What is a Cult Leader? - Definition & Characteristics

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  • 0:00 What Is a Cult?
  • 2:01 Cult Leader Characteristics
  • 3:36 Famous Cult Leaders
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn what a cult leader is. We will examine common characteristics among cult leaders and also highlight some well-known cult leaders in recent history.

What Is a Cult?

Imagine your best friend has begun acting differently over the past few weeks. He seems to have lost interest in his favorite hobbies and activities. Your friend also seems to be obsessed with new ideas and activities, so you ask what's going on. Your friend explains that he has just joined a new group where there is close sense of community. It's a religious sort of group, but one whose ideas are markedly different from any other religious group you've heard of. Your friend also can't stop talking about the group's leader, how wonderful he or she is, and the fact that this leader seems to have some kind of mystical powers.

At this point you begin to realize that your friend has possibly joined a cult. Before we go any further, let's make sure we understand what as cult is, and then we'll discuss cult leaders. A cult is a religious or quasi-religious group whose ideas and practices are considered deviant, or differ significantly from mainstream religious groups. In sociological terms, there is considerable difficulty defining a cult because what is and what isn't 'deviant' is subjective. The term is also often used in a derogatory sense, often to put down or discredit the religious ideas of a particular group. For example, many mainstream Christian denominations (such as Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, etc.) consider the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) to be cults.

Cults are often considered perversions of mainstream religious sects. For example, a cult group might adhere to some of the central beliefs of a mainstream religion or religious sect, but then add its own bizarre or unusual teachings. Uncommon or unusual teachings are a common characteristic of cults. Another key characteristic of a cult is that it usually has a dynamic leader.

Cult Leader Characteristics

Cult groups often have a dynamic leader whose authority is respected and, in many cases, unquestioned. Obedience to the leader is often required, even when it involves deviant or unhealthy activity. For example, a cult leader might require that all female members be required to have sex with him.

Usually, a cult leader is a person of tremendous charisma who makes followers feel loved and accepted. It's often suggested that cult leaders use brainwashing tactics to attract and keep followers. In many instances, cult members deeply identify with and admire their leader. Cult leaders often require degrees of conformity among members. For example, they might require all members to wear matching white jumpsuits and shave their heads. Fostering feelings of belonging is a central tactic cult leaders employ.

Cult leaders often claim to have a special connection to God/Higher Power/the universe, etc. They claim to be the point of contact between God/Higher Power/the universe and the rest of the group. This means that the leader has access to divine revelation, which is special knowledge directly from God that the rest of the group does not have. A leader might claim that God is communicating directly with him or her through dreams, visions, etc., and passes this on to the group. So it would be like someone saying, 'Hey guys, God told me he wants you to dye your hair blue and dress up in a chicken costume, so get to it!' Leaders might also claim to have special powers.

Famous Cult Leaders

Let's look at a few famous cult leaders. Jim Jones is perhaps the best-known recent cult leader. He founded a group called the People's Temple based on racial equality and socialism. In 1978 he orchestrated the mass suicide of over 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana. Most members died from cyanide poisoning, but Jim Jones was found with a gunshot wound to the head.

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