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Critique of “The Endtime Family: Children of God”

from Candide - Monday, October 14, 2002
accessed 1620 times

If only the researchers would put the right questions to the people who have the freedom to give their honest answers: the sec gen.

Critique by undergraduate student of anthropology Andrew McMillion of “The Endtime Family: Children of God” by William Sims Bainbridge.
Saturday, 12 October 2002

I have read over this book in haste twice and have taken the portions I feel are worth commenting on. Had I had time I should have liked to have analyzed the statistical data and compared it to the views of the “sec gen” (Children who’ve grown up in the Family but who now live secular lives) on But as I have an exam coming up I haven’t got the time.

In trying to show the scientific quality of his study Sims writes:

”It was accompanied by a one-page letter from Family leader Peter Amsterdam, dated August 1997, stressing that participation was voluntary and anonymous, but urging members to do the survey. The letter emphasized, “If you do choose to fill one out, please be completely honest in your answers.” The questionnaire itself reinforced this point, saying “We should like you to feel that you are expressing your true feelings as you answer this questionnaire, so please fill it in private, by yourself””(23)

My criticism here is not aimed at the honesty of those who filled out the form and were believers or whole hearted. What I worry about is what percent filled it out during a class and then passed it on to their shepherds to send. It is easy to document, that most teens lied on their OHRs in order to appease their leaders. Why should Sims assume that the teens in his reports are then telling their true feelings? Furthermore, how could he know what percent did not reply because they did not believe, but were just existing in the Family (The fact that he got envelopes from many different countries, written on different kinds of paper, and with different kinds of stamps is no surprise and does not add anything to the scientific degree of his research).

”Such a study would also require a very high degree of trust and cooperation from the leadership of the religious group, something hard to obtain with groups that suffer frequent government persecution.” (24)

This fact shows the bias of the study which was conducted in an authoritarian organization with a rigid hierarchy, who’s history (i.e.,Tony series, Mene story) shows the level of ruthlessness with which they dealt with the deviance of their offspring. Furthermore, the fact that Sims had been publicly prophesied about gave him the stamp of approval of the leadership, which would deter any second generation of peripheral persuasion to state her views in such a study for fear of it getting in the hands of the leadership. This is clear when we consider the amount of pages he dedicates to his position in prophecy which must have been published for the general population:

”When I interviewed Peter Amsterdam in 1995, he brought me five pages of prophecy he said he had received for me from the Lord. Particularly interesting was a passage that compared me with a crucial but obscure person in the New Testament: “Therefore be prayerful and seek the counsel of Godly people and lean upon Me, much like Gamaliel. Even though a wise man, he was wiser yet in coming unto Me and seeking the Godly counsel, seeking the truth. In like manner, I have called thee a Gamaliel, that thou mayest know the wisdom that cometh from My heart. Seek Me in the early hours. Listen to the whispers, I would guide thee, for I have need of thee.” … ‘That’s where you come in, Bill. You can help others to appreciate things which seem odd and strange, even as you’ve come to appreciate this weird group, these funny people who do the funniest things and change directions on a dime.” In September 1997, when the questionnaire was on its way to the respondents, Peter and Maria send me a third document of prophecies, specifically for this section of the book I planned to write. These written prophecies said that Jesus himself spoke to me by name: “How pleased I am, Bill, with your desire to do that which is right in matters concerning your writing. I hear your prayers, I read your inner thoughts, I know the intents of your heart, and I am pleased as you turn them towards Me. I am pleased with your desire to look to Me, as you ponder in your mind and heart these matters on what to write, how to write, when to write, and on how you might be able to acknowledge Me and My voice of prophecy in your book,”” (88-90)

These are all very flattering words to a mere sociologist of religion. If Sims is Christian and puts any faith in the spirit world, then such prophecies, coupled with his obvious favor of the Family (which will become more and more obvious to the reader, especially in the later part and his conclusion) would have an affect on his ability to claim any degree of objectivity in what at first sight seems to be a statistical descriptive study.

”Science is a process of successive approximate of the truth, and I am sure that more rigorous studies than mine can be done in the future either with the Family or other new religious movements. But never before have we possessed quantitative data of such scope concerning a radical religious movement. If results from the survey are simultaneously reasonable and interesting, we will know that standard questionnaire methods have very wide applicability indeed. For two decades, I have been trying to convince my colleagues in the sociology of religion that they should rely more heavily on systematic quantitative methodologies, and this book is another lesson of that course.” (43)

In search of the truth; but through who’s eyes? Holism does not seem to come into this discussion here. He is not taking into account the views of the second generation. Again, Sims refers to the mountain of data belonging to the Family and encourages other students to someday make use of it. What struck me the first time I read Sims book was that it read like the endless amounts of statistics we used to get fed with when we were growing up about how great the Family was. A comparison which I feel fits well here is to the former countries behind the Iron Curtain in the 80's. Their leaders were always trying to raise moral by publicizing reports on the progress of the nation. However, if you could have asked the individual honestly you would get another picture. No one spoke out but the ones who were publicly punished.

