Children of God: History and Teachings of the Notorious Cult

A gathering of Children of God cult members participate in a worship scene with their arms raised.
Members of the Children of God cult engage in communal worship. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Children of God is a religious group that originated in California in 1968. Because its leaders have historically limited members' access to the outside world and asked them to give up their money and worldly possessions, Children of God is generally considered a cult. The group became notorious when news stories emerged accusing its members of sexually abusing children. Children of God, now known as The Family International, is still active today.

Origins and Early Years

Children of God cult leader David Berg pictured with an unidentified woman. Vice.com and Children of God/Family International (sex cult). [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The cult’s early beginnings are rooted in the counterculture movement of the late 1960s. Founder David Brandt Berg, a pastor and evangelist for the Christian and Missionary Alliance, became the leader of a youth ministry called Teen Challenge in Huntington Beach, California, in 1967. Berg recruited his group’s members out of the hippies and outcasts that flocked to southern California during the “free love” era and organized a group of young people to roam the streets proselytizing about the love of Jesus.

In 1969, Berg left the national Teen Challenge group and formed his own group called Light Club, which eventually became known as the Children of God. He changed his name to Moses David and married a second wife, stating that polygamy was sanctioned by the Old Testament. He told his followers that God had appointed him as the “End Time Prophet,” and that he would be playing a significant role in the second coming of Christ, who would soon be returning to earth. Berg also maintained that he’d been in touch with a spirit guide named Abrahim who was relaying divine messages to him.

Teachings and Practices

Illustration depicting a man and woman kissing and a policeman with a question mark above his head. Title reads, "Is love against the law?"
Image from a propagandistic illustrated pamphlet produced by the Children of God. ​

After claiming that God himself had gifted him with prophecies, Berg soon began making extreme demands of his followers. New members of COG were asked to donate everything they owned to the group, then sever all contact with their families. They were also encouraged to give up any sort of employment and become full time evangelists for Christ. COG formed communes across the country, and within just a few years, there were over 120 communities located around the globe.

In the mid-seventies, Berg began to encourage the female members of COG to practice what he called “flirty fishing.” Based upon on Jesus' injunction in Matthew 4:19, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men," Berg instructed his female followers to go to bars, pick up men, and seduce them into converting and joining Children of God. In a 1979 annual report, Berg stated that his COG evangelists had "witnessed to over a quarter of a million souls, loved over 25,000 of them and won about 19,000 to the Lord."

In 1978, Berg changed the group’s name to The Family of Love, and later changed it again to simply The Family. Sexual contact with potential converts became a routine practice within the group’s membership, and in some cases, Family evangelists even used escort services to identify potential targets for recruitment. The practice of “sexual sharing” and open sexual relationships between existing members was encouraged. 

Charges of Abuse

Rose McGowan
Actress Rose McGowan spent her childhood in a Children of God commune. Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images

In 1989, The Family issued a press release and official statement condemning sexual acts involving minors and announced that any member found to be abusing children would be immediately excommunicated. 

Former members of COG have been outspoken about the childhood abuse they suffered growing up in COG communes. Actress Rose McGowan lived with her parents in a COG group in Italy until she was nine years old. In her memoir, Brave, McGowan wrote about her early memories of being beaten by cult members and recalled how the group advocated for sexual relationships between adults and children.

Christina Babin, whose parents raised her in COG, described the child abuse in the following terms:

“A letter arrived from the Children of God leader, Moses David, encouraging adults to teach children how to have sex, claiming it was healthy and good. And so the sexual abuse began. I was violated in this way from the age of 12 too many times than I care to remember, but sex was encouraged with children who were far younger.”

Other notable former members include actor Joaquin Phoenix, journalist Susan Dupuy, and Fleetwood Mac co-founder Jeremy Spencer.

 

Later Years

Following Berg's death in 1994, The Family was taken over by his widow, Karen Zerby. In 1995, the group was the subject of a British lawsuit.

Following a trial relating to the custody of a child born into the cult, the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Ward wrote a 295-page opinion on The Family. Ward determined that the group had permitted sexual abuse of minors, deliberately isolated and sequestered children away from their parents, and used extensive corporal punishment. Ward also concluded that by the time of the trial, these practices had ceased, and that he believed The Family was not presently an unsafe environment for children. 

The Family International is still an active group. Former members continue to speak up about the abuse they faced during their time in the cult. 

Children of God Fast Facts

  • Children of God, also known as The Family and The Family International, began in the 1960s and is still active today.
  • Because its leaders limited members' access to the outside world and asked them to give up money and possessions, Children of God is considered a cult.  
  • Numerous former members have alleged that, as children, they experienced repeated physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of COG members and leaders.