Most people have their own vague idea of what constitutes acult. But “cult” is one of those slippery, nebulous terms that are difficult to define. Strict definitions tend to be either too wide or too narrow. To complicate matters, what one considers a cult is often a matter of opinion. But, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about another ill-defined topic, people tend to think that they know it when they see it.
Sidestepping the controversy, sociologists don’t like to use the pejorative term “cult.” Instead, they like to talk about new religious movements (NRMs), which can be more widely defined. NRMs hold beliefs that are far outside of the mainstream. They are often characterized by making strict demands on the lifestyle of their members, such as giving up possessions, professions and contact with family to live in a commune with other members. Many have charismatic, authoritarian leaders whose followers believe have special prophetic powers. These leaders often prophesize about an imminent apocalypse.
We’ll explore the most infamous cults that have gained notoriety either because they were so successful or because they met a bloody and horrifying end.
10. The Unification Church
Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, speaks to a crowd of followers in St. Louis, Mo.
The Unification Church, formally known as Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, was founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Born in North Korea, Moon claims to have received a vision when he was 16 years old that told him he was called to complete Christ’s mission on earth. According to Moon, Christ was crucified before he was able to fulfill his mission of marrying and having perfect children. Moon, then, saw himself as the Messiah.
At odds with the teachings of his Presbyterian Church, he was excommunicated and formed his own church in the 1950s. As the Messiah, Moon claimed that salvation was only possible through pledging obedience to him, and, after seven years of service, taking a spouse picked by him. The religion became known for its mass weddings, where he presides over the marriages of hundreds of people at one time.
Already a successful businessman, in the 1970s he moved his headquarters to New York, where he attracted new members to his movement as well as widespread suspicion. As a focus of the anti-cult movement gaining momentum at this time, parents of church members began kidnapping and “deprogramming” their children. They also filed lawsuits, and by 1982, Moon was convicted of tax evasion. Now known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the church is still active.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh leads his disciples in a devotional ritual in 1984.
An untraditional Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh embraced earthly pleasures. He himself owned 93 Rolls Royces, and he promoted an indulgence in sex. In fact, his ideas were largely rejected in India itself, and he found larger followings in the U.S. and Europe.
Rajneesh began his congregation in India in the 1970s, setting up a headquarters in Pune in 1974. However, after facing increasing hostility there, Rajneesh moved to the United States in 1981 and soon purchased land in Oregon, where followers built their own city called Rajneeshpuram. Ma Anand Sheela, an Indian woman who helped organize Rajneeshpuram became a member of Rajneesh’s inner circle. As Rajneesh no longer spoke in public, Sheela took control of daily operations in the city.
By 1985, Rajneeshpuram had more than 2,500 residents, but had become embroiled in local tensions. During the previous year, Sheela instituted the “Share-a-home” program, where the city bused in thousands of homeless people in order to register them as voters there in a failed attempt to influence the Wasco County court elections. Around the same time, Sheela and other leaders of the commune orchestrated the firstbioterrorist attack in U.S. history by poisoning restaurant food in the large town of Dalles. In this attempt to reduce the voter population, they sickened 750 people.
In 1985, Sheela and other leaders fled the commune, and Rajneesh was deported for immigration fraud. Despite his death in 1990, Rajneesh’s movement still lives.
8. Children of God
In the 1960s, after hearing of the large hippie population in Huntington Beach, Calif., a Christian minister, David Berg, moved there to recruit the young people. It wasn’t hard for him, and the hippies were quickly attracted to his anti-establishment attitude. Many gave up their jobs and donated their savings to the group to live communally in Berg’s house. The group moved to Arizona when Berg claimed to receive a revelation that California would be struck by an earthquake. Members began to call Berg, “Moses” and their group “the Children of God.”
In the early 1970s, the Children of God recruited all over the country and even set up international centers. By 1974, it had more than 4000 members in 70 countries [source: Sreenivasan]. Berg wrote a series of letters to all his communities to relate his teachings. In 1978, he reorganized the group, renaming it “The Family.”
However, the U.S. anti-cult movement targeted the Children of God, and many parents of members kidnapped and deprogrammed their children. Most controversial was Berg’s progressive attitude towards sex. He encouraged open sexual relationships and experimentation. The group has also been accused of encouraging child sex abuse. In what was called “flirty fishing,” he encouraged his members to engage in sexual relationships to attract new members. By the late 1980s, after dealing with the problem of sexually transmitted diseases, the group formally ended this practice.