In the entire chapter 5 “Alienation” he seems not to consider the degree of anomie by those within the group towards the group itself. It seems as if he figures the Family to be a homogenous group where internal deviance is not worth mentioning.

”Lest we become trapped in a subjective argument about the quality of modern life, we should note that it is not easy to nail down the definition of the term, and social theorists have used such words as alienation and anomie in a confusing variety of ways. Nonetheless, the General Social Survey contains many items meant to measure estrangement from society, and responses of members of the Family can help us understand their relationship to the world.”(91)

I would have liked to see how Sims, using this statistical approach in cooperation with the leaders, would be able to estimate the degree of anomie among the second generation still in the group. I see this as an impossible task.

At last something of value:
”It may not be either alienation or anomie that generates new religions, but secularization. This process need not be the death of religion in general, but a sickness of particular religious organizations or of the hitherto dominant religious tradition. Sociologist Daniel Bell has suggested that the present era may be like the dawn of Christianity, but run in reverse.27 Two thousand years ago, one religion arose triumphant out of a morass of competing cults. Now, besieged by science on one side and bureaucracy on the other, organized Christianity may be crumbling, creating gaps in which new religious movements arise. When they do, as in the case of Teens for Christ that grew into the Family, they arise as small groups of individuals whose social life consists primarily of their intimate relations with each other… Opponents and journalists tend to see this religious movement in terms of its deviance from conventional standards, but it deserves to be appreciated in its own right. It is a valid way of life for the people who have chosen to join it or remain within it, and significant features of this microculture may contribute to the development of new ways of life for some fractions of the general population in coming decades.”(115)

Sims has done an excellent job of showing the group from the perspective of the first generation dedicated members. His statistical research is great and he seems to cover the group from that angle in a holistic manner. But to what extent can he be said to be giving a holistic description if he is excluding a large(st) portion of the culture. This portion is the culture’s offspring whom he neither seems to represent well from within the group, second generation, nor at all from without, sec gen.

In chapter 6 “Sexuality” he gets into “sharing” and the practice of FFing. Again my criticism is to holism: if FFing was an “experiment”, then the sociologist studying the culture within which it occurred should take a good look at the products of that experiment, which in this case are “Jesus Babies”; the majority of whom are no longer in the Family. Why does he not get into them as a subject? Is he worried what he might find to be negative results of this great “microculture” he so idealizes?

In chapter 7 “Children” he quotes endless “testimonies” of parents. He then proceeds to explain what life is like for the kids. Where are the views of the kids whom he is trying to represent? The only clue as to what defecting kids might think comes on pages 150 and 152, the first of which is still the views of the parents; the latter of which reads like a quotation from one of the Family’s official statements:

”However, parents generally are not happy to see any of their children leave the Family, and news from them is a constant source of concern. A mother of eleven worried, “My second oldest son who joined the Navy told me he was going to try to become a Navy Seal.” A father of four said, “One of my sons left the Family and later got into some trouble with the law. It’s been difficult.”
The Family realizes that some of the children will not choose to serve the Lord, and parents are encouraged to help such young people get prepared either to work in secular society or to attend college.”

Where does he get this information from? Did he ask the sec gen whether they indeed got that preparation or encouragement, or whether they felt prepared? I think not.

”Because roughly equal numbers of boys and girls are born, we would expect the sex ratio to be nearly equal among children, which suggests either that young men were reluctant to fill out the survey, or that they are leaving the group in significant numbers.”(161)

Both are likely true, but a further interpretation of the statistics, one that has been observed by the sec gen, is that the men gather up the courage to leave before the women, and that often women have family roles and mother ties that out-way their desire to leave.

In writing how the Family differs from the Shakers Sims writes:

”Second, like Oneick and Zoar, the Family offers members legitimated sexual gratification plus the opportunity to play autonomous adult roles as a missionary.” (163)

One would think that the ability to maintain sexual freedom would be an element that would keep the sec gen, but it seems not to be the case. The men leave before the girls, which shows that there are concerns that are higher on their list than sexual freedom and that it is not a sufficient lure to keep them there.

In conclusion of this section, I would state that Sims should have tried to research the number of defected children. According to the Family:

”But the fact is that people do leave the Family. It's always happened within the Family, and it probably always will. Statistically speaking, only one-third of all the folks that have ever been in the Family are still in the Family today. That means that 66% have left.” (The Professionals, Steve Kelly [peter] 2002)

In “The Future of the Family” Sims seems to be giving advice to whoever will lead the Family in the future on how they should best go about making changes so as to survive.
Quoting Mama Maria he adds:

”There are quite a few of our Yas [Young Adults, age 18-20] and SGAs [Second-Generation Adults] who don’t seem to want to be in the Family, but who don’t take the step to leave.”

