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Why Cultic Groups Develop and Flourish

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1991, Volume 8, Number 2, pages 104-121. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Why Cultic Groups Develop and Flourish: A Historian's Perspective

Natalie Isser, Ph.D.

Pennsylvania State University

Ogontz Campus


A variety of religious or secular sects and cults were a continuing phenomenon in the United States.  Many of these religious movements, especially the more deviant ones, were dependent upon strong charismatic leadership and syncretic belief systems embracing a combination of current ideals and sentiments.  Sometimes the outcast cult could, with time, become a sect, and even enter the mainstream religions.  The best known of this group would be the Mormon Church.  The proliferation of religious, quasi-political, and nontraditional organizations was much more prevalent in the United States because of its favorable physical terrain, religious pluralism, and social mobility.  Many Native Americans and Blacks founded cults, embodying both their ancestral traditions and Christian values.  These cults provided a useful way of confronting the hostile dominant culture.  Contemporary cults like those of the past have created opposition because their religious policies and proselytization techniques threaten prevailing traditions.  The power of contemporary media has abetted these missionary efforts but has also provided the means to discredit them.  Though some of these cults have faded from view, new ones will emerge as a challenge to the existing culture.


The sudden efflorescence of cults that appeared in the tumultuous decade of 1965-75, the glare of unfavorable publicity that culminated in the Jonestown tragedy in 1978, and the continued prevalence of religious debates over church and state issues among various sects and fundamentalist Christian evangelicals have renewed academic interest in religious issues.

Religious beliefs and institutions formed an integral part of man's experience.  They provided transcendental explanations for existence and the rituals and rites that codified and civilized human behavior, further enhancing the maintenance of civility and order.  More significant, religious rites marked the passages of life:  birth, adolescence, marriage, death; while religious festivals celebrated the fruits of nature itself.  Religious commitment satisfied human psychological needs by giving reassurance and comfort in periods of stress; it helped individuals deal with the prospect of death and frequently gave parental imagery and leadership that brought help and love.

Thus a variety of beliefs, an enormous number of cults, and the "shelter"  they provided for the confused, depressed, and bewildered was a continuing phenomenon in the history of Western civilization.  Indeed, the emergence of new and sometimes challenging religious systems was a reaction by some to an ever-changing, inhospitable environment that frequently confronted the communities people lived in.  Besides, change of religious belief was also a way for the young to rebel against the restrictions and inhibitions of their parents.  The result was that with the triumph of Christianity and the establishment of new state religions, the notion of proselytization, or the need to spread the Christian (and the Moslem) truth, became, unlike in the Far East, a significant and enduring part of the Western tradition.  During the Protestant Reformation the number of sects vying for both government support and community adhesion multiplied, further intensifying the spread of preaching and evangelical fervor.  Thus while many perceive contemporary cults as a twentieth-century phenomenon, cults' recruitment methods -- whether aggressive or more conventional -- are deeply rooted as an integral part of the Western Christian mainstream religious experience (1).

The subsequent emergence of secularism and materialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not supplant religions.  Indeed, despite the seeming triumphant spread of secular humanism and the weakening of some mainstream religious institutions in the modern period, there appeared a multitude of new religious movements (some quasi-political), missionaries, and alternative religious cults in both the United States and Europe.  The failure of modern secularism to satisfy important emotional, social, and psychological needs meant that the void was filled by a plethora of peculiar religious and occasionally secular organizations led by charismatic leaders.

Definitional Issues

The earmarks of past and contemporary cults and fundamentalist sects were that they had common characteristics, whether they were manipulative, self-seeking, or idealistic in purpose.  Cults, distinguished from sects, were not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Sects were dissenting or schismatic groups organized in some form of opposition to the established mainstream religious institution.  Cults depended upon strong, charismatic leadership and their beliefs were syncretic, combining a variety of current ideals and sentiments.  The cult leader generally made claims to divinity, either as godhead or messiah, and therefore projected omniscience.  Typically the leader was a powerful personality, sometimes brilliant, and often a master of psychological manipulation, flattery, threats, and guilt (2).  Members gave total obedience, loyalty, and allegiance.  Rituals and dogmas were developed into a theological system, with a sense of asceticism and economic commitment (fund-raising or tithing)(3).  

