When it comes to popular cults originating on U.S. soil, there are certain paths their enigmatic leaders have typically gravitated towards. These leaders have sexually terrorized congregations, mollified fear through mass suicide, summoned the fell swoop of government henchmen, or became wealthy enough to join Sea Org. However, some lesser known cults grew into quiet, local burdens, typically the victim of unsubstantiated rumors stemming from public fear and curiosity. This is the path of George L. Pike and the 70-acre tract of land known as Little Bethlehem.
I discovered Little Bethlehem when my wife, Katie, told me about a small compound in Monroe, Georgia about thirty miles from our home in Athens. If you are ever headed West on highway 78 past Monroe, keep an eye out for George L. Pike Parkway. You can straight up see this place from the road. It looks like a dilapidated rest stop that caters to dirty needles and the cast of Gummo.
According to Abandoned Southeast, construction started at Little Bethlehem in 1970 when George L. Pike, founder of the non-profit Jesus Christ Eternal Kingdom of Abundant Life, Inc., determined the need for an international headquarters for world evangelism, which is the only thing more annoying than regular evangelism. The non-denominational church focused primarily on “The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” the last and scariest book of the Protestant bible. Pike, raised as a Southern Baptist, interpreted these parables through symbols and allegory to understand God’s message to humanity. While much of the church’s doctrine is unknown, many of Pike’s sermons indicate the over-arching belief that it is up to the individual how much of God they want to allow in their life and the more they allow, the closer they become to a godlike figure themselves. Without drawing too much conclusion, I imagine Pike was especially talented at allowing the most God inside him.
The compound was funded by congregation donations and included living areas, a chapel, a bank, an unfinished open-air market, and more recently, a mausoleum. However, no good cult compound is complete without unnecessarily lavish living quarters for their leader. The Father’s House was built during the 80’s by the congregation specifically for Pike. The construction was never completed due to lack of funds, and while Pike was said to never be involved in the ministry’s financial matters, this indicates a gross misunderstanding of the first rule of running a cult: Get money. George Pike died in 1996, at which time his son, David, assumed leadership. This was short lived, however, as he resigned in 1999, resulting in shifting leadership until the church’s closing in 2013.
The church and George Pike were not without controversy, however. Locals claimed Pike was having sex with female members of his ministry, despite the church’s zero tolerance policy towards infidelity, which I find shocking considering how well sex-negative doctrines usually work for organized religion. Men and women were not allowed to interact outside of church gatherings and adhered to strict dress codes and conversation guide lines. Any violation of these ethics resulted in excommunication from Little Bethlehem.
Interestingly, I have yet to find an ex-member of the Little Bethlehem compound who does not continue to sing the praises of George L. Pike, however, they’re typically unable to clearly explain what the church’s doctrines were. While there is no hard evidence of malicious behavior within the ministry, Pike’s audio and video recorded sermons fall in line with many of the typical manipulative evangelist strategies; framing their existence as prophetic, shaping a heavenly power to their will, and getting paid to let non-venomous snakes bite them, or whatever bullshit they are selling these days.