A Comparison of the Methods of Recruitment and Retention of Malevolent and Benevolent Cults

by Ashton Brower

(While a student at Hockerill Anglo-European College in Hertfordshire in the UK, I took the International Baccalaureate Diploma, an international equivalent to the UK’s A-levels. This Diploma is comprised of six subjects, Theory of Knowledge, Creative, Service and Action hours and a 4,000 word dissertation called the “Extended Essay.” This essay is completely self-researched by each individual on any topic of their choice, provided it fits into the many subjects offered within the IB Diploma – in this case, the subject of Religious Studies.

(My father is originally from Guyana, and in reading about the country, I learned about Peoples Temple. I decided to write an essay on cults, and specifically on Peoples Temple, as I found its story so interesting yet tragic. I also decided to contrast it with another cult, making it the comparative study below.)

This essay hopes to evaluate the differences and similarities in the ways that a benevolent and a malevolent cult recruit and retain members. The example of a benevolent cult used will be The Family International. Set up in 1968 by David Brandt Berg, it is still running today. The example of a malevolent cult that will be used is Peoples Temple, started by Jim Jones in April 1955, and ending tragically on 18th November 1978.

In this essay I will use specific definitions for the use of the terms “malevolent” and “benevolent” cult. A malevolent cult will be seen as one that has set out purposely to harm itself, members, and others outside the cult. This must be the aim of the whole cult or the leadership rather than just a few individuals, as this could easily happen outside the group and is not the fault of the cult. A benevolent cult will be defined as one that does not aim to purposely hurt anyone.

My interest in this topic stems from a general curiosity surrounding what we learn through the media and how much is true. Cult research is a very difficult field as there is so much biased information available from various sources. I wanted to search through the controversies for the truth about the basis of reports of brainwashing and anti-cult movements worldwide. I hope to show that the way in which a cult recruits and retains members is not as extreme and unconventional as is often shown but that there is a choice. I also hoped to discover how different the two cults’ methods are, to show ultimately how different they are. The essay will cover the background to the formation of cults in general, background to the two cult examples and comparisons between the methods of recruitment and retention used in the two cults.

To evaluate cult behaviour it is first important to define what a cult is. The word has many negative connotations and is understood by many in this way when in fact the word itself is neutral. Encarta defines a cult in an anthropological way as “a body of organised practices and beliefs supposed to involve interaction with and control over supernatural powers” in a novel way to traditional religion, usually based around the teachings of one single person, the leader. This definition suggests that there is little difference between mainstream religions and cults. In fact, many mainstream religions began as what were at the time considered as cults; Christianity for example, began as a small group of people who followed the teachings of Jesus and who were treated as many cults are today, with hostility. Now, however, it is a mainstream religion because it is accepted and not longer seen as extreme or unorthodox and it is a part of society rather than detaching itself as many cults do. It embraces the world rather than condemning it and extracting itself from it.

Another anthropological definition by Bainbridge and Stark defines cults in terms of compensators. Compensators are rewards that are not necessarily empirically proven gained through beliefs and action. Cults are defined as giving new and exotic compensators, whereas religions give general compensators that are not always novel, such as Heaven in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Therefore, some cults can give general compensators and be classed as religions, but not all of them are.

When these two definitions are combined it is clear to see that the word “cult” should not have negative connotations, and that the cults that many people fear are not so different from the very religions they accept. Many of the episodes that people fear from cults are not unique to cults and are seen in mainstream religions as well as society in general. For example, there have been sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church and racism in the Church of England, among many other examples of problems. In the area of violence, there are more spectacular episodes from cults but there is also mass religious violence in religion. The conflict in Ireland is a key example. We can conclude that cults are seen as more extreme because society has become more secular and those who are more enthusiastic about religion are rare. Society has set stages in life and many who join cults have different priorities and leave the normal stages and so are controversial. James Beckford summarises this as “the polarisation of energetic minorities and apathetic majorities caused by secularisation.”

Religion is an important part of society. For many people it provides order, meaning, unity, peace of mind and a feeling of a degree of control over events they believe possible. In everyday life it is an escape and a promise of something more to many. However, in certain situations it can be more. It can be a medium to create conditions for change, and it often aids the success of people in their activities through belief. Religion has great effects on culture and environment, and in some places, the culture is based solely on religion. There is a need for religion for millions. Cults grow from this need. For people who have suffered or are disillusioned with religion but still need something, cults are often the answer; they offer a new option.

