December 24th, 1865:
The Ku Klux Klan
Six middle-class men found the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee. One of the first known hate groups, this cult was (and still is) focused on the advancement of the white race as a whole. It was disbanded in 1870, and again in 1944. However in 1915 and 1946 respectively, the KKK would eventually reform. Its peak year was 1924, with membership at about four million members. This cult is notable for being one of the first to come into existence, one of the only cults without suicide as a “necessary” factor, and one of the oldest surviving to this day. Although it has lost most of its strength as a cult, a religious movement, and a political organization, the Ku Klux Klan has not only remained alive (if only just barely), but has inspired other groups (for example, the Neo-Nazis) as well.
The Watchtower Society (More Notably Known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses”)
Charles Taze Russel founds a Bible study group, as well as a magazine he will begin to publish. It became known as “Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1881, and, on December 15th, 1884, became legally incorporated. Renamed “Jehovah’s Witnesses” in 1931, this cult has gone on to be one of the most well-known religious organizations of all time; not to mention, it is still in existence to this day. Known for their three false doomsday predictions (1914, 1925, and 1975), and a worldwide membership of 7.1 million people, Jehovah’s Witnesses is a fine example of an Armageddon-based cult, both in the past and present.
The Church of Scientology
L. Ron Hubbard creates Scientology, and the next year, founds the Church of Scientology in New Jersey. This religion is based on the fact that each human was brought into the world (mostly) for their own pleasure. However, due to constraints of the world around them, no person other than someone who follows Hubbard’s teachings exactly is able to fulfill this pleasure completely. This religion, most notable for its many celebrity members (ie. Tom Cruise), has been brought into the public eye a great deal recently, and has come under a great deal of scrutiny. From well-respected news channels to the Comedy Central animated series South Park, Scientology is passed off as a “novelty cult”. This is Scientology’s significance; it shows how, if a cult’s image is publicly tarnished, to a very high degree, it is unable to thrive. In short, although the church is still alive, and new members do join, because of the media, its power as a religious group is very small.
Peoples Temple is founded by Jim Jones; however, in its very early stages (its foundation in Indiana) it is first known as the “Community Unity Church”. This cult, which will eventually lead to over 900 of its members committing suicide, was first introduced simply as a religious movement linked to Christianity; not as the Communistic society that Jones had in mind. Known also for killing Leo Ryan, the only United States congressman to die in the line of duty, on a Guyana airstrip. Peoples Temple collapsed later that day with the mass suicide of the group. The entirety of this mass suicide represents how, in some cases, people can either be driven to do the bidding of whom they see to be their leader, even if it would defy all that they would have previously thought right, or true. It also represents how, even if the members of a cult are brainwashed, violent force may be necessary for your followers to follow you.
As they were one of the most notable cults of all time, this group helped to pave the way for newer, more extremist religious movements of the future.
The Westboro Baptist Church
The Westboro Baptist Church is founded by Fred Phelps in Topeka, Kansas. A far-right, extreme hate group that especially targets the homosexual and Jewish communities, the W.B.C. is known for their highly provocative protests and picket signs. Alive and well to this day, the Westboro Baptist Church protests around the country. To name a recent endeavor, Duke University was protested due to their open, and public, welcome of students from the L.B.G.T. community. They picketed the funerals of Ryan King and Jake Velloza, who had been killed in Iraq. According to the W.B.C., their deaths were the direct product of God’s anger over homosexuality. Colleges, synagogues, and community centers that do not conform with the “values” of the W.B.C., even the inauguration of President Obama aren’t safe from their derogatory remarks. In short, they are a prime example of a cult that does not have a mission; rather, from their tasteless signs (“God Hates Fags”, “You’re Going to Hell”, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”) to the URL of their website (http://www.godhatesfags.com/), they simply aim to slander and disrespect others.
Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles found their first cult, “Human Individual Metamorphasis.” Their group traveled into the Colorado desert, to await a UFO, but it never came. This group would eventually change twice more: once into “Total Overcomers Anonymous” in 1993, and finally into “Heaven’s Gate” (the most recognizable name for the group) after the cult moved into the San Diego, CA area. In mid-March of 1997, 39 of the group members in matching attire committed suicide in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Two members who had left the group would go on to commit suicide over the next year. As a modern UFO/Doomsday cult, Heaven’s Gate went on to not only become one of the most notable cults in history, but showed the world that almost anything, for certain people, is able to be accepted as truth.
The Räelian Movement
Raëlism was founded in Paris, France by Claude Vorhilon. Focused on the idea of intelligent design, Raëlism is one of the few “UFO Cults” that does not feature suicide at any point. Rather, it encourages its followers to prepare for the return of the “Elohim,” or higher beings, who will reveal themselves to us at an undetermined date. Known for their support of almost complete sexual freedom, as well as cloning, Raëlists are an example of a passive cult; instead of resorting to violence and protests, they simply spread their message for the salvation of others.
Aum Shinrikyo (now known simply as “Aleph”) was founded. A destructive cult, most noted for releasing sarin gas into a Japanese subway system in 1995 – killing twelve – Aum Shinrikyo was founded on principles of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Membership peaked at about 40,000 worldwide (9,000 in Japan) in 1995; currently, the total worldwide membership is at about 1,650 people. Aum Shinrikyo is one of the most famous “Destructive Cults”; not suicide based, but leading to the harm of other people, places, and things.
June 23rd, 2005:
Tom Cruise’s Interview with Matt Lauer
Tom Cruise conducts a controversial interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show. His comments focus on a few main areas: his (then just budding) love interest, Katie Holmes; his (oftentimes rude) opinions of Brooke Shields’ use of anti-depressants, and a small bit on his membership in the Church of Scientology. This interview is very significant, for one reason: it shows how a celebrity can use his fame to his (or her) advantage (or perhaps in the case of Mr. Cruise, disadvantage). He used his fame to support his argument of Scientology, as well as to vent his anger at Brooke Shields. He was also very defensive about his religion. In short, he knew that the vast majority of the viewing public found him to be (at the time, if not now) a joke. If anything, this may be the entirety of why Tom Cruise became a Scientologist: attention, even in its negative forms. This is why some people join cults, in fact: for the sheer knowledge that people disapprove of (or at least know of) what one is doing.
March 29th, 2008:
The “Yearning for Zion Ranch” Incident
At the “Yearning for Zion Ranch,” a community made up of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as Fundamentalist Mormonism) just outside of Eldorado, Texas, police raided the compounds, and placed 412 children in the temporary custody of the state of Texas. This occurred after an alert from “Sarah,” a sixteen-year-old girl and a member of the church, tipped off the authorities to the sexual abuse of children on the ranch by older adult males. (“Sarah,” as she was known, was never found by police; in fact, a much older woman, one Rozita Swinton, was found to have placed the cals, as a joke. Ms. Swinton had been arrested for other hoax calls in the past.) Although there were multiple cases of polygamy on the ranch itself, and a few of the children had minor bone fractures, there were no signs of sexual abuse in any of the children. The most major “damage” to any of the children were three cases of broken bones, and all were acquired in the process of removing/housing the children. On May 29th, 2008, after a prolonged legal battle, the Texas Supreme Court ordered the children to be sent back to their mothers. The court found that there was not nearly enough evidence of any sort of abuse, and that the acquisition of the children by the state of Texas was unjustified.
This incident represents how, with cults, the government (and the citizens) naturally tend to assume the worst of those affiliated. Even with a lack of any sort of substantial evidence, the government of the state of Texas was allowed to take the children into its custody, simply on the grounds of public fear. After the children were returned, the church denounced polygamy (most likely as a way to assure the public that they really were not an evil cult), and faded from the public eye.
The Future of Cults
Due to the increasing strength of the mainstream religions of the world (namely Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hindu, Buddhism), cults have become something of a rarity in the modern world. Because almost all people either have strong ties with a religion (or lack of one), or find the idea of a cult to be scary, silly, or simply annoying, almost all new religious movements simply are unable to generate enough membership to function, let alone prosper. Because of this, I am fairly certain that cults, alternative religions, sects, and the like will, in this day and age, almost never be able to last.