Cults and Cult Leaders

A cult is generally described as a close group of people that associate their beliefs and practices with ideas outside of the mainstream beliefs that are held by society. The word ‘cult’ is sometimes used in a disparaging way to describe a group of misled people who are willing to do whatever a cult leader instructs them to do.1

A cult differs from religion by this simple fact: a religion is a tradition that is passed down through generations of family and society, while a cult is created for a specific purpose, usually lead by a single leader who takes control of the cult member’s lives.

Cults are made of a group of people that follow the dictates of a leader. A cult leader will condition the followers with emotional manipulation, making the cult members trust and believe in the cult leader with unquestioning faith. Many people, from all walks of life are attracted to cults, either because of a need to belong to a group that they feel they identify with or because they are manipulated in many ways to give up their freedom for the sake of the group and it’s leader. Cults can be dangerous to society, as cult leaders can be controlling and manipulative, destroying peoples lives in their quest to lead and to be followed. Doomsday Cults hold the dangerous belief that the end of the world is approaching, so the members may take their own life in preparation, or take the lives of others in their quest to transcend life on earth.

Jim Jones, and the “People’s Church”

Some people who lead cults begin with a life of religion and take it to the extreme. One such example, is the Jonestown cult, which started out as a Christian social reform group, and turned into one of largest mass-suicide cults of the 20th century.

The cult leader Jim Jones was a charismatic man who was very passionate about religion and idealism. He became an ordained minister in 1950. He founded a church group in Indiana, called the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He created a social belief system, called Apolistic Socialism.2

In 1978, Jim Jones, organized a group of followers and called itThe Peoples Temple Church. The Peoples Temple Church was eventually moved to San Fransisco. By then it had over a thousand followers. These people believed in Jim and accepted him as a father figure and called him “Dad”. When the church was investigated by the IRS, it moved to Guyana, South America, where Jones created a settlement with his cult members that he named Jonestown.

His claims that he was the incarnation of Jesus, Buddha, Lenin and, ‘Father Divine’, brought him many people who believed in his supposed powers of healing. He catered to and accepted members of the African-American community, and the group became more cult-like and less Christian over time.

This settlement was to be a racist-free society based on agriculture, and the principles of communism. He was even praised for helping out the local poor black community as a benefit. After the move from San Fransisco, the organization began to fall apart, as Jone’s schemes and his drug addiction to Phenobarbital was uncovered by members of the group. Eventually, some people had been outcast or they had left the group because they were in fear for their lives, and in fear for the lives of others in the group. Unfortunately when people who had left the cult went to the authorities revealing information about beatings, brutality, and the plan of taking their own life through suicide, they were not believed.

The Fall of Jonestown

Finally, in 1978 the US congress lead a delegation team lead by Congressman Leo Ryan to investigate the claims of violation of human rights within the Jones cult.3 For three days, members of Jonestown were interviewed, and on the third day the team left after an assassination attempt on Jone’s life was made. The team was able to talk twenty members of the cult into leaving with them, but as the group members were boarding the plane, bullets were flying as they were being shot at by some of the Jonestown compound guards.

Five people died as they were trying to board the plane. Later on, all 914 people in the Jonestown cult ended their lives by drinking “Grape Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide”.4 Jones ended his life when he had shot himself in the head while sitting in his chair.

History reminds us that the human will is easily lead astray by hopes and desires to have something to believe in. A cult leader will operate a group based on mind control to serve a personal agenda, because of power, money, glory, or just to feed a maniacal ego. When the cult leader has gained control, the group becomes like a unit – an extension of the cult leader’s will.

The Heaven’s Gate Cult

In the 1990’s, one of the more recently publicized suicide cults to emerge was the Heaven’s Gate Cult, lead by Marshall Applewhite. This controversial apocalyptic cult blended christian beliefs with science fiction and UFO theory. Described as a ‘milleniest cult’, this group had a deeply held belief that they had to transcend into another world before the earth was ‘recycled’ and destroyed. 5

While the Heaven’s Gate cult was against suicide from a traditional perspective (ie. to end suffering), they used it as a method to “turn against the Next Level when it is being offered”. 6 To the members of the cult, the body was a vehicle and the appearance of the Hale-Bop comet was the sign that they waited for, to escape from the earth in a suicide pact so that they could transcend to the ‘Next Level’.

