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The Concept of Cult, and the Well-known Cult Leaders

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A cult is a group of people who support and organize around a strong central authority figure. Cult goals are usually to expand influence for money or for power. The use of deception and persuasion can displace a person’s identity and “replace” it with a new one to have psychological control over members. There are at least 3000 destructive cults in the US, with approximately 4 million participants. The 4 basic types of cults are religious, psychological or enlightenment, commercial, and political, with religious being the most well-known.

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The ultimate goal of a cult is to serve the leader, which is the main difference between one and a church or service group. Cults do not intend to support any outsiders against “the cause.” Regular religions and altruistic movements lack total authoritarian control over members, and do not use deception or coercive influence to recruit more people.

Contrary to popular belief, average people are susceptible to joining a cult. Two thirds of cult members are psychologically healthy, and only 5 to 6 percent of members show mental issues prior to recruitment. Cults actually prefer strong-set intelligent individuals who can contribute their talents and money to the group and lead. However, situational elements do cause more people to be vulnerable to recruitment, including uncertainty, loneliness, and depression. Cults thrive during times of political or social unrest, as they were prevalent in the aftermath of the Fall of Rome, during the French Revolution, Industrial Revolutionary England, Japan after WWII, Eastern Europe after the fall of the communist regime, and America in the 1960s. Persuasion teacher William McGuire conducted a study that showed low self-esteem people are more accepting of the messages of the cult, but less attentive because of the inward thinking, and high self-esteem people are less accepting of the messages of the cult, but are better attentive to the message being presented. The best people for cult recruitment are the ones on the middle of the spectrum, since both ends of self-esteem levels overlap.

Charles Manson is one of the best known cult leaders. He used his “family” to conduct various crimes, including murder, for his gain in money or power. The wife of director Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, and four others in the home were killed by the Manson family members on order of Charles himself. On the same night, grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were killed by the family, joined this time by Manson, because there was “not enough panic” after the Tate murder. Manson preached to his followers of a coming apocalypse, and referred to a “race war” between blacks and whites with the term “Helter Skelter,” based off a Beatles song. He claimed to find a place in Death Valley where the family and him would hide until it was over, and would then take the gains from the “winners,” presumably blacks.

Jim Jones, another well-known cult leader, had started to make a name for himself in Indianapolis as a healer and evangelist. The opposition of a racially integrated church in 1955 made Jones create his branch named Wings of Deliverance Church, eventually renamed to People’s Temple. In the mid-1960s Jones and his followers move to rural Ukiah and Redwood Valley in Northern California to expand his influence, reaching as far as San Francisco. Jones’s “healings” and rhetoric attracted people into the church, posing as a free and safe place for people to express their faith. Many gave all that they had to the church which led to Jones for “common good.” Jones discouraged sex and romance among the members but had several adulterous relationships within the church and disrupted families with his “father to all” position. In 1974, due to his paranoia of US government interference, Jones brought his almost 1000 followers to the land he bought in Guyana, a country in South America, to set up the People’s Temple compound, named Jonestown. In this compound, people got little to no food or sleep, and were not allowed to leave. Armed guards stood at the perimeter in case anyone tried to escape. Jones had his preach recordings constantly over the loudspeaker day and night. Suicide drills were eventually started to test the people’s loyalty, requiring them to drink something said to be poisonous, only to be explained after about 45 minutes after consumption that it wasn’t. Jones had threatened a mass suicide beforehand to the Guyana government in September 1977 so no action was to be taken against him after escapees protests, which brought California Congressman Leo J. Ryan and an NBC TV crew to investigate a year later in November. Ryan and his crew had received notes from members asking to leave with them, and when it became clear Ryan would welcome them back to the US, Jones had his People’s Temple gunmen shoot at the visitors and defectors of the church. Five were killed, including the Congressman, and 2 defectors severely wounded. November 18, 1978, Jones launched his “revolutionary suicide” which killed more than 900 people, 276 of them children. Cyanide and valium were mixed in a grape punch and distributed to members, any refusal resulted in force by guards. Jim Jones shot himself or was shot in the head.

Vernon Wayne Howell, renamed later to David Koresh, lead a cult of Branch Davidians, who believed Christ’s return to create the divine kingdom was to happen soon. The people of Mount Carmel, Texas, were awed by David’s interpretations of scripture, as he had a “photographic memory,” and memorized most of the Bible as a young man and found connections between different passages. Study sessions with his followers could last up to 18 hours. A Waco survivor Sheila Martin described the views of David as a “prophet” and “closer to God.” Koresh claimed to be the “lamb of God” who had the ability to unlock the Seven Seals.

