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In the English-speaking world, the term cult often carries derogatory connotations. In this sense, it has been considered a subjective term, used as an ad hominem attack against groups with differing doctrines or practices. As such, religion scholar Megan Goodwin has defined the term cult, when it is used by the layperson, as often being shorthand for a “religion I don’t like”.
In the 1970s, with the rise of secular anti-cult movements, scholars (though not the general public) began to abandon the use of the term cult. According to The Oxford Handbook of Religious Movements, “by the end of the decade, the term ‘new religions’ would virtually replace the term ‘cult’ to describe all of those leftover groups that did not fit easily under the label of church or sect.”
Sociologist Amy Ryan (2000) has argued for the need to differentiate those groups that may be dangerous from groups that are more benign. Ryan notes the sharp differences between definitions offered by cult opponents, who tend to focus on negative characteristics, and those offered by sociologists, who aim to create definitions that are value-free. The movements themselves may have different definitions of religion as well. George Chryssides also cites a need to develop better definitions to allow for common ground in the debate. Casino (1999) presents the issue as crucial to international human rights laws. Limiting the definition of religion may interfere with freedom of religion, while too broad a definition may give some dangerous or abusive groups “a limitless excuse for avoiding all unwanted legal obligations.”
Where did cults come from?
The term “cult” first appeared in English in 1617, derived from the French culte, meaning “worship” which in turn originated from the Latin word cultus meaning “care, cultivation, worship”. The meaning “devotion to a person or thing” is from 1829.
What are the 3 types of cults?
Three ideal types of cults are posited: a mystically-oriented illumination type; an instrumental type, in which inner experience is sought for its effects; and a service-oriented type, which is focused on aiding others.
What are the 3 main characteristics of all cults?
Checklist of Characteristics
- The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
What is the structure of a cult?
A cult is a group or movement held together by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology. It has a belief system that has the answers to all of life’s questions and offers a special solution to be gained only by following the leader’s rules.
What are the four types of cults?
The four types of destructive cults most prevalent today: commercial, religious, political, and self-help.
When did cults first begin?
Beginning in the 1930s, cults became the object of sociological study in the context of the study of religious behavior. Since the 1940s the Christian countercult movement has opposed some sects and new religious movements, labeling them “cults” because of their unorthodox beliefs.
When did cults first emerge?
Cults were first studied by sociologists during the 1930s as part of their studies of religious behavior. In the 1970s, the actions of cults like Jim Jones’ People’s Temple caused an increased interest in such groups.
Why do people join cults?
Another account for why wealthier people join cults is the idea that they have a higher sense of stability in their lives. Because wealthier people feel more secure in the everyday worries of life, they have more freedom to pursue outside interests such a spiritual pursuits.
What do all cults have in common?
A cult is a group or movement held together by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology. It has a belief system that has the answers to all of life’s questions and offers a special solution to be gained only by following the leader’s rules.
How do cults change the brain?
To conclude, cultic behaviors and rituals can have devastating effects on the brain and people’s lives. Often taking advantage of vulnerable people in search of comfort and identity, they disable critical thinking processes and freeze emotional processing to both gain and maintain control over their members.
How do cults control their members?
Cults often use behavior modification on followers, such as thought- stopping techniques and instilling an “us-versus-them” mindset, Hassan said. With thought-stopping techniques, members are taught to stop doubts from entering their consciousness about the cult, often with a key phrase they repeat.
What are the three types of brainwashing?
Lifton ultimately defined a set of steps involved in the cases of brainwashing studied, roughly dividing them into three stages: breaking down the self, introducing the possibility of salvation, and rebuilding the self.
How long do cults usually last?
The average length of cult membership was almost 9 years and the time since departure was an average of 9.8 years (SD 7.8). The time between first contact and commitment and between the first desire to leave and departure were similar (22 and 16 months, respectively).
The English word “cult” is derived from the Latin cultus, referring to “care,” “adoration,” or “worship.” Therefore, the descriptive definition of “cult” as utilized by religious studies scholars and anthropologists refers to an organized system of worship focused on an adored object. The object of adoration is typically regarded as partaking of a sacred, unseen, and spiritual reality that is believed to have a powerful effect on human beings. In the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the term “cult” has been used to refer to religious groups that are feared and hated. Every culture and historical period has had stigmatized, marginal, and dissenting religious groups and movements, but the application of the term “cult” to such groups is relatively recent. Usually these religious groups are misunderstood by their critics, and their dangers are magnified in the popular imagination.
Particularly since the 1970s the term “cult” conveys a stereotype involving what can be called the “myth of the omnipotent leader” in combination with the “myth of the passive and brainwashed follower.” “Myth” is used popularly to refer to a story that is untrue, but a religious studies understanding of myth is also applicable in this case. In religious studies a myth is a narrative that conveys explanations as well as dearly held values. The “myth of the omnipotent leader” and the “myth of the passive and brainwashed follower” provide simplistic explanations of why stigmatized groups attract members.
How do cults start up?
There’s four dimensions to a cultic group that we see across the board.
1. Charismatic leader: The charismatic leader is the originator of the group. Charismatic leaders are people who are great manipulators, they’re charming. They know how to read people. They come along and offer a message that is going to resonate with somebody. Once they get a few followers that’s all they need and then those people go out, recruit more and they build up an aura around the leader.
2. Transcendent belief system: Most religions and even political groups are going to have a transcendent belief system, meaning they’re stating how to get to some better place. But what’s different in cultic groups is they have their way to get you there. It’s what I call the recipe for change. In order to be part of the group, you have to go through a transformational process, which they dictate to you and you can’t be there otherwise. That’s the indoctrination program.
3. Systems of control: They think they’re joining something that’s going to give them purpose and meaning. Slowly the heat gets turned up and you go through the rituals or the study sessions that get you more and more drawn in. As this process goes on, the person begins to adopt this new worldview that requires new behaviors and which most often requires cutting off from the past. There’s all kinds of control mechanisms, which are the rules and regulations. You’ve got to dress this way.
4. Systems of influence: Then there’s the more subtle influences, which is the peer pressure. Older members will model for the new members how you’re supposed to behave. Before you know it, you’re so enveloped in this other reality that you don’t look to anything else. You don’t allow yourself to be opened to any other explanations. Your mind has completely closed in on this new worldview. So the connections to the belief system is kind of the glue that keeps you there. This is your only hope.
Eight steps to mind control: How cults suck ordinary people in
STEP ONE: IDENTIFY THE POTENTIAL RECRUIT
You’d expect the focus to be on troubled youngsters, but many groups target people with useful skills or access to money. Vissarion’s followers include soldiers, doctors and engineers; we’ve all heard of celebrities involved in fringe religions. People are often recruited at a time of personal stress such as divorce, bereavement, unemployment or depression.
STEP TWO: PERSUADE THE RECRUIT TO WALK INTO THE WEB
It may seem innocent: a self-help group, a retreat, relationship therapy, church, a business meeting, an evening class. Increasingly, groups use the internet. People are indoctrinated without leaving their bedrooms.
STEP THREE: LOVE-BOMBING
A cascade of affection, support and approval poured over the recruit. A woman born into David Berg’s Children of God recalled this technique as a “wave of peace and love”. Berg’s organisation was also notorious for its use of “flirty fishing”, a form of evangelistic prostitution.
STEP FOUR: SELL, SELL, SELL!
The recruit must see smiling, friendly, happy people – a living advertisement. Invite them to come along again, and again, until they’re a part of the family.
STEP FIVE: TOUGH LOVE
Step five is tougher. The gloves start to come off. Reduce autonomy, induce dependency. Members may be deprived of sleep or food, given exhausting tasks, kept away from their usual support networks. Rigid rules and rituals may be introduced.
At the same time, rewards are offered – rest, love, comfort: the carrot and the stick. Some groups use meditation, mind-numbing chanting, euphoric music or dancing at this stage.
In 1995, The Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult carried out a deadly sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. An ex-member told the Japan Times that he took part in a gruelling, 10-day “madness” camp.
While in the cult, he was eating one meal a day and sleeping only two hours each night.
Sleep and food deprivation, coupled with rigid rules, help to break down a person’s sense of self.
“Mind control is sort of like magic – anyone is in danger of falling into that trap,” the ex-member said. “Aum made it seem like you were free to make choices but, in reality, you were being guided toward those choices.”
STEP SIX: RENOUNCING LOVED ONES
Persuade your recruit to renounce family, friends – anyone who offers a reality check. The more isolated a person, the more likely they are to invest in a new belief system. Which brings us to the seventh step.
STEP SEVEN: THE INTRODUCTION OF CORE BELIEFS
Charles Manson was said to be giving his followers large doses of LSD. One described how each acid trip took her farther and farther away from reality, until she could believe anything at all.
Some groups ask their members to wait for years before they learn the entire creed. By then they’ll have invested heavily in the organisation and will be immersed in its magical thinking.
