The United States has had its share of infamous cults. The term “cult” is one disputed by among theologians, authorities, and deprogramming experts. In fact, some use the phase “new religious movement” or NRM, because they feel cult has too many connotations or isn’t accurate enough. Most governments take a stance on legitimate churches and cult activities by the level of coercion and brainwashing used to maintain membership. Their distinctions are often for tax purposes, but also have a major bearing on whether a cult will face persecution. With that in mind, here are the most famous and infamous cults in American history.
The Branch Davidians were formed by David Koresh, born Vernon Howell in 1959. Koresh joined the Church of the Seventh Day Adventists, but was expelled due to his radical views. Among these views were the fact he was a messiah and all women were his spiritual wives. Wielding a guitar, David Koresh went on to form the Branch Davidians, who believed the end of the world was near and Koresh spoke the word of God. They located to Waco, Texas and began to amass an armory of weapons. The combination of arming themselves in their Waco compound and Koresh’s own scandalous sexual practices, including sleeping with other church member’s wives and marrying underage girls, brought an unwelcome spotlight on the Branch Davidians. This culminated in a March 1993 botched raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which ended with 4 ATF agents and 6 Branch Davidians dead (and Koresh wounded). A 51-day siege of the compound ensued, a siege which was covered 24/7 by CNN and other news agencies.
Every day, the media reported how much money the raid was costing the government, while pressure mounted on new Attorney General Janet Reno to be strong and decisive. Finally, tanks were used to inject tear gas into the sides of building in the compound. Soon, flames began to erupt throughout the compound. In the end, 77 Branch Davidians died in the fire. Among those were 20 children. Gun advocates took a dim view of the Feds seizing weapons, while the American public was appalled at how the Clinton Administration handled the events. Two years later to the date of the deaths, Timothy McVeigh (not a Branch Davidian) bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, supposedly as payback for the raid.
Charles Manson founded a cult called “The Family” in San Francisco in 1967. The Manson Family is one of the rare cases of a non-religious cult, though Manson’s beliefs at times involved Scientology, Satanism, and other esoteric beliefs. Manson prophecied that America would soon have a race war he named “Helter Skelter”, after a Beatles song. This war would be won by the African Americans, but they would soon turn to whites for leadership. Charles Manson and his cult would hide out during the war, emerging afterward to lead the victors.
To help instigate the race war, Manson ordered killings in the nearby area as a frame job for African-Americans. Nine people were murdered, including coffee heiress Abigail Folger and actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of Hollywood director Roman Polanski. The brutal stabbings and the cryptic messages written in blood (“Rise”, “Death to Pigs”, “Helter Skelter”) horrified Americans, so the murders became a national sensation. Charles Manson was convicted and sentenced to death, but California banned the death penalty, so he’s lived decades in prison.
Heaven’s Gate made the headlines in March of 1997 when 39 members of the cult killed themselves, in hopes of reaching a spaceship which was following in the wake the newly-discovered Hale-Bopp Comet. The investigations that followed confirmed that Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles were the founders of Heaven’s Gate. Applewhite had a near-death experience in the early 1970s and claimed to have had a vision. Bonnie Nettles was his nurse at the time. They became convinced they were “The Two” mentioned in The Book of Revelation 11:3 and began to attract followers. The entire group committed suicide by taking cyanide and arsenic, phenobarbital mixed with pineapple juice, and finally vodka. All were dressed in similar black attire and tennis shoes, with the armband patches that said “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”.
Jim Jones is the most infamous cult leader in American history. Jim Jones had certain Pentecostal beliefs, but his preaching attracted many African-Americans from the 1950s to the 1970s, mainly because he had progressive views on racial equality. Jim Jones’s cult, Peoples Temple, first relocated to Utah, because he believed this would give the cult the best chance of surviving a nuclear war. By the 1970s, he had denominations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Jim Jones actually had a certain amount of political clout.
In 1977, the New West Magazine decided to publish an expose of Jim Jones and his cult. Jones chose to relocate his congregation to “The Commune” in Guyana, a socialist country in South America. When U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Guyana to meet with Jim Jones. Jones’s people eventually shot and killed Representative Ryan. Knowing justice would soon arrive from U.S. authorities, Jim Jones decided to go out in the most dramatic fashion possible, with mass suicide. Over 900 members of the Peoples Temple drank poison mixed with Flavor Aid, though some might have drunk the punch at the point of a gun.
When a religion’s founder is known to have said, “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion,” you should beware of that religion. This is what L. Ron Hubbard was quoted as saying to a 1948 science fiction convention (while complaining about being paid a penny a word for his writing). Scientology was founed in 1952 by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology was based on Hubbard’s system of Dianetics, which he called “the modern science of mental health”. Dianetics was supposed to be an alternative to modern psychology, which Hubbard claimed was lacking. According to those who’ve left the cult, the core tenets of Scientology are hidden from members until they attain a certain level in the cult. The early stages involve manipulation of theoretic life force energy, called “theta”, which represents the true identity of a person.
