Cults today are thought of as groups with unusually excessive spiritual, religious, or philosophical beliefs. While historically, cults were worship-focused groups that didn’t fall under an established church, temple, or sect, recent American cults have manipulated vulnerable individuals, broken laws, and committed heinous crimes. Here’s an update on the ten most notorious cults in American history.
1. The Manson Family
Charles Manson may be one of the most well-known cult leaders in American history. He was the leader of The Manson Family cult in the late 1960s. He was able to lure in many followers, especially women, into his cult. The cult believed that a race war known as “Helter Skelter” was coming, and they needed to be prepared.
Manson was able to convince his followers to murder nine people in the state of California. Actress Sharon Tate and four others at her home were some of the victims. The Manson Family cult was also involved in an assassination plot against President Gerald Ford.
Manson and his followers were eventually arrested in 1969. Manson went on trial in June of 1970. He was found guilty on several counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Manson spent the rest of his life behind bars until he passed away in November 2017.
2. Warren Jeffs Fundamental Church
Warren Jeffs founded the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. While it has roots in the Mormon faith, it had one noticeably different belief from its mother religion. This group practiced polygamy, the concept of having more than one husband or wife at the same time. After forming his version of the Fundamentalist Church, Jeff’s followers grew to more than 10,000 people throughout Arizona, Utah, and Texas.
Authorities were eventually alerted to alarming behaviors within the church, including incest and sexual misconduct with minors. As a result, Federal authorities raided Jeffs’ Texas ranch in 2006 and took legal custody of over 400 children. Using the evidence collected during the raid, authorities charged Warren Jeffs with several counts of sex crimes against minors.
Jeffs’ was convicted in August 2011 and sentenced to life in prison. He has attempted suicide but remains in prison to this day. Despite his incarceration, there are still 6,000 to 10,000 Warren Jeffs Fundamental Church members in Utah and Arizona. Many church members still consider him to be their leader to this day.
In the early 1980s, leaders of the Rajneeshee movement were having trouble with the Indian government. So in 1981, Rajneeshesh and its followers relocated to a parcel of land in Wasco County, Oregon, known as the Big Muddy Ranch.
Within three years, the Big Muddy Ranch had turned into a 7,000 resident city, complete with its own police dept, fire dept, restaurants, and other city facilities. The situation escalated when the cult attempted to take over the neighboring town’s government, a cult-owned hotel was bombed, and semi-automatic weapons were found on the ranch.
The cult eventually collapsed after authorities deported its leader and convicted some of his staff for their part in a food poisoning plot against residents. Although Rajneesh died in 1990, his movement still has followers in several countries around the world.
4. Angel’s Landing
Outside Wichita, Kansas, Lou Castro created a cult compound. He had convinced a small group of followers that he was a 1,000-year-old angel who could see into the future, tell people exactly when they would die, and to stay alive, would need to have sex with young girls.
The group enjoyed an oddly extravagant lifestyle despite having seemingly no income. Also raising suspicion was that there seemed to be no paper trail of Lou Castro existing before Angel’s Landing. Local authorities began to investigate Castro when one of his followers, Patrica Hughes died in 2003, followed by her husband in 2006.
Both deaths were initially considered accidents, but after further investigation, high-paying life insurance policies were being taken out on residents of the compound. Then these residents would have “accidental” deaths every 2 to 3 years.
It was eventually uncovered there was rampant sexual abuse on the compound. In the end, Perez was charged with 28 felonies, and in February 2015, he was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 80 years in prison. He remains in prison to this day.
5. Children of God
David Brandt Berg founded the Children of God cult in 1968 in California. The small group grew quickly, and by the 1970s, the group had communes around the country and worldwide.
Berg communicated to his followers through letters, writing over 3000 in two years. In these letters, Berg encouraged female members to recruit new members by showing “God’s love and mercy,” which became known as “flirty fishing.” In one letter to his followers, he said, “God created boys and girls able to have children by about 12 years of age.”
Several former members have reported that they were sexually abused and beaten as children. Others who were born into the group later killed themselves, including one of Berg’s sons.
Daniel Berg died in 1994, but the Children of God cult continues. It has since gone through several leaders and name changes, now going by Family International. They claim to have abandoned their sexual practices of the past. The number of current followers is unknown.