STEP EIGHT: ZERO TOLERANCE OF CRITICISM
The final step is vital. Shame anyone who questions; shun any who leave. Continuing control relies on absolute obedience and members being afraid to leave.
I once spoke to the mother of a young man who had joined a destructive community in England. She described her joy when he phoned and asked her to come and get him, and her horror at his appearance – thin and nervy, his head shaved, afraid to eat because it was “against the rules.”
‘Cults’: History, Beliefs, Practices Essay
Destructive cult generally refers to groups whose members have, through deliberate action, physically injured or killed other members of their own group or other people. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance specifically limits the use of the term to religious groups that “have caused or are liable to cause loss of life among their membership or the general public.” Psychologist Michael Langone, executive director of the anti-cult group International Cultic Studies Association, defines a destructive cult as “a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits.”
John Gordon Clark argued that totalitarian systems of governance and an emphasis on money making are characteristics of a destructive cult. In Cults and the Family, the authors cite Shapiro, who defines a destructive cultism as a sociopathic syndrome, whose distinctive qualities include: “behavioral and personality changes, loss of personal identity, cessation of scholastic activities, estrangement from family, disinterest in society and pronounced mental control and enslavement by cult leaders.”
In the opinion of Sociology Professor Benjamin Zablocki of Rutgers University, destructive cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members, stating that such is in part due to members’ adulation of charismatic leaders contributing to the leaders becoming corrupted by power. According to Barrett, the most common accusation made against destructive cults is sexual abuse. According to Kranenborg, some groups are risky when they advise their members not to use regular medical care. This may extend to physical and psychological harm.
Writing about Bruderhof communities in the book Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, Julius H. Rubin said that American religious innovation created an unending diversity of sects. These “new religious movements…gathered new converts and issued challenges to the wider society. Not infrequently, public controversy, contested narratives and litigation result.” In his work Cults in Context author Lorne L. Dawson writes that although the Unification Church “has not been shown to be violent or volatile,” it has been described as a destructive cult by “anticult crusaders.” In 2002, the German government was held by the Federal Constitutional Court to have defamed the Osho movement by referring to it, among other things, as a “destructive cult” with no factual basis.
Some researchers have criticized the usage of the term destructive cult, writing that it is used to describe groups which are not necessarily harmful in nature to themselves or others. In his book Understanding New Religious Movements, John A. Saliba writes that the term is overgeneralized. Saliba sees the Peoples Temple as the “paradigm of a destructive cult”, where those that use the term are implying that other groups will also commit mass suicide.
Doomsday cult is an expression which is used to describe groups that believe in Apocalypticism and Millenarianism, and it can also be used to refer both to groups that predict disaster, and groups that attempt to bring it about. In the 1950s, American social psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues observed members of a small UFO religion called the Seekers for several months, and recorded their conversations both prior to and after a failed prophecy from their charismatic leader. Their work was later published in the book When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. In the late 1980s, doomsday cults were a major topic of news reports, with some reporters and commentators considering them a serious threat to society. A 1997 psychological study by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter found that people turned to a cataclysmic world view after they had repeatedly failed to find meaning in mainstream movements. People also strive to find meaning in global events such as the turn of the millennium when many predicted it prophetically marked the end of an age and thus the end of the world. An ancient Mayan calendar ended at the year 2012 and many anticipated catastrophic disasters would rock the Earth.
A political cult is a cult with a primary interest in political action and ideology. Groups that some have described as “political cults”, mostly advocating far-left or far-right agendas, have received some attention from journalists and scholars. In their 2000 book On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth discuss about a dozen organizations in the United States and Great Britain that they characterize as cults. In a separate article, Tourish says that in his usage:
The word cult is not a term of abuse, as this paper tries to explain. It is nothing more than a shorthand expression for a particular set of practices that have been observed in a variety of dysfunctional organisations.
In 1990, Lucy Patrick commented:
Although we live in a democracy, cult behavior manifests itself in our unwillingness to question the judgment of our leaders, our tendency to devalue outsiders and to avoid dissent. We can overcome cult behavior, he says, by recognizing that we have dependency needs that are inappropriate for mature people, by increasing anti-authoritarian education, and by encouraging personal autonomy and the free exchange of ideas.
In Iran, a “cult of Khomeini” developed into a “secular religion”. According to Iranian author Amir Taheri, Khomeini is called imam, making a “Twelver Shiism into a cult of Thirteen.” Khomeini’s image is engraved in giant rocks and mountain slopes, prayers begin and end with his name, and his fatwas remain valid beyond his death (something that goes against Shiite principles). Also slogans such as “God, Koran, Khomeini” or “God is One, Khomeini is the Leader” are used as war cries of the Hezballah in Iran. Even though Khomeini’s photographs still hang in many government offices, it is said that by the late 1990s “Khomeini’s cult had faded”.
Ayn Rand Institute
Followers of Ayn Rand have been characterized as a cult by economist Murray N. Rothbard during her lifetime, and later by Michael Shermer. The core group around Rand was called the “Collective”, which are now defunct; the chief group which is disseminating Rand’s ideas today is the Ayn Rand Institute. Although the Collective advocated an individualist philosophy, Rothbard claimed that it was organized in the manner of a “Leninist” organization.
The LaRouche movement is a political and cultural network promoting the late Lyndon LaRouche and his ideas. It has included many organizations and companies around the world, which campaign, gather information and publish books and periodicals. It has been called “cult-like” by The New York Times.
The movement originated within the radical leftist student politics of the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of candidates ran in state Democratic primaries in the United States on the ‘LaRouche platform’, while Lyndon LaRouche repeatedly campaigned for presidential nomination. However, the LaRouche movement is often considered far-right. During its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, the LaRouche movement developed a private intelligence agency and contacts with foreign governments.
An Argentinian esoteric group founded in 1957 by former theosophist Jorge Angel Livraga, the New Acropolis Cultural Association has been described by scholars as an ultra-conservative, neo-fascist and white supremacist paramilitary group. The group itself denies such descriptions.
Founded by North Korea-born Sun Myung Moon, the Unification Church (also known as the Unification movement) holds a strong anti-Communist position. In the 1940s, Moon cooperated with members of the Communist Party of Korea in the Korean independence movement against Imperial Japan. However, after the Korean War (1950–1953), he became an outspoken anti-communist. Moon viewed the Cold War between democracy and communism as the final conflict between God and Satan, with divided Korea as its primary front line. Soon after its founding the Unification movement began supporting anti-communist organizations, including the World League for Freedom and Democracy founded in 1966 in Taipei, Republic of China (Taiwan), by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Korean Culture and Freedom Foundation, an international public diplomacy organization which also sponsored Radio Free Asia.
In 1974 the Unification Church supported Republican President Richard Nixon and rallied in his favor after the Watergate scandal, with Nixon thanking personally for it. In 1975 Moon spoke at a government sponsored rally against potential North Korean military aggression on Yeouido Island in Seoul to an audience of around 1 million. The Unification movement was criticized by both the mainstream media and the alternative press for its anti-communist activism, which many said could lead to World War Three and a nuclear holocaust.
In 1977, the Subcommittee on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations, of the United States House of Representatives, found that the South Korean intelligence agency, the KCIA, had used the movement to gain political influence with the United States and that some members had worked as volunteers in Congressional offices. Together they founded the Korean Cultural Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization which acted as a public diplomacy campaign for the Republic of Korea. The committee also investigated possible KCIA influence on the Unification Church’s campaign in support of Nixon.
In 1980, members founded CAUSA International, an anti-communist educational organization based in New York City. In the 1980s, it was active in 21 countries. In the United States, it sponsored educational conferences for evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders as well as seminars and conferences for Senate staffers, Hispanic Americans and conservative activists. In 1986, CAUSA International sponsored the documentary film Nicaragua Was Our Home, about the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua and their persecution at the hands of the Nicaraguan government. It was filmed and produced by USA-UWC member Lee Shapiro, who later died while filming with anti-Soviet forces during the Soviet–Afghan War.
In 1983, some American members joined a public protest against the Soviet Union over its shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007. In 1984, the HSA–UWC founded the Washington Institute for Values in Public Policy, a Washington D.C. think tank that underwrites conservative-oriented research and seminars at Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and other institutions. In the same year, member Dan Fefferman founded the International Coalition for Religious Freedom in Virginia, which is active in protesting what it considers to be threats to religious freedom by governmental agencies. In August 1985 the Professors World Peace Academy, an organization founded by Moon, sponsored a conference in Geneva to debate the theme “The situation in the world after the fall of the communist empire.”
