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10 Of California’s Craziest Cults

David Tormsen


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California is known for its unusually large number of cults and dodgy religious movements. The reasons for this may include the lack of an obviously dominant Protestant establishment, an economy based on get-rich-quick schemes and frequently failing businesses, a diverse population of rootless people in a cultural blank slate, or even the heady effects of California weather.

Some of the most notorious California cults include Heaven’s Gate, the People’s Temple of David Koresh, and the infamous Manson Family.

10