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I first met Anton Szandor LaVey in early 1967, a few months after he announced the founding of the First Church of Satan. His Victorian-style house, its interior painted black, was not far from my parsonage at the edge of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I was both a pastor intensely involved in youth outreach and a writer for several Christian publications. On both grounds, I wanted to know about this new cult on the block.
Ever the carnival showman who played the part, Mr. LaVey was decked out in black when he answered the doorbell, from a black cape and suit to his well-trimmed black mustache, goatee, and pointed eyebrows beneath a shaved dome. The shades were drawn; I took notes by candlelight. His wife and a daughter occasionally peeked in from the kitchen. In one sense, it was hard not to like him. He explained his hedonist beliefs candidly and humorously. He was totally up front-in contrast to many liberal church leaders I had interviewed about their beliefs.
Anton LaVey was born across the Bay in Oakland in 1930. We were contemporaries. He seemed curious about the work I was doing in the neighborhood. Although as a pastor, I represented "the enemy," he invited me to return "anytime," including when he conducted "black masses." I accepted the offer.
It took little time to discover that Anton LaVey was not into supernatural Satanism at all. He would have been first to flee if Satan or a demon had appeared during a black mass. Mr. LaVey described practitioners of supernatural Satanism as "nut cases," and he had no use for lawbreakers. He was an atheist, using Satan as a symbol to help people deal with guilt-ridden consciences. I suggested Mr. LaVey was a "hopeful agnostic: you hope God doesn't exist." He chuckled and fired back with barbs of his own, including one that became enshrined as the Ninth Statement of Satanism in his Satanic Bible (1969): "Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had; he has kept it in business all these years!"
Typically, those who attended the black masses were people with church backgrounds; some were well-known show biz personalities (I sat next to Barbara McNair one night). I was surprised at the number of former Presbyterians among them. Mr. LaVey counseled them: "Everything the church taught you was a vice is really a virtue, and everything it said was a virtue is really a vice. The church has told you physical and mental gratification is sin; it's good, it's fun, it's right. Life is a party. Enjoy it. Eat, drink, and be merry-to the fullest. Sin is if you don't."
So, boiled down, the LaVey brand of Satanism was a system of mental gymnastics and self-delusion. It was designed to insulate people from emotional and conscience-related consequences of their self-centeredness and licentiousness.
I once accompanied Mr. LaVey in a hearse to a graveside "service" for one of his young-adult parishioners. "What is the meaning of death for you?" I asked as we drove along 19th Avenue. "It means having to leave the party," he replied. "That he had to leave the party so early saddens us all."
Late last month Anton LaVey himself left the party (heart failure and edema). Some party. I lost touch with him after I moved from San Francisco in 1970, but I followed his doings in the press. A wrecked family, dissension and backstabbing by followers (he said his flock numbered 10,000), financial upheaval, moral chaos. But all that was a piece of cake compared with what he must be facing today: sad realities. Satan and hell are among them.