This explains why cults exist or are needed, but there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding how they come to exist. There are three models that are accepted by scholars as possibilities of how cults come into existence. The most well known is the psychopathological model. This model stems from the idea that cults are formed as a result of social crisis mixed with mental illness. It suggests that these individuals have hallucinations causing them to set up a group with compensators to help solve the crisis faced. The group is more likely to be successful if the crisis is social as the others suffering will also seek a solution. The second is the entrepreneur model. This is when a cult is set up to make a profit. The leader uses ideas from previous successful cults combined to make a new one, and the cult must serve its purpose to be successful and to make a profit. The last model is the subculture evolution model. This occurs when a group of people who fail to reach certain awards, and through that failure new rewards arise. As this happens, the group becomes closer. This is called mutual conversion; it is the product of each person’s hopes and the group’s mutual encouragement. These models can be combined to explain why cults are formed.

There are also generalised ideas about how people are recruited into cults, why people decide to join cults and what people have in general been found to join cults. People are often recruited through ties with people within the cult, family and friends. Potential members make bonds with members, which is important to move people from recruits to members. It is important that members have intensive interaction with other members both for conversion and retention. The other stage is to reduce or even eliminate outside bonds, which means that you become more deeply involved and influenced. The majority of recruits convert because of dissatisfaction in life and tension in life, which leads to disappointment and disillusionment and the search for a new solution. Recruits are generally found to be young with fewer social ties who are freer to join. Recruits are largely well educated and from middle and upper class backgrounds. With this understanding of cults it is easier to understand and evaluate the methods of the two cults examined in this essay.

To understand the evaluation it is important to have some understanding of the cults themselves, the history and the aims and the reason for the classification of the malevolent or benevolent cults. Peoples Temple was set up in 1955 by Jim Jones and his wife. Jones began preaching his highly Pentecostal, apocalyptic and communistic message in 1951. He spoke of his ideals and took part in many Pentecostal practices such as faith healing and speaking in tongues. Through his preaching he gained a following and set up his church to keep this. Jones increasingly became seen as a prophet by his followers. His message was one of an oncoming apocalypse due to the capitalism in the world, and the promise of a socialist utopia to his followers. He fought for racial integration, social justice and care for all. To show he followed his own teachings, he actively campaigned for racial integration, his congregation was mixed black and white and he actively cared for all, old and young through the “human services” of his church including care homes and free restaurants.

The church began in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1965, after a stress related ulcer, Jones preached of moving due to a nuclear holocaust he had foreseen and to escape racial intolerance. He moved to Ukiah, California with around 70 followers to set up his church. Here his sermons became more revolutionary and less focused on the Christian message. The church expanded to thousands, there were care homes, social amenities, and other Temples were built. Some people began to sign over all their assets and live in the Temple, and others who lived outside still donated around 20% of their salary. As members became more separated from society, controversy grew. In August 1977, a magazine article interviewed several former members who spoke of beatings and abuse. After this, Jones made the final decision to move to Jonestown, Guyana with around 1000 members. This move was to escape persecution from a number of threats including ex-members and a supposed tax investigation. However, the persecution did not stop. A group called the “Concerned Relatives” continued to campaign for the end of Peoples Temple. In November, Congressman Leo Ryan, an ally of the “Concerned Relatives,” went to Guyana on a fact-finding mission. The congressman’s visit was successful, and he promised a good report, although 16 members had decided to leave with him. As he was leaving he was assaulted by a Jonestown man with a knife. Luckily he was left unhurt but the report would change. Jones saw this as a new threat. They would never be free of persecution so the final plan was put into action. When the congressmen, news reporters and leavers arrived at the aeroplane, one leaver began to shoot with a gun and a tractor with members with rifles pulled up to fire. When the tractor departed, five were left dead – Ryan, three newsmen and one leaver – and ten were wounded. This attack left Peoples Temple in a position where their enemies would now be able to dismantle the cult. Jones decided that they would no longer be able to survive together so they must “die in peace.” On the 18th November 1978, 913 members were killed in the ritual suicide, mostly by drinking Fla-Vor Aid with cyanide and tranquilisers. Jones and a close aide died of gunshots to the head. Seven people managed to escape, including two black men who escaped in the confusion, and one elderly women who slept through the episode. The cult’s two attorneys fled into the jungle after their guards left to die. All others there died. Peoples Temple was responsible for the deaths of 918 people, through ritual suicide and murder. This shows that the cult was destructive to itself, its members and others outside it. It is a clear example of a destructive cult.

