When a Jewish Cult in Southern Iowa Got National Attention
After binging the 'Sons of Sam' docuseries on Netflix and considering the fact that I'm in the middle of 'Cults and Extreme Beliefs' on Hulu, I got curious about the Hawkeye State and its history with cults.
Unfortunately (for me) and fortunately (for literally everyone who has ever lived in Iowa) there wasn't much information available. But, there was one story from the early 1990s that caught my eye.
Referring to themselves as Essenes, the collection of 60 people in Lamoni lived their lives in this same manner -- nearly 2,000 years after the last group of its kind was heard from. According to the story, the original Essenes were those "who are believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls." IMJ.org says "The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient manuscripts that were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves near Khirbet Qumran, on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea."
"They are approximately two thousand years old, dating from the third century BCE to the first century CE. Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, with a smaller number in Aramaic or Greek. ... The sectarian manuscripts reflect a wide variety of literary genres: biblical commentary, religious-legal writings, liturgical texts, and apocalyptic compositions. Most scholars believe that the scrolls formed the library of the sect that lived at Qumran," that likely being the Essenes.
The 1990's iteration of the sect "left jobs, friends and sometimes family to seek spiritual perfection on 240 acres in a small town a few miles from the Missouri border."
In pursuit of said perfection, the community acted as the cult did two thousand years ago. It had "a leader called a teacher of righteousness. They shared all property communally and followed a strict penal code that assessed penalties such as 30 days of lowered food rations for a public display of anger." They left the secular world in order to 'purify' themselves.
According to Julie Holtz, a member at the time,
We believe that's the only way we can achieve our purposes; to come out of society so we can save the purity of our own society.
BUT WAIT, there's more.
The self-described Essenes used to belong to the Church of Latter-Day Saints. In other words, they were Mormons.
According to the article: "The Iowa group got its start about a decade ago when former minister Ron Livingston and five others could no longer stand the gulf between what was preached on Sunday and how church members lived their lives the rest of the week. ... By 1987, they had bought some land, and soon families began moving on to it."
The group lived without running water, plumbing, or electricity. All the water they used for drinking, bathing, washing clothes, etc., came from a well on their land.
Livingston, who served as the community's teacher of righteousness and was referred to as 'Grampa' had this to say about their way of life:
We don't care about the price of gas. We don't care what the interest rate is. Those kinds of pressures and anxieties that everybody has in the world are gone.
At the point in time the article was written, six families had already departed from the commune, unable to live under the penal codes and without modern-day conveniences.