The glue that fastened the group was obedience and hierarchy, both serving to strengthen the prophet's enormous hold upon the imaginations, loyalties, and affections of the disciples.  Followers dedicated their lives to their leader, to the cult community, and to the dogmas that were delineated.  All religious ideals of these believers depended upon the hopes, fears, and ambitions of the leadership.  Communal groups committed their members to some type of group living, investment of time and/or property, and often total immersion in an alternative life-style.  Very often, depending upon the nature of beliefs, these cults were rejected by the majority.  Likewise, cultists rejected their former lives.  For example, followers of Purnell in the Koreshan cult or Joseph Smith of the Mormons revered their leaders and rejected their families and former communities to accept the demands and discipline of their new cults (4).

Cults could and did become sects.  Sects that were originally heretical groups, such as the Salvation Army, the Church of God, the Church of Nazarene, and the Jehovah's Witnesses, were nominally Christian but separated from the established churches.  They, too, often had charismatic leaders, but their preachers generally did not assume godlike pretensions.  Embodying doctrines borrowed from prevailing formulas and philosophies, some cults blended with existing Christian principles and as their leaders died they became sects, such as Christian Science and the Mormons.  On the other hand, others, such as Scientology, Theosophy, and Krishna Consciousness, have remained cults.

American and Western European Experiences


The American and western European religious experiences, though sharing similar liberal, intellectual, and religious values, differed for many reasons.  The first of these reasons lay in the historical development of the United States, a country geographically separated from the social rigidities of inheritance and land ownership and from the stifling control of more rooted European religious and political traditions.  Never did American colonists and later the citizens of the new country tolerate the notion of hereditary landed aristocracy with special political or social privilege.  If not in actual practice, Americans passionately believed in political and social equality (except in matters of race).

Secondly (although not always observed), Americans accepted the concept of separation of church and state.  In this matter, they had no choice. In the establishment of the colonies there was a myriad of religious sects and communities, preventing any one church from emerging powerful enough to ally itself with the prevailing political powers.  For instance, Anabaptists (who were regarded as a cult in England and in Germany in their time and even later)(5) had founded the state of Pennsylvania.  Today the Quaker tradition still remains powerful in Philadelphia and communities of Old Order Amish, Schenkfelders, and Mennonites dot the state.  The Puritans who dominated in Massachusetts could not force their vision upon those in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and other states.  The result was a fertile intellectual climate for the development of newer, more daring and idealistic religious ideas.

Thirdly, America's physical terrain was particularly suited for the proliferation of a variety of secular as well as religious beliefs.  The frontier in the earliest days provides a perfect example of how European institutionalized religious movements were altered by the new physical environment.  The Great Awakening during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the result of the Methodist movement and its religious fervor which had emerged earlier in England.  Methodist groups were widespread, influencing Presbyterian congregations.  Consequently, missionary societies went abroad to transmit to the new world the message of Protestant Christianity.  Its spirit permeated many other Protestant groups in Europe as well (6).  When these groups sought converts on the continent they often ran awry of the powerful local state churches (7).  

In contrast, on the American frontier there were no established institutionalized churches.  There missionaries found little organized resistance.  Further, few formal demands existed for religious training and many self-proclaimed preachers gained acceptance.  Unlike the Anglican and Presbyterian missionaries, Methodists demanded little rigorous training for their preachers.  These evangelicals capitalized upon frontier conditions that produced an anti-intellectual and more pragmatic environment.  Their appeal had always been directed to the lower classes and, therefore, they preached a simple message of faith and emotional participation (8).

U.S. Fundamentalism

Fundamentalist Christianity emerged as a powerful cultural force in the United States.  The Pentecostal movement, the name later given to this development, encouraged a multitude of minuscule and obscure sects.  Sometimes their preachers were charismatic, their fervor characterized by emotional and aggressive evangelical appeals to seek "rebirth" or "witness for God."  Like their predecessors the Anabaptists, they believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible which led to unorthodox behaviors.  Some sects believed in "speaking in tongues," faith healing, or snake handling (9).  The appeal of these sects continued unabated, even though often their leaders were discovered to have been venal, hypocritical, or even fraudulent (10).