In April 1990, Moon visited the Soviet Union and met with President Mikhail Gorbachev. Moon expressed support for the political and economic transformations underway in the Soviet Union. At the same time, the movement was expanding into formerly communist nations. In 1994, The New York Times recognized the movement’s political influence, saying it was “a theocratic powerhouse that is pouring foreign fortunes into conservative causes in the United States.” In 1998, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram criticized Moon’s “ultra-right leanings” and suggested a personal relationship with conservative Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Unification Church also owns several news outlets including The Washington Times, Insight on the News, United Press International and the News World communications network. Washington Times opinion editor Charles Hurt was one of Donald Trump‘s earliest supporters in Washington, D.C. In 2018, he included Trump with Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II as “great champions of freedom.” In 2016 The Washington Times did not endorse a candidate for United States president, but endorsed Trump for reelection in 2020.
Workers Revolutionary Party
In Britain, the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), a Trotskyist group which was led by Gerry Healy and strongly supported by actress Vanessa Redgrave, has been described by others, who have been involved in the Trotskyist movement, as having been a cult or a group which displayed cult-like characteristics during the 1970s and 1980s. It is also described as such by Wohlforth and Tourish, to whom Bob Pitt, a former member of the WRP, concedes that it had a “cult-like character” though arguing that rather than being typical of the far left, this feature actually made the WRP atypical and “led to its being treated as a pariah within the revolutionary left itself.”
Organizations like the Mexican far-right group El Yunque, which sponsored the Spanish far right party Vox, the QAnon conspiracy theory, and the growing neo-Pentecostal political influence in Latin America, can be characterised as cults.
Gino Perente‘s National Labor Federation (NATLFED) and Marlene Dixon’s now-defunct Democratic Workers Party are an examples of political groups that have been described as “cults”. A critical history of the DWP is given in Bounded Choice by Janja Lalich, a sociologist and former DWP member. Lutte Ouvrière (LO; “Workers’ Struggle”) in France, publicly headed by Arlette Laguiller but revealed in the 1990s to be directed by Robert Barcia, has often been criticized as a cult, for example, by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his older brother Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, as well as by L’Humanité and Libération.
In his book Les Sectes Politiques: 1965–1995 (Political cults: 1965–1995), French writer Cyril Le Tallec considers some religious groups that were involved in politics at that time. He included the Cultural Office of Cluny, New Acropolis, the Divine Light Mission, Tradition Family Property (TFP), Longo Maï, the Supermen Club, and the Association for Promotion of the Industrial Arts (Solazaref).
Cults that teach and practice polygamy, marriage between more than two people, most often polygyny, one man having multiple wives, have long been noted, although they are a minority. It has been estimated that there are around 50,000 members of polygamist cults in North America. Often, polygamist cults are viewed negatively by both legal authorities and mainstream society, and this view sometimes includes negative perceptions of related mainstream denominations, because of their perceived links to possible domestic violence and child abuse.
From the 1830s, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) practiced polygamy, or plural marriage. In 1890, the president of the LDS Church, Wilford Woodruff, issued a public manifesto which announced that the LDS Church had ceased performing new plural marriages. Anti-Mormon sentiment waned, as did opposition to statehood for Utah. The Smoot Hearings in 1904, which documented that members of the LDS Church were still practising polygamy, spurred the church to issue a Second Manifesto, again claiming that it had ceased performing new plural marriages. By 1910, the LDS Church excommunicated those who entered into or performed new plural marriages. Enforcement of the 1890 Manifesto caused various splinter groups to leave the LDS Church in order to continue the practice of plural marriage. Such groups are known as Mormon fundamentalists. For example, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is often described as a polygamist cult.
Sociologist and historian Orlando Patterson has described the Ku Klux Klan, which arose in the American South after the Civil War, as a heretical Christian cult, and he has also described its persecution of African Americans and others as a form of human sacrifice. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the existence of secret Aryan cults in Germany and Austria strongly influenced the rise of Nazism. Modern-day white power skinhead groups in the United States tend to use the same recruitment techniques as groups which are characterized as destructive cults.
In the book Jihad and Sacred Vengeance: Psychological Undercurrents of History, psychiatrist Peter A. Olsson compares Osama bin Laden to certain cult leaders including Jim Jones, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara, Marshall Applewhite, Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro, and he also says that each of these individuals fit at least eight of the nine criteria for people with narcissistic personality disorders. In the book Seeking the Compassionate Life: The Moral Crisis for Psychotherapy and Society authors Goldberg and Crespo also refer to Osama bin Laden as a “destructive cult leader.”
We need to apply what we know about destructive mind-control cults, and this should be a priority in the War on Terrorism. We need to understand the psychological aspects of how people are recruited and indoctrinated so we can slow down recruitment. We need to help counsel former cult members and possibly use some of them in the war against terrorism.
Al-Qaeda fits all the official definitions of a cult. It indoctrinates its members; it forms a closed, totalitarian society; it has a self-appointed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the ends justify the means.
Similar to Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant adheres to an even more extremist and puritanical ideology, in which the goal is to create a state governed by shari’ah as interpreted by its religious leadership, who then brainwash and command their able-bodied male subjects to go on suicide missions, with such devices as car bombs, against its enemies, including deliberately-selected civilian targets, such as churches and Shi’ite mosques, among others. Subjects view this as a legitimate action; an obligation, even. The ultimate goal of this political-military endeavour is to eventually usher in the end of the world in accordance with their Islamic beliefs and have the chance to participate in their version of the apocalyptic final battle, in which all of their enemies (i.e. anyone who is not on their side) would be annihilated. Such endeavour ultimately failed in 2017, though hardcore survivors have largely returned to insurgency terrorism (i.e., Iraqi insurgency, 2017–present).
The Shining Path guerrilla movement, active in Peru in the 1980s and 1990s, has variously been described as a “cult” and an intense “cult of personality“. The Tamil Tigers have also been described as such by the French magazine L’Express.
How Cults Made America
A new book argues that, politically, messianic movements were often light-years ahead of their time. But at what cost?
Most people have never heard of Cyrus Teed, which is a shame. He was born in Trout Creek, New York, in 1839. As a boy, he worked along the Erie Canal, experiencing some of the worst labor conditions that nineteenth-century America had to offer. As Adam Morris recounts in a new book, “American Messiahs,” Teed soon became a staunch anti-capitalist, and he spent much of his life trying to abolish wage labor entirely. This didn’t prevent him from pursuing a number of business ventures. At one point, he ran a mop factory; at another, he hawked something called an Electro-Therapeutic Apparatus, which provided its owners with the putative health benefits of mild, recurrent electrocution. Teed was a student of “eclectic medicine,” a branch of healing that rose in response to widespread—and frequently justified—fears of doctors. In Teed’s day, you didn’t become a surgeon if you didn’t have the stomach to wield a bone saw.
Teed also believed that he had, living within him, a spirit of some sort. He would go on to proclaim that this spirit had once empowered Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus. The New York Times headline wrote itself: “A Doctor Obtaining Money on the Ground That He is the New Messiah.” Teed called himself Koresh, a transliteration from the Hebrew version of the name Cyrus, and criticized mainstream Christianity as “the dead carcass of a once vital and active” faith. Then, in the eighteen-seventies, he founded a commune, Koreshan Unity, and announced that “the new kingdom” would be formed through women’s emancipation—he envisioned a group of celibate, bi-gendered beings—and the destruction of monopoly capitalism.
Teed is one of the case studies in “American Messiahs,” in which Morris exhumes the lives and beliefs of a linked procession of self-appointed prophets who tried to upend American religion—and the American way of life. They did so by attracting thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of followers while preaching a version of what Morris calls “apostolic communism,” which has a clear basis in scripture. According to Acts 4:32, the first Christians, in Jerusalem, “were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” The typical history of Christianity will tell you that this passage has been influential in certain monastic communities but scarcely anywhere else.
Morris is out to prove this account wrong, and, in many ways, he succeeds. As it happens, a resilient strain of Christo-Marxist thinking has endured in America. Its adherents have almost always been celibate, anti-marriage, anti-family, relatively enlightened on matters of gender and race, and unblushingly communistic. The Americans who spearheaded these movements had another commonality: they all believed, in one manner or another, that they were living gods. For Morris, this fact has too often been exploited as an excuse to dismiss a radical tradition. “Far more than for their heretical beliefs,” he writes, “the communistic and anti-family leanings of American messianic movements pose a threat to the prevailing socioeconomic order.” In other words, these men and women were, morally speaking, light-years ahead of their time—and that’s why we don’t take them seriously.
It is interesting that these movements had progressive goals long before mainstream society did. One of the first prophets Morris writes about is a woman: the Quaker pacifist Jemima Wilkinson, who assumed her prophetic identity in 1776, following a bout of fever, when she was twenty-three. She called herself the Public Universal Friend, the All-Friend, and the Comforter, among other names, and answered only to male pronouns. This had less to do with modern conceptualizations of transgenderism than with Wilkinson’s belief, hinted at through four decades of missionary activity, that the spirit who inhabited her was Jesus. Wilkinson cited a passage from Jeremiah—“A woman shall compass a man”—to account for this possession by the Christ spirit, and she had an abstemious Christian desire to expunge sexual activity from the human experience. (Wilkinson shared this desire with her contemporary Ann Lee, who founded the Shakers, and who was supposed to have said that there are no “sluts in heaven.”)
