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BOOK: ‘American Cults’ shows how religious zealotry is huge part of U.S. history

What’s the difference between a cult and a church?

Often, it depends on where you stand.

To the believers inside, their religion provides guidance and security. To the suspicious outside, that creed often looks like a legally sanctioned way to steal.

And the truth?

That’s something Jim Willis tries to uncover in “American Cults: Cabals, Corruption, and Charismatic Leaders.” And he begins by pointing out that religious zealotry is as American as apple pie.

“Children are taught that Puritans came to New England because they sought refuge from persecution,” he writes. “What is usually left out is that they weren’t persecuted because they were religious. They were persecuted because they were religious fanatics.”

And as soon as they got here, the Puritans started persecuting other people, particularly if they didn’t believe as they did.

But as America grew, so did its religions. People began starting their own faiths, often claiming personal, divine revelation. Sometimes these fringe movements grew and became part of the mainstream.

Others remained cults — usually for good reason.

Jemima Wilkinson founded one of the country’s first home-grown faiths. Born in 1752 to a Quaker family in Rhode Island, Wilkinson was struck with a fever at age 21. After an astonishing recovery, Wilkinson announced he was now male and should be addressed as Publick Universal Friend.

The Publick Universal Friend founded a Quaker-like order known as the Society of Universal Friends and preached for more than 40 years in non-gendered attire. (David Hudson(?)/ Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Wilkinson also claimed that, as a result of his illness, he had died, been resurrected, and sent to preach to a “lost and guilty, gossiping, dying World.” Establishing a new faith, the Society of Universal Friends, he urged sexual abstinence and the abolition of slavery.

What followed would become the familiar fate of other cultists. First, establish your own commune. Then, tear yourself apart.

“Rumors circulated about… harsh punishments for disobeying group rules, sexual misconduct and what were called ‘strange 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 begun by a preacher who called himself Father Divine. The FBI suspected he was really George Baker, a Maryland gardener born in 1877. By 1933, Father Divine had moved to Harlem, where he opened a string of “Heavens,” offering cheap lodgings and meals for the poor.

His sermons combined “snippets of Christianity, Americanism, brotherhood, democracy, Judaism, integration, and the understanding that all religions teach basically the same thing,” Willis writes. Father Divine also preached against the death penalty and urged followers to avoid tobacco, alcohol, drugs, vulgar language, sex, and life insurance.

One of Father Divine’s “Heavens,” a Peace Mission location on New York’s East Side in 1941. (United States War Office/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

“There was one added clause,” Willis notes. “Father Divine himself was to be regarded and worshipped as God. That raised a number of red flags.” Also worrisome were the lawsuits, and criminal charges, that seemed to follow the faith and its members. After Father Divine’s death in 1965, the movement all but disappeared.

So was Father Divine a huckster — he claimed poverty but lived in a mansion — or an early progressive thinker? Was Publick Universal Friend a fraud or a trans pioneer? Did they lead dangerous cults or head genuine religions?

“The answer, it seems, depends on who is asking the question,” Willis points out.

There’s far less disagreement over the People’s Temple Full Gospel Church. Led by the Rev. Jim Jones, he 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 relocate to the jungles of Guyana — and then order a mass suicide of over 900 people, including himself.

A similar tragedy awaited the Branch Davidians, a the-end-is-near religious cult in Waco, Texas, led by David Koresh. A self-proclaimed messiah, he spent hours trying to decode the secrets of the Book of Revelation. He also took 20 wives from among his followers and, according to some reports, physically abused children.

Jim Jones in San Francisco in 1977. (Nancy Wong/Wikimedia Commons)

Rumors of weapons stockpiled at the Davidians’ compound led to a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. When agents were met by lethal gunfire, the FBI stepped in. The armed standoff lasted for 51 days — until authorities finally launched a massive tear gas attack. Soon after, the Branch Davidian compound burst into flames.

The cause of the fire is still disputed, but the human toll is not: Koresh and 78 of his followers were killed.

As horrific as Jones and Koresh were, their brutality can’t compare to Canadian cult leader Roch Theriault, “a self-declared prophet who, like so many before him, claimed to have received a divine message that doomsday was right around the corner,” Willis writes. Gathering a small group of followers, Theriault led them into the wilderness to await the apocalypse.

It never came, but Theriault had other things on his mind. First, he impregnated all his female followers. Then, he decided to “operate” on an ailing 2-year-old. When the boy kept crying out in pain, Theriault ordered one of his other followers to beat him. The boy died, and to try to conceal the crime, Theriault ordered his corpse burned and buried.

The authorities eventually arrived anyway, charging Theriault and eight of his followers with criminal negligence. Astoundingly, the cultists were then released. They quickly moved to another rural location.

David Koresh, who was arrested after leading his followers in a gunfight in Nov. 1987 against a rival prophet, years prior to the 1993 standoff and siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

The horrors that followed were even worse. Theriault ordered his disciples to fight in “gladiator tournaments,” and if they displeased him, to break their own legs with hammers. There were further mad-doctor operations, procedures Willis calls “simply too gruesome to describe in detail.” (He’s right. Google at your own peril.)

Eventually, one desperately wounded follower escaped, and the police closed in. 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 aren’t immune to their con games. NXIVM — pronounced “Nexium” — was a New York-based group that charismatic founder Keith Raniere promised would “actualize your human potential.” Launched in 1998, it was chiefly marketed to female professionals.

People who stayed in the program, however, found themselves in a pyramid scheme. They were now “slaves” and could only become “masters” by recruiting other slaves. Everyone owed obedience to Raniere. As proof of their loyalty, members had to provide nude photographs of themselves — blackmail material, if they ever tried to leave. Raniere then branded them with his initials.

Keith Raniere (Justice Dept.)

Members included business executives, actresses, and an heir to the Seagram’s fortune. Eventually, one follower grew disillusioned and went to the authorities. Raniere and the cult’s top officials were arrested. Many signed plea deals. Raniere was convicted of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and wire fraud conspiracy.

He was sentenced to 120 years.

Willis’ book deals largely with religious cults, but he occasionally delves into politics. Is the KKK a cult? How about the far-right Proud Boys? Both have core beliefs and demand unquestioning loyalty. How about QAnon? Its leadership is far vaguer — no one’s even sure who Q is — but its bizarre conspiracy theories are no crazier than the creeds of some fringe faiths.

Americans have always cherished liberty. But apparently, no freedom is more deeply held — or potentially dangerous — than our right to believe whatever we want.

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