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."