In 1998, Keith Raniere founded NXIVM, a self-help organization that offered classes on empowerment through Executive Success Programs. However, NXIVM turned out to be far more than a self-help company. In 2017, after gaining 18,000 members, some came forward to expose the abusive practices of a secret society called “DOS within the group. DOS was short for Dominus Obsequious Sororium, which reportedly means “master over slave women.”
Most of the abusive practices were focused on the women of DOS. Women thought they were joining a group focused on their advancement, but it ended up being a sex cult. It was essentially a pyramid scheme with Raniere at the very top. There were then the “masters” who recruited other women to the secretive group. To be allowed into the secret club, recruits had to give their “master’s” naked photos and other compromising documents of themselves. These were used to blackmail members into secrecy.
In 2020, after more than a dozen women came forward with psychological and sexual abuse claims, Raniere stood trial for his crimes. He would later be convicted of sex trafficking, racketeering, child pornography, and other crimes. Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
7. The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ
Often referred to as the Peoples Temple, this religious organization existed from 1954 until 1978, when it came to a tragic end. The cult was founded by James Warren Jones, better known as Jim Jones. It was founded in Indianapolis, Indiana, built as a combination of communism and Christianity but grew into a cult that committed one of the single largest losses of American civilian life in the 20th century.
On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones and his inner circle orchestrated a mass murder-suicide over 909 people at “Jonestown” Jones’ remote jungle commune in Guyana. The Peoples Temple was also responsible for the murders of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and members of his delegation at an airstrip near Port Kaituma.
Despite claims that over 20,000 people were members of this cult, the Temple only had between 3,000 and 5,000 registered members. In the aftermath of Jonestown, the cult filed bankruptcy, and the few remaining members left Guyana in May of 1979 before returning to the United States.
8. Branch Davidians
Benjamin Roden founded the religious sect, General Association of Brand Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, in 1955. While some regard the organization as a cult, they viewed themselves as a continuation of Victor Houteff’s General Association of Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists, founded twenty years prior.
The organization would gain notoriety in 1993 when its headquarters near Waco was raided by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, leading to the death of four federal agents, eighty members of the group, and their leader David Koresh when the complex was burned to the ground.
Whether or not the Branch Davidians was a true cult or an overzealous religious sect is still hotly debated. Still, they did have several hallmarks of religious cults of the time. They were insular, lived on a compound, and had leaders who committed criminal acts. Before the fall, the organization’s last leader David Coresh was brought to trial by an anticult activist for child abuse after a former member claimed his “spiritual” wives were teenagers.
Only one offshoot of The Branch Davidians exists today. Survivors of Waco still hosted Bible studies on the grounds of the compound up until 2013.
9. Heaven’s Gate
Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite founded Heaven’s Gate in 1974, after meeting two years prior and deeming themselves witnesses of Revelation. Their teachings amassed several hundred followers by the mid-1970s. The group’s central belief was that they could reject their human nature and ascend to heaven as immortal extraterrestrial beings.
In 1985, Nettles died from cancer, which caused many members to question the legitimacy of their teachings. Still, Applewhite continued to lead the organization until his death in 1997, when he led the remaining members to commit suicide en masse. Out of the thirty-nine who committed suicide, the most notable death was Thomas Nichols, Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols brother.
The cult’s end is perhaps best known for the methods of their suicide and the fact that they were identical outfits. Multiple people followed copycat suicides in the weeks that followed, including several former members of Heaven’s Gate.
Most people are familiar with Buddhafield, thanks to Will Allen’s Holy Hell documentary. The organization began in the 1980s in Hollywood and is widely referred to as a cult by former members who were lured into it through yoga studios. It was founded by Jaime Gomez, who believes himself to be God, but he also encourages his believers to view themselves as God.
The most notable allegations against Buddhafield was that Gomez sexually abused many of the men who followed the cult. Allegedly, he used hypnotherapy sessions with his victims to abuse them. In addition, Gomez pushed members to remain celibate while engaging in sexual relations with others, and he manipulated women into having plastic surgery and abortions for “religious” reasons.
Buddhafield remains a cult in Hawaii today.