|Lot and His Daughters (John Smith, ca 1720) -- a depiction of the Bible's most famous incestuous coupling|
During the early 1990s, in a downtown Los Angeles retirement complex, a former United Church of Christ minister carried on a lonely battle against the ultimate sexual taboo.
Carl York Schmidt, founder and bishop of the four-member Incest and Homosexual Church of the Universe, believed he could overturn what he saw as humanity's woeful ignorance and superstition about kinship sexual relations. Himself a married heterosexual, Schmidt claimed that both Scriptural and scientific evidence supported his contention that incest is harmless.
And he thought that the world was ready for his controversial message. A Harvard Divinity School graduate and former minister in the United Church of Christ, the 80-year old Bishop Schmidt told the author he'd operated openly for many years, conversing with total strangers about his Church.
Said Schmidt, "I was surprised to find a Spanish man in the senior complex I live in -- a college-educated man, I think -- who, when I mentioned that incest does no harm, said, 'Of course not! Anybody who does any reading in this should know it'.
"I was in the hospital the other day, and I happened to show somebody my calling card, and she said, 'Well, that's interesting. It is true that there's no harm in incest, certainly in most cases.'"
Why was he so optimistic? For one thing, he had already lived to see one supposedly universal and timeless sexual taboo lose most of its power.
Originally his ministry worked to legitimize homosexuality alone, back when same-sex relations were still looked on with the same kind of revulsion and horror reserved for same-family relations these days.
A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Schmidt had taken a doctorate of Theology from Harvard University, and had gone on to teach at Nashville’s Lipscomb University, and serve at the pulpit of the United Church of Christ. When the US entered World War II, the 30 year-old Schmidt preached against the conflict in the name of non-violence, and refused to join the military, or support its efforts.
Around this time, he began to doubt the truth of the Christian faith in which he’d been raised. As he said later, “I have studied the Bible carefully. My sober conclusions are that it was written by several people over many years and there is no God….I was a strong Christian and I was baptized when I was 14 years old. I have read the New Testament 37 times and Old Testament three times besides Bible studies. My reasons for discounting God are many.”
Schmidt pointed to the inconsistencies of Scripture, and the seemingly uncaring – if not sadistic – acts of the Biblical God, and maintained that the Good Book was exclusively the product of men. No Divine Being could possibly be behind such a mass of contradictions, cruelties, and absurdities, he maintained.
Yet Schmidt was still a trained minister who felt a call to preach – even if his message was essentially Godless and humanistic. In the 1950s, the only American organization with Christian credentials that could accommodate such a perspective was the Unitarian Universalist Church, and Schmidt moved to Los Angeles and took the local UU Church’s pulpit.
A landmark to the Southland’s leftist/alternative community that hosted a never-ending parade of activists and heretics through its portals, the First UU Church was graced during Schmidt's tenure by a young, talented, male organist who was beloved by one and all. That organist was Bob Hull, cofounder of the Mattachine Society, an organization that discretely advocated for gay rights in the closeted pre-Stonewall era.
Disenchanted with the Unitarians, whom he believed “had (not only) lost faith in God but…had lost faith in humanity too,” Reverend Schmidt left Los Angeles for several years, and resumed his UCC ministry, albeit as a somewhat-closeted unbeliever. When he returned for a visit in 1971, he found out that Hull had committed suicide over an unrequited love affair. It turned out that the young Hull had been in love with another young man, who'd gone and married a woman.
This startled the Reverend. He wasn't naïve – he knew about the games boys played with each other in adolescence. But he was astounded that those feelings could persist into adulthood, and create such shame and pain that people could kill themselves when their desires were frustrated.
Returning to his UCC ministry in Denver, Colorado, Schmidt asked a high-ranking "conference minister" if the homosexual sex act was contrary to Christian teachings. Schmidt was stunned when his superior told him that being gay was acceptable under UCC doctrine, and that he might well profit by setting up a ministry to reach gays with the Christian message of love and tolerance.
Intrigued by this possibility, Schmidt studied the Bible for references to homosexuality. Though the Old Testament had numerous condemnations of same-sex relations (particularly in Leviticus), only one passage in the New Testament -- Romans 1:26 -- seemed to look askance on the practice. Reading the Four Gospels, and noting how often Jesus Christ's teachings seemed to supersede or reverse Moses', Schmidt decided that gay sex acts -- like non-kosher foods and other Pentateuchal peccadillos -- were really forbidden only to the Jews. The New Testament made them okay for Christians.
While studying Genesis, Schmidt began to realize that an even bigger taboo was presented in a much different light than he'd suspected. Researching the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and finding that the townspeople's "strange sin" was mistreatment of visitors rather than homosexual intercourse, Schmidt began to wonder about Lot and his daughters. Here was a clear-cut instance of a real no-no -- incest -- being practiced under Jehovah's seeming approval. Granted, Lot's daughters had gotten Dad drunk and seduced him, but no condemnation occurred. What was going on?
Reading further, Schmidt found incest in the lives of some of the Bible's greatest figures. In Genesis 20:12, Abraham married his half-sister Sarah, and instead of being damned by Jehovah like so many other Old Testament characters, went on to found the Jewish tribal-nation. Later on, another product of an incestuous marriage was none other than Moses, whose father Amram married his aunt.
Even the story of Adam and Eve implied kinship coupling. If Eve was the mother of all living, where did Cain and Seth's wives come from?
Schmidt felt he was onto something big, and expanded his ministry to include people in incestuous relationships. Of course he realized such couplings were illegal, and made it clear that he did not advocate breaking the law. But he felt that the laws against the practice were no different than the laws against "sodomy": statutes grounded in ignorance of true Biblical content, as well as in 19th Century Victorian anti-sex pseudoscience, and the general prejudice against "the different" of any society.