The frontier was a particularly fertile area for the message of these religious missionaries.  Those who came west faced hardship and more often personal tragedy.  Speaking to the settlers' personal losses, their anxieties, and especially their fear of change (among those in rural small towns), these ministers brought reassurance and support for traditional culture.  This heritage of homiletics, passionate oratory, and inspiration became firmly embedded in the American tradition, personified in such figures as Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Billy Graham.  These flamboyant preachers used vivid imagery to arouse their audiences' emotions, and their performances lasted days and nights.  Today's television preachers (Oral Roberts, Robert Schuller, Jerry Falwell) have merely shifted their pulpit from the rural revival meeting to the television screen.

The Great Awakening also led to the development of the Baptist churches, which made their greatest inroads among the poorer farmers and workers.  In the wake of this revival, groups organized around their favorite ministers, and sects such as the Stonites and Campbellites appeared briefly.  In essence, the missionary, oratorical, individualistic aspect of Christianity became an important segment of the American religious experience.


During the nineteenth century, a vast economic transformation led to the burgeoning of the secular spirit and with it the emergence of a variety of new teachings that would challenge traditional Christian values.  In France in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, new social ideals were being enunciated by the Englishman Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Etienne Cabet.  These men advocated a new communal type of society predicated on economic as well as social equality.  Though some founded communes in France and England, it was much easier to engage in communal experimentation in a more fluid and mobile society in which family, village, and social status were less fixed, as it was in the United States at the time.  Besides, these socialist doctrines found in America a religious counterpart that fitted in with contemporary evangelical Christianity.

Communal organization was one of the features of many of the contemporary, the older, and fundamentalist religions.  This type of arrangement established the psychodynamics that promoted coherence, commitment, and obedience.  Communes were groups of individuals and their children, unrelated by blood, who agreed to live together, bonded by common goals or beliefs, and who shared their resources and finances.  Features common to communes -- whether cultic, secular, political, or psychotherapeutic -- were that they could and did renounce the established order as either sinful, unjust, or unhealthy.  They stressed the possibility of perfection through restructuring social institutions.  They were utopian political-economic (Owen's New Harmony, Modern Times, Llano Colony) or religious (Oneida Community, Shakers, Hutterites) or psycho-social (Walden Two, Synanon)(11).

Communes differed in their methods of control and governance.  The Hutterites, who traced their roots to the Reformation, relied upon physical isolation from the larger society and massive indoctrination of the young.  Coupled with censure and threats of expulsion, they commanded absolute loyalty, although decisions were made democratically by the men.  Allegiance was firmly cemented by early adulthood (12).

On the other hand, many of the socio-political communes such as Brook Farm, New Harmony, or the Llano Colony were democratic, cooperative, and socialistic.  They did not indoctrinate; they preached harmony and reform.  For the most part they failed, torn by dissension and economic disaster (13).  Other communes encouraged dependency upon the community and conformity by reducing the emotional bonds of their members.  Their methods included separation from family and community and departure from normative family patterns.  Shakers encouraged celibacy (14); some Fourierist groups, such as the Oneida Community, preached free love; and some, like the Unification Church, advocated group marriages (15).

Millenarianism was embodied in the Judeo-Christian religious heritage which looked to the arrival of the Messiah or to his Second Coming.  These beliefs, which were never abandoned, were firmly entrenched in many religious sects of the nineteenth century (and are held even today) (16).  Evidence of the deeply held vision of impending doom was expressed throughout European history.  The best-known movements were those that arose in the sixteenth century during the peasant revolts in Germany and in the Anabaptist sects that were part of the religious conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  But those groups that persisted ceased to be prominent in Europe, having migrated to the United States, where, in the more fluid atmosphere of the new world, new cults manifested themselves and flourished.

These groups were varied, peculiar, and widespread.  The Oneida Community, the Shakers, the Hutterites, and the Mormons were religious communes that expressed millenarian aspirations.  Some, like the Millerites under the leadership of William Miller, were short-lived.  Miller predicted that the end of the world would come by 1840, but he was forced to change the dating.  His failures may have ended the cult; but those who believed in the Second Coming followed Ellen G. White into the more enduring Seventh Day Adventist faith, while others joined the Jehovah's Witnesses.  These sects flourished because they adapted to realities and could temper some of their prophetic interpretations without changing their fundamentalist beliefs (17).