Wilkinson denounced war and slavery, and her burgeoning flock was largely led by women. Her public image was helped by the fact that she was a skilled horseman, physically indomitable as she ventured into Revolutionary War zones to proclaim the nearness of the End Times. Here is Morris, in one of his typically well-tuned descriptions, relaying the sight of this gender-bending charismatic galloping across the world of George Washington:
Nearly every contemporary account remarks upon the dark beauty of the Comforter’s androgynous countenance: a well-apportioned female body cloaked in black robes along with a white or purple cravat, topped by a wide-brimmed hat made of gray beaver fur.
It’s fair to assume that the Christ spirit did not inhabit Wilkinson, but whether she believed it did is a thornier question. Morris nods at the likeliest answer when he refers to contemporaneous critics who guessed that her transformation into the Public Universal Friend was “a grandiose stunt carried off by a woman who considered herself too clever to end up an old maid.” Indeed, Morris argues that Wilkinson—and American messianic movements writ large—often provided shelter to those trying to escape the hardships of being a woman. Until well into the twentieth century, “women’s work” was highly exploitative. Not even marriage shielded women from indignity and assault, as marital rape was sanctioned by American law. Women have tended to flock to American messianic movements, Morris argues, precisely because such movements promised “equal rights among the faithful.”
For instance, the prophet Thomas Lake Harris—who, early in his career, wrote about doing psychic battle on an astral plane with Milton—ran what Morris describes as an “interracial, intergenerational, and communistic” community, which was “practically unheard of anywhere else in the country.” This was the Brotherhood of New Life, which, in the late nineteenth-century, had outposts in New York and California. Harris, too, believed that God dwelled within him, and his precepts included shared property, celibate marriages, and economies anchored by the production of wine. (He also believed that fairies lived in our bloodstream, and that “divine respiration,” a fancy breathing technique, was the key to paradise.) Like the Public Universal Friend’s incipient feminism, Lake’s “communalism” represented, in Morris’s words, “the ultimate repudiation of the values and institutions that Americans historically hold dear,” among them “the sacrosanct individualism on which American culture thrives.” This is why, Morris goes on, American messianic movements have historically found “reliable opponents in the press, in law enforcement, and in the courts.”
It’s true that America was shaped by extreme religious movements. Every November, we celebrate the seventeenth-century Puritans who arrived at our shore seeking religious liberty. We tend to forget that these Puritans weren’t oppressed because they were religious; they were oppressed because they were fanatics. They fled Europe to build a “city upon a hill,” a new and “primitive” Church in which equality reigned and private property was abolished. Their land reform failed, but their exceptionalism remains a vital layer of the American bedrock. As Morris writes, “the impulse to purify the group through separation from mainstream society, now regarded as the signature of a cult, could not be more fundamental to the nation’s history.”
Still, as the Puritans prove, the radical religious impulse need not be accompanied by a leader who claims to be God. At its core, the only difference between a cult and a religion is antiquity. But antiquity amounts to a lot. Among other things, it allows followers to live and believe within the parameters of a complex intellectual tradition. A human claiming to be God, and making concomitant demands of his or her community, falls into a much simpler intellectual tradition: the cult of personality. It could be that the press, law enforcement, and the courts tend to find fault with self-appointed deities because, as often as not, they do and believe alarming things. As Morris tells us, Wilkinson, despite her abolitionist convictions, mooched her way into a mansion built with a slavery-spawned fortune. Teed was a eugenicist, and his “mind cures” often proved lethal. Harris preached equality but routinely subjected the women and children of his commune to sadistic punishment. To say that these qualities are distractions—that the real reason these messiahs were scorned is that they threatened the American order—is a hard sell.
In his author bio, Morris describes himself as “an independent scholar.” He’s a fine writer of prose, with an instinctive feel for storytelling and a genius for quotation. One senses while reading this book the ghost of the proposal behind it—the promise of a smart, revisionist take on American messianic movements. But that message is often muddled, not least because Morris is too entertaining a writer to keep from dunking on his subjects: “Obviously the death of two-thirds of the Trinity was not an auspicious sign for the community,” he writes of one cult. Of Teed, he writes, “Overthrowing capitalism with a communist mop factory proved impossible.”
The two most darkly significant messiahs Morris writes about are also most indicative of what’s wrong with this otherwise fascinating book. Father Divine (born George Baker, in Maryland) burst upon the American scene in the early nineteen-thirties. After learning the preacher racket from a man who called himself Jehovia, Divine began his public life running a for-hire work service, gigging out early followers as maids and day laborers. He’d already forbidden the use of “hello” among his people, because it contained the word “hell”; instead, his followers greeted one another with “peace.” That gave his movement its name, the International Peace Mission Movement, which remains active to this day. One of the most famous tenets Divine, who was black, put forth was a disavowal of the concept of racial categorization, as a result of which he was attacked and mocked by Marcus Garvey and Richard Wright. As Morris puts it, this teaching is also the reason that “Father Divine’s Peace Mission has, for the most part, been deleted from the history of black struggle in America.” Nevertheless, his Peace Missions became some of the only integrated institutions in the United States.
Early in his career, Father Divine was arrested in rural Georgia. He refused to give his real name and was booked as “John Doe, alias God.” This soon became his joke on everyone. After declaring himself “fully attuned to the Christ Consciousness,” Divine started driving around in a Cadillac, accompanied by young women who scribbled down everything he said. An example of his penetrative wisdom: “Positive thoughts will bring about positive conditions in your bodies, and negative thoughts will produce negative conditions in your bodies.” A religious thinker Divine was not, but he was a genius about property scams. By the nineteen-forties, his movement controlled millions in real estate, though none of it was held in Divine’s name. This was done purposefully, so that if he was sued—and he would be—he’d be protected from losing everything.
Morris tells the story of Ruth Boaz, a former member of the Peace Mission Movement who later wrote a tell-all about Father Divine, including time she spent as his mistress. In the book, she detailed his singular ability to “capture the minds of sincere people and bend them to his will.” For some reason, Morris rides to Divine’s rescue, writing, “Her description is at odds with the fact that many of Divine’s followers were educated professionals, and that a great deal of those who joined the movement acquired training in nursing and other stable careers.” Perhaps that’s so, but what does it have to do with Divine’s credibility? Morris details the man’s many hypocrisies, from rejecting the New Deal largely because it cut into his recruitment program to possibly urging one of his less stable supporters to stab a servant of the court who served Divine with papers. The inclination to defend a cult leader against the charge of “mind control” is somewhat baffling.
Morris also points out that investigators looked into Father Divine’s finances, including Adam Clayton Powell, who concluded that Divine really did lift people out of poverty. This is comforting, but it appears not to matter to Morris that he did so by encasing his followers’ minds within a debasing fantasy. Throughout the book, Morris is so intent on pointing out the good done in spite of his messiahs’ beliefs that he rarely lingers on the lasting harm done to those who believed in the messiahs themselves. This winds up making the book appear to argue that these messiahs attracted followers because they were anti-capitalist visionaries and not because they claimed to be living gods.
Of course, that is exactly backward. Both Socrates and Jesus recommended turning the other cheek. Both Socrates and Jesus were killed for their beliefs. Yet when Socrates’s birthday rolls around, we don’t give each other presents. All religious movements appeal to ethics, but their primary draw is spiritual—a surrender to a higher power. When Morris writes that his messiahs “de-emphasized familial bonds,” or that their communes “lacked organizational structure,” he seems unduly confident that their goal was to overcome industrial capitalism, rather than to insure that their followers were easier to accrue and control.
Father Divine died in the mid-nineteen-sixties, but not before a student minister from the highly segregated state of Indiana came calling. The power, the people hanging on Divine’s every word—the future founder of Jonestown liked what he saw. This may be Father Divine’s most damning legacy: he gave us the Reverend Jim Jones. Morris believes that Jones may have been genuinely moved by experiencing “an integrated movement, numbering tens of thousands of adherents who successfully lived according to the apostolic socialism described in the Book of Acts,” which Father Divine certainly preached, even if he didn’t always practice it. Jones might well have found that inspiring, given that he made improving race relations the special focus of his ministry.
Morris’s account of Jones’s bizarre, star-crossed life is quite good, and he helpfully lingers on how completely a man of the evangelical left Jones was. For the vast majority of American history, as Morris reminds us, movements we would today call “evangelical” were largely leftist, which is best evidenced by the towering figure of William Jennings Bryan. Abolitionism was an obviously leftist concern, as was feminism, but so was, at one time, temperance. All three movements were spurred on by influential American evangelicals pursuing their own version of social justice.