According to Applewhite, he was a transcended master that had evolved on this earth, and he compared himself to Jesus who he claimed was also a transcended master. The group believed that the earth was going to be destroyed because it’s inhabitants refused to evolve to the Next Level.7

Marshall had always lived a troubled life. In the 70’s he checked himself into a mental hospital under the personal belief that homosexual urges and voices were guiding his life. When he was released from the hospital his beliefs had become worse, and he castrated himself in an attempt to rid himself of his homosexual urges. According to Louis Jolyon West, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, Marshall was “delusional, sexually repressed and suffering from clinical paranoia.” 8

The Heavens Gate group began in the 1970’s after Marshall had a life changing experience when he suffered a heart attack and nearly died. During this time, Marshall believed that he had seen a vision of the afterlife. He identified with his nurse caretaker Bonnie Nettles, as part of the larger plan that Marshall believed was outlined in the book of Revelation of the bible, choosing her as one of the chosen ones. She gradually began to believe Marshall’s story and they became very close. Bonnie and Marshall shared a platonic relationship.9

They joined forces and worked together, building a spiritual bookstore that eventually failed. However they were determined to spread the message that Marshall believed in, and they decided to travel across the country and gather chosen members into their fold. For many years they worked to recruit members, and it was Bonnie’s death by cancer in 1985 that finally separated them. By then the cult had grown to a large size and was organized into a tight-knit group that lived together, separated from the outside world.

Marshall demanded of his members that they should live a simple life that was free from the burdens of the outside world. His members were forbidden to see family and friends, and he also required six of his male associates to castrate themselves just as Marshall had done. Members of the group were forbidden to express any kind of sexuality.

The 39 members of the cult committed suicide in a house in San Diego. When the Hale-Bop comet appeared on March 26, 1997, it was a sign that it was time to transcend to another world. according to Marshall’s directions, they gathered together and ingested phenobarbital and alcohol and suffocated themselves. Their heads were covered with a purple shroud.

According to the videotapes of the members before the suicide, they were willing to end their lives, without even thinking twice. Marshall had convinced them that he was an incarnation of Jesus and without him they could not transcend into the next world.

From the New York Times Website: “We couldn’t be happier about what we’re going to do, one woman said, her voice choking a bit but her face anything but sad. Another woman, smiling, added, ”We are all happy to be doing what we are doing.”10

The Dangerous Appeal of Cults

While it may seem that people are foolish for joining cults, the truth is that people who do join cults come from all walks of life, and all ranges of intelligence. It seems crazy that what would seem to be normally adjusted people who have family and friends, are willing to give up everything that they know and love to enter into a dangerous and often abusive relationship with a cult leader.

What brings people into the cult is the leader’s ability to to manipulate the members in many ways, particularly through emotion. A cult leader is charismatic and is able to pitch their story to whomever will listen, as they deliver promises and make demands.

So what are some of the signs that a cult is dangerous or controlling? There are a few key ideas that Isaac Bonewits wrote about in 1979, in an essay called the ABCDEF scale that determines the dangerousness of a cult. Let’s review some of these (excellent) ideas inspired by this essay by Bonewits: (this is my interpretation of his scale)

    • When a cult leader enforces their control by deciding who is entitled to what and why; when a leader uses their power in an abusive way; when there is no clear organization, the roles of leadership are false or unclear, and there is only the cult leader who maintains control, even though leadership may be appointed, the leader has the final say.


    • A cult leader will suggest or demand that the members take a certain political position, or the leader strives to create a political influence; teaching a (racial) or political ideology that all members must believe in; when a cult leader demands that the members act in a certain way within society – ie. avoiding doctors and medicine, wearing certain clothes, avoiding sexual behavior or demanding that members behave in certain ways, as their behaviors are outlined by the leader; members are taught to avoid outside social interaction; members are taught to believe that all who are outside the group are flawed, evil or should be avoided; members are restricted from interacting with family/friends.


