Cover of The Essene Gospel of Peace
  • Cover of The Essene Gospel of Peace
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The incense-choked jumble of the recent Whole Life Expo: vegetarians and environmentalists and every shade of new-age devotee wandered endless rows of booths for radical cancer cures, aura-photography, and Delphi, the City of Dolphins. Few browsed close to the booth of the First Christians’ Essene Church. They were wary, perhaps, of the word “Christian” or the poster taped to the curtain, quizzing: “The Miracles of Jesus — Did you know Jesus was an Essene?”

The table across the front of the booth was tiled with paperback books written by the Essene Church’s founder, Edmond Bordeaux Szekely (Zay-kay). Stacks of acid-green handouts advertised Essene minister David John Carmos’s lecture “Healing Secrets of the Essenes” in conference room C. On a paper plate were chunks of “Essene bread” — a cake-like substance of organic wheat kernels, carrots, and raisins that, a sleek young woman said, is sunbaked according to a recipe in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“The new-age movement,” the Reverend Rick Van Wyhe said, “is not new. It’s all old information — which the Essenes passed down in the purest form.” Van Wyhe, ordained just last November, sat placidly on a folding chair behind the table. The sleek young woman, Nilsa Alemany, sat next to him, regarding the middle distance with intense boredom. Van Wyhe was dressed in white. Farm-bred freshness sat on him like a benediction. It was in fact a Minnesota farming childhood, he disclosed, that led him toward the Essenes. He was always “close to nature.” But he’d wanted to “take a more active role in the environment,” and the Essene Way fit perfectly with what he already believed.

Van Wyhe sought the skeptical eyes of browsers as they approached the table, fingered the publications, and walked on without talking. He smiled calmly. “Some of Szekely’s writings are far out,” Van Wyhe said. “Some of it can make me cry. It’s so ... pure. Reading it makes you stre-e-etch in every way!” His slender-wristed arms shot out and apart to show his meaning.

A dark-faced man in a brown shirt approached the table, stared at the goldenrod mimeographs of the Essene Creed, stared at the wall behind Nilsa Alemany. “How,” he asked, reluctantly shifting his eyes to her, “does Jesus fit in with the Essene Church?” Nilsa said, “I really don’t know that much about it... ” and jerked her eyes to Rick. “Uh, Rick, do you want to field that one?”

“Well, in a lot of the Dead Sea Scrolls that Dr. Szekely researched in the Vatican — you see this book here, The Essene Gospel of Peace, is volume one of his research — he found that many of the healing and teachings Jesus used were from the Essenes....” The man listened patiently, his face losing hostility and interest. Van Wyhe whisked up a copy of the book, read to the man about the Essenes’ belief in pure food, explained that it corroborated what we now know about “food germs getting killed at 115 degrees.”

San Diego Union, July 13, 1949

The man thanked him and darted away. Van Wyhe continued to scan the crowd. After a silence, he explained that while he is attracted by the Essenes’ compassion for man, their beliefs in “nurturing nature” and in “utilizing the underforces of nature,” what lies at the heart of his commitment is beyond definition. “Whenever you try to define it, it fits and it doesn’t fit.... It’s a timeless form of wisdom that visits itself on a situation.” It has something to do, he has surmised, with “the conscious energy that comes from the realms of divinity that surround the human world.”

Edmond Bordeaux Szekely swam or steamed ashore in Mexico — depending on who is telling the story — sometime in the 1930s. California, where by one account he arrived on foot through the Sonora Desert, must have seemed as green and promising as Oz did to the humbug wizard from Omaha. The place was rife with prophets and eccentrics. There was William Randolph Hearst in his castle in San Simeon, evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson with 35,000 followers and a $1.5 million temple, nudist colonies, graphologists, palmists, astrologists, millionaire hermits, phrenologists, food faddists, a “Holy City” run by white supremacists who bottled and sold ginger ale for a living, Rosicrucians, Hollywood. A French-Hungarian health guru with vague credentials, Szekely fit right in.

GOLDEN GIRL: Deborah Szekel, the godmother of American spas, at home in Washington, D.C.; Rancho la Puerta's old lecture hall (inset top) and a rubbing class there in 1950

He lived most of his life in San Diego. When he died in 1979, Szekely left behind more than 80 books, a quasi-religious publishing firm called the International Biogenic Society, the First Christians’ Essene Church, and two multimillion-dollar health spas — the Golden Door in Escondido and Rancho La Puerca near Tecate — run by his ex-wife and son.

All of these were founded on a holistic philosophy Szekely developed, revised, and expanded continually for more than 50 years. The foundation for his theories was research he allegedly conducted on religious documents — one in Aramaic, one in Old Slavonic — that he claimed had been written by the Essenes and suppressed by the Catholic Church. The Essenes were an ancient Jewish sect of ascetics and mystics now generally recognized by archaeologists and biblical scholars as the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Historical sources don’t have much to say about the Essenes. They lived in Israel fro n roughly 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. They were an agrarian society known for their strictness of living. According to Alan Sparks, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University, the Essenes are referred to in the writings of Plutarch, Philo, and Josephus, among others. The Dead Sea Scrolls, rediscovered in 1946..are accepted by most scholars, Sparks has said, “as the writings of the main residential center of Essenes at Qumran, a community that was overrun by the tenth Roman legion in June of 68 A.D.”

Szekely’s version of the Essenes’ religion, like other religious groups commonly labeled new-age, espouses spiritual enlightenment through physical purity. Physical purity is achieved through a diet of raw vegetarian food, periods of fasting, colonics, plenty of exercise and fresh air, yoga, and meditation.

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