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Iowa Essenes Live as Ancient Jewish Cult of 2 Millenia Ago
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Iowa Essenes Live as Ancient Jewish Cult of 2 Millenia Ago

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LAMONI, Iowa - More than 10,000 miles from the Holy Land,

nearly 2,000 years after they were last heard from, an ancient

Jewish sect is making a comeback, of sorts.

In Iowa. Among ex-Mormons.

These new Essenes follow in the ascetic footsteps of the

Essenes who are believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls.

They have left jobs, friends and sometimes family to seek

spiritual perfection on 240 acres in a small town a few

miles from the Missouri border.

Like the ancient Essenes, the Iowa community of about 60

people has a leader called a teacher of righteousness. They

share all property communally and follow a strict penal

code that assesses penalties such as 30 days of lowered

food rations for a public display of anger.

While scholars pore over the scrolls first uncovered in

1947 in caves east of Jerusalem near the ruins of Qumran

on the Dead Sea, the Iowa Essenes are attempting to live

life as the cult did two millenia ago.

"The Essenes of old were separate from society. 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,"

said Julie Holtz, 28.

The Essenes arose in the 2nd century B.C., a group of largely

celibate males who practiced an austere, contemplative life

preparing for the Messiah. The Essenes are tied to the scrolls

because one of their communities was located near Qumran

and historical accounts of the sect's practices and some

of the community rules found in the scrolls are similar.

The Iowa group got its start about a decade ago when a former

minister named Ron Livingston and five others could no longer

stand the gulf between what was preached on Sunday and how

church members lived their lives.

They left the local Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of

Latter Day Saints and formed their own pastoral group. By

1987, they had bought some land, and soon families began

moving on to it.

It was little more than a year ago that community members

first began calling themselves Essenes. Even before they

knew of the scrolls, they were already following Essene

practices such as morning and evening prayers, a similar

priesthood structure and holding all things in common.

"We didn't become Essenes," said Bryce Wilson, 34. "We were Essenes."

Today, they treat the published Dead Sea Scrolls as scripture,

and give adult and child education classes in them. Their

sabbath falls on Wednesdays, following the solar calendar

used by the Essenes, according to Livingston, the community's

teacher of righteousness who now goes by the name "Grampa."

There are major differences with scholarly depictions of

the Essenes - the Iowa group holds Christian beliefs and

emphasizes families. But Grampa, acting as communal prophet,

teaches that Jesus was an Essene, and the ancient Essenes

gave up celibacy at the birth of Mary.

Unshaven and dressed in overalls and a patchwork of other

simple clothing, many of the group members look like aging

hippies. Even families with four children live in large

one-room houses, many of them with thatched roofs.

There is no plumbing, electricity or running water in their

wooded enclaves, nestled amid the rolling farmland of southern

Iowa. Water for scrubbing clothes by hand, bathing and drinking

is taken from a well, and in one of the two villages a single

outhouse serves a half-dozen families.

In a welcoming ceremony, a fire is started by twirling a

stick against another piece of wood. Breakfast is a single

bowl of cornmeal mush.

Elderly rural farmers who can remember hardscrabble times

express wonder that community members would voluntarily

subject themselves to such a lifestyle, but the Essenes

say the life has its benefits.

"We don't care about the price of gas. We don't care what

the interest rate is," Grampa said. "Those kinds of pressures

and anxieties that everybody has in the world are gone."

When he was a professional carpenter, Alma Halley, 37, said

he used to dream of a time when he would only have to work

40 hours a week. Now he spends three or four hours a day

on community work crews, and spends much of the rest of

the time with his wife and four children.

"It was just like I'd come home. These people were just

like me, how I'd grown to love the Lord," he said.

Separated from others, they - like the ancient Essenes -

are able to seek spiritual perfection through a rigorous penal code.

Say a slang word, and for four days you must put back a

quarter of the food served to you at meals. Show jealousy

of another person's pillows, the penalty is 30 days.

"The purpose of living is to prepare to meet God," Grampa

said. "The only way to prepare to meet him is to change

your life, to repent."

The life is not for everyone. A half-dozen families have already left.

Here in Lamoni, the heartland of the RLDS Church, the community

has not always welcomed their former neighbor's decision

to form a religious commune. Ruth Lvingston, Ron's mother,

said she lived in town for 20 years, but none of her friends

have visited her since she moved to the land in 1989.

Grass fires have been set, and the community's truck vandalized.

Livingston said one time shots were fired into the woods

over the houses in one village.

He claims the persecution is due to prejudice and fear,

partly spread by former members who left because he said

they were unable to follow the strict rules of repentance.

But some people say the commune is no more than Ron Livingston's

personal kingdom, and that he manipulates members with a

combination of fear and familial power to give up all their

possessions and follow him into the wilderness.

The two "apostles" who have the greatest say over the

commune are Livingston's son and his son-in-law.

Pity the commune members whose vision is different from

Livingston's, said Gaylord Shaw of nearby Graceland College,

who has given financial help to people wanting to leave.

Leonard and Doris Edwards said Livingston told them their

grandchild would be deformed if they left the community,

and told another relative to beware a recurrence of cancer if she left.

"He's pulling every string," said Leonard Edwards, who

left the group with his wife in 1988. "He's the best I've

ever seen at it. I hope I never see another one."

Their son, Leonard Jr., lived on the land for two years

before leaving in 1990 after his wife suffered from epilepsy.

He claims the episode was caused by the stress of life in

the community, where women are under particular pressure

not to fall behind in doing traditional tasks such as the

laundry and cooking without any modern conveniences.

To the group's critics, the community's decision to become

Essenes is just another Livingston con to achieve personal

glory. But others are less doubtful.

Howard Booth, a theology professor at Graceland College,

said there is no shared heritage between the ancient Essenes

and the Iowa commune, but that does not make their claims

of divine inspiration less real to them.

"They have kind of intuited almost from the God who dealt

with the Essenes," he said. "God is speaking to their

group in God's own way, and God can jump throughout history."

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