Cult members disturb local religious leaders

Fairfield Minuteman/April 22, 2004

By Chris Ciarmiello

With some of their colleagues getting unwanted visits in the past few months, some area clergymen are keeping watch for several men who claim that their deceased leader was the second coming of Christ, and who say that those who do not follow them will face damnation.

"Many of us have had visits from ... representatives of 'Julius, the Christ,' in recent months," the Rev. Dr. Arthur McClanahan, pastor of Fairfield Grace United Methodist Church, said in an e-mail to 15 other local religious leaders last month. "Some of our experiences have, as we've reported, have been disruptive, even unnerving. Some have even endured verbal abuse."

The men, McClanahan said, are followers of the late Julius Schacknow, the self-proclaimed "sinful messiah" who announced at a 1970 Trumbull outdoor revival that he was Jesus Christ reincarnated, according to the New Haven Register. Schacknow, who faced two civil sexual assault lawsuits that were settled out of court in the 1980s - one filed by his stepdaughter - claimed that he needed to sin to know what sin was like, according to published reports. He allegedly used his charisma and position as a religious leader to entice women to sleep with him, according to the Register, and he died in 1996 at the home of one of his seven unofficial wives.

"It's really a bizarre cult that kind of, I guess, went dark for a while," McClanahan said. "Then in the last year I've become aware of them [coming to the area]."

According to McClanahan, the men come in pairs to churches or synagogues. While they have actually disrupted church services in other towns, the men have in Fairfield instead sought out leaders of churches or synagogues and bombarded them with their views that a sinful society is headed toward doom, he said.

"They come in and are at first polite and will often ask to speak to pastor for a few minutes," McClanahan said. "A few minutes is more like a half-an-hour harangue" about how their group must be followed in order to achieve salvation.

"They are not polite," McClanahan said. "They are on the border of verbally abusive, if not actually verbally abusive." He added that he has not heard of any incident in which the men have become physically abusive.

McClanahan said he was visited by two of Schacknow's followers, one of whom toted a worn Bible under his arm. Because he was aware that they had been sighted in the area, he realized who they were, he said, and told them he could not talk to them at that time. Other religious leaders who McClanahan said had been verbally bombarded by Schacknow's followers include clergy at a local Episcopal Church and a Jewish synagogue. They did not return phone calls.

A call to one of Schacknow's followers also was not returned before press time.

Schacknow, who headed several lucrative real estate and construction businesses that collapsed in the late-1980s, said that he was Jesus and had come to call the world to repent in a 1987 interview, according to a report published in the Hartford Courant. "I'm your creator, and I've come to punish the world for their sins, for their ungodliness, their crookedness, breaking my commandments," he said. "You are interviewing Jesus, who has returned like a thief in the night."

McClanahan said Schacknow's followers believe strongly that women have no place in the church, and he warned his wife, a minister in Shelton, about it. The group have visited her parish, McClanahan said.

"You've just got to be wary of these folks," McClanahan said.

Lt. Christopher Lyddy of the Fairfield police said Tuesday that the department has not received any complaints about Schacknow's followers. The department has been contacted by Diocese of Bridgeport officials, however, who made police aware of the situation, and by a few local religious leaders who asked what they should do if Schacknow's followers interrupted a service. The department is advising that clergy call the police if any disturbance occurs, and not take matters into their own hands.

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