Most of us think of cults as groups of unrelated people who join together via some kind of religious ideology offered by a central figure, usually a megalomaniac type man. But there are many variations on what cults are like.
Some cults are led by women. Some cults are political or psychological instead of religious. Sometimes the cult leader is the father of a large clan. His wife and children become his captive audience. That’s what happened in the case of the Pilgrim family of Alaska.
Papa Pilgrim was a charismatic and dogmatic fanatical Christian, but he didn’t start out that way. He was once at the center of a scandal involving the death of his very young wife, the daughter of Governor John Connally of Texas. Connally was the governor sitting in the front of the car when President John F. Kennedy was murdered.
At that time, Papa Pilgrim’s name was Robert Allen Hale. He was the son of a well-known football player, I.B. Hale. Robert was only 18 when a shotgun ended the life of his pregnant young wife, Kathleen Connally. The coroner’s jury ruled the death an accident.
A few years later, Robert Hale, now a hippie, changed his name to Firefly Sunstar. At the age of 33 he met a 16-year-old girl, Kurina Rose Bresler, and married her. She was the same age Kathleen had been when she married Robert Hale. Kurina’s name was changed to Sunlight, and soon enough, Firefly and Sunlight were the proud parents of their first baby – a girl they named Butterfly Sunstar.
Then Robert Hale met Jesus. It was while the family was visiting his twin brother in Texas. They attended his brother’s church and the people there told him they’d been praying for him for twenty years. He converted, and so did his wife, Sunlight. The newly-Christian couple again changed their names – this time to Pilgrim.
Papa and Mama Rose Pilgrim settled in New Mexico and enlarged their family. Papa Pilgrim said he’d had a vision showing him that Mama Rose would produce 21 children for him. By the time there were 15 children in the family, they decided to move to Alaska for more privacy.
That brought the Pilgrim family to the scene of the book’s focus, a small town in the remote Alaskan wilderness called McCarthy, formerly a mining town. They were initially well-received there, and bought land in a desolate valley nearby.
When I chose to read this book I was attracted to reading about a large family in the wilderness. I came from a wilderness town in a remote area of the Klamath River Valley in Northern California, so pioneer-style living is something I’m familiar with. I wanted to see how the Pilgrim family would handle it.
The book’s subtitle is “A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier.” That should have given me some warning that all was not right with the Pilgrim family’s situation, however I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I hadn’t read the news stories that were published in Alaska in the not-too-distant past. You could find a few on the web, but I suggest you read the book first, since we don’t need any spoilers, now do we?
I recommend the book. It was written by Tom Kizzia, a man whose wife owned land not far from the town of McCarthy. He was well-acquainted with various members of the Pilgrim family and other local neighbors that were affected by the Pilgrim drama. He gives us an insightful narrative, rich with local history, complete with information supplied directly to him by Pilgrim family members.
I enjoyed reading the book. I did not love all the subject matter, but very much admire the people who lived through it and eventually created their own lives elsewhere.
For more information on family cults, see this book: Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships
All’s well that ends well. Here’s a video of some of the Hale family singing with their friends, the Buckinghams.