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On April 13, 2000, Lionel "Leo" Volpe died at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point, New Jersey. The exact cause of death wasn't given though the 83-year old Volpe had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in 1992. What made this story+ so remarkable wasn't the exact circumstances of his death, but that he had been the head of one of the most unique religious groups in New Jersey's history. For not only did Leo Volpe claim to be the Prophet Jeremiah returned to Earth, but that he was God's spokesman and founder of a church would preside over the last days of the human race.
Leo Volpe wasn't always a prophet though. Born in 1916, he worked as a mason before discovering the works of Joseph Franklin Rutherford in 1940. Rutherford had been a leading figure in the Jehovah's Witnesses as well as the second president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Many of his books. including his three-volume book Vindication, advocated civil disobedience by following God's word over all earthly governments. Inspired by Rutherford's teachings, Volpe became a conscientious objector during World War II and faced legal troubles over resisting the draft.
After studying with the Jehovah's Witnesses for several years, he reportedly received his first message from Yahweh in 1943 telling him toleave Jehovah's Witnesses. "Move to the country," the voice said. "Stay there by yourself, and I will teach you all about Jehovah's Witnesses; and afterward you will get back together in a way that will surprise them." Following the voice's instructions, Volpe moved to Vineland, New Jersey where he studied scripture in detail as he attempted to unravel the meaning behind various Biblical passages.
Finally, after forty years of study, Volpe founded the The Restored Israel of Yahweh in 1973. In founding his church, which he said "is not Christian though we believe in Christ," Yahweh was meant to describe all those who sought salvation in the coming destruction Volpe predicted. Among the revelations that Volpe provided to his small, but growing group of followers, was that he was the prophet Jeremiah returned to Earth. As he later proclaimed, "I am God's spokesman. If these were my own ideas, I would not utter a word. But being inspired, having this fabulous knowledge revealed to me, I must speak. I was told to lead his people."
Volpe also revealed that the King of Iron (the Soviet Union) and the the King of Clay (the United States) would eventually create a one-world government with the Pope of Rome as its ruler. This government would only last for a few years before humanity destroyed itself. "I have only a message of gloom for the world, of its utter destruction," Volpe said in a 1975 newspaper interview. "There's no hope for it at all."
Using a ten-year chronology that he had carefully worked out during his long years after leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses, he predicted that the movement he founded would swell to more than 200 million followers as several other returned prophets joined him in redeeming the world. At that time, he only had one hundred and fifty followers, most of whom were young people living in New Jersey. Many of them had dropped out of college to serve the new movement, something that Volpe heartily endorsed. He also encouraged followers to home-school their children to prevent them from being indoctrinated in immoral beliefs.
"If they go on going to college and don't get this information, they'll all be dead at the beginning of the new government," he warned. Adding that only a third of the Earth's population would see the truth before the end and escape by fleeing to the mountains, he insisted that the rest of the world would be destroyed in war. After his prophecy came to pass though, the survivors would draw on his teachings to build a perfect society. "There will be no more death. All the righteous will make up the most efficient system ever seen on Earth. All will be producers. Everything will go into storehouses and be free. There will be no more money, no more armies, banks, or courts. All physical ailments gradually will be erased."
Despite their leader's enthusiasm, not to mention the pickets they set up on the Atlantic City Boardwalk and various other prominent spots around New Jersey, the movement never really grew. The 150 followers had in the 1970s seemed to have been the high point and their numbers dwindled to fewer than fifty by the 1990s. What drove many of his followers away over the years was Volpe's unfortunate tendency to make predictions about the End Times that failed to come to pass.
The first prediction was that the world would end in 1969 with God destroying all governments and establishing a new kingdom with Volpe and other returned prophets as leaders. When that particular prediction failed, Volpe said that he had another vision in which God told him to build a kingdom on Earth. With support from his followers, Volpe purchased a large chunk of real estate in New Jersey's Hamilton township. In addition to various business, Volpe's followers also built houses where they could live rent-free.
Along with the problems of running a 250-acre community over which he was absolute ruler, Leo Volpe also faced considerable legal woes as well. After decades of refusing to pay federal income taxes, he finally served four months in jail for tax evasion. Not that this made him any less determined in his mission. After years of relative calm, he made a new prediction of the world ending in 1985 and had his followers prepare for the end of the world (again). This prediction failed as well which cost him even more members.
One of those lost members happened to be Volpe's own son, Dan. Not long after Dan began questioning his father's teachings, he found himself ostracized, much like many other followers who dared to question the Prophet. Even after Leo Volpe's health led to his hospitalization, his other followers made it clear to Dan that he wasn't welcome at the hospital. As Dan himself later reported, "When he was sent home, the group sent me a letter stating that they did not want me to visit. After many years of conflict, I finally gave up and let them have their way. I learned of his death through former members two weeks after the fact."
With Volpe's death came the troublesome question of who would lead the few remaining members of a church that owned nearly a million dollars in real estate and financial assets. Soon after Volpe died, his wife Esther signed an affidavit verifying that her husband had no assets. Instead, ownership of the various properties was listed as "Yahshua Mawsheeach, the king of the Restored Israel of Yahweh, Yahweh's only begotten son, now and forever reigning from the heavens, represented on Earth by Leo J. Volpe, the resurrected prophet Jeremiah, Yahshua Mawsheeach's supreme earthly representative." Much of the other property was deeded to Esther Volpe.
While the Restored Israel of Yahweh still exists (or at least their website does), I haven't been able to find news stories about their more recent activities. Back in 2005, several members were convicted for tax evasion but there is little else since then. Whoever is running the group, which has been officially labeled a cult by federal authorities, it seems unlikely to survive much longer without Leo Volpe at the helm.
That's one kind of doom their prophet failed to see coming.
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