Koresh was in complete control before the ATF raid. He ordered people not to consume dairy, as milk was for the children, dinners were sometimes just popcorn, children were hit with paddles, and adults with oars, if misbehaved, men and boys expected to get up at 5:30 AM for training, women were restricted with diets to stay thin and wore long blouses with no makeup or jewelry. Koresh wanted 24 children for the 24 Heavenly Thrones mentioned in the Book of Revelation, so enforced the “New Light” doctrine, which meant other men had to be celibate while he took their wives and could have sex with any woman he wanted. Many women were happy to bear the child of their “messiah,” but Koresh also took advantage of underage girls. His marriage partner was 14 year old Rachel Jones, who was permitted to marry under Texas law, so long as she got her parents to sign for it. Korseh eventually raped her 12 year old sister a few years later. In 1995, teen Kiri Jewell testified before congress that Koresh had sexually assaulted her when she was 10 at a motel. Koresh had justified these “sins” with biblical arguments.

On February 28, 1993 agents from the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms US Bureau organized a raid on the Branch Davidians compound outside of Waco, Texas, for converting semi-automatic guns into automatic weapons. Four agents and 6 Branch Davidians were killed in a shootout, nobody knew who shot first. The battle led to a 51-day standoff with FBI negotiators. Many agents grew tired of Koresh’s religious preaching, and were frustrated at him for breaking his promise of coming out of the compound after sermon broadcast, using the excuse that God “told him to wait.” Tactical units cut off electricity to the Branch Davidians and blared music and irritating sounds. Koresh later claimed that he would leave after finishing his manuscript of decoding the Seven Seals, which FBI were skeptical of due to his previous claim of leaving. A decision approved by Janet Reno was made to drive out the people of the compound with 3 polytechnic tear gas rounds. On April 19, 1993, most of the Branch Davidians stayed in the building through the tear gas, but hours later, a fire was started by Davidians, where more than 70 people, along with 2 dozen children died, and 9 people escaped. Koresh died from a gunshot wound to the head.

Warren Jeffs was the prophet who led the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. The FLDS practiced polygamy, specifically polygyny, which is when a man has multiple wives to bear his children, rooted by Joseph Smith Jr. who founded Mormonism. The “main” Mormon church of Latter Day Saints prohibited and excommunicated anyone who participated in polygamy, but many families had already established their own communities which thrived on the lifestyle. In polygamist society, boys ride horses bareback and girls wear prairie dresses, giving a 19th century look. Polygamy is illegal in the Americas and many western first world countries, as well as outlawed but not especially enforced in some third world countries. Warren Jeffs took over FLDS after his father, and claimed his wives with him. In his rule he stressed obedience and “keeping sweet.” He kicked people he deemed as sinners out of the community, with the high chance of them leaving the rest of their family. In 2002, an investigation commenced for child rape in Utah, in which he fled to the various church houses to hide in around the area. In 2006, he landed on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list for multiple accounts of sexually assaulting minors. He was eventually caught in August of the same year. The Texas police breached the new FLDS site Yearning for Zion Ranch and seized evidence investigators shortly after uncovered to be Jeffs claims of several teen brides, marrying one who was only 12 years old, and consummated the marriage on the temple bed on tape. Jeffs was extradited from Utah to Texas in August 2011 and was sentenced to life in prison, plus an additional 20 years.

Even with Jeffs in prison, he still controls the FLDS site adamantly, ordering the wives to only have intercourse with handpicked loyal men, with extra men to watch in the room. Walls have been put up around the community to keep outsiders away, and any “apostates” are harassed on property, sometimes having dead animals being put on their lawns. Any visitors are tailed by cars with blackened windows, the security force of Jeffs. People who have “escaped” are considered sinners and are damned to hell by members.

Cults fascinate a large population, especially with the dramatization in the media. Around the world people tuned in to hear about Charles Manson and his family crimes, as well as Warren Jeffs and his perversion. The aftermath of a fall of a cult usually ends in death, as with the Jonestown mass suicide murder of 900 people. A cult’s main priority is the message, conveyed by a persuasive, independent, strong leader, and preys on the vulnerabilities of people for recruitment.

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