Schmidt joined the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Church as an associate member, hoping to learn from their practices how to form a pro-homosexual ministry. But the onetime Unitarian was dismayed by what he saw as an attempt to structure theology around same-sex relations. He felt that religious convictions were a private decision, and that his mission was concerned more about people's behavior than their beliefs.
Exploring Denver's ecclesiastical options, Schmidt fell in with Mark Harding's Catholic Life Church. An independent "Old Catholic" bishop with a checkered, controversial career, Harding accepted Schmidt's pro-homosexual cause and took him on as an assistant, but tensions between the two men eventually produced a falling-out and dissociation.
|Rev. Carl York Schmidt (r), around the time he founded Denver's Homosexual Church of the Universe|
Soon, Schmidt formed his own group – allegedly with the blessing and support of the United Christian Church. He named it "The Homosexual Church of the Universe”, and worked to legitimize Christian homosexuality throughout the 1970s in Colorado.
In a state still notorious for anti-gay sentiment, Schmidt found his ministry both rewarding and highly controversial. He claimed to have received over 60,000 phone calls during his nine-year Denver tenure; the sheer volume of interest made him wonder if the famous Kinseyan "ten percent" figure was, if anything, a gross underestimate of society's gay presence. He was on numerous radio and TV talk shows as well, parrying attacks by Fundamentalist Christians both behind the mike and over the phone lines.
Schmidt also found himself at the center of an embarrassing sex scandal. In January 1972 he was arrested, and accused of fellating two underage Denver boys, one of whom was a mere fourteen years old. Although he didn’t admit his guilt, the sexagenarian divinity defended intergenerational sex as “healthy” in The Advocate, the gay-oriented newspaper that reported on the case. When the case came to trial, Schmidt pleaded nolo contendere, and got a suspended sentence and $300 fine.
Schmidt returned to Los Angeles in 1982. While teaching at Los Angeles City College, he slowly shifted the group's emphasis to incest, since he realized that homosexuality had become far more acceptable in American society since he'd started his ministry eleven years earlier. Though the AIDS crisis had caused some backlash, Schmidt believed that gays and lesbians had more than enough large, powerful groups working on their behalf.
So he began to concentrate on demythifying incest, as he had homosexuality, and renamed his ministry “The Incest and Homosexual Church of the Universe”. Schmidt was careful to explain that he defined "incest" as marriage between closely-related, consenting adults. He had only pity and scorn for child molesters and rapists.
As he put it, "Coitus by force is rape, but it's still coitus. Like both kinship marriage and molestation, the same act of incest takes place, but they're two different things." (So much have the two been confused that Schmidt had considered changing his church's name to "The Church of Kinship Marriage," to avoid "incest"'s child-exploitation connotations.)
The Los Angeles incest ministry had been much more low-profile than the Denver homosexuality mission. For one thing, close-kin sexual relations were far more controversial. "There are many, many people who agree with us," Schmidt said, "but they don't dare show their faces to the public. They'd be accused of being incestuous; there'd be calls for investigations, bad publicity, etc., so they just don't dare."
But Schmidt never acted as if he had anything to hide. He was aboveboard and public in promoting the Church, insisting that he has never advocated actually committing incest, a felony in most states. The Church's phone number was even listed in the Los Angeles phone book's Yellow Pages!
One regular on the Church hotline was an anonymous non-member who gleefully spun tales of a long-standing affair with own his mother. Schmidt didn't know the man's identity, nor did he want to. If he did, he would have been legally obliged to turn him in to the police as a felon. All he could do for such callers was to suggest legal alternatives, such as moving to countries where kinship marriage was not punished as severely, if at all.
Church services were held on Sundays at Schmidt's downtown apartment. Usually there were only one or two attendees present. Meetings included a communion ritual with water -- the "universal element" -- instead of wine, and the singing of a pro-gay hymn that Schmidt composed to the tune of "America the Beautiful": "For love of man for man/All thee we rise and stand...."
Even though his ministry languished in obscurity, Bishop Schmidt felt that the times would eventually catch up with his controversial ideas, and that kinship marriage would be regarded as the same kind of legitimate and -- possibly even mainstream-church approved -- lifestyle option that homosexuality had become. The octogenarian Bishop believed that California, the West's traditional launching pad for leading-edge ideas, was an ideal place to de-demonize the ultimate sexual taboo, and maintained his lonely mission through his eighties.
Like so many other liberal Christian ministers, Schmidt incorporated teachings from other faiths into his Church. He favored Buddhism, possibly the only major world faith that didn't specifically condemn incest. Bishop Schmidt advocated Buddhist-style meditation, citing the faith's almost complete lack of crusades, witch-hunts or jihads as a natural result of the inner peace the practice produced.
|Schmidt as Buddhist monk Nashville Samitha, circa 2000.|
True to his convictions, Schmidt eventually took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, joining North Hollywood's Sarathchandra Buddhist Center as a monk sometime in the early 1990s. He took on the monastic name Nashville Samitha, as a tribute to both his birthplace and his original surname, which had often been Anglicized as Smith.
Venerable Schmidt/Samitha spent the rest of his life at the Center, passing into the Void on June 7, 2005 at the age of 94. He left nothing save for his earthly remains, which he donated to the USC Medical School, and a legacy as the onetime primate of one of the strangest religious sects to ever grace California.
Bishop Carl York Schmidt, interview with the author, Los Angeles, 1991
Bishop Carl York Schmidt, interview with the author, Los Angeles, 1991
Jayawardhana, Walter. "Buddhist Monk Turned Former Christian Minister [sic] Passed Away in North Hollywood." LankaWeb.com, n.d.
Hughes, David. "Profile: Wallace de Ortega Maxey." The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archives Network, 9/11/2013.