In contrast, Owen's New Harmony, Brook Farm, and The House of David were more secular.  Most of these failed since they rejected the  established order and sought to create a perfect society, focusing on socialist economic utopian alternatives (18).  The contemporary communal cults that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and the Kibbutz utopian movement in Israel are simply variants of the older ideals.  Today, however, communes tend to be more narcissistic, quasi-therapeutic, or Eastern-oriented.  Nevertheless, they represent, as did the earlier communes, an attempt by many to escape the injustices or emotional scars of a fast-paced post-industrial society (19).

Black and Native American Developments

Another factor in the emergence of more cultic and evangelical ardor in the United States was the presence throughout the South of the Black slave.  In both the Caribbean and the slave states, Blacks torn from their roots were forced to develop new ways of coping with their subordinated and psychologically damaging life.  Religion was one of their most dependable solaces.  They adapted the Christian church to their needs, gradually creating their own Black religious experience.  As they were freed and subjected to the vagaries of unfeeling economic competition and insecurity, subjected to the racist discrimination of the North and Jim Crow in the South, Blacks found in cultic movements a source of comfort, assurance, and self-expression (20).  

Groups led by Marcus Garvey, Black Muslims, Father Divine, and Move (21), all spoke to Black economic frustrations, abject poverty, and racist victimization.  Their charismatic leaders preached self-help, separation, racial pride, and sometimes simply comfort (22).  Garvey and Father Divine were charismatic figures who, in their lifetimes, were able to attract funds, admiration, and love.  Garvey, however, was convicted of mail fraud; while Father Divine (George Baker), though accused of manipulation and exploitation, remained the head of his cult until his death, and his wife has preserved his memory and his work.

Native Americans, too, found religious cults a useful way to confront the dominant culture, which denied them their lands and their traditional values.  Like the Blacks, they developed cults that embodied both ancestral practices and many new Christian beliefs propagated by zealous missionaries.  The two most pronounced of these cults were the Ghost Dance movement and the Peyote cult.  The Ghost Dance differed from the Peyote because it stressed hostility toward the dominant white culture, while the latter used drugs to induce Christian ecstasy, remaining passive and inward.  The Ghost Dance cult was eventually suppressed.  The Peyote cult was ignored until the 1960s when apprehension over the increasing use of drugs caused its practices to be challenged.  In spite of a series of court decisions and the passage of the Drug Abuse Act, permission to use peyote for religious purposes is still pending (23).

Both Native Americans and Blacks turned to cults that reflected the frustrations of displacement, poverty, and racism.  Their responses to the prevailing society were attempts to assuage communal despair and anger.  Acculturation and assimilation were far more difficult and almost impossible because of racial discrimination.  Their religious responses ranged from a return to traditional fundamentalism and "born again" churches to adherence to a host of cults that denied the values of the intrusive majority.  Appearing bizarre, these cults were generally ignored by dominant groups and regarded as aberrations, such as Father Divine's group or the Peyote cults.  They did not challenge society either in their doctrines or by excessive proselytization.  If, however, cults emphasized ideals that offended the mores of the prevalent political state or if they stressed group conflict, opposition arose to curtail, limit, and even suppress such movements (24).  More often the belligerent, aggressive cult did not prosper and as it became more acculturated and less bellicose, it faded away to be replaced by newer and even more strident groups (25).

Western Europe

Although the United States proved a more fertile environment for the spread of dissenting and different religious or secular movements, western Europe, which also underwent a process of rapid change caused by industrialization, was not immune to the growth of cults and sects.  Changes created by new production, transportation, and communication unraveled and challenged existing precepts, while the generational gap became more divisive.  Prosperity and education accelerated technological progress; increased urbanization created new classes and sharper antagonisms, stimulating worldliness.  These factors also created anomie, alienation, apprehension, and often nostalgia for traditional values.  Responses to these changes led to a variety of choices.  Established churches, the voice of the status quo and the propertied classes, did not always meet the aspirations of the new classes or the displaced young.  Responses were sometimes secular, with an avowed interest in revolutionary activity, or in adherence to the new spirit preached by Karl Marx, culminating in the twentieth century in allegiance to new totalitarian ideologies.