Is this not proof enough for him that many of the second generation will leave?
He then concludes by saying:

”At the same time, the Family must resist the corrosive effects of the surrounding secular society. Many young people may leave temporarily, only to discover to their misery that life in the System lacks the intimate emotional closeness and sense of profound purpose they enjoyed in the Family.” (168)

Still sounds like he’s addressing the kids in the Family and making a subjective judgment that life outside the Family is purposeless and detached. What does he know about the lives of the thousands of sec gen and their level of fulfillment or happiness?

In his conclusion Sims further displays his ethical views and opinions on belief:

”Thus, the flood of messages that the Family believes it receives from the spirit world is potentially revolutionary. Secularism cannot be defeated by abstract theological speculations that God might possibly exist, but only by palpable evidence that He not only exists but also cares for humans and intervenes in their lives. Thus the personal spiritual experiences that Family members report are a significant resource for restoring faith to a faithless world.”

Is he suggesting here that prophecy can somehow be taken as tangible proof of God’s existence? If so, this is an ad hoc claim. Where does this intolerance of secularism stem from, and where is the aim of objectivity he seems to have had in the beginning of his study? It seems to me that he has been around the Children of God and their leaders for a bit too long. He should try to keep his views of religion and preference/idealization of this culture to himself; they don’t belong in a descriptive book on a culture as widely debated as this. I challenge the author to maintain his views after having spent as much time studying the lives of the sec gen as he did the first generation.

What I was hoping for when I ordered this book was an etic description of my native culture. What I got was the accumulation of many emic views stemming from my parents generation, and the leadership of the Family, as well as advice to that generation on how to continue their marginal existence. I hoped for this etic perspective because I have yet to see a holistic description of the Family that does not fall into their world view, or the world view of some organized religious establishment. "Extreme ethnological or cultural determinism can be sustained by ideology and faith but not by sober science" (Keesing 1974). I had hoped for something unlike "Sex, Slander, and Salvation" (Lewis & Melton 1994), but that is what I got.

It would be refreshing if we could get a less teleological study where the focus is on giving a holistic picture of what life is/was like for all who have had the Family as their culture. Additionally, I emphasis that to give a holistic description the researcher will have to go deep into the history of the Family. As Sims has recognized, revolution is perhaps the central word within the Family. Therefore it must be the objective of the ethnographer to describe the context of these revolutions in order to paint the picture of how the Family evolved into the culture it is today. "We discover and record, we do not comment and evaluate. The fundamental approach is thus that of science and not of moral philosophy."(Barth 1981)

Reader's comments on this article

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from Christy
Wednesday, January 28, 2004 - 13:31


I just noticed this review of Bill Bainbridge's book. I read his book a few years ago and although I do remember many of the the overall claims and some of the content, I don't remember a lot of specifics. I met Bainbridge on a few occasions but never really talked with him. I can confirm that he is a Christian and that he does (or did) seem to respect TF's religeous beliefs, including prophecy.

While I realize that many Family members simply filled in answers that fit closest with accepted Family beliefs and doctrines, in most cases there probably wasn't anyone to make sure that this happened. I received the questionaire packet while I was still overseas and I decided not to fill one out. The main reason for this was that with a lot of the questions, I didn't feel there was an answer provided that reflected my beliefs or feelings on the topic. A lot of people solved this problem by writing more specific answers or comments in the margins. Others in my former home did fill out the questionaires and sent them in. A year later, when I moved to the States, I was asked to help key in the data from the questionaires into a data base. Other Family young people also helped on the project. While I doubt any of us doctored the data (I really don't think anyone working on the project cared to modify the outcomes), you still really never know. I do remember being a little surprised at how many people (especially young people) put down answers that did not support the standard Family beliefs. Bainbridge did personally review all of the questionaires and read over comments people wrote on them.

This was a work that TF was very happy with and for which they really had high hopes. The fact that it focused mostly on doctrine and theology, and that it did not place much emphasis on claims made by detractors was a real milestone for TF. I don't think the book got much attention, though. I did find the statistical analysis of individual members beliefs and comparisons with christianity at large to be interesting.
(reply to this comment)

from Rhett Lesan
Wednesday, February 19, 2003 - 03:46

You mention that thing about prophecy proving God's existence as being 'ad hoc'. May I suggest your intention being that it is an example of circular reasoning; or in other words a situation that is commonly called begging the question.

You then wonder as to why the 'secularity' follows in the history of cults, sects, etc. It is always as a result of, guess what?-^- failed prophecy: hence, the aging followers(those with rational abilities) slowly wake up to the futility and utter irrational life style that they are leading. They look to the solidified leadership/dogmatic structure that is completely out of touch with everyone but the sycophants and they(the rational thinking members get smart and try to get a life)--in spite of and sometimes with the belated equivocal acquiescence of the leadership. Which proves to be the final and oft repeated attempt by the leaders to appear liberal, caring, understanding, and prophetically in the lead towards the endgame.
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