were doing wasn't matching up with what they were saying." Ultimately, McGowan's father made the decision to leave with his family when the cult began to advocate child abuse.

Actors River and Joaquin Phoenix and their siblings were also brought into Children of God in the 1970s. Their family traveled Central and South America with the cult, but didn't stay for long. In an interview with Playboy in 2014, Joaquin Phoenix emphasized that his parents were there to connect with other people who believed in Jesus and share their experiences (via ABC News). "I think my parents thought they'd found a community that shared their ideals," he explained, "Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It's usually someone saying, 'We're like-minded people. This is a community,' but I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out."

The Children of God had a culture without consent

The Children of God took "free love" to an extreme. The BBC explains that "​​David Berg told members that God was love and love was sex, so there should be no limits, regardless of age or relationship."

Through his Mo Letters, Berg promoted a doctrine referred to simply as "sharing." This advised members to be intimate with any other group members who wanted to, at any time. "I was convinced it was like a duty," former member Sylvia Padilla explained in a documentary about her family's experience, "Sometimes you were revolted ... but if you were asked and you refused, you were going to be labeled selfish, unloving, uncaring, and that you didn't really belong."

Contraception was forbidden, so many women became pregnant, often by men who weren't their husbands, as in the case of Berg's wife, Karen Zerby. Berg himself "shared" with many women in the cult.

Members also frequently corresponded with Berg by sending him videos that they recorded of themselves, which were sometimes pornographic in nature.

Enticing new members by flirty fishing

The doctrine of sharing and the old strategy of luring in new members with snacks and songs combined in a policy called flirty fishing or FFing.

As stated in Susan Raine's article, "Flirty Fishing in the Children of God: The Sexual Body as a Site of Proselytization and Salvation," flirty fishing was "a practice that encouraged female members to proselytize using their sexuality as a tool to attract new male converts."

This was a policy that extended across the board to all women in the group. Married women with children were expected to go out flirty fishing. In fact, according to Rolling Stone, the first woman ever to go flirty fishing was Karen Zerby, David Berg's wife. She reportedly learned ballroom dancing and went to clubs, "to seduce other lonely, affluent men and lure them into the cult."

"A lot of the homes turned into pretty much brothels," former cult member Sylvia Padilla said, describing a Mo Letter that stated members should "make it pay," encouraging the female members to charge for sex while flirty fishing. Women who had brought many men into the cult this way were given the title Soul Shiners.

The brides of Berg and the rise of Mother Maria

Karen Zerby joined the Children of God when there were only about 125 followers. At this time, the group still held conservative views on sex, forbidding even handholding before marriage. David Berg was married to a woman named Jane, and they had four children, according to Rolling Stone. Zerby became Berg's personal secretary, and he controlled every aspect of her life, including her diet and appearance. According to Rolling Stone, within a few months Berg began an affair with Zerby, and soon began promoting polygamy, using the Bible as justification for taking her as his second wife. Soon after, the cult was endorsing "sharing."

Zerby gained power and influence in the Children of God, and Berg took more wives and brought more women into his inner circle, including his own granddaughter, Merry Berg. Later, she would describe her treatment by Berg as "barbaric and cruel."

Zerby became known as Mother Maria, and she took over writing the Mo Letters as Berg got older. After his death, she became the leader of the cult, and even introduced her own doctrine. One new practice under Zerby was "Loving Jesus," or imagining intimacy with Christ himself. As is spelled out in a doctrinal paper from the Family International, this "revelation" recommended that men engage in "spiritual lovemaking with Jesus," and said that they should mentally "play the role of being a weak, meek woman, His bride" to avoid deviating from heterosexuality.

How the Children of God handled illness and medication

The Children of God's view of both mental and physical conditions is intrinsically linked to their religious beliefs, and it sometimes had devastating consequences. Merry Berg, David Berg's granddaughter, suffered mentally from the abuse she endured while in the cult. Her close childhood friend, Amy Bril, stated in an interview that the cult "thought her emotional reactions to what was happening to her was demonic possession. [Merry Berg] was sent away to this training camp where she was treated very inhumanely."

In an interview, former cult member Sylvia Padilla said that her daughter, Shuly, developed the autoimmune disease lupus in her teens. After the diagnosis, the exhausted Shuly spent most of her time indoors reading. However, the Children of typically forbade books. When she wrote to David Berg and asked if she was doing the wrong thing by reading, he responded with a Mo Letter distributed throughout the members that implied she developed lupus because she was reading against the cult's wishes, that God himself was punishing her with a chronic condition.

While medication was not expressly forbidden, it was heavily discouraged. SPadilla explained, "You felt that if you did take it, you were failing somehow." Shuly Padilla suffered the consequences of the cult creating a stigma around healthcare. Her condition needed regular treatment, but the influence of the cult caused her to feel "totally inadequate" and "like she was failing God" by taking her medicine, according to her mother. Eventually, with the approval of her parents, she stopped taking the medication she needed to live. Shuly died in the Padilla family home.

Former members struggled after escaping

Living under the control of the Children of God has had lasting ramifications for its members, even those who left the cult. In "Cults and Extreme Belief," a former member stated, "when one of our fellow friends passes away we immediately assume suicide."

David Berg's granddaughter, Merry Berg, had starred in music videos and gained "celebrity status" within the cult, according to a former member interviewed for "Cults and Extreme Belief." But she also suffered extreme abuse. Eventually, she escaped the cult with nothing. Rolling Stone reports that she was institutionalized, became addicted to methamphetamine, and turned to sex work. She passed away in 2017 from respiratory failure, according to the Cinemaholic.

Former member Amy Bril, who put together a memorial service for Merry Berg, stated, "Even though it wasn't a suicide, I think the early passing had something to do with her PTSD and the condition that led her into drug and alcohol abuse for many years. It's all related." Bril has stated that she personally knows "a hundred" former members who had died by suicide.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

The Family International and the cult's lasting legacy

In 1978, Children of God rebranded to Family of Love or just the Family. Later, in 2004, the Children of God changed its name to the Family International (via xfamily.org). After David Berg's death in 1994, the cult continued under the control of Karen Zerby, who is also known as Mother Maria, Mama Maria, or Queen Maria. But the name changes and new leader were not enough to erase the impact of years of abuse on former members.

According to Rolling Stone, Zerby's son, Ricky Rodriguez had at one time "been trumpeted as the Messiah." He left the Children of God, but was never able to fully move on from the things that had happened to him and others. In 2005, Rodriguez tried to track down Zerby, but was only able to get in contact with her secretary, Angela Smith, who he stated had abused him. Rodriguez killed Smith and died by suicide the same night. The Family International did everything they could to distance themselves from Rodriguez's memory.

The BCC reports that the cult, which was once reported to have over 10,000 members worldwide, is now "a small online community." According to xfamily.org, which hosts archived documents and leaked photographs about the cult, Karen Zerby was last seen in Mexico in 2010. Her current whereabouts are unknown.