However, not everyone reflected alienation by retreating to secularism.  Religion is too potent a force and too significant in the binding of family and community.  People did not abandon the church but rather sought a more communicative, emotionally satisfying variant:  It was expressed in Catholic France, Italy, and Portugal by the growth of innumerable miracle devotions and prophetic movements, Lourdes being the most illustrious example (26).

The expression of religiosity was acknowledged by widespread devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and even more intensely to the cult of Mary (27).  Almost spontaneously a number of visions of Mary were widely reported.  These apparitions were accompanied by prophecies and warnings (28).  Churches were dedicated to Mary, and confraternities such as the Association of the Living Rosary, the Children of Mary, and Our Lady of Victories were dedicated to her service.  Visions were most commonplace in Italy; and although the church avoided delineating them as genuine miracles, it acquiesced in the folk respect given to the young witnesses (29).  These visions did not cease; in fact, world crises increased apprehensions and their occurrences accelerated (e.g., Fatimah in Portugal, current experiences in Yugoslavia, in Ireland, and in Philadelphia).

Protestants in France and England, in response to their alienation, also underwent a movement similar to the Great Awakening in America.  A new religiosity appeared that was marked by an increased piety and emotional expressions of belief by the faithful -- a more vibrant rebirth of a spiritual relationship between Jesus and his followers.  These Protestants did not reject Christian dogma, but they possessed no doctrinal unity, and often loyalty was given to individual preachers.  Heavy emphasis was placed on homiletic and especially missionary activity (30).

The greatest difference between the United States and Europe did not rest on a lack of religious activity but rather on the fact that most of the leaders preaching in European societies relied on variants of the mainstream faiths, and for very good reasons.  The Catholic church and the Anglican and Lutheran churches enjoyed much real support from the political authorities, even in regions that practiced religious freedom.  To the contrary, in the United States, the absence of a firmly established state church, along with a weak, newly emerging Catholic church, prevented significant opposition to the development of new sects and the cults.

In the twentieth century the industrialization of Europe, which led to greater national homogeneity and the subsequent threat of "de-Christianization," encouraged the movement toward either more traditional Catholicism or the growth of fundamentalist Pentecostal sects (31).  Furthermore, the gradual separation of church and state, completed in western Europe by the beginning of the twentieth century, weakened a traditional bulwark against the growth of new sects and cults.  The groundwork was prepared for the transatlantic transfer of sects and cults, and then throughout the world, especially as the technology of communication and transportation made ideas and missionaries so accessible.

The millenarian movements in particular flourished.  Some, such as the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Jehovah's Witnesses, gradually became a part of mainstream American religions and then spread to the European continent as the forces of secularism eroded the strength of the dominant churches.  The Watchtower movement, indeed, penetrated throughout Europe (32).

Comparison of Past and Present Cults and Sects

Just as in the past cults drew upon the religious principles and attitudes of the time, so do the present ones.  Contemporary cults promise salvation, often preaching anti-materialistic principles to appeal to members of the counterculture.  They incorporate Eastern themes of meditation and peace.  Some psychotherapeutic ones promise new self-esteem and worldly success.  They feed not only upon common beliefs but also upon the hopes and fears of the times.  Leaders compile a syncretic vision, drawing upon existing theological and social doctrines which are reordered and redefined to adapt to prevailing frustrations (33).

The contemporary cults, as did their predecessors, engender popular and legal opposition within their communities.  Past opposition rested upon legal quarrels and policies of the cults, especially those that threatened prevailing traditions.  Jehovah's Witnesses were engaged in courtroom actions over their refusal to salute the flag or take loyalty oaths.  They were bitterly persecuted by the Nazis.  Like the Christian Scientists (34), they were and are subjected to legal action because of their refusal to accept scientific medical care.

There is no doubt that many of the groups that we regard as eccentric, sometimes quaint or odd, were perceived in the context of their own time as cults.  They were considered dangerous and antisocial; their leaders were thought to be self-serving.  Mostly, as is sometimes the case today, these cults passed quickly into oblivion.  If their membership was small, largely poor or lower middle class, and their resources meager, they presented little or no threat to the established society.  This, of course, did not apply to groups like the Mormons or Seventh Day Adventists.