Now called “The Family International,” this group is still very active, despite Berg’s death in 1994.
7. Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
An icon remains inside one of the many rooms where cult members had lived in Uganda.
Founded by four ex-Roman Catholic priests, two ex-nuns and one ex-prostitute, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG) in Uganda emphasized the importance of the Ten Commandments. Through visions of the Virgin Mary, the leaders were convinced that the Roman Catholic Church had abandoned the Commandments.
The leaders also had doomsday prophesies. They predicted the apocalypse would occur on Dec. 31, 1999. In anticipation of this, members sold their possessions. However, when the end of the world didn’t come that day, the leaders quickly altered their prediction and they claimed that the Virgin Mary would come on March 17, 2000, to save the faithful and bring them to heaven. Still believing the prophesies, members held a feast on March 16. They killed some cattle for the occasion and even ordered crates of Coca-Cola.
When March 17 arrived, police discovered that an explosion and fire had killed hundreds of the group’s members. Although at first this was assumed to be a mass suicide, the evidence and subsequent uncovering of more bodies at other sites soon pointed to murder. Leaders had murdered the members, perhaps because they were unable to repay them for giving away their possessions after the prophesy failed to materialize. It was never determined whether the leaders killed themselves or fled the country.
6. Aum Shinrikyo
Formed in 1987 by Master Asahara Shoko, Aum Shinrikyo was a Japanese cult. Asahara had originally started a yoga school, but after a trip to India in which he met the Dalai Lamaand achieved enlightenment in the Himalayas, he changed the name of his school to Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) and began teaching a combination of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. He gained many followers as he claimed to embody a god, and he secured significant financial donations. The group became increasingly radical, and defectors met violent ends.
By 1995, the group had about 50,000 members, mostly in Russia. By this time, Asahara had begun preparing for war and expected Aum Shinrikyo to take over the government. To deflect police attention away from the group’s activities and instigate the violence he prophecized, Asahara orchestrated an attack on the Tokyo subway.
On March 20, 1995, five members of Aum Shinrikyo boarded the subway on different trains. When they arrived at Kasumigaseki, they each placed a package wrapped in newspaper under their seats. They punctured the packages with the tips of their umbrellas and rushed off the train as gas seeped out. They succeeded in killing 12 people and sickening 5,500. Authorities traced the attack to the group and arrested the leadership, largely dismantling the group.
5. Order of the Solar Temple
A scene depicting the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar in 14th century France.
Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret founded the Order of the Solar Temple in Geneva in 1984. It was one of many groups that have seen itself as a revival of the Medieval Knights Templar. Jouret claimed to be both Christ and thereincarnation of one member of the 14th century order. The leaders also prophesized that Di Mambro’s daughter, Emmanuelle, would take the group’s members to a planet that revolved around the star Sirius after their earthly death.
The Order of the Solar Temple was a doomsday cult. Di Mambro and Jouret believed the end of the world would come in the mid-1990s. However, the group lost several members, including Emmanuelle, after what leaders claimed was a “vision” was exposed as a hoax [source: Clarke].
Finally, in 1994, Di Mambro and Jouret believed the end was near and it was time for the transit to the new planet. In order to enter a higher spiritual plane, 53 members of the order committed suicide or were murdered in Canada and Switzerland on Oct. 4 and 5, 1994. The buildings were also set on fire after the deaths, and Di Mambro and Jouret’s remains were found among the bodies. It was later revealed that Di Mambro had also recently ordered the murder of an infant he believed to be the anti-Christ. Sixteen more members of the order died in France in December 1995, and five more after that in Quebec in March 1997.
4. Branch Davidians
David Koresh, born Vernon Howell in 1959, was the leader of a Christian sect that would meet a violent and controversial end in Waco, Texas, that would devastate the country. After being expelled from the Church of the Seventh Day Adventists as a young man, Koresh soon joined an offshoot called the Branch Davidians. While there, he shared a special friendship and affair with the leader, Lois Roden, who named him as her successor.
