The “C-Word”:
The Meaning of Cult and Its Effects

I had decided to write a research paper about Jonestown for a history class called Historical Methods in Writing, the purpose of which was apparently to teach me the fundamentals of researching for and writing about a historical topic. This, of course, was no easy task. How does one discuss Peoples Temple and the community at Jonestown while avoiding the “c-word,” without calling the group a cult? I retrieved my thesaurus and used virtually every synonym in the book for the word “group,” for I was concerned with how people would read the “c-word.” I didn’t think it would be fair to call Peoples Temple a cult, as the word had always seemed so derogatory to me; an insult flung at far-reaching radicals and fringe groups made up of mindless devotees to a charismatic, and most often insane, leader. Therefore, I had planned to circumvent the word altogether, opting for the easy way out rather than explain my terms.

My advisor, however, wouldn’t let me off that easily. He pushed me to explore the word “cult” for myself. I analyzed what makes Peoples Temple different from other groups often labeled cults, such as Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians. I studied how Peoples Temple differs from those similar in structure yet somehow condoned by society, including the United States military, support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Christianity or other legitimized religions, and even political structures involving cult of personality, such as Mao Zedong’s Communist China or Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union. What I discovered in my quest to understand the meaning of the word “cult” is that it is more nebulous and complex than one might expect, and there are no definite answers upon which we all agree. The word “cult” has become such a catch-all word for any group of radicals that it has lost all objective meaning, and therefore needs to be more clearly defined and utilized.

So, why is the word “cult” such a problem? The first problem is that the word carries such a heavy negative connotation. Immediately the word conjures up images of bizarre, ritualistic practices, brainwashed and unquestioningly loyal followers, and of course a charismatic leader – a Marshall Applewhite, a David Koresh, a Jim Jones. Another characteristic often attributed to these cult groups is ideological or geographical isolation from the larger society, although this isn’t always the case with these groups. The “c-word” is too often invoked as an umbrella term for any group deviating from the status quo and societal norms that many see as necessary to preserve a nation’s security or stability.

The other major problem with using this word is that it oversimplifies. If one belongs to a cult, then that person is not considered an individual, but rather a brainwashed servant simply acting out another’s orders. In the case of Peoples Temple, there existed a great diversity of members from all levels of society who participated in various degrees and capacities within the church, each with his or her own unique viewpoint or world perspective. Therefore, to label a Peoples Temple member a “cult member” would be unfair, as it doesn’t take individuality into account. Although the group may be bound by an ideology or cause, this is does not necessarily mean that each member will think or behave in the same way as another.

Another problem with using the “c-word” is that, although we have a general idea of what is meant by the term, it becomes more difficult to distinguish cult groups from non-cult groups which are socially acceptable. For example, the United States military consists of thousands of “brainwashed” young men who have been indoctrinated to believe in a cause: the importance of maintaining national security and protecting the borders of the United States. They even have a hierarchical structure with a single leader, the President at the top, although he is not always as charismatic as a “cult” leader. Yet somehow, the military is generally not assumed to be a cult. Is this because tactics used to train soldiers are seen as a “necessary evil” to protect civilians? If a group is seen as having a patriotic, pro-America agenda, or if it acts in the name of “good,” i.e., under God, does this give the group a free pass from being classified as the dirtiest of words, a “cult”?

Perhaps it all boils down to ideology, then. Maybe any group holding beliefs inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian, quasi-Puritan, neo-conservative worldview of the majority of the United States’ population is labeled a “cult” and is subsequently ostracized from the larger society. Take the Mormons, for instance. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr., claimed that the Angel Moroni came to him in a vision and revealed writing on golden plates that would later become the Book of Mormon. Smith and his followers were ostracized from the society, as these beliefs were not compatible with traditional Christian views. Eventually, after the murder of Smith, the remaining Mormons headed west to establish a new community separate from the U.S. in order to retain their own practices, including polygamy. So, perhaps the threat of a different religious view incongruent with the Judeo-Christian paradigm is the key to defining a cult.

What then about numbers? Could this be the distinguishing feature that separates cult from religion? Christianity started as a small “radical” group, but became legitimized and accepted once it crossed over some arbitrary threshold in membership. Clearly, numbers do play a role in determining a group’s status within a society. Jim Jones recognized the importance of numbers, as it has been reported that he inflated the number of members of Peoples Temple to give it more credibility. So, perhaps the old adage is true, and there is safety in numbers. Oddly enough, it seems that the larger a fringe group becomes, the less threatening it appears to the general public. As a group grows in size, it slowly becomes integrated and accepted by the existing society.

Another “defining” characteristic of cults – and perhaps the most dramatized – is the notion of brainwashing. The Orwellian notion of mass propaganda turned into groupthink is a strange, perverse, and oddly sexy characteristic of “cults.” Cults are assumed to have basic tenets or principles, not unlike religions, and members are expected to adhere to these guidelines in behavior and thought. Any religion uses the same tactics as these fringe groups: repetition, particular practices, and social pressures from within the group to conform, for instance. Additionally, brainwashing techniques and uniform doctrine are characteristic of the military and support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which asks its members to recite a prayer together at the start of each meeting and which has its own rituals and traditions unique to that group. All of these institutions share these characteristics in common, yet only the radical fringe group is seen as threatening and is thereby labeled “cultish.”

Finally, hindsight may be the factor that distinguishes a cult from any other group. Had not over 900 people died at Jonestown on November 18th, 1978, it is hard to predict whether Peoples Temple would become so vilified. For example, some see Scientology as a strange or bizarre religious group, yet until there is some very visible and threatening act against the U.S., Scientologists can continue to practice in peace under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom. It is this paradox that allows for groups that are potentially political but labeled as religious, such as Peoples Temple, to persist unmolested.

So, what can be done to make our understanding of the word “cult” more accurate? The most immediate solution, of course, would be to eliminate the use of the word altogether. However, this is not only drastic but presents another problem: Now what are “they” to be called? Therefore, we need to find another solution.

The most sensible answer is to carefully define the term early on in one’s research. While the “c-word” may be the perfect choice for a tabloid headline, it can be misleading and unrepresentative of a group’s individual members and beliefs. If we can define our terms, then the audience will have a framework from which to work. Hopefully, this will eliminate misconceptions about a group that may not be applicable.

In conclusion, the “c-word” can be a dangerous one. Although it may be tempting to classify a fringe group of non-conformists as cultish, most often the reality is more complicated. In researching Jonestown and Peoples Temple, I encountered a plethora of definitions of a cult, and was satisfied with none entirely. Until we can all agree on what makes a cult a cult, the ideal solution is to provide our own definitions and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.

(Catherine B. Abbott can be reached at Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)