Since I participated in the Violence and Millennial Movements symposium at the Panacea Trust last April and chose the topic of children in these movements, I have been thinking what a fascinating and under-researched topic this is.
Many of the NRMs oft reported in the media in the 60s, 70s and 80s, like the Children of God, Church Universal and Triumphant, Unification Church, Rajneesh Movement, have produced second-generation adults with remarkable tales to tell about children’s involvement in Endtime drills and millenarian activity. 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, to unrealistic, extreme childrearing practices designed to raise perfect children – with the punishments that follow signs of imperfection. Another source of data are the published memoires by such formerly utopian children: Krishnamurti of the Theosophical Society, John Humphrey Noyes of the Oneida Community and Fritz Peters of the Gurdjieff Foundation and others. In contrast to these complex, ambivalent and beautifully written portraits of radical communities based on apocalyptic notions, we have the more recent “anticult” accounts by what sociologists call “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, but we lack detailed records of children’s experiences in these terrible events. In contrast, we find children participating in religious practices linked to the milder, postponed ‘til the far-off future apocalyptic predictions of “respectable” contemporary minority churches, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostal, or Mormons (LDS).
Young scholars are showing an interest in the topic of children in NRMs.[i] Swedish scholar, Sanja Nilsson has been studying children in the Knutby Filadelfia community. Britishscholar, 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 new 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”, so it appears we might look forward to some interesting publications on this topic.