This was the Christian tradition from which Jones seemed to emerge: outspoken, fiery, and unmistakably progressive. In time, Jones would attract star-studded admirers from the American Left, from Jane Fonda to Angela Davis to Willie Brown. But Jones was always lying about his true goals. A crypto-socialist by the nineteen-fifties, and later an outright Maoist, Jones was a self-professed atheist when he first met Father Divine. Religion, to Jones, was the opiate of the masses, and he intended to be the dealer. His early goal was finding a church that would allow him to smuggle Marxism into his sermons. Here is Morris:
If truly embraced, the principles outlined in the social creed would require Methodists to engage in community service, work to alleviate poverty, and foster love and caring in the community. Upon reflection, Jones realized that “infiltrating” the ministry would be the most effective way for him to advance his Marxist convictions. Christian charity and Pentecostal ardor could be combined to achieve radical social change through the solidarity and strong social bonds that existed in communities of faith. This was a powerfully transformative idea that later crystallized into one of Jones’s favorite maxims: “The ends justify the means.”
On its face, Jones’s project was successful: the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church was the first racially integrated church in Indianapolis, and getting it on its feet was almost entirely Jones’s doing. But his means to that end were precisely the problem. He’d already learned to scam his followers with his supposed mastery of telepathy and faith healing. Even more electrifying to Jones’s largely black congregation was the fact that he didn’t preach what Morris deems the “patient forbearance” of the typical black evangelical church. A tireless promoter of interracial friendship, Jones preached immediate, radical action—while encouraging his flock to tithe heavily.
Most of us know the end of Jones’s story. The retreat to Guyana, the drugs, the sex, the failed defection attempt to the Soviet Union, the assassination of U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, the Flavor Aid packets, the jungle Masada of Jonestown itself. Morris knows all this, too, which makes the following passage all the more disquieting:
Jim Jones was a visionary with stunning charisma, nearly boundless energy, and the intellectual resources of few other religious leaders of his generation. That he ended up a drug-addled paranoiac with grandiose delusions about his world-historical significance is one of the great tragedies not only of American religion, but also of American leftist politics.
Is this it, then? Has the Jim Jones rehabilitation moment arrived? Jones wasn’t that intellectually gifted, for one thing; he did have a “stunning charisma,” but his ideas were a flimsy synthesis of New Age tropes and spiritual Darwinism. And, going by the evidence Morris himself provides, Jones was running a one-man psy-op on vulnerable people who would end up ruinously entrusting him with their lives. This needs to be said: Jones was a man who spent his last moments on earth demanding that babies be filled with poison. The tragedy belongs to his victims, not to the vapors of his political talents.
On his very last page, Morris writes that “American messianic experiments in apostolic socialism appealed to converts’ highest ideals: they stood for equal access to jobs and education, gender parity, racial justice, and more dignified human labor.” This seems fair. But it’s also true that all socialist experiments have appealed to the highest ideals. Forget socialism: the art of politics is—or at least used to be—about appealing to the highest ideals. A movement is more than its worst excesses, but these particular movements were founded upon the deification of individuals who were, in the best cases, power-hungry narcissists. For all their religious fervor, they might have paid closer attention to the text. The New Testament had something to say about reaping what you sow.
Still, Morris is onto something. Reading his study of Teed, I came across an expository sentence, a sentence just trying to direct some traffic, but the longer I stared at it, the more resonant it became: “Teed had just been made an honorary Shaker by the North Family at New Lebanon, and was fresh off a failed attempt to take control of the celibate Harmony Society at Economy, Pennsylvania.” As a sentence about America, it has it all: heterodoxy, entrepreneurialism, cultural appropriation, sexual repression, and a town that could have been named by the Protestant work ethic made sentient. It occurred to me, reading it, that perhaps we don’t fear the cult because it threatens the American way. Perhaps it reminds us of exactly who we are.
Most Famous Cults in U.S. History: Manson Family, Waco, and More
Cults have always captured the American imagination. How do they start? What is it about their leaders that is so enigmatic? And do they always end badly? Teen Vogue looks at six of the most prominent cults that took hold in the U.S. over the past 60 years.
The Rajneeshees tried to steal an election and poisoned their neighbors in rural Oregon
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was an Indian guru who brought thousands of disciples to form a commune near Antelope, Oregon. What started as a purported utopia of free love eventually descended into chaos, leading to the largest bioterrorism attack in United States history. As a guru, Rajneesh — who owned 93 Rolls Royces and said he was the world’s greatest lover – believed that sex was fun, materialism was good, and Jesus was a madman.
The town of Antelope, which had a population of under 100 people, was not pleased when the guru set up his commune, including an intricate farming system and airport, in its backyard. During the power struggle between the cult and the town, Rajneesh brought in 5,000 unhoused people to vote in local elections and sway the county’s power to his followers. State officials learned of the voter-fraud scheme and halted it in its tracks.
In retaliation, the Rajneeshees poisoned local restaurants ahead of the November 1984 elections. After ingesting salmonella that had been sprayed on salad bars in local restaurants, 751 people got violently sick. In 1985, the FBI learned that the Rajneeshees were behind the attack, but by then Rajneesh’s second-in-command, Ma Anand Sheela, had fled to Switzerland. She was later extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to 20 years in prison for her role in the scheme, though she served only two and a half. It remains unclear whether Rajneesh himself was aware of the poisoning plot but he was not charged in connection with the attacks.
The Manson Family murdered Hollywood power brokers
By the end of the summer of 1969, the Manson Family, led by now-infamous cult leader Charles Manson, had killed at least nine people (they were suspected of 35 murders total) and plunged the country into a state of terror that likely helped inspire the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s.
In the months leading up to the summer murders, Manson held his followers in thrall at the Spahn Movie Ranch, where they lived communally; Manson traded room and board with the ranch owner for sexual favors from his female followers. A narrative took hold that the Manson Family’s murder spree was motivated by Manson’s desire to start a race war, yet it appears the killings were also born in part from Manson’s rage at being rejected from the Hollywood stardom he sought.
Terry Melcher, a record producer, had at one point been trying to help Manson get a record deal, but after Manson’s increasingly erratic behavior, including his temper and talk of a race war, Melcher distanced himself. Melcher used to live at the house where Manson instructed his followers to kill everyone inside, resulting in five murders. At the time of those murders, Manson knew Melcher didn’t live there anymore, but Vox reported that Manson seemed to “have the house fixed in his head as a microcosm of Hollywood itself — everything he’d been denied.” Among the five people killed were pregnant Hollywood actor Sharon Tate and Folgers Coffee heiress Abigail Folgers. The next night, the Manson Family added two more victims to their list.
After a 1971 trial, Charles Manson was convicted on seven counts of first-degree murder for these killings. Though Manson wasn’t present on the night of the murders, he was considered to be the driving force behind them, which led to his conviction. He spent the rest of his life in prison, where he died in 2017 at age 83.
The Peoples Temple church ended with a mass murder-suicide
Although Jim Jones’s name later became synonymous with a cultic mass-murder suicide that left 909 people dead, he was known in the 1950s as a civil rights leader. Jones, and the church he founded, the Peoples Temple, were known to be politically active and socially progressive. The charismatic church leader seemed to be committed to a society free of racial segregation and poverty. (Lost in many accounts of Jones’s history is the fact that the majority of people who joined his church were Black Americans who had been inspired by his sermons of racial equality.)
In August 1977, amid mounting pressure due to accusations of financial fraud and physical abuse, Jones invited his congregants to move to what he promised would be utopia: Jonestown, a community of hundreds of dedicated followers established in the jungle of Guyana, established by a small group of followers three-years prior. Once in Jonestown, Jones became increasingly erratic, partly due to to a steady diet of amphetamines and barbiturates. Food was scarce, rules were rigid, and mock suicide drills were enforced.
The situation turned even darker during a November 1978 fact-finding visit from California congressman Leo Ryan and a group of his aides and journalists. As the group attempted to depart Guyana for the U.S., gunmen from the Temple ambushed them on the airstrip, fatally shooting Ryan and four others. (Current California representative Jackie Speier, then legislative counsel to Ryan, suffered five gunshot wounds in the attack.) That same day, Jones and more than 900 of his followers ended their lives in a mass murder-suicide. Approximately 300 of those who died were believed to be children.
The congregants chose — or were forced — to consume a cyanide-laced drink; children were given the concoction through syringes. Jonestown was the origin of the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” and, until 9/11, represented the “largest number of American civilian casualties in a single non-natural event.” (Side note: The people at Jonestown didn’t drink Kool-Aid; it was actually Flavor Aid.)
