Ancient Sect Makes Comeback In Heartland

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," explains Julie Holtz, 28. "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."

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 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 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.

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 like morning and evening prayers, a similar priesthood structure and holding all things in common.

"We didn't become Essenes," says 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 simple clothing, many of the group's 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," Grampa says. "We don't care what the interest rate is. Those kinds of pressures and anxieties that everybody has in the world are gone."

When he was a professional carpenter, Alma Halley, 37, says 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," he says. "These people were just like me, how I'd grown to love the Lord."

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

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