A Brief History
On March 26, 1997, 39 members of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult were found to have committed suicide with the intention of being picked up by an alien spacecraft and taken somewhere into outer space where they presumably would find eternal happiness. Cults have been around about as long as there has been religion, starting as a splinter group that goes against conventional beliefs, sometimes growing into a mainstream religion and sometimes never achieving anything more than sideshow status. Here are 10 cults that are well known for their extreme beliefs, suicidal tendencies, or celebrity involvement.
Is it a cult? Some people, especially detractors, think so, while many others view it as a fraternal organization doing the public good. Dating back (1425?) centuries to organizations of masons (stone workers), critics claim Freemasons are a secret power elite running the world behind a veil of secrecy. With secret membership roles, special secret rituals, and special ceremonial clothing it is easy to see how non-members can get that impression. Critics of Freemasonry have included various major religions, especially the Roman Catholic Church. Cracked fact: Nazi Germany was a critic of Freemasonry. Numerous prominent people have been Freemasons, including presidents, royalty, governors, famous actors and singers, and a host of other celebrities. Membership is kept secret, so only by self revealing or family records could you know who is actually a Freemason. Could be your neighbor or even you!
9. Our Lady of Endor Coven.
Also known as Ophite Cultus Satanas, as the name implies is a cult worshiping Satan, founded in Toledo, Ohio by Herbert Sloane in 1948. Satanic worship through the ages has largely been conducted by individuals or very small groups, with the OCS marking a modern shift toward larger group worship. The larger Church of Satan founded by Anton LeVay in 1966 published a Satanic Bible and has struggled for acceptance as a recognized religion. As with most cults, the exact numbers are just a guess, but there may be around 100,000 practicing Satanists in the world today.
8. Symbionese Liberation Army.
Founded by African-American activist Donald Defreeze (calling himself “General Field Marshall Cinque”) after he escaped from prison (jailed after robbing a prostitute) the SLA considered themselves the premier activist revolutionaries for African-American rights. DeFreeze was the only African-American member! Claiming belief in “deep and loving harmony” theirs was a doctrinal mish-mash of communism and Kwanzaa. Famous for the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst (who was later pardoned by President Carter), they also committed several robberies and at least 2 murders. The SLA ended in a 1974 massive shootout with Los Angeles police, in which over 9000 rounds were fired with no police casualties and all SLA members present dying at the scene. The SLA faded away in 1975 with the jailing of the last remaining members.
7. Aum Shinrikyo.
With branches known as Aleph and Hikari no Wa, this cult is considered to be terrorists by many countries. As the name suggests, this is a Japanese based cult, although it has members worldwide. Best known for its 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway using Sarin poison gas, killing 13, seriously injuring another 54, and perhaps exposing 6000 people to the deadly poison. Aum has also engaged in other killings using Sarin and VX poisons and has attempted to assassinate their critics. Other attempts at mass murder include the use of cyanide in an effort to kill 20,000 innocent people as well as attempts at developing biological weapons. Oh, and sometimes they just stab people to death. Containing a mixture of Christian and Eastern religions with a dose of Nostradamus, the founder declared himself Christ in 1992, which seems to be fairly common among cult leaders.
6. Order of the Solar Temple.
The successor to the Knights Templar , the Order probably dates from the early 1950’s and can be considered a “secret society.” They even have their own splinter cult that branched off from the Order. In 1994, the cult sacrificed an infant boy, stabbing him to death with wooden stakes in Quebec, Canada. Within a week, 15 core members had committed suicide by poison after murdering 38 other members by gunshot, suffocation, and other means in Quebec and in Switzerland. Not to be outdone, a further 16 members killed each other and themselves in December, 1995 in France.
5. Movement For The Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
Based in Uganda, Africa by a brewer of banana beer (really, no kidding) this was a Roman Catholic splinter group in which the founders had visions of The Virgin Mary (presumably not from drinking banana beer). This cult is notable for being a “doomsday” cult with its beliefs centered around the imminent end of the world, in this case, the year 2000. When the world disappointed members by not ending, the date of March 17, 2000 was reassigned as doomsday, and just to be sure, over 500 members committed suicide with reluctant members murdered.
Known as the Unification Church and founded by Sun Myung Moon in Korea in 1954, the term “Moonies” to describe members is sometimes seen as derogatory although Moon himself had used the term. Known for conducting mass wedding ceremonies uniting thousands of couples at a time, another main tenet of the cult is resurrection, which of course sounds like reincarnation to outsiders but is described by the religious leaders as somewhat different. Moon has claimed to be the Messiah, successor to Jesus Christ. Moonies have been accused of keeping their core beliefs secret, of brainwashing recruits, ant-semetism, and of meddling with US politics. Sun Myung Moon was convicted of income tax fraud in the United States in 1982. Moon died in 2012 leaving a son and daughter to run his church. With 100,000 members in the US alone, Unification can be considered a religion instead of a cult, depending on your definition of each. Cracked fact: The Washington Times newspaper is run by the Moonies!
3. The Peoples Temple.
Led by Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project as they called their commune in Guyana (Central America) is best known for its mass suicide on November 18, 1978 leaving 909 members dead of suicide, mostly from drinking cyanide mixed with a soft drink. Reluctant members were shot. The impetus for the mass suicide was the slaughter of a delegation led by Congressman Leo Ryan which had come to Guyana at the behest of concerned family members of some of the cult’s followers. This incident was the second worst loss of American civilian life after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks.
2. Branch Davidians.
A splinter group that broke off from Seventh Day Adventists in 1955 and led by a man calling himself “David Koresh,” this cult’s compound outside Waco, Texas became famous in 1993 when federal agents attempted to raid the compound to look for illegal weapons, signs of child abuse, and people being held against their will. The resulting raid and 51 day siege led to the deaths of 4 federal agents and 83 cult members, including Koresh. Koresh, originally named Vernon Howell, considered himself a descendant of the Biblical King David and claimed the next Messiah would be his descendant.
Scientology was established in the early 1950’s by a science fiction writer (L. Ron Hubbard) as a sort of evolutionary step from Hubbard’s self-help movement that he called Dianetics. Recognized (legally) in the United States as a “religion,” many other countries have either refused conferring religious status to the group or have revoked such status. Some countries have even made Scientology unwelcome. Consisting of beliefs ranging from a sort of reincarnation to space ships carting the life essence of adherents around, Scientology will not reveal its innermost secrets to anyone but members who have proven capable of handling such knowledge. Accused of being secretive, engaging in bullying, brainwashing, and character assassination, Scientology has many enemies and detractors. Its founder, L. Ron Hubbard claims all sorts of military exploits that are provably false as well as other unlikely adventures. Scientology is perhaps best known for its celebrity members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Question for students (and subscribers): Would you ever join a cult? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Goldwag, Arthur. Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and many, many more. Vintage, 2009.