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Baring it All for God: Christian Nudists Hold Coming-out Conference

February 26, 1996

LONGWOOD, N.C. (AP) - ``Amazing Grace″ lifts softly into the North Carolina pines from the meeting room where voices gather greater fervor with each verse in praising God.

Take away the video screen and music and it might be just another Saturday night in a Christian campground tradition that predates Billy Graham _ except the woman leading the song has no clothes on, her husband wears only a T-shirt and all the others are similarly undressed.

Welcome to the first Christian Nudist Conference, where naked Christian karaoke is but one sign of a coming-out party for this tiny but growing movement of religious naturists.

Some 40 Christian nudists from around the country stood naked and unashamed before their God at the conference, which ended Sunday with a worship service where ministers both robed and unrobed distributed communion to the nude and nearly nude outdoors underneath a wooden cross.

``The No. 1 goal of this whole thing, ultimately, is to glorify the name of Christ,″ said Carol Love, an owner of the Whispering Pines Resort where the conference was held. ``We feel like we’ve been Christians for a long time, and this is our next step to get closer to God.″

Christian uneasiness with nudity goes back to the biblical account of Adam and Eve, who were clothed by God after eating the forbidden fruit. Public nudity is associated with original sin, and most Christian denominations encourage modesty in dress so as not to inflame lustful passions.

But if churches emphasize fallen human nature since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, some nudists contend Christians can recapture a purity of spirit regarding creation.

``The Bible does say God created man in his image, and I think his image reflects the physical aspect of life,″ said John Kundert, editor of the Fig Leaf Forum, a newsletter for Christian nudists. ``I think as Christians, the redeemed, the new creation, (we) should be able to recapture some of that original goodness,″

The North Carolina conference and the forum newsletter, started in 1994, are two examples of the growing effort among Christian nudists to become more visible, said Jim Cunningham, head of Naturist Life International, a Troy, Vt., a group of conservative nudists.

Although his group is not explicitly religious, its magazine contains a feature called ``Divine Reflections″ and four priests concelebrated Mass at its conference last year in Quebec, Cunningham said.

``We’re overcoming our inferiority complex, and coming out of the closet ourselves,″ he said.

With clothes on, the participants of all physical shapes and sizes here to play and pray in the nude could be a typical collection of mostly over-40 Christians.

They describe themselves as Bible-believing folk, some of them fundamentalists, who see nudity as a path to the divine.

``When God created us, he didn’t create us with clothes,″ said David Phipps, a retired minister of music at a Pentecostal church as he walked the grounds with a pet pig on a leash. ``There are a lot of people walking around in $400 suits that I wouldn’t trust my pig with. So clothes really don’t make the Christian.″

The Rev. Gene Smith, a red-bearded minister from Lexington, Ky., said he was raised by an old-fashioned father who wanted him in church _ fully clothed _ as often as possible.

But in his experience, the practice of nudity follows along with his spiritual beliefs.

``When I became a Christian, my sins were covered,″ said the 52-year-old Smith, ordained in a nondenominational Evangelical church. ``There is nothing I have to hide. I really feel that’s the way my relationship should be with humankind also.″

A couple of miles away on Sunday at the Old Shallotte Baptist Church, a traditional red-brick building with an American flag out front, Southern Baptists in sport coats and dresses sing the traditional hymn ``Love Lifted Me.″

When they think at all about the nudists a short distance away, it’s with benign detachment. Nudists from Whispering Pines sometimes don clothes to attend the Baptist service.

``We don’t condone. We don’t condemn. We just try to be loving,″ said Deacon Larry Shreve. ``I believe we should wear clothes, but I’m never one to condemn.″

Over at Whispering Pines, with the sun shining and a simple wooden cross by the lake as a backdrop, nudists solemnly walked back and forth to communion. On one side, a man dressed in shirt and slacks distributed the bread, while on the opposite side a nude minister gave out communion.

``I’m sure God’s looking down and smiling at us today,″ said the Reformed Evangelical minister in full liturgical dress who led the service. ``Each one of us is a glorious work of art.″

But the minister declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.

Throughout the conference, participants discussed the desire for greater self-acceptance and winning the understanding of other Christians as two of the major issues facing Christian nudists.

Love, a mother of four children who attends Catholic Mass almost daily, said the idea for the conference came to her at 5 one morning when she heard the voice of God.

``It was like he said, `Do it; this is what I want.‴

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