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Tony Alamo: Life And Times Of The Notorious Evangelical Cult Leader

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Tony Alamo is the notorious founder of the Alamo Christian Foundation. He founded this evangelical sect which ended up becoming a cult that partook in the human trafficking of minors. In this post, we will find out more about Tony Alamo and his notorious sect. Let’s get started.

Tony Alamo: All You Need To Know

Who is Tony Alamo?

Tony Alamo was a Romanian Jew who changed his name –legally– when he married Susan (1925-1982), since by birth, the two were called Bernie Lazar Hoffman and Edith Opal Horn. She was also Jewish, but she had converted to evangelical Christianity before marrying Hoffman for the third time. Susan was nine years older and already had a daughter. Later it was learned that he had also been married four times before. 

Tony and Susan came to Los Angeles to try to make a place for themselves in Hollywood, he as a singer and she as an actress. He said that his father was Rodolfo Valentino’s dance instructor, but like everything he told about his life before he became a Christian, it is quite doubtful, due to his tendency to exaggerate and falsehood. The truth is that he had just been released from prison for a weapons offense when he married Susan in 1966.

How did Tony Alamo convert from Judaism to Christianity?

His own conversion story is quite strange. According to him, Jesus himself appeared to him in 1965 and commissioned him to preach his second coming in the middle of an investment meeting in Beverly Hills. As he told it, he met Susan shortly after in a restaurant in Los Angeles. She still carried the last name Lipowitz, from a short marriage to an LA mob union thug. Susan talked to him about the Bible and explained Christianity, having become an itinerant Pentecostal evangelist. According to her daughter Chris, who later became her biggest enemy, they were just two con artists who got together to set up a church registered as a foundation in 1968.

How did Tony Alamo create his cult?

Tony and Susan came to Los Angeles to try to make a name for themselves in Hollywood.

It was in the middle of the Revolution for Jesus in Los Angeles, when the Christian ′hippy′ movement moved to southern California at the end of the 60s. Going out to distribute leaflets on Hollywood Boulevard, street kids come into contact with Ed, a drug dealer who turned and put them in touch with teenagers who had run away from home. They rented a house on Crescent Heights Boulevard, where they had problems with the neighbors. 

They asked for help from the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fraternity – the Pentecostal association founded by Demos Shakarian, who also supported David Berg to achieve the mission in Huntington Beach, where Children of God begin as Adolescents for Christ. After that, they moved to Santa Monica.

Having conflicts with the neighbours again, the Full Gospel Business Men helped them settle in a dilapidated abandoned restaurant in the Saugus desert, near the canyon where the Manson Family settled on a ranch where Western movies had been shot. This was the place where they carried out the gruesome murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate and her friends, the night before they killed the LaBiancas in the summer of 1969. 

From there, the Alamos continued to go every day to Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip to contact young people. They handed out doomsday brochures, offering free food and lodging in Saugus. Every afternoon they took them on buses with the sign announcing their destination to ′Heaven′. There they were received by an orchestra that played classic evangelical hymns such as ′On Mount Calvary′ or ′Do my Savior guide me′. The accompanying message was a warning about damnation and the reality of hell.

The Christian community of Los Alamo thus presented itself as an evangelical group with a marked fundamentalist character, a strong eschatological emphasis, a search for the gifts of the Spirit, and a curious anti-Catholic obsession. The prohibitions were the usual ones of the holiness tradition: no tobacco, alcohol, dance, or drugs, of course. They separated the boys from the girls, who could only talk during meals and ′decency′ was imposed on the dress. All marriages had to be approved by the Alamos, staying away ninety days before the wedding. Like the Children of God at that time, there was nothing to foreshadow the sexual abuse to come. The last thing one would say about them is that immorality reigned there.

Did Tony Alamo have other companies as well?

Those who ended up being members of the community went to work in companies formed under the foundation as non-profit entities. When they moved to Arkansas in 1976 –where Susan grew up–, in addition to the Tabernacle, they had their printing press, a school, a drug rehabilitation center and a slew of local businesses, first. They then spread to Nashville, Chicago, the New York borough of Brooklyn, and Miami Beach. They produced records, distributed tapes, and started national television in the 1970s. They became particularly known for their denim clothing stores, especially airbrushed windbreakers like the one Michael Jackson wears on the cover of his album ′Bad′.

All this would lead Tony Alamo to have problems with the Treasury, long before the accusations of sexual abuse of minors could be substantiated. If he does go back to jail, it’s initially for non-payment of taxes – the same reason mobsters like Al Capone ended up in prison, not for any of his crimes – showing that sectarian manipulation is not easily seen as a crime. From 1976, he also had problems with the lack of rights of his workers, but until 1985,  he continued with legal resources, considering that the companies were part of the church and therefore non-profit activities. That year their tax exemption was removed, but he continued to sue for it until in 1992 a judge ruled that the organization ′operated for the private benefit of Tony and Susan ′.

What was Tony Alamo’s first sentence?

In 1994 Tony Alamo was sentenced for a false statement to the Treasury, which revealed his non-payment for years. That coupled with a debt for unpaid work from former members of the church, caused them to declare bankruptcy. He went to prison then, six years in Texarkana. 

