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Cult Leaders in History

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

The twentieth century saw the rise of many infamous cult leaders such as Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh, who formed religious communities based around their personalities and often led their followers to horrible ends.

What is a Cult?

What exactly is a cult? We hear the word all the time, and it takes on various different meanings. It has sinister connotations, related to mysterious religious groups that often take part in violence. But you also hear people describing themselves as followers of the cult of Beyonce, or Apple. And movies like Dazed and Confused are described as ''cult classics''.

So let's examine the word's history. It originally referred to a small religious order dedicated to a particular religious figure. The various gods in Greek and Roman mythology, like Apollo and Dionysus, had their own cults. And the practice continued in Christianity, particularly Catholicism, with cults dedicated to specific saints. It is from this benign meaning that we get the cult of Beyonce or Dazed and Confused.

But in the twentieth century, the word also took on a darker connotation. Small groups dedicated to the worship of a particularly charismatic leader came to national attention due to horrible acts often committed by and against members. These cults prey upon people's weaknesses and get them to submit their individuality to the will of the leader. They often have religious trappings, borrowing elements of Christianity and other religions, but are ultimately dedicated to serving the charismatic leader.

Three of the most infamous American cult leaders of the twentieth century were Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh.

Charles Manson

Charles Manson

Manson was a petty criminal and wannabe rock star who drifted to California in the mid-1960s, during the rise of the movement known as the counterculture. During this time, thousands of young people from around the country were dropping out and moving to San Francisco and Los Angeles to experiment with drugs and free love and generally rebel against the conformity of their parents' generation.

It was these young and vulnerable runaways that Manson preyed upon. He preached a made-up gospel that combined elements of the Book of Revelations, Scientology, and white supremacism. He prophesied a coming race war that only his followers would be able to survive.

By 1969, Manson had attracted a few dozen young followers, mainly women, and kept them subservient to him with a combination of drugs, intimidation, and sexual abuse. The group came to be known as the ''Family''.

On August 9, 1969, Manson ordered a few of his followers to break into the house of actress Sharon Tate and murder Tate and three house guests. The next night, they murdered grocery store owner Leo LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. Both gruesome crime scenes included words like ''Pig'' and ''Helter Skelter'' written in blood and were supposed to seem like the work of black radicals rising up to start the race war Manson had predicted.

Manson was convicted of murder in 1971. He is still alive and serving a life sentence, as are most of the key members of his ''Family''.

Jim Jones

Unlike the violent Manson, who had spent most of his adult life in jail before forming his cult and preyed upon vulnerable runaways, Jones started his career as a respectable mainstream religious leader and political power player in San Francisco. But his story also has a tragic end.

Jones started out as a Christian preacher in Indiana in the late '50s and early '60s. At this time of racial tensions, as the civil rights movement was beginning, and anti-Communist sentiment, Jones stood out for his advocacy of racial integration and his preaching of economic equality, which was influenced by Communist ideas. He eventually moved his church, the People's Temple, to San Francisco.

In more liberal San Francisco, Jones' message of racial integration and economic justice reached a wide and enthusiastic audience. He was praised for his racially integrated congregation, a rarity at the time. The People's Temple grew and Jones became a leader in liberal political circles, turning out his army of dedicated followers to campaign for liberal candidates like Harvey Milk.

But the strict requirements that members relinquish their private possessions and money to the church began to attract scrutiny. Rumors swirled that members were physically, psychologically, and sexually abused. This led Jones to move his church to a settlement in Guyana known as ''Jonestown''.

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