Proselytization by Mormons was zealous.  Their financial profits from the growth of their membership became prodigious and led to resentment.  Moreover, practices such as polygamy and the separation of families when joining the commune produced even more distaste.  (It is interesting to note that today a sect of the Mormon church is still in conflict over the issue of polygamy.)  Instances of openly hostile persecution and ugly violence pervaded the relationship between the community and the Mormons.  Only when the Mormons moved into the unpopulated West, abandoned polygamy, reduced their proselytization to more reasonable levels, and institutionalized their religious teachings did the cult become acceptable as a sect or church.

Many contemporary cults have aroused the same antipathy because of proselytization techniques that often smack of deception and brainwashing, fund-raising that is fraudulent, and behavior of members that sometimes constitutes a public nuisance (35).

It is probable that some of the cults of the past pursued overly zealous methods and pressures in proselytization, that some communes and sects used pressures that resemble present-day "brainwashing," but there is little evidence indicating high levels of fraud and deception.  For example, in the sect Church of God, the preacher A.J. Tomlinson was almost a dictator.  After his ouster (under scandalous circumstances) the church remained highly authoritarian in its governance, but deception in proselytization was never practiced extensively (36).  While many churches and groups rigorously denied the right of dissent within their congregations, members knowingly accepted these regulations.

Several modern cults, on the other hand, such as the Unification Church, Hare Krishna, Divine Light Mission, and Children of God, have adopted the worst features of the past.  Sometimes the leadership has been demented (e.g., Charles Manson, Jim Jones) or corrupt (e,g, the Reverend Moon, Guru Maharaj Ji, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) and members have been exploited and manipulated for the benefit of these leaders.

In the turbulent 1970s and even into the 1980s cults used both fraud and dishonest techniques of recruiting over and above ardent proselytization and some exerted extreme psychological pressures (37).  Their methods, derived from the discipline of earlier religious sects, focused on ritual, chanting, special diet, sleep deprivation, and above all separation from family and the community.  The imposition of humility and sometimes the use of public confession lowered self-esteem and were especially effective in creating dependency.  In some cults marriage and family were subjected to scrutiny and supervision.  By demanding total immersion into the cult, cult leaders created social cohesion and the psychological pressure that ensured enduring commitment.

Some groups, such as Father Divine's and the Hare Krishna, demanded that after conversion and "rebirth" members accept new names and identities.  Missionary claims of salvation appealed to the psychologically vulnerable, those who were facing loneliness, the loss of loved ones, new decisions, and other major life crises.  To those idealists disillusioned or disgruntled with materialism, the cults provided the promise of experiential social work.  Through techniques of love-bombing, new friendships, and bonding, the recruit found new meaning, solace, and often an end to depression or despair, and sometimes a substitute for drug addiction.  The family's anguish was exacerbated by the separation from their adult children in cults and by the knowledge that their children often relinquished schools or careers (38).

Modern leaders acquired more sophisticated techniques in persuasion and indoctrination, abetted by skillful use of the media.  The result was heightened anxiety within the community at large, represented by protests and parents' attempts to kidnap and "deprogram" their children.  The number of young middle-class adults in college who had forsaken their families, their careers, and their futures alarmed the church, the synagogue, the community, and especially the family.  Moreover, some cults were very wealthy; their leaders lived in luxury while their members were given the most menial and demanding work, forced to live at the poverty level.  Even more frightening has been the violence that cult leaders have been able to promote, either against themselves or the outside society.  The Jonestown massacre is an example of violence perpetrated against its own members; whereas Charles Manson and his cult murdered outsiders.  Move provoked so much opposition that it led to societal violence.  There were also instances of terrorist violence by socio-political groups such as the Weathermen, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

In Europe the astounding appeal of these cultic groups was addressed in a resolution proposed by the European Parliament in March 1982.  The legislators advocated that the media expose cult activity as much as possible, that governments refuse tax, charity, and other benefits to cults, and that regular reports should be made concerning the activities of cults that represent a "threat to society" (39).  While mainstream church groups were upset and even resentful of many cults' activities, at the same time they opposed anti-cult legislation, concluding that it might weaken First Amendment protection of all religions (40).  

