What is the difference between a cult and a church?
Often it depends on where you are.
For believers in the interior, their religion provides guidance and security. To outside suspects, that creed often seems like a legally sanctioned form of stealing.
And the truth?
That’s something Jim Willis tries to discover in “American Cults: Cabals, Corruption, and Charismatic Leaders.” And he begins by pointing out that religious fanaticism is as American as apple pie.
“Children are taught that the Puritans came to New England because they sought refuge from persecution,” he writes. “What is generally omitted is that they were not persecuted for being religious. They were persecuted because they were religious fanatics.”
And as soon as they got here, the Puritans began to persecute other people, particularly if they didn’t believe as they did.
But as America grew, so did its religions. People began to initiate their own beliefs, often claiming personal and divine revelation. Sometimes these fringe movements grew and became part of the mainstream.
Others remained cultured, usually for good reason.
Jemima Wilkinson founded one of the first local religions in the country. Born in 1752 to a Quaker family in Rhode Island, Wilkinson contracted a fever at age 21. After an amazing recovery, Wilkinson announced that he was now a man and that he should be called Publick Universal Friend.
Wilkinson also claimed that, as a result of his illness, he had died, been raised, and sent to preach to a “lost and guilty, gossiping and dying world.” Establishing a new faith, the Society of Universal Friends, urged sexual abstinence and the abolition of slavery.
What followed would become the familiar fate of other cultists. First, establish your own commune. So tear yourself apart.
“Rumors circulated about…severe punishments for disobeying group rules, sexual misconduct, and what were called ‘weird rituals,’” Willis writes. “These conflicts led to the final disintegration of the group in 1819, the year The Friend finally ‘left time,’ which sounds suspiciously like what other people call death.”
Another made-in-America church was started by a preacher calling himself Father Divine. The FBI suspected that he was actually George Baker, a Maryland gardener born in 1877. By 1933, Father Divine had moved to Harlem, where he opened a series of “Heavens,” offering cheap room and board for the poor.
His sermons combined “bites of Christianity, Americanism, brotherhood, democracy, Judaism, integration, and the understanding that all religions basically teach the same thing,” Willis writes. The Divine Father also preached against the death penalty and urged his followers to avoid tobacco, alcohol, drugs, vulgar language, sex and life insurance.
“There was an added clause,” Willis notes. “The Divine Father himself was to be considered and worshiped as God. That raised a number of red flags.” Also troubling were the lawsuits and criminal charges that appeared to follow the faith and its members. After the death of Padre Divino in 1965, the movement almost disappeared.
So was Father Divine a huckster—he claimed to be poor but lived in a mansion—or one of the early progressive thinkers? Was Publick Universal Friend a fraud or a trans pioneer? Did they run dangerous cults or head genuine religions?
“It seems like the answer depends on who is asking the question,” Willis says.
There is much less disagreement about the People’s Temple Full Gospel Church. Led by the Rev. Jim Jones, it was a real force in San Francisco for a while, courted by politicians. But Jones’ growing paranoia and legal troubles inspired him to lead his congregation to move into the jungles of Guyana and then order a mass suicide of more than 900 people, including himself.
A similar tragedy awaited Branch Davidian, an End is Near religious cult in Waco, Texas, led by David Koresh. Self-proclaimed messiah, he spent hours trying to unlock the secrets of the Book of Revelation. He also took 20 wives among his followers and, according to some reports, physically abused children.
Rumors of weapons being stored in the Davidian compound led to a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. When the agents were met with lethal gunfire, the FBI intervened. The armed confrontation lasted 51 days, until the authorities finally launched a massive tear gas attack. Shortly thereafter, the Branch Davidian complex burst into flames.
The cause of the fire is still disputed, but the number of victims is not: Koresh and 78 of his followers were killed.
Horrible as Jones and Koresh were, their brutality is no match for Canadian cult leader Roch Theriault, “a self-proclaimed prophet who, like so many before him, claimed to have received a divine message that on Judgment Day end was just around the corner, Willis writes. Gathering a small group of followers, Theriault led them into the desert to await the apocalypse.
It never came, but Theriault had other things on his mind. First, he got all of his followers pregnant. So, he decided to “operate” on a sick 2-year-old boy. When the boy continued to scream in pain, Theriault ordered one of his other followers to hit him. The boy died and, to try to hide the crime, Theriault ordered his corpse to be burned and buried.
Authorities eventually arrived anyway, charging Theriault and eight of his followers with criminal negligence. Surprisingly, the cultists were released. They quickly moved to another rural location.
The horrors that followed were even worse. Theriault ordered his disciples to fight in “gladiator tournaments” and, if he did not like them, to break their legs with hammers. There were more mad doctor operations, procedures Willis calls “just too gruesome to describe in detail.” (He’s right. Google at his own risk.)
Finally, a desperately wounded supporter escaped and the police surrounded him. Theriault was sentenced to life in prison, a short sentence, as his new cellmate stabbed him to death.
Although many of these cult leaders preyed on the poor and uneducated, the upper classes are not immune to their scams. NXIVM, pronounced “Nexium,” was a New York-based group that charismatic founder Keith Raniere promised would “actualize their human potential.” Released in 1998, it was marketed primarily to professional women.
However, the people who stayed on the show found themselves in a pyramid scheme. They were now “slaves” and could only become “masters” by recruiting other slaves. All owed obedience to Raniere. As proof of their loyalty, members had to provide nude pictures of themselves, blackmail material, if they ever tried to leave. Raniere then marked them with his initials.
Members included business executives, actresses, and an heir to the Seagram fortune. Eventually, a follower became disillusioned and went to the authorities. Raniere and the high officials of the cult were arrested. Lots of signed plea deals. Raniere was found guilty of extortion, sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and wire fraud conspiracy.
He was sentenced to 120 years.
Willis’s book deals primarily with religious cults, but occasionally delves into politics. Is the KKK a cult? What about the far-right Proud Boys? Both have fundamental beliefs and demand unquestioning loyalty. What about QAnon? His leadership is much more vague, no one is sure who Q is, but his bizarre conspiracy theories are no crazier than the creeds of some fringe religions.
Americans have always appreciated freedom. But apparently no freedom is more deeply rooted, or potentially dangerous, than our right to believe what we want.