Before the issue of child sexual abuse came up, Tony had a curious legal problem with the body of Susan, who died of cancer in 1982, at age 57. Her corpse was embalmed and displayed for six months in a private heart-shaped marble mausoleum in anticipation of her resurrection. In 1991 the federal government confiscated the church’s funerary property, but the body disappeared. Susan’s daughter, Chris, upon leaving her group, accused Susan’s stepfather Tony of stealing her body and was forced by court order to return it.

Was Tony Alamo polygamous?

Although Tony always denied that he was polygamous – it would be what the single Jane Fonda calls serial monogamy – his marriages are so many that it is still not clear how many of them are legal. After Susan’s death, there are rumors that he married two 15-year-olds, but the weddings were not legal. The official marriage is from 1984 with a Swedish woman in Las Vegas, Birgitta Gyllenhammar, but he divorced two years later. She then said that Tony had her undergo plastic surgery to look like Susan. He accused him of beating and drugging her. The only thing that was revealed, legally, is that it was his sixth marriage.

Tony was married two more times between 1986 and 1990. He did not accept adultery, homosexuality, abortion or contraception, but it is clear that he believed in marriage. However, the only legitimate child he had was Sion, the other two were his ′secretaries′, Tabor and Antoinette. His attraction to adolescents becomes pedophilia in an evolution similar to David Berg (1919-1994), although without the incestuous component of this, nor the promiscuity that was experienced in the Family. 

It is also typical of the United States that Tony’s sentence of 175 years was for taking minors from one state to another for ′the purpose of sexual activity′, not for polygamy – as the law varies in states such as Utah, where Polygamy is not a crime.

The raid that the police carried out in 2008 looking for child pornography did not find any evidence of it, as in the case of La Familia in Spain -the actual police interventions that took place in our country, both against Scientology and those formerly known as Children of God. They have been a complete disaster. They could not find Alamo, nor make any arrests. Only six minors out of the many who were there could be brought in for questioning. This shows you that not only the legal way but also the police, is incapable of fighting sects in a society where there is religious freedom. The media, on the other hand, have made nothing more than sensationalized material out of it all to cause scandal. And the denunciation of the victims is usually accompanied by exaggerations and falsehoods. The problem is deeper than it seems, because when does a church become a sect?

How does a church become a cult?

In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish between sects and sectarian attitudes. Sects have indeed emerged from many religions and some are even within churches as organized as the Catholic Church. There are sectarian attitudes, however, within any church or religious community. Secondly, we have to realize that there are many definitions of a cult according to its origin (historically), its current reality (sociologically), its teaching (theologically) and its mentality (psychologically). Not everyone uses the word in the same sense, even in recent years, the so-called cultural anthropology has been demystifying its supposed danger.

Traditionally there has been talk of the excessive authority of the leader, the teaching that departs from the Bible, and the lack of critical sense, but all these are realities that occur in many churches that we would not consider sects. There is no doubt that isolation is a typically sectarian trait, but it is an attitude that occurs in individuals, as well as groups, who develop an exclusivism based on their doctrinal pride or sense of ethical superiority, which distances them from others. 

Psychologically, they demonstrate their insecurity, more than their confidence. Thus leaders who are incapable of accepting criticism foster a ′cult of personality′, which causes not only religious groups, but even political parties to fragment over and over again, due to the division between their leaders. The churches should be different:

′Let there not be divisions among you, but be perfectly united in the same mind and opinion′ (1 Corinthians 1:10). The question is what is that very mind. In the world, there is an attempt to establish a ′unique thought′, which is imposed even by minorities that seek recognition of their identity through a ′cancellation culture′. Given this, many retreat into their ′conspiracy theories′ –like Alamo, who believed that all evils came from the Vatican–, but Christian leaders refer to ′the mind of Christ′ (2:16), not to ours with our prejudices and suspicions.

Sects and cults are the unpaid bills of the church. If revival is God’s answer to a church in crisis, the cult is the wrong solution to real problems, which show the need for spiritual renewal. If we were to judge groups like those of Tony Alamo and David Berg at their origins, there is no doubt that at first they are full of vitality, young people committed to a strict ethical code, exposing the cynicism and apathy of institutional churches. They have a clear sense of purpose and direction, which is both refreshing and admirable.

The problems, however, are there: financial abuse, manipulative leadership and even sexual abuse. If the evangelical movement has grown in the face of the decline of traditional churches, many instead of showing the freedom of the Gospel, what it seems is that they are slaves to new teachers and organizations that seek their own interest, be it power, money or sex. We must, therefore, examine what features of our church are more sectarian than evangelical. Anglican pastor Stephen Wookey suggests several questions at the end of his book ′When a Church becomes a Sect ′, some of the key ones are:

  1. How is your church governed? In the New Testament the authority is Christ Jesus, head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23), but to whom does the direction of your church answer? Is there a leader with infallible authority? Can you disagree with him? (2 Corinthians 7:2; Galatians 1:8-9; 1 Peter 5:2-5).
  2. How does your church present itself? How exclusive is your group? Is there an elitist feeling that despises all churches and believers that are not in it? (2 Corinthians 12:1-10; James 2:1-7)
  3. How does your church grow? Announcing the Gospel or misleading teaching that distorts Biblical truth? Does your practice correspond to Christian morality? (2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Galatians 1:8-9; 1 Timothy 4:16)

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