After the debacle of Jonestown and the press coverage of the indictments of the Reverend Moon for income tax fraud, of Guru Maharaj Ji for massive corruption, and of EST's Werner Erhard for scandalous and illegal behavior, cults became even more suspect.  The media that provided evangelicals access to huge audiences also provided the information that discredited them and reduced their recruitment as even they became involved in a series of sex and fraud scandals -- Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert (41).

The result has been not the disappearance of cults but rather their adoption of a low profile.  Many cults have been attempting to acculturate and pass into the mainstream of American churches as new sects or denominations, as had been done in the past.  Even if these contemporary cults fade away (which happens occasionally), they will be followed by a host of new ones with even more deviant doctrines, such as the emergence of the Satanic cults.  Change, adversity, and threats to traditional cultural values always result in the emergence of new religious or secular communities (some may be imported from abroad like the Rastafarian)(42).

New ideas and sects are not necessarily bad and should not be rejected or condemned out of hand.  Quite the contrary, dissent is a part of both the American and European religious past.  So long as people seek philosophical and psychological truths, so long as they need reassurance and hope, and so long as change threatens their traditional values and culture, there will always be new preachers to provide answers and stability.  As one historian wrote:  If "passion for community becomes a mutual evasion of all responsibility, a haven for the undisciplined and bored, the paranoid and amoral....[If] sensitivity groups, through mere amateurishness or sheer quackery, descend from a level of rescue and redemption to one of abandonment and exploitation..." (43) cults will meet opposition, disdain, and community anger.

If, on the other hand, cults desist from unethical proselytization, desist from separating parents and children, desist from insisting that they alone have a monopoly on truth, these new cults -- whether strange, alien, or more in the mainstream -- can be accepted.


 1. Natalie Isser and Lita Schwartz, History of Conversion and Contemporary Cults (New York: Peter Lang, 1988) 1-3.

 2. Natalie Isser and Lita Schwartz, "Charismatic Leadership: A Case in Point," Cultic Studies Journal 3 (no.1, 1986): 57-55.

 3. S.V. Levine, "The Role of Psychiatry in the Phenomenon of Cults," in S.C. Feinstein et al. (eds.), Adolescent Psychiatry, (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980) 8, 123-125; M. Herbert Danziger, "Towards a Redefinition of Sect and Cult..." Comparative Social Research 10 (1987): 113-23.

 4. Natalie Isser and Lita Schwartz, "Psychohistory and Conversion," in Jerrold Atlas (ed.), Psychology and History (New York: Psychohistory, 1986) 142-51.

 5. Some writers as late as the 1960s still considered the Mennonites a cult, cf. Walter R. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965).

 6. Hartzell Spence, The Story of America's Religions (New York: Abingdon, 1960) 1-36.

 7. Natalie Isser, "Protestants and Proselytization During the Second French Empire," Journal of Church and State 30 (Winter 1988): 51-70.

 8. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale UP, 1972) 403-438; c.f. Edwin Scott Gaustad, A Religious History of America (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

 9. Charles W. Conn, Like a Mighty Army (Cleveland: Pathways, 1977) 47-88.

10. A.J. Tomlinson, dynamic and controversial preacher and leader, brought the Church of God (a Pentecostal sect) its first great prominence.  He was involved in a financial scandal and forced to resign in 1923; yet that sect has become a large denomination.  Mickey Crews, The Church of God, A Social History (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1990) 1-37.

11. B. Zablocki and A. Aidala, "The Varieties of Communitarian Ideology," in B. Zablocki (ed.), Alienation and Charisma: A Study of Contemporary American Communes (New York: Free Press, 1980) 189-246; R.M. Kanter, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972) 8-10.

12. Paul K. Conkin, Two Paths to Utopia, The Hutterites and the Llano Colony (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964) 76-100.

13. Ibid, 148-153; John F.C. Harrison, Quest for the New Moral World, Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (New York: Scribner's, 1969).

14. Henri Desroche, The American Shakers, trans. John K. Savacool (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1971); Diane Sasson, The Shaker Spiritual Narrative (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1983) is a collection of autobiographical essays which illustrates how Shakers (years after conversion and communal life) adapted their past experiences to Shaker philosophy and values.

15. Kanter, 87.

16. Billy Hargis of the Christian Crusade is the best known of present-day millenarians.  He stresses that the Anti-Christ and Satan is personified by the communists and predicted the final Armageddon will appear in the Middle East.  Edwin Scott Gaustad, Dissent in American Religion (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1973) 102-3.