The Family International was set up in 1968 by David Brandt Berg. In the 1960s there was counter-culture movement of many young adults leaving their families to join a simpler life-style in communal life. They were known as hippies or “flower children.” A group of Evangelical Christians known as The Jesus People formed at this time, and tried to communicate the gospel to the hippies. This is how The Family was started. In 1964 Berg led a Teen Challenge group which aimed to help the young into Christianity, however in 1968 he separated his group and called them the “Light Club.” It was aimed at hippies to “save” them from their reckless lifestyles. In the group Berg is seen as the “End-Time Prophet” who will help in the Second Coming of Christ. The group believes that it will help Christ rule after Armageddon. The group aims to give “counselling and assistance to the disadvantaged, and a message of faith and hope to all nations.” They believe in God in the Judeo-Christian way, God as “Love” – a personal God with human characteristics. They do their work because “Love is God’s solution to the problems the world faces, even in the complex and challenging world we live in today. Love put into action is the greatest service to mankind.” Because of this, the group has a policy of love between “consenting adults of legal age,” as it is as God wanted. It is a natural wonder, a way to connect through God. This has led to much controversy and some abuse of the policy ending in child abuse allegations. Members live within communes worldwide, they give all their possessions up to lead a life of purity with God.

In 1969 Berg claimed to have received a message from God telling him that the group should leave California because of an impending earthquake. They travelled throughout the American Southwest for eight months and changed the group name to The Children of God. In the early 1970s, membership moved all around the USA. Then he prophesised that a comet would hit the USA. Members mostly left in the “Great Escape.” In 1973, litnessing was introduced; this is the distribution of publications in exchange for donations. In 1976, “flirty-fishing” was encouraged for female members. This included going to bars and befriending men, they had to seduce potential male converts to encourage them to convert. Berg encouraged this as a show of God’s love, supplying the need for love with even sex if need be. This caused a media frenzy.

The Children of God disbanded after “abuse of authority” but was restarted as The Family of Love in 1978. Communes were made more democratic. “Sexual sharing” was introduced, this is the practice of free sex between consenting adults. In 1987, flirty-fishing was terminated because of press and the spreading of STIs. The policy of sexual sharing was abused by some members with claims of child abuse, which caused controversy and hatred towards the cult. Berg died in 1994, but The Family International is still running today, run by Karen Zerby, his widow, and Steven Douglas Kelly. There are now thousands of members, in over a thousand centres in over 100 countries. The Family is an example of a benevolent cult because even though there is a lot of controversy surrounding alleged child abuse claims, any problems are due to members within the group and not the aims of the group as a whole or leadership. Therefore, as it has not purposely hurt anyone, it is still a benevolent cult.

When the methods of recruitment and retention are compared it is easy to see the similarities and differences. Grouping these together and identifying the patterns is the best way of analysing them. There are some similarities between the methods of recruitment. Firstly, the leaders themselves play a major part in the attraction of the cult. Jim Jones was seen as a prophet and also made huge shows of his supposed healing powers. He was also an orator and was lively and captivating, and his fights for social justice showed him as a man of the people. This showed people that he had a special power, and people supposed that he must have some contact with God to be able to heal. He also had a connection to the people and was seen to capture attention and care. David Berg was also seen as a prophet and apparently received messages from God including prophecies that were supposed to protect people. He also had contact with the prospective members through his letters and publications. This had the same effect as Jones had, prospective members began to believe what the leaders either wanted them to believe or indeed believed about themselves. They also felt a connection to the leader as he spoke to them directly as well as through others. Both leaders supported the idea of integration and as this was unusual at their times, they earned the respect and support of many who could not find such people elsewhere. Both groups offered some kind of protection to members. The Family offered shelter from antagonism and help to those in the counterculture, making them part of a bigger and more influential group. In a similar way Peoples Temple offered shelter to many blacks from outside hostility, especially in the intolerant place in which they initially lived. This idea of shelter was very attractive to many who were lonely or having troubles in their lives, as well as those who just wanted to be part of something. The shelter made the group seem safe and genuine as they helped their members. The similarities seem to be reasons for the attraction of the groups rather than particular actions of the groups. This pattern can be understood better after later reading in the essay but I can conclude briefly that this may be because Peoples Temple did not use active ways of going out and recruiting members so it would be difficult to have similarities in this way.

The differences methods that the two groups recruit members are mainly due to the issue identified above. Although there are many examples of the different ways in which they recruit members, they mostly fall under the same theme, this is, that the methods used by Peoples Temple rely mainly on the vision and ideals of the group and the leader. Although some other types of recruitment may have taken place, mostly it was due to messages spread through his preaching and also through members and supporters of the group or leader, for example congressmen who were friends with Jones. The Temple was a mixture of an apostolic community with a utopian vision that initially fitted in society with a left wing political and civil rights group. This idea was inviting to members as it combined a religious society with one that seemed right to join as it was honourable and supported by many public officials. Contrastingly many of the methods that The Family used centred on active soliciting of recruits and different types of media. For example, members speak to people on the streets, they group outside many universities and target youths. There is also personal witnessing of converts on the streets. Another very controversial practise is the “flirty fishing” technique which was reported to have recruited hundreds of members. Media is also used, members are encouraged to perform songs of prophecies to attract members and “litnessing” or the selling of literature and “Mo’s Letters” also takes place. These various methods are active things which all members take part in and in this way they recruit thousands of members of the streets.