Manipulation of this force helps one get “Clear”, done through an “auditing” process by higher ranked members. Thetans are also a race which created the universe for their own enjoyment, but at higher levels, members are introduced to the story of Xenu, a tyrant who rules the Galactic Confederacy. This revelation has caused some members to leave the cult, while the Church of Scientology’s heavy-handed tactics (isolation, lawsuits) have not only kept many members in line, but also served to maintain a conspiracy of silence among former members, for fear of legal retribution. It can be argued the Church of Scientology is not a cult, based on its recognition by the IRS as a church (for tax purposes). Italy, Spain, Portugal, Taiwan, and a number of other countries have recognized Scientology as a church. At the same time, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Belgium, Greece, and Canada have all deemed Scientology a cult and refuse to recognize its legitimacy.
The Unification Church might not strike a chord, but this is the cult founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Born in what is now North Korea in 1920, Sun Myung Moon claimed to have had a vision when he was 16 that Jesus Christ did not finish his work on Earth (having “perfect children”) and he, Moon, should carry on Jesus’s work. Preaching on behalf of this new faith in the wake of the Japanese withdrawal from Koreak at the end of World War II, he was arrested and put in a North Korean prison camp. He escaped when the U.S. Army overran the camp in 1950 and made his way to America, where he became a Presbyterian.
When he was excommunicated from the Presbyterian Church in 1954, Sun Myung Moon founded the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. Reverend Moon told his flock that only he could choose their marriage partners (after 7 years in the church), and he became infamous for his mass marriage ceremonies. By the 1970s, Moon (a successful businessman) had renamed the cult the Unification Church and moved to New York City, where he gained too much attention. Parents filing lawsuits against the cult, while also publicizing their attempts to deprogram their brainwashed children. This led to a 1982 tax evasion conviction. The Unification Church still exists, though Moon died in 2010.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was an Indian (Hindi) mystic and guru who had an international following prior to his appearance in the United States. In 1981, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh brought his congregation to Oregon, where it remained from 1981 until 1985. In 1985, U.S. authorities discovered that Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult had committed an act of bioterror attack when it unleashed a virus on the people of The Dalles, Oregon (contaminating their food). Apparently, this was an effort to rig a local election. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was arrested and charged with immigration violations, and was eventually deported from the country (21 nations refused him entry to their countries). At the time of his ascendency in Oregon, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh has the world’s largest Rolls-Royce automobiles.
The Children of God were founded by David “Moses” Berg in 1968. After his death in 1994, the Children of God changed their name to “Family International”. David Berg was born in California in 1919 and came up in a Disciples of Christ sect. Berg served as a minister in Arizona and in Miami, Florida, before moving his family to Texas. From seclusion, David Berg created a widespread cult following through his writings. Though the Children of God espouses Christian beliefs, though many churches would view his beliefs as heretical. The Children of God’s founder preached against moral decay and the belief of evolution, along with mainstream religion, western-style capitalism, the Jewish people, and even pedophilia laws.
In the early phase of the Internet, the story of Merry Berg, granddaughter of David Berg, came to light (through the words of Merry herself). Merry talked of the beatings, isolation, and exorcisms she suffered when she began to question her grandfather’s hypocrisy at age 14. According to Merry Berg, “Moses” was an alcoholic who sent her to live in Macau with her uncle when she would not repent. For the next several years, she and several other teenagers were forced to live in a teen detention home (“victors home”) to force them to remain cultists. She was eventually placed in a mental institute and drugged. At age 18 (in 1992), after not breaking, the cult sent her to live with her mother, who was no longer part of the commune. She has since spoken out against this classic cult behavior.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the cult founded by current convict Warren Jeffs. Jeffs’s story caused a media circus when it first came to national attention in 2006, after he reached the FBI Ten Most Wanted List. The Fundamentalist Church is one of many breakoff sects from the main Mormon church, due to their excommunication for continuing to practice polygamy. This is what got Warren Jeffs convicted to prison: separate counts of incest and sexual misconduct with minors. Since Jeffs was sent away to prison, it’s unclear who leads the Fundamentalist Church.
While people might argue Warren Jeffs’ 10,000 member group isn’t a cult, others would argue the entire Mormon faith is itself a cult. I won’t go that far, so I’ll split the difference and suggest Warren Jeffs’s organization displays many of the traditional signs of a cult. Those who saw the tv interviews with the women of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints could see that members of the group had been brainwashed.
The Twelve Tribes were founded by Elbert Eugene Spriggs, often known as “Yoneq”, in 1971. It seems Spriggs, like most other cult leaders, claimed to have had a vision–in this case while on a Los Angeles beach. Before that time, Elbert Spriggs had been a high school counselor and a carnival barker, two professions which provided him with skills he would later use as a cult leader. Thirty years later, Yoneq was a jetsetting international traveler with palatial home in the South of France, Brazil, and Cape Cod. The reclusive Yoneq has moved his cult about the country several times to avoid scrutiny. In 1984, authorities seized over 100 cult kids in a raid of Island Pond, Vermont, after brutal abuse allegations came to light. Today, the group has at least 7 compounds in New England, but is thought to have a total of 30 worldwide. Among their believes is no dichotomy between Heaven and Hell, but instead the “Three Eternal Destinies”.
Certain cult activity doesn’t have an American character, which is why the Raelians and other such groups aren’t on this list. I’ve seen the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism placed on lists before, but I stop short of labeling these groups as pure cults. I make a distinction between religions groups who shun or ostracize members, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Amish, and those who use physical intimidation or brainwashing techniques. A fine line separates cults and churches, but the ones listed above should leave no doubt.