17. This was true of the Mormons, whose leading disciple William Clayton believed that the Civil War was the beginning of the apocalypse but was able to adjust his prophecies successfully. James B. Allen, Trials of Discipleship, The Story of William Clayton, A Mormon (Urbana & Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987) 303-16.

18. Frederick William Evans, Anne Lee, A Biography with Memoirs (London & New York: J. Burns, 4th edition, 1869).

19. The best study of the French Utopians is F.E. Manuel, The Prophets of Paris (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962).

20. cf. Rebecca B. Bateman, "Africans and Indians: A Comparative Study of the Black Carib and Black Seminole," Ethnohistory 37 (Winter 1990): 1-24.

21. George Eaton Simpson, Black Religions in the New World (New York: Columbia UP, 1978) 143-50, 314-20; cf. H. Cantril and M. Sherif, "The Kingdom of Father Divine," Journal of Abnormal Psychology 33 (1938): 147-67; S. Harris, The Incredible Father Divine (London: W.W. Allen, 1954).

22. Christopher G. Ellison and David A. Gay, "Religion, Religious Commitment, and Life Satisfaction Among Black Americans," Sociological Quarterly 31 (Spring 1990): 123-48.

23. Gaustad, Dissent, 85-92.

24. J. Milton Yinger, Sociology Looks at Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1961) 37-52; Charles W. Bowser, Let the Bunker Burn, The Final Battle with Move (Philadelphia: Camino, 1989); M.E. Knerr, Suicide in Guyana (New York: Belmont Tower, 1978); Charles Lindholm, Charisma (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990) 138-55.

25. Yinger, 37-52.

26. J.F.C. Harrison, The Second Coming, Millenarianism 1789-1850 (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1979).

27. Adrien Dansette, Religious History of Modern France, trans. John Dingle (New York: Herder & Herder, 1961) I, 320.

28. Thomas A. Kselman, Miracles and Prophecies in Nineteenth Century France (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1983).

29. Ibid.

30. Isser, "Protestants and Proselytization," 51-70.

31. Ralph Gibson, A Social History of French Catholicism, 1789-1914 (London: Routledge, 1989); c.f. Robert Ellwood, Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America (Englewood: Prentice-Hall, 1973).

32. W.J. Schnell, Thirty Years a Watch Tower Slave (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1956); Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Visions of Glory, A History and Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976) describes missionary efforts in England and other European countries; J.A. Beckford, "Organization, Ideology, and Recruitment: The Structure of the Watch Tower Movement," Sociological Review 23 (1976): 893-909; Eileen Barker, The Making of a Moonie, Choice or Brainwashing? (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984) though questioning whether Moonies are brainwashed discusses increasing numbers of the Unification Church in England.

33. S.M. Tipton, "The Moral Logic of Alternative Religion," Daedalus 1 (1982): 185-214.

34. Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy, The Years of Discovery (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1966).

35. Paul W. Pruyser, "The Seamy Side of Current Religious Beliefs," Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 41 (no. 4, 1977): 329-48; Maria I. Pereira de Queiroz, "Messianic Myth and Movements," Diogenes 90 (1975): 78-99; Harriet S. Mostatche, Searching: Practices and Beliefs of the Religious Cults and Human Potential Groups (New York: Stravon Educational, 1984).

36. Conn, 225-334.

37. Isser & Schwartz, Hist of Conversion, 107-37.

38. Ibid.

39. Barker, 1-5. This resolution was directed especially to the activities of the Reverend Moon and the Unification Church.

40. Isser & Schwartz, Hist of Conversion, 171.

41. New York Times, 21 July 1991, 14.

42. The Rastafarians are one of the fastest growing cults since 1983. Leonard E. Barrett, The Rastafarians, Sounds of Cultural Dissonance (Boston: Beacon, 1988) 235-46.

43. Gaustad, Dissent, 152.


Natalie Isser, Ph.D. is Professor of History at the Ogontz Campus of Pennsylvania State University.  She has written numerous books and articles on cults and conversion.  This paper was originally presented at the American Family Foundation annual meeting at Stony Point, NY, in September 1990.