In the beginning was the word of God and God never said anything about brassieres or boxer shorts. Thus was born Natura, America’s first Christian nudist camp.
After two years of biblical debate over Adam and Eve and their fig leaves and whether or not nudity is sinful, a 67-year-old Quaker grandfather is preparing to open a modern-day Garden of Eden 40 miles north of Tampa, Florida.
Bill Martin’s ambitious plan for a 200-acre Christian- oriented Family Naturist Village has survived legal challenges, doctrinal disputes and a plague of internet prudes. Land is now being cleared for the opening next year of what may become the world’s only Christian community to feature nude volleyball.
Despite howls of complaint from fundamentalists who have likened Martin to the Antichrist — and described his nudist plans as “graphic evidence of America’s moral collapse” — Natura intends to build 50 houses around a non-denominational church where clothing for services will be optional.
He has fought with his neighbours over property rights, fallen out with other nudists over his promotional material and sparked a vigorous internet debate over whether the true path to godliness really involves getting naked.
Yet Martin remains confident that Christians will flock to Natura to experience the spiritual benefits of a lifestyle “free from body shame”. He is spending more than $2m on a nudist recreational complex that will also feature a hotel, campsites and a children’s water park.
“As evidenced by Adam and Eve, we believe that when God’s children are in the right relationship to Him, they will be naked and unashamed,” explains one of Natura’s brochures.
American Christians have long been intrigued by the biblical implications of nudity and Ilsley Boone, a Baptist pastor, was the founder in 1931 of the American Sunbathing Association, an early naturist group.
Martin and his supporters argue that nudism is unhealthy, especially for children, unless it occurs in a proper Christian context. He has criticised non- religious nudist camps for encouraging alcohol and sensuality. “We are going after a totally different group, a group that doesn’t want a sexual atmosphere,” he said. “There is absolutely no relationship between nudity and sex.”
Much of his group’s philosophy appears in a book, Nakedness and the Bible, self- published on the internet by Paul Bowman, a Canadian author. The book cites several biblical references suggesting that God does not disapprove of nudity and that Jesus may have been naked at several key moments of his life — notably when he washed the feet of his disciples.
Martin’s supporters also claim that nude worship is much more in keeping with modest Christian values than are the ostentatious displays of wealth on show at the suburban “megachurches”, where women attend services in “designer clothes and $90 haircuts”, says one internet posting.
None of which has stopped Martin’s critics from battling against his project. Texe Marrs, who operates a website called Conspiracyworld.com, has pointed to Martin’s project as evidence that Satan is subverting Christianity.
Daniel Bellows, chief executive of the new development, said that he regularly receives e-mails from Christians appalled by the idea of nude worship and warning him that he faces eternal damnation.
Although Martin’s land has been used by naturists before — the area has the largest concentration of nudist camps in America — he has alienated local residents with proposed property improvements that have spawned half a dozen lawsuits.
He has also upset America’s largest naturist association with his “holier-than-thou” approach. Earlier this year Natura was expelled by the American Association for Nude Recreation, representing 270 member organisations, on the grounds that his website was publishing “sexually exploitative material”.
Martin, who made his money building nursing and retirement homes in Washington, dismissed the allegations as professional jealousy and defended the photographs as harmless.
“Christ has forewarned us that we would be persecuted for his sake,” he told supporters in an e-mail. But he later removed all photographs from his site.
Martin also became embroiled in a bizarre dispute about an article that appeared on his website discussing male erections — a perennial concern for novice nudists. Martin told the St Petersburg Times that the article was meant to help young men worried about an embarrassing reaction when first confronting naked women.
“If you can’t speak about human nature, I don’t know what you can speak about,” he said. “Erections have got to be addressed. It’s a major concern of teen males.”
Martin’s critics depict him as a religious fanatic whose criticisms of rival resorts are damaging the naturist industry. “We are not concerned about him taking our members,” said Elf Anderson, who conducts nude marriage ceremonies at other resorts. “But we are concerned about the impression he gives to the public about us.
“We are all for wholesome family nudism — but he’s just way off the scale.”
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