David Koresh’s Branch Davidians lost their lives in a standoff with the federal government
Within the walls of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, what Koresh said was law. He claimed that he was a messiah spoken to by God. According to Texas Monthly, he assured his followers that God was guiding him to have sex with young women. The publication also reported that celibacy was enforced among the men in the cult, “all earthly marriages” were annulled, and the women belonged to Koresh. And, Koresh told them, the apocalypse was coming. They must be prepared for Armageddon. As an offshoot of Seventh-Day Adventists, who hold that Jesus’s second coming is imminent, the Branch Davidians, which was founded decades before Koresh became a leader, were primed to believe in the end of the world.
But the end seemed to come on February 28, 1993, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) executed a warrant to search the Waco compound on suspicion of illegally stockpiling weapons. The raid resulted in a 51-day standoff, and the combination of gun violence and a fire left around 77 people dead.
It is still debated whether Branch Davidians or ATF agents started the fire that engulfed the compound. And for years after the infamous Waco standoff, some members of the Branch Davidians continued to worship in a church built on the remains of the destroyed compound.
The Heaven’s Gate cult embraced aliens
Heaven’s Gate was founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles, who went on to call themselves Bo and Peep, among other names. Applewhite preached that the end times were near. Members of Heaven’s Gate spent months following a particularly extreme version of the “Master Cleanse” diet, drinking nothing except a mix of lemonade, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup.
The group believed its members could be beamed into the “Next Level” in their living bodies via an alien spacecraft. But after Nettles died of cancer in the mid-’80s, Applewhite changed his philosophy: To climb to the Next Level of existence, death might be necessary.
On March 26, 1997, the dead bodies of 39 cult members were found. They had coincided their suicides with the passing of the Hale-Bopp comet, behind which they believed a spacecraft was traveling. The chief medical examiner for San Diego County said the suicides seemed to be a result of mixing drugs with vodka and suffocation with plastic bags over their heads. During the autopsies, authorities found that some male members had been castrated, though the castrations were not recent. A reporter who infiltrated the group said Applewhite believed castration would make platonic relationships easier and that the cult had strict rules barring sex.
In 2020, Vice reported that there are four remaining followers of Heaven’s Gate.
NXIVM recruited women into an abusive inner circle
NXIVM, led by Keith Raniere, ostensibly started in 1998 as a self-help organization. Throughout its existence, some 18,000 people participated in workshops run by the group, which framed itself as a means for ambitious people to find self-actualization, fulfillment, and happiness. But the reality of life inside the core inner group was starkly different from these rosy promises.
NXIVM included a secretive inner circle in which women were branded with Raniere’s initials and some were coerced into having sex with him. They were pushed into strict diets bordering on starvation and had to offer some sort of collateral, such as naked photos or a recording of disparaging remarks against loved ones, upon gaining entrance to the elite group — with the understanding that such collateral would be released if they told of its existence.
When a report of the branding of women was published in the New York Times in 2017, the Justice Department launched an investigation into NXIVM. The original investigation focused on whether Raniere forced women to have sex with him, but it eventually widened to include accusations of identity theft, extortion, forced labor, sex trafficking, money laundering, wire fraud, and obstruction of justice.
Raniere wasn’t the only one on trial. In 2019, former Smallville actor Allison Mack testified in court that she brought women into the fold under the guise of a mentorship program, but they were actually used as “slaves” and some were required to have sex with Raniere, who was called “Vanguard” within the organization.
After being convicted of racketeering, sex trafficking, and child pornography, among other crimes, Raniere was ultimately sentenced to 120 years in prison. The testimony of Lauren Salzman, who joined NXIVM after her mother cofounded the group, was critical in convicting Raniere. Salzman herself, as the highest-ranking member to take the stand against Raniere, avoided prison time and was sentenced instead to probation and community service. Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges, and is serving a three-year sentence.
These Are the 16 Scariest Cult Stories of All Time
If the never-ending bleak news cycle of 2021 hasn’t pushed you over the edge by now, I’d first like to say congratulations! Your fortitude is inspirational to the rest of us who are just barely holding it together during this sh*tshow of a year. Second of all, it’s never fun to feel left out, so if you’re in the mood for some depravity, then gather round, ’cause we’re covering the scariest cult stories in modern history. How fun!!
You’ve got to admit: It’s wild that individuals are capable of brainwashing entire groups of people to such an extreme that they’d abandon everything they’ve ever known and lose grasp on the difference between good and evil. Learning about the sexual, physical, and psychological abuse that took place in various infamous cults will seriously send shivers down your spine—but there’s also something fascinating about the group-think phenomenon and how good, innocent people can get sucked into a dangerous mindset.
WARNING: This piece contains mentions of rape, abuse, child pornography, sex trafficking, and murder. Please do not continue reading if you are on the fence about it.
If you or someone you know could use help or support related to a sexual assault, please consider clicking on RAINN’s crisis support service. If you or someone you know would like to speak to a crisis counselor, please consider clicking on NAMI’s crisis text line.
If you thought cults were a thing of the past, think again. Keith Raniere started NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um) in 1998, positioning the group as a self-help organization with workshops and classes on empowerment. NXIVM amassed more than 18,000 followers across North America until 2017, when NXIVM members came forward to expose the abusive practices of a secret society within the group. Women were recruited under the false pretense that they were joining a sisterhood of sorts—but it ended up being a sex cult. A pyramid scheme existed within the group, with Raniere, who members called Vanguard, at the top; “masters” who recruited other women to the secretive group; and at the bottom were the newest recruits, who were referred to as “slaves.”
A former member recounted to the New York Times that in order to be admitted to the secret club, she had to give her “master” naked photos and other compromising documents that would be used as blackmail if she ever told anyone about the group’s existence. She was also told that another part of the initiation process was getting a small tattoo. But instead of a tattoo, the new members were told to undress and the “master” branded them with a design that included Raniere’s initials right above their pelvic area. Each woman was instructed to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”
In 2020, Raniere was tried in court, where more than a dozen women came forward with statements regarding his psychological and sexual abuse. He was convicted of many crimes, including sex trafficking, racketeering, and child pornography. Victims were as young as 15 years old. Raniere was sentenced to life in prison, but in a court filing, his lawyers wrote, “He is not sorry for his conduct or his choices.” The wild story has since inspired two docuseries: The Vow on HBO Max and Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult on Starz, which both document the stories and experiences of former members and expose Raniere’s abusive and manipulative practices.
2. Angel’s Landing
Angel’s Landing is the name of the 20-acre compound outside of Wichita, Kansas, where Lou Castro and a small group of people lived an inexplicably extravagant life in the early 2000s. Castro’s followers were convinced that he was an angel and a “seer” who could look into the future and know when you were going to die. Already suspicious of Castro’s luxury vehicles and money that no one could explain (there was no paper trail on Castro), local law enforcement took an active interest when Patricia Hughes, a member of the Angel’s Landing community, tragically turned up dead on the compound in 2003.
Then when Patricia’s husband died in a freak accident in 2006, local detective Ron Goodwyn dived into every bit of personal and financial information he could find on the people living at Angel’s Landing. What he found was disturbing: Expensive life insurance policies were taken out on people in Castro’s circle and cashed in by members when someone in the makeshift family “accidentally” died. This pattern occurred around every two and a half years. But the detective couldn’t find any records for the mysterious leader Castro.
In 2010, Castro moved from Kansas to Tennessee and adopted a new identity, but he was soon arrested by the FBI for aggravated identity theft and fraudulent use of a Social Security card number. During Castro’s two-year stint in federal prison, Goodwyn and the FBI discovered, according to the Wichita Eagle, that “Lou Castro” was really Daniel Perez, a man from Texas with many police reports, including a case involving sex crimes against two girls, 11 and 14, until he fled Texas.
Through interviews with members of the commune, they uncovered Perez’s sexual abuse of women and girls at Angel’s Landing, including Sara McGrath, who alleged that Perez raped her regularly for years. Sadly, she was just one of his many victims. More witnesses came forward, accusing Perez of abuse and pointing to him for the murder of Patricia Hughes. Perez was charged with 28 felonies, and in February 2015, he was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 80 years in prison. The cult was later profiled in an episode of Oxygen’s Deadly Cults.
3. Children of God
Initially called Teens for Christ, Children of God was founded in 1968 by rogue preacher David Berg in Huntington Beach, California. Attracting young runaways and hippies, Berg preached a kind of worship that combined the ways of Jesus Christ with the free love movement of the ’60s. Group living, zealous proselytizing, and isolated communes were all pillars of the Children of God church. Members, who amounted to 15,000 people across the world at its peak, didn’t work or go to school. The COG didn’t believe in the nuclear family, so children were grouped together and lived separately from their parents.
In the late 1970s, COG became notorious for the sexual practices that one of Berg’s own daughters later described as “religious prostitution.” Berg coined the term “flirty fishing,” a sexual practice in which women would allegedly have sex with men to bring them into the cult. Berg promoted and encouraged the sexualization of children within the COG community. As Berg manipulated the COG family with his sadistic practices, members started leaving the community, including the families of actors Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan, who both grew up in Children of God communes.