Among Koresh’s controversial teachings as leader of the Branch Davidians was his New Light doctrine. This declared that all women were his spiritual wives, even underage girls and those women who were alreadymarried. He declared himself a messiah, albeit an imperfect one, and preached that the apocalypse was imminent. Koresh amounted a vast arsenal of firearms and faced suspicion of child abuse at his church center, Mt. Carmel. The cult‘s members overlooked his sexual abuse because it was his call from God.
Based on weapons charges, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) raided Mt. Carmel in February 1993. After a shoot-out and stand-off lasting 51 days, the ATF finally came in and battered the walls of the center, sending in tear gas. A fire broke out, killing more than 80 members, including about 20 children and Koresh himself.
3. Heaven’s Gate
Members of the Heaven’s Gate cult wore purple shrouds and Nike shoes during the suicide.
In the 1970s, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles came to believe that they were the two witnesses referenced in chapter 11 of the Book of Revelation. They began preaching and gaining followers in California and Oregon with apocalyptic prophecies about how salvation would come (for those who were prepared) in the form of a spaceship. There, their bodies would be kept in a cocoon state to transform their bodies for heaven.
The group was known as “Human Individual Metamorphosis,” and then later “Total Overcomers Anonymous,” before becoming “Heaven’s Gate” in the 1990s. Members had to live with the group as well as give up their possessions and family. To perfect themselves for salvation, Applewhite encouraged members to detach themselves from emotion and give up sex entirely. Members dressed androgynously with loose clothing and closely-shaved shaved hair.
Never consisting of more than about 60 people, the small group receded from public during much of its existence, finally coming out to proselytize once again in 1993. Over the next few years, using the emerging popularity of the Internet, they set up a Web site to help spread their message. In 1997, the Hale-Bopp comet was approaching close to earth, and a rumor suggested that a UFO was following it. The group took this rumor very seriously and became convinced that their salvation would finally come.
In March 1997, all 39 members were found dead from apparent suicide in preparation for their transition to heaven.
2. Manson Family
Charles Manson was born in 1934 to a 16-year-old single mother. After his mother was imprisoned for armed robbery, he lived with his uncle and aunt in West Virginia and soon turned to a life of petty crime himself. He spent much of his juvenile and young adult life in reformatories or prison. When he was released in 1967, he moved to San Francisco and attracted a small but devout group of young people that became known as “the Family.”
Unlike most cults, the Manson Family was not primarily religion-based, however Charles Manson did dabble in Satanism as well as Scientology and held bizarre, quasi-religious ideas. He also predicted a violent race war in which African Americans would prevail but would need to then turn to surviving whites for proper leadership. He planned to have his Manson Family hide out during the race war and then emerge to take control when it was over.
To help instigate this race war, Manson ordered his followers to carry out murders, intending them to be blamed on blacks. In August 1968, Manson family members killed several people in a Los Angeles house, including actress Sharon Tate (the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski) and coffee-heiress Abigail Folger. The next night, Manson Family members murdered two others. In both cases, the killers repeatedly stabbed victims and wrote messages on the walls in their blood. Manson and his cohorts were sentenced todeath, but got life in prison after California banned the death penalty.
1. The People’s Temple
Empty bottles of cyanide found at the commune known as Jonestown
The epitome of the charismatic cult leader, Jim Jones was a preacher from the Pentecostal tradition. Although white, Jones attracted a large African American following because of his preaching style as well as dedication to integration and racial equality. His teachings were influenced by liberation theology and socialist beliefs.
Jones began the People’s Temple in the 1950s in Indianapolis. After reading in Esquire magazine about places to survive anuclear holocaust, he moved his congregation to Ukiah, Calif., in 1965. In the next five years, the People’s Temple membership went from less than a hundred to thousands. With thriving churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Jones also built up a significant amount of political clout.
Meanwhile, Jones began building a commune called “Jonestown” in Guyana, a socialist-led country in South America. In 1977, when Jones heard that New West magazine was to publish an expose on life in the People’s Temple as “a mixture of Spartan regimentation, fear and self-imposed humiliation” he and his congregation quickly fled to the commune [source: Kilduff].
Convinced by former members and relatives of members to go, U.S. Congressmen Leo Ryan flew down to visit Jonestown to learn more about it. Just before Ryan was about to leave on Nov. 18, 1978, Jones’s men arrived at the airstrip and killed the congressman, as well as several others. That same day, Jones convinced his congregation to kill themselves. More than 900 people died, including 276 children.