Cults are the deviant offshoots of religion — and they often produce horrors. Here are some.
The most sensational cult catastrophe was the horrific 1978 mass suicide of 900 gullible believers at Jonestown, Guyana.
Paranoid preacher Jim Jones had built a throng of obedient followers in California, where he tricked, exploited and abused adherents. After news reporters probed his operation, he peevishly moved his flock to a jungle compound at the northern edge of South America.
Rep. Leo Ryan of California heard reports that some followers were held against their will, so he flew with aides and reporters to the locale. A few cultists attempted to leave with Ryan, which sent Jones into a slaughter spree. He sent killers to a landing strip, where they murdered Ryan and four others, and wounded 11.
Then, Jones led more than 900 cultists in a mass suicide with cyanide-laced fruit drink. Believers squirted the poison into their children’s mouths before swallowing it themselves. They left a terrible spread of corpses. Two ex-followers who had exposed Jones were mysteriously assassinated a year after the tragedy. One of Ryan’s aides, Jackie Speier, survived five gunshot wounds and today is a member of Congress.
Another stunning cult disaster involved the Branch Davidians, adventists who lived in a Texas compound eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus. Their group was taken over by a young weirdo who called himself David Koresh.
Koresh bought machine guns and other weaponry for a looming Battle of Armageddon. When federal agents attempted to seize the illegal guns in 1993, cultists opened fire and a gunbattle killed four agents and six Branch Davidians. The feds conducted a 51-day siege, but cultists wouldn’t surrender. When the government finally launched a tear-gas assault, the compound 13 miles from Waco burst into flames and about 70 more died, including Koresh.
Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) was a strange Japanese cult mixing Buddhism, the Book of Revelation, Yoga and prophecies of Nostradamus. Founder Shoko Asahara was so beloved by followers that they paid $10,000 to sip his blood and lesser sums to drink his bathwater or kiss his big toe.
The group turned murderous, killing dissidents and the family of a lawyer investigating the cult. Cultists secretly made nerve gas. In 1994, they spread a cloud in the city of Matsumoto, killing eight and sickening 500. At the time, nobody knew the source of the massacre. The following year, they planted nerve gas in Tokyo’s subway, killing 13 commuters and sickening at least 1,000 more. Asahara and a dozen leaders were arrested and eventually executed in 2018.
A bible prophecy believer, Marshall Applewhite, began preaching that he was related to Jesus and would lead believers to an “evolutionary kingdom level above human.” He acquired at least 100 followers. The group used various names, finally settling on the “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” They met in a $7,000-per-month San Diego mansion, where the leader said they must “shed their containers” (commit suicide) so they could be transported to a UFO following the newly discovered Hale-Bopp comet.
In 1997, Applewhite and 38 believers were found dead in bunks at the mansion — all wearing black sweatsuits and white sneakers, with armbands labeled “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” They had taken phenobarbital and tied plastic bags over their heads. Each had a five-dollar bill and three quarters in pockets.
Astronomers didn’t find a UFO behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
In the 1980s, some Uganda Catholics claimed that they saw visions of the Virgin Mary and launched a group called the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. They preached that doomsday was coming soon, and drew about 5,000 followers. Finally, they declared that the world would end as the millennium changed, at midnight Dec. 31, 1999. Many members sold their belongings cheap and donated to the sect.
When nothing happened on Jan. 1, 2000, mutiny arose in the ranks. Some members demanded their money back. Leaders set a new doomsday date, March 17, and invited members to a giant farewell party. After the throng gathered in a building at Kanunga, windows and doors were nailed shut and an explosion and fire killed everyone inside. Later, police found hundreds of member bodies poisoned and murdered at other sect properties. The final death count was 924.
At first, the tragedy was considered a mass suicide — but police decided that sect leaders had murdered the entire flock to silence protests over the failure of the doomsday prediction. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called it a “mass murder by these priests for monetary gain.” Warrants were issued for some leaders, but they weren’t found.
A secret society called the Solar Temple grew in Switzerland, France, Canada, Spain, Australia and elsewhere. Members wore ceremonial robes and revered a sword that a leader said was given to him 1,000 years ago in a previous life. The Second Coming of Christ was expected.
In 1994, members stabbed a baby to death with a wooden stake, claiming it was the Antichrist. Soon afterward, more than 50 committed mass suicide with poison and bullets in the head. Bodies were found in an underground Swiss chapel lined with mirrors –— all arranged in a circle, feet together, heads outward. In 1995, another 16 bodies were found in star formation in France, including one of a former Olympic woman skier. In 1997, five more suicides occurred in Quebec. A temple leader was tried, but acquitted.
Yahweh ben Yahweh
A Florida preacher called himself Yahweh ben Yahweh, a son of God, and claimed that God and all prophets were Black. He drew a following among African Americans. Yahweh secretly ordered his lieutenants to murder dissidents and others — and to bring back their ears as proof of success. Altogether, 14 were killed. Some were beheaded. Yahweh and more than a dozen aides went to prison. He died in 2007.
In my state of West Virginia, an ornate “palace of gold” was built near Moundsville by the son of a Southern Baptist preacher who switched to Hare Krishna and called himself Swami Bhaktipada. He drew 600 members, making it America’s largest Hare Krishna community. Thousands of tourists visited the palace and its rose garden. However, two followers who had challenged Bhaktipada, alleging that he had sexually abused minors, were murdered. A Hare Krishna member was convicted, testifying that the swami ordered the killings. Bhaktipada himself was sentenced to 20 years for racketeering. After release, he died in 2011 in India.
Mormon polygamy murders
The Church of Latter-Day Saints abandoned polygamy in 1890, but various polygamists continued in half-hidden communes. One was Ervil LeBaron, head of the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God.
Ervil ordered the murder of his brother, Joel, leader of a rival commune. Ervil was convicted, but the case was reversed on a technicality. Then he ordered the murder of another brother, Verlan; a raid by Ervil’s agents killed only two of Verlan’s followers, however. Ervil ordered some of his 13 wives (with whom he fathered more than 50 children) to kill a different rival, Rulon Allred. And he ordered them to murder rival Dean Vest, plus a wife of his own father-in-law. He was suspected of killing his own 17-year-old daughter Rebecca.
Ervil was sentenced to life in prison. In a cell, he wrote a 400-page “holy book” including a hit list of polygamists to be murdered. The book was smuggled to aides, and a bloodbath began. About 25 more Mormons were killed — three of them simultaneously, at 4 p.m. on June 27, 1988. Various aides were convicted. The murders continued for years after Ervil’s death in prison in 1981.
Followers of an Eastern mystic called Bhagwan Rajneesh committed the largest-scale bioterror attack in American history. They lived in an Oregon commune where they imported foreigners through fake marriages. They decided to control local politics by electing Rajneesh followers to county offices. But they feared that Oregonians in a nearby city, The Dalles, would defeat the commune candidates — so they poisoned the town in 1984.
The commune ordered Salmonella from a medical lab and cultured it — then members sprinkled it in salad bars at ten restaurants. Quickly, 750 townspeople became painfully ill, and 45 were hospitalized, but none died.
Prosecutors sent two women leaders of the commune to prison. Rajneesh himself was convicted of violating immigration laws, was fined $400,000 and deported. The cult has recently again been in the spotlight due to the Netflix series “Wild Wild Country.”
Many other smaller tragedies involving cults have occurred. Why on Earth do some people swallow crackpot beliefs so intensely that they commit crimes or lose their lives? It’s baffling.
This column has been adapted and updated from a piece originally written for Patheos/Daylight Atheism on April 22, 2019.