Former COG members began coming forward in the early 1990s, describing an environment that permitted and encouraged the physical and sexual abuse of young children. Ricky Dupuy appeared on a talk show in 1993 and revealed that he’d been ordered by the group to rape a 10-year-old. Dupuy later committed suicide, like many other members of the group, including Berg’s son Ricky Rodriguez, who was sexually abused throughout his life by his father and the group.
Although Berg died in 1994 (while under FBI investigation), the Children of God cult continues to exist and now goes by the name Family International, although the group claims that the horrific practices are a thing of the past. You can watch a whole documentary, called Children of God, on Netflix now.
4. Church of the Lamb of God
Dubbed by media as the Mormon Manson, the Church of the Lamb of God was started by Ervil LeBaron in Chihuahua, Mexico, after he clashed and left his brother Joel’s sect. LeBaron convinced his followers that he received direct instructions from God, which included using an abandoned Mormon doctrine, “blood atonement,” that allows the killing of sinners to cleanse them of evil. LeBaron had 51 children with 13 different wives and over two decades amassed hundreds of followers, who allegedly murdered more than 20 people behalf of LeBaron and his orders.
Mexico authorities arrested LeBaron in 1979 and handed him over to the FBI, where he was charged for the murder of another polygamous sect leader and jailed for life in Utah. Although LeBaron died in prison in 1981, his reign of terror still persisted for several years, as he left behind a “hit list” of people he believed were traitors. There is another episode of Oxygen’s Deadly Cults that covers his many crimes.
5. The Manson Family
You don’t need to know much about true crime to know the name Charles Manson, which almost 50 years after his most heinous acts is still synonymous with “cult leader.” Manson started his group in San Francisco in 1967 and later that year moved to Los Angeles, where he tried and failed to establish himself as a musician.
Manson became obsessed with the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” and started using the term to describe a race war he believed would usher in the apocalypse, and in August 1969, he sent a group of his followers to a house in Benedict Canyon and told them to kill everyone inside. The victims included actress Sharon Tate, then married to Roman Polanski, and celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring. The next night, Manson’s followers murdered Rosemary and Leno LaBianca at their home in Los Feliz.
Some people believe Manson ordered the murders because he thought it would kick-start his “helter skelter” concept, while others think he believed the Tate house still belonged to a music producer who’d refused to give him a record deal. Still others claim that the murders were the Manson Family’s attempt at “copycat murders” designed to get their friend out of jail. No matter the motive, though, commentators at the time saw the murders as the official end of the 1960s culture of free love. The story has since inspired dozens of books, films, and documentaries, including Epix’s Helter Skelter: An American Myth and Oxygen’s Manson: The Women.
6. Peoples Temple
In the 1950s, Indiana native Jim Jones founded a church that he claimed promoted socialism and equality, with religious elements of Christianity. Initially, he was little more than a charismatic hustler (who faked faith healings by having audience plants pull chicken livers out of congregants’ mouths), but as the years progressed, he demanded more and more of followers. In the early 1970s, Jones moved his group to California and set them up in a commune-like settlement in Redwood Valley.
Jones eventually came to believe that nuclear war was imminent and moved his followers again to the South American country of Guyana, which he thought would be outside the potential danger zone. The group lived there for several years as the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, but after former members started speaking out against the church, San Francisco Congressman Leo Ryan decided to travel to Jonestown to investigate claims of abuse. Temple security guards opened fire on Ryan’s group, and back at the settlement, Jones ordered his followers to drink a cyanide-laced beverage. (This is where the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” originates.)
A total of 918 people died in the incident, and until 9/11, it was the largest loss of American civilian life in history. You can watch Truth and Lies: Jonestown, Paradise Lost on Hulu or Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle on Sundance Now to learn more.
7. Heaven’s Gate
Founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the 1970s, Heaven’s Gate was an ascetic cult that had a complicated belief system involving aliens, spaceships, and an imminent “recycling” of the planet Earth. After Nettles died in 1985, Applewhite took the group to even further extremes, and in 1997, he began claiming that a spacecraft was following the Hale-Bopp comet; this spacecraft would carry the Heaven’s Gate members to the next level of existence.
While living in a rented home in San Diego, Applewhite and 38 followers died by suicide by taking phenobarbital mixed with applesauce. They all wore the same uniform and Nike shoes and had $5.75 in their pockets. As of today, the Heaven’s Gate website still exists and is maintained by two of the group’s followers. If you want to know more, HBO Max’s Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults digs deep into the UFO cult.
8. Branch Davidians
The Branch Davidians broke off from the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists in 1955 but didn’t make headlines until the infamous Waco siege of 1993. In 1981, David Koresh (born Vernon Howell) took over the group, which was headquartered at a commune called Mount Carmel. After allegations of child abuse within the commune, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives attempted to raid Mount Carmel, but a gun battle erupted and 10 people were killed.
The FBI then launched a siege that lasted for 51 days and ended with the compound being destroyed by fire. Koresh was killed along with 76 others; a governmental investigation later concluded that the Branch Davidians had started the fire themselves. If you haven’t watched the Waco miniseries yet, then you MUST (especially since the cast is spectacular), and for a documentary on the tragedy, check out A&E’s Waco: Madman or Messiah.
9. Rajneesh Movement
Controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s rise to fame began in the 1960s when he traveled throughout India speaking out against socialism and the orthodoxy of mainstream religions. He also advocated for a more open attitude to human sexuality, earning his reputation as “the sex guru.” By 1981, Rajneesh decided to refocus his efforts in the United States, and he opened a facility known as Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County, Oregon, causing a huge conflict with locals.
What followed was a series of legal battles concerning the ashram’s construction as well as a series of serious crimes committed by followers of the Rajneesh Movement, including a mass food poisoning attack with salmonella bacteria (which was the first known bioterrorism attack in the history of the U.S.) and an attempt to assassinate U.S. attorney Charles H. Turner. Rajneesh blamed his personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela and her supporters for those crimes, but he was later deported. He ended up returning to India, where he revived and ran the Pune ashram until his death in 1990. Wild Wild Country on Netflix will tell you everything you need to know about this wild true story.
10. Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church
The story of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church is kind of like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt IRL—only so much more horrifying. The fundamentalist Mormon movement first emerged in the early 20th century so members could freely practice polygamy, although things really took a turn for the worse when Warren Jeffs assumed leadership of the FLDS Church following his father’s death in 2002. Within a week, he had married almost all his father’s wives and decreed himself responsible for arranging marriages within the cult…including marriages between his followers and underage girls.
It wasn’t long before his bad deeds caught up to him. In 2005, Jeffs was charged with sexual assault on a minor, among other crimes, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. By 2011, he was finally sentenced for sexually assaulting two underage girls, who he claimed to be his wives. He’s currently serving life plus 20 years in a Texas state prison, and Showtime’s documentary Prophet’s Prey tells the whole sordid story.
Synanon may just be one of the most dangerous cults in American history…but believe it or not, it started out as a drug rehabilitation program. Founded by Charles Dederich in 1958, Synanon transformed into an alternative community centered on group truth-telling sessions (known as “the Game”) in the early 1960s, and by the 1970s, it had evolved into the Church of Synanon.
Over the years, Dederich grew more and more hungry for power, charging his members exorbitant fees and forcing them to do taxing physical labor. He also developed a “hit list” for those who tried to shut his community down, which included lawyer Paul Morantz, who nearly died as a result of a murder attempt arranged by Dederich. Eventually, Synanon was shut down in 1991 due to tax fraud, destruction of evidence, and terrorism, and Dederich died six years later. Dederich and the Church of Synanon were also profiled in an episode of Oxygen’s Deadly Cults.
12. The Family
Known as one of Australia’s most notorious cults, the Family began with Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a yoga teacher who believed herself to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. She teamed up with parapsychologist Raynor Johnson in the mid-1960s to form what was initially known as “the Great White Brotherhood.” Over the course of several years, Hamilton-Byrne adopted 28 children by receiving the kids as gifts from members (as well as by falsifying papers to convince others to give their children up for adoption), all in the hope of creating a “master race” that would survive the apocalypse she believed to be imminent.
While other adults in the group were known as either “aunties” or “uncles,” Hamilton-Byrne claimed to be the biological mother of all 28 children. She also told the kids she was Jesus Christ, and when they didn’t live up to her exacting standards, they were beaten, starved, or dosed with LSD. The cult went undetected for years (as the children were forced to hide whenever visitors arrived), but in 1987, the group’s headquarters was finally raided and all children were removed from the premises. Hamilton-Byrne was only ever charged with falsifying birth certificates, and in 2019, she died from dementia at 98 years old, having never faced consequences for her actions. Watch The Cult of the Family on Starz for a seriously haunting experience.
13. Aum Shinrikyo
Founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984, Aum Shinrikyo first made headlines in the late ’80s amid accusations that Asahara was forcing members to donate money to the group and holding them against their will. Like many cult leaders, Asahara believed in an imminent doomsday, this time caused by a world war started by the United States. According to him, only his followers would survive.
