Volume 11 No. 2 (1994): 135-188

A Psychosexual Historical Study of the Children of God's Leader, David Berg
by Stephen A, Kent

    Religious figures have played a minor role in the psychohistorical tradition, despite Erik Erikson's studies of Luther and Gandhi and frequent psychological insights that are woven into religious biographies. This study, however, focuses specifically on a recently deceased religious leader, David Berg, who founded a worldwide religious organization in the late 1960s known as the Children of God (COG). Using both autobiographical material from Berg's letters to followers and interviews with former members who knew him personally, this essay argues that the group's controversial sexual practices are a direct reflection of early sexual trauma that Berg experienced within his sexually repressive and punitive family environment. After years of Berg's relative failure as a Christian minister, the death of his overbearing mother during the period in which he was successfully proselytizing California hippies allowed his repressed sexuality to appear in the form of innovative social mors for his group. In Berg's case, formerly repressed, then unbridled, sexuality served as the basis for the group's ideology and deviant social behavior.


    Psychohistorians examine how the personality characteristics of prominent individuals translate into social behavior and cultural events. Male political figures have served as the primary subjects of these studies, despite the fact that among psychohistory's most familiar works are two that examined religious figures--Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi (Erikson, 1958; 1969). Surprisingly, psychohistorians have paid little attention to religious figures, even though religion plays a dramatic role in most psychological (and especially psychoanalytic) theories of personality development. While Erikson (1968, p.106), Fromm (1950), and other neo-Freudians have taken somewhat sympathetic approaches to the positive role that religion can play in personality integration, Freud asserted that God is merely the superego in the form of a heavenly father-figure, repressing sexuality as it fosters civilization (see Freud, 1927, pp.7, 13-14).

    Although most psychohistorians have ignored religion, religious biographers have not ignored psychohistory. Indeed, psychoanalytic and other psychological perspectives have become commonplace in biographies of religious figures. On occasion, these perspectives have provided the entire framework for analyses of prominent religious figures and the religious dogma that they espouse. Contemporary scholarship on Methodism illustrates these points dramatically. Moore's (1974) thoughtful and well-documented psychobiographical study of Methodism's founder argues that John Wesley's "compulsive, over-organized, perfectionistic [style] in his attempts to obey authorities which he believed to be legitimate, just and consistent" (p.36) stemmed from his "early experience of the conflict between the intrusive maternal authority and the ambivalent paternal authority" of his childhood years (p.35).

    Ironically, Moore (1974) notes that Methodism's appeal to the working classes of mid-eighteenth century England may have been because:
Wesley's theology and preaching offered the masses an experience with parental authority (albeit divine rather than human) which they in fact had never had, and which, given the frightening experiences of their own childhoods, indeed seemed to be almost unbelievably good news (p.50).     Moore's psychoanalytic interpretation of Methodism and its founder is kinder in tone than the evaluation of the same group written a decade earlier by Thompson (1963), who found it "difficult not to see in Methodism in [its early] years a ritualized form of psychic masturbation" (p.368) that revealed itself partly through "the perverted eroticism of Methodist imagery" (p.370, see pp.367-373).

    Another excellent example of religious psychobiography is Sandeen's (1971) study of John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886), remembered for his establishment of the Oneida community in mid-nineteenth century America. Using primary (and usually neglected) sources, Sandeen discovered that as a young man Noyes
was deranged, besieged with sexual fantasies, and terrified of physical relationships with women; [was] a man unable to accept guidance from any source other than his own will, given to wildly neurotic denunciations of former friends and to a frightening intimidation of his own family, especially his mother . . . (p.86).     In essence, there existed a "pathological side of his personality [that had] been neglected" by traditional academic studies of his life and work. Most notably, Noyes "was unable to approach a mature genital experience without severe trauma" (Sandeen, 1971, p.87) until he fell in love with the wife of a fellow community member and gained sexual access to her through his initiation of "complex marriage" (a practice whereby each member was married to all community members of the opposite sex). The object of his affection, Mary Cragin, probably became pregnant by him, and it seems likely that "the stability and peace of his little Putney [Vermont] community, combined with the love of Mary Cragin, provided the therapy which Noyes needed" to resolve his sexual problems (p.90). Of particular note for our own study is a controversial observation that Sandeen made while reflecting on Noyes's doctrine of perfectionism:
Seen from the perspective of psychology, movements championing antinomianism or millenarian social orders create an atmosphere in which previously repressed and subconscious wishes may be permitted public expression. As even historians know, this subconscious material is usually sexual (p.87).     In this biographical study of David Brandt Berg (1919-1994), I examine the effects of childhood psychosexual experiences on his implementation and practice of antinomian sexuality within the religious organization that he founded, the controversial Children of God (COG). COG emerged out of the hippie and antiwar counterculture of the late 1960s and the nascent Jesus Movement of the same period. It grew from a few members whom Berg's proselytizing children brought under his influence beginning in December 1967 to an organization with adherents around the world (see Davis with Davis, 1984; Melton, 1986; Pritchett, 1985, p.ix-xxix; Wallis, 1981; Wangerin, 1982). Current accurate membership figures are difficult to obtain, but a 1978 internal publication indicated that there were 4,759 members (3,254 live-in adults and 1,505 live-in children) in one hundred and eleven countries (Family of Love News, 1978a, pp.1-3).

    Berg is an ideal psychosexual historical subject for several reasons. He wrote extensively (and, it seems, candidly) about his childhood, his attitudes towards his parents, and his own self-esteem, and he published these accounts throughout a corpus of printed letters (called Mo Letters [after his adopted name, Moses David]) to his followers and supporters. While I do not have access to all of these publications (which number at least twenty-one volumes, each comprising hundreds of pages), I have examined eight volumes of letters, some of which contain private, written comments from Berg's estranged daughter, Deborah. In addition to these letters, I have interviewed 10 former members who were involved with the group in its early days. 6 of whom had worked directly with Berg himself. I use these sources to develop a tentative psychosexual history of this reclusive leader, which I hope to revise if and when additional biographical information comes to light.

    The extensive material on Berg that currently is available allows me to portray a person whose legacy to the world likely will be very different from those left by the subjects of Erikson's two religious psychobiographies. Both Luther and Gandhi are remembered for the creative manner in which they channeled complex psychosexual tensions into social action, thereby having a profound (and arguably positive) influence upon important societal events. Berg's legacy, however, likely will not be respected. His group has attracted widespread condemnation from various authorities and the public because of allegations that some members engage in certain deviant practices, each of which is the direct translation of Berg's psychosexual drives into religious ideology. Among these controversial practices are "flirty fishing," incest (according to some close family members), and pedophilia.

    My study shows how the death of Berg's mother unleashed his suppressed sexuality within the social context of the sexually permissive and anti-authority era of the late 1960s. This social context facilitated Berg's construction of a religious theology and accompanying practices that directly reflected the desires of his newly unfettered id. Religious ideology sanctified his own sexual appetite, and the group context in which he expounded the ideology ensured that Berg's own complex sexual dilemmas influenced members' behavior around the world. COG's religious theology, and even its religious cosmology, reflected its founder's personal sexual drives.

    The argument, therefore, provides a revealing glimpse into the relationship between Berg's sexuality and religion, a relationship that heretofore has been almost completely ignored by social scientists who have researched the group. It concludes with a brief comment on the extent to which the findings about Berg's psychohistory relate to general theoretical propositions made by three prominent psychohistorians Sigmund Freud, Robert J. Lifton, and Erik Erikson.

David Berg's Biographical History
    Little in Berg's biography up through his late forties suggests that he would become the leader of an international religious movement. He was born in Oakland, California on February 18, 1919 to Virginia Brandt Berg and Hjalmer Emmanuel Berg, both of whom were Christian evangelists. Early in the marriage, Hjalmer had been converted by Virginia's wealthy father (who also was a preacher), and Berg later stated that:
THIS DRAMATIC AND CLIMACTIC CHANGE from a cigar-smoking, beer-drinking, wild-dancing, party-going, good-looking, and loose-living young man of the world to a suddenly sober, serious-minded, zealous, young idealistic minister of the Church was almost too much for my Mother, for it was not at all the man she had married (Berg, 1972a, p.1412).     His father received theological training at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa (Berg, 1972a, pp.1412-1413), and his mother received some graduate training at Texas Christian University (Davis with Davis, 1984, p.30).

    David was the youngest of three children, with a brother born in 1911 and a sister born in 1915. Berg's sister was born during a time later claimed by the mother to have been a period of complete invalidism for her, stating repeatedly that she had been totally crippled for five year