    • Members of the group are taught to trust in the words of the cult leader, regardless of evidence that shows the leader’s beliefs and ideas are not factually true; Cult leader demands that their teachings are the only ones that are valid; Leader teaches materials that have no sources or can not be verified in any way; Leader claims to be educated yet has no proof of credentials; leader makes up sources or lies about source material and claims validity of the source only through authority.


    • Members feel that the leader’s teachings are the only authoritative source; Leader convinces followers that their method is the only and best way; members are not able to defend their leader without being irrational or hostile as they are trained to take the Leader’s words on faith, therefore they have no other source but the leader’s words to depend on; Members avoid scrutiny by outside groups and are reactionary when their beliefs are questioned.


    • Members are taught that the Leader’s words and teachings are the only opinion that is valid; Leader teaches that their way is the only way and that all who disagree will be ostracized (kicked out of the group); Leader creates irrational beliefs that mold the members lives and decisions.


    • Much time is spent gathering new members; propaganda is put forth and it is the member’s duty to bring new members into the cult; leader emphasizes the need to bring more members in and makes it a duty to the group to provide this to them; members are taught to enjoy recruiting other members to the group so they never realize that they are being manipulated by the leader to build the rank within the group.


    • Groups that are similar to the cult that have different names but the same ideals; branch groups that are divided by rank and order; branch groups that are meant to ‘spread the word’ under guise or pretense of being something that it is not (ie. a ‘christian group’ recruiting for a non-christian cult)


    • Emphasis or requirement of donations to the group leader; unknown misappropriation of funding; members taught to willingly give time, money, effort for nothing in return; members convinced to give up their lifestyle so that the cult leader can afford to live in a better position than those that live in the group; secrecy about the spending of funding; lack of ‘giving back’ by the group leader (ie. money is held and spent on personal desires)


    • Sexual orientation or desire is directed by the group leader; sexuality used as a manipulation; members sexuality guided and choices are provided by and enforced by the Leader


    • Members who disagree with Leader are silenced; members are taught to only trust in the group and the Leaders teachings; Leader teaches that all other opinions but their own are false and invalid; members are forbidden to engage in reading materials or media that is not approved by the Leader.


    • Members are taught to isolate themselves and hide their beliefs; members are restricted in friendships outside of the group; members are forbidden to speak to others who are not in the group.


    • Irrational and paranoid beliefs about conspiracies keep members in line and living a fearful life; members are taught that life outside of the group is fearful; members are paranoid and irrationally convinced that there are forces working against them; Leader teaches that without their guidance their lives are in danger.


  • Leader says one thing then does another yet the members are taught to trust in the Leader regardless of hypocrisy; Leader uses the members of the group for social or political maneuvering; Leader covers up lies and members are taught that the Leader has the final say.


Source: The Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame


1 Definition of the word “cult” . [accessed 9/17/08]

2. Mass Suicide at Jonestown: 30 Years Later,29307,1859872_1799879,00.html [accessed 10/19/09]

3. Jonestown and City Hall slayings eerily linked in time and memory. Richard Rapaport., 2003 [accessed 10/19/09]

4. Mass Suicide at Jonestown: 30 Years Later,29307,1859872_1799879,00.html [accessed 10/19/09]

5. New York Times, online. By B. DRUMMOND AYRES Jr. Published: Saturday, March 29, 1997 [accessed 10/19/09]

6. Our Position against Suicicde, Heavens Gate Website. [accessed 10/19/09]

7. “Heaven’s Gate” Suicides October 1999. Rick Ross [accessed 10/19/09]

8. “Heaven’s Gate” Suicides October 1999. Rick Ross [accessed 10/19/09]

9. “Heaven’s Gate” Suicides October 1999. Rick Ross [accessed 10/19/09]

10. New York Times, online. By B. DRUMMOND AYRES Jr. Published: Saturday, March 29, 1997 [accessed 10/19/09]