In 1995, the group executed a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, which caused the deaths of 12 people and injured 50 more. After that attack, Japanese authorities learned that the group had also been responsible for the murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who was working on a class-action lawsuit against Aum Shinriyko at the time of his death (the group also murdered his wife and child). Asahara was eventually sentenced to death in 2018, and Japanese filmmaker and survivor Atsushi Sakahara delved more into the story with his 2020 documentary Me and the Cult Leader.
14. True Russian Orthodox Church
The True Russian Orthodox Church (also known as Heavenly Jerusalem) was an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church, founded by Pyotr Kuznetsov. In 2007, around 30 members of the group holed themselves up in a Russian cave near the village of Nikolskoye, where Kuznetsov had told them to wait until the world ended in 2008 (he didn’t go into the cave with them). They believed things like credit cards and barcodes were satanic and threatened to kill themselves if any authorities tried to remove them from the cave.
After two members died in the cave (one from cancer, the other from starvation), some members eventually decided to leave because they were worried about toxic fumes from the corpses; others left when the cave’s roof started to collapse in 2008. In May of that year, the cave was eventually blown up after authorities removed the bodies of the dead. Watch the 2006 movie The Island to learn all about the horrifying cult.
15. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
This sect formed in the Kanungu district of Uganda in the 1980s and taught its members that they had to follow the Ten Commandments in order to survive the apocalypse, which the leaders believed was coming in 2000. When January 1, 2000, passed without incident, members began to question why their leaders had failed to get their apocalypse date right and leaders then predicted that the real end would come on March 17. It did, but not because of anything supernatural—the leaders set fire to the Movement church, killing as many as 530 people inside.
Authorities later discovered the bodies of more victims at the group’s other properties in Uganda and concluded that the leaders had orchestrated the killing in response to turmoil caused by their repeated failure to predict the apocalypse.
16. Order of the Solar Temple
Founded in Switzerland in 1984 by Joseph di Mambro and Luc Jouret, the Order of the Solar Temple traced its roots to the medieval Knights Templar but also thought the world would end in the 1990s. Things took a turn in 1994 when di Mambro reportedly ordered the murder of an infant in Quebec; later that year, more than 50 members of the group were murdered or died by suicide and the group’s buildings were destroyed by fire. Additional members died by suicide in 1995 and 1997. Wildly enough, the Order of the Solar Temple still remains active today and boasts several hundred members.
Christian countercult movement
In the 1940s, the long-held opposition by some established Christian denominations to non-Christian religions and supposedly heretical or counterfeit Christian sects crystallized into a more organized Christian countercult movement in the United States. For those belonging to the movement, all religious groups claiming to be Christian, but deemed outside of Christian orthodoxy, were considered cults. Christian cults are new religious movements that have a Christian background but are considered to be theologically deviant by members of other Christian churches. In his influential book The Kingdom of the Cults (1965), Christian scholar Walter Martin defines Christian cults as groups that follow the personal interpretation of an individual, rather than the understanding of the Bible accepted by Nicene Christianity, providing the examples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Unity Church.
The Christian countercult movement asserts that Christian sects whose beliefs are partially or wholly not in accordance with the Bible are erroneous. It also states that a religious sect can be considered a cult if its beliefs involve a denial of what they view as any of the essential Christian teachings such as salvation, the Trinity, Jesus himself as a person, the ministry of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, the crucifixion, the resurrection of Christ, the Second Coming, and the rapture.
Countercult literature usually expresses doctrinal or theological concerns and a missionary or apologetic purpose. It presents a rebuttal by emphasizing the teachings of the Bible against the beliefs of non-fundamental Christian sects. Christian countercult activist writers also emphasize the need for Christians to evangelize to followers of cults.
In the early 1970s, a secular opposition movement to groups considered cults had taken shape. The organizations that formed the secular anti-cult movement (ACM) often acted on behalf of relatives of “cult” converts who did not believe their loved ones could have altered their lives so drastically by their own free will. A few psychologists and sociologists working in this field suggested that brainwashing techniques were used to maintain the loyalty of cult members. The belief that cults brainwashed their members became a unifying theme among cult critics and in the more extreme corners of the anti-cult movement techniques like the sometimes forceful “deprogramming” of cult members was practised.
Secular cult opponents belonging to the anti-cult movement usually define a “cult” as a group that tends to manipulate, exploit, and control its members. Specific factors in cult behaviour are said to include manipulative and authoritarian mind control over members, communal and totalistic organization, aggressive proselytizing, systematic programs of indoctrination, and perpetuation in middle-class communities. In the mass media, and among average citizens, “cult” gained an increasingly negative connotation, becoming associated with things like kidnapping, brainwashing, psychological abuse, sexual abuse and other criminal activity, and mass suicide. While most of these negative qualities usually have real documented precedents in the activities of a very small minority of new religious groups, mass culture often extends them to any religious group viewed as culturally deviant, however peaceful or law abiding it may be.
While some psychologists were receptive to these theories, sociologists were for the most part sceptical of their ability to explain conversion to NRMs. In the late 1980s, psychologists and sociologists started to abandon theories like brainwashing and mind-control. While scholars may believe that various less dramatic coercive psychological mechanisms could influence group members, they came to see conversion to new religious movements principally as an act of a rational choice.
Reactions to the anti-cult movements
Because of the increasingly pejorative use of the words “cult” and “cult leader” since the cult debate of the 1970s, some academics, in addition to groups referred to as cults, argue that these are words to be avoided. Catherine Wessinger (Loyola University New Orleans) has stated that the word “cult” represents just as much prejudice and antagonism as racial slurs or derogatory words for women and homosexuals. She has argued that it is important for people to become aware of the bigotry conveyed by the word, drawing attention to the way it dehumanizes the group’s members and their children. Labelling a group as subhuman, she says, becomes a justification for violence against it. She also says that labelling a group a “cult” makes people feel safe, because the “violence associated with religion is split off from conventional religions, projected onto others, and imagined to involve only aberrant groups.” According to her, this fails to take into account that child abuse, sexual abuse, financial extortion and warfare have also been committed by believers of mainstream religions, but the pejorative “cult” stereotype makes it easier to avoid confronting this uncomfortable fact.
Governmental policies and actions
The application of the labels “cult” or “sect” to religious movements in government documents signifies the popular and negative use of the term “cult” in English and a functionally similar use of words translated as “sect” in several European languages. Sociologists critical to this negative politicized use of the word “cult” argue that it may adversely impact the religious freedoms of group members. At the height of the counter-cult movement and ritual abuse scare of the 1990s, some governments published lists of cults. While these documents utilize similar terminology they do not necessarily include the same groups nor is their assessment of these groups based on agreed criteria. Other governments and world bodies also report on new religious movements but do not use these terms to describe the groups. Since the 2000s, some governments have again distanced themselves from such classifications of religious movements. While the official response to new religious groups has been mixed across the globe, some governments aligned more with the critics of these groups to the extent of distinguishing between “legitimate” religion and “dangerous”, “unwanted” cults in public policy.
In the 1970s, the scientific status of the “brainwashing theory” became a central topic in U.S. court cases where the theory was used to try to justify the use of the forceful deprogramming of cult members. Meanwhile, sociologists who were critical of these theories assisted advocates of religious freedom in defending the legitimacy of new religious movements in court. In the United States the religious activities of cults are protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits governmental establishment of religion and protects freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. However, no members of religious groups or cults are granted any special immunity from criminal prosecution. In 1990, the court case of United States v. Fishman (1990) ended the usage of brainwashing theories by expert witnesses such as Margaret Singer and Richard Ofshe. In the case’s ruling, the court cited the Frye standard, which states that the scientific theory which is utilized by expert witnesses must be generally accepted in their respective fields. The court deemed brainwashing to be inadmissible in expert testimonies, using supporting documents which were published by the APA Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control, literature from previous court cases in which brainwashing theories were used, and expert testimonies which were delivered by scholars such as Dick Anthony.
newyorker.com, “How Cults Made America: A new book argues that, politically, messianic movements were often light-years ahead of their time. But at what cost?” By Tom Bissel; researchgate.com, “Cults: History, Beliefs, Practices.” By Suzanne Newcombe; teenvogue.com, “Most Famous Cults in U.S. History: Manson Family, Waco, and More.” By Fortesa Latifi; cosmopolitan.com, “These Are the 16 Scariest Cult Stories of All Time.” by HUNTER LEVITAN, ELIZA THOMPSON and CORINNE SULLIVAN; cambridge.org, ““Cults” in America: Discourse and Outcomes.” By Catherine Wessinger; en.wikipedia.org, “cults.” By Wikipedia Editors;nzherald.co.nz. “Eight steps to mind control: How cults suck ordinary people in.” By CharityNorman;
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