There are many similarities between the methods of retention of Peoples Temple and The Family. One of the first things that takes place after a person becomes a member is they are gradually made to sever ties to the outside world. In Peoples Temple, many left their lives to live within the Temple and donated all their belongings and money to the Temple; this left them with nothing but the Temple. However, the Temple often accepted families and so whole families moved in together so could stay together. The fact that people gave up everything to the Temple made it increasingly difficult to leave if they wanted as many had nothing to leave to. However, as they still had their families, the severing of relationships and ties is less extreme than that of The Family. When people join The Family, it is often by themselves and they are persuaded to sever ties with family outside the group as they will try to lead them away from their path. This means that people do not contact their families and is a main reason for much of the controversy and opposition.

Both groups also used a similar, more extreme method to keep the group together that also had the effect of severing ties. For Peoples Temple this was the move to Jonestown and for The Family it was the “Great Escape.” The severing of ties makes it hard for members to leave as the groups becomes all they have. Although one of the examples is benevolent, there is still fear involved, and one of the main reasons for members staying within cults past the point they want to is because of fear. In The Family, people were punished, sometimes physically, for breaking the rules of the group or for displeasing the leaders. Peoples Temple also used fear to retain members. Members were monitored, punished for offenses for example, and beaten with paddles. There were catharsis sessions where friends criticised the person “on the floor.” These punishments were harsh and often humiliating, and the fear of these punishments meant that people stayed to avoid them.

On top of this threat of punishment, the groups also have control over their members in order to retain them. In Peoples Temple, control was maintained through shows of paranormal power and a network of relationships with the leader which sometimes used sex to keep control. In the Family, members’ pasts were often known through confessions and this could be held over them as a threat to be used against them.

The last method that they have in common is the idea of a shelter from the outside. Peoples Temple had all the “human services” that they ran to care for members for free and also promoted integration, they were a shelter for many blacks from the outside. The Family was a hypothetical shelter from Armageddon, as those with the End-Time Prophet believed that they would be protected and would help Christ reign after the Second Coming. The pattern of similarities is that they are negative. The control, punishment and disconnection that they have in common seem to be negative ways of retaining members. This suggests that the leaders felt the need to keep members in fear to retain them, suggesting that once people entered the group they were not quite what they expected.

The differences between methods of retention are fairly insignificant. Whereas Peoples Temple also tried to keep Jones’ popularity up, The Family had certain practices that kept people interested. Jones increased his popularity through his various friendships, but also kept up his interest in social justice and a civil rights activist. There are also reports of racist activity that was faked by him to make himself and his family appear as fellow subjects to those in his congregation, which humanised him. This meant that people still supported him and he still appeared as a well-rounded and moral individual, with a following that believed this. Members of the Family are not kept interested by their leader but in other ways. Members are kept busy all the time and they constantly have a companion with them, there are compulsory sessions, including confession and Bible readings. There is also the policy of sexual sharing which keeps some members interested as they appreciate this allowance. This implies that members do not have time to consider leaving or to even gather their thoughts and they are kept interested in the group by its practices.

Overall, there seem to be more similarities between the two than differences. This could suggest that their methods are not original or that there are simply few methods that work. Firstly, the methods of recruitment seem to fall into the category of unoriginality. For example, if one takes Christianity, an established religion, and looks at its beginning, the way that members were recruited was very similar. There was a great inspiring leader who was believed to be The Messiah (a prophet), who offered protection for those who had none and who promised to integrate the rich and the poor, the well and the ill and many others. This is the exact same as Peoples Temple and The Family. However, from their differences in recruitment we can see that Peoples Temple is much less active in recruiting whereas members of The Family have a duty to enthusiastically recruit.

Their differences in retention also show this difference through actions and relying on ideology. The similarities in retention unfortunately seem to be mainly negative which disproves my original hope that the methods they use are not as extreme and unconventional as people believe. However, I can also argue that many political systems have and do still use fear and punishment to keep support. This is in no way to argue that this is right but that it is more common that is perceived. The methods of retention and recruitment have not revealed much about why one cult may be benevolent and malevolent as they seem very similar in their methods. The only conclusion alluding to this that I can draw is that perhaps the activeness of The Family makes support continually grow, but when the ideology of Peoples Temple became disapproved, this was a huge threat and the reaction was extreme and ultimately fatal. My research has been able to negate some of the media reports of brain-washing and controversies concerning these cults and reveal more of the truth.

Last modified on December 24th, 2013.
Skip to main content