When I participated in the Violence and Millennial Movements Symposium at the Panacea Trust last April, I chose to speak on the topic of children in these movements. The subject has been on my mind ever since - it is such an interesting and under-researched area of study.
The media reported on several NRMs in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. The Children of God, the Church Universal and Triumphant, the Unification Church, and the Rajneesh all featured in newspapers. All of them have produced second-generation adults with remarkable childhood tales of involvement in Endtime drills and Millenarian activities.
These tales range from complaints about the hard work preparing food for the bomb shelter, to memories of cozy ‘let’s pretend’ games with the family. There are even unrealistic and extreme accounts of childrearing practices designed to raise ‘perfect’ children.
The issue with using media and newspaper reports in studies on ‘former utopian’ children is that journalists aren’t simply reporting the action when they cover NRMs. Instead, these articles are highly emotive, attempting to put pressure on authorities to act and intervene. James Beckford eloquently made the argument that since anti-cult groups and journalists enjoy a somewhat symbiotic relationship, even basic facts are subject to exaggeration or distortion. This means scholars are required to dissect the source to build any objective picture of the truth.
Another source of data is the published memoirs of formerly utopian children: Jiddu Krishnamurti of the Theosophical Society, John Humphrey Noyes of the Oneida Community, and Fritz Peters of the Gurdjieff Foundation - among others. In contrast to these complex, ambivalent and beautifully-written portraits of radical communities based on apocalyptic notions, we have the more recent “anti-cult” accounts. Sociologists have dubbed these latter authors “disgruntled career apostates”; those who grew up in the Children of God, Nation of Islam, or one of the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints compounds. They complain of various forms of sexual oppression, hard labour amounting to child slavery, extreme disciplinary measures and the separation from their parents.
It is clear that we need to collect these accounts and analyze them to see if we find any common patterns. Historians of millennial movements, like Norman Cohn, have noted children’s presence in church-state conflicts like Munster or military expeditions, like the Children’s Crusade. We lack detailed records, however, of children’s experiences in these terrible events. In contrast, we find children participating in religious practices linked to the milder, far-off future apocalyptic predictions of ‘respectable’ contemporary minority churches, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostal, or the Mormons (LDS).
Young scholars are showing an interest in the topic of children in NRMs. Swedish scholar Sanja Nilsson has been studying children in the Knutby Filadelfia community. Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist’s 2015 book, Perfect Children examines children’s experiences of growing up in sectarian religions. Swedish professor, Liselotte Frisk, has just completed a 4-year research project funded by the Swedish Research Council on Children in Minority Religions and has an anthology of the same title forthcoming.
I have just received a five-year Insight Grant from the Social Science and the Humanities Research Council of Canada for my project, “Children in sectarian religions and state control”. Hopefully this will lead to some interesting publications on this topic, and some light shed on an understudied aspect of NRMs and the people involved in them.
Susan J. Palmer is a sociologist of religion who lives in Montreal, Quebec. She is an Affiliate professor at Concordia University in Montreal and a Research Fellow and Member of the Religious Studies Faculty at McGill University. Her research in the field of new religions has been funded by Canada’s Social Science and the Humanities Research Council. She has published eleven books/edited volumes, notably Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers (Syracuse, 1994); The New Heretics of France (Oxford University Press, 2011); Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion (Rutgers, 2004). Her most recent, co-authored with Stuart Wright, is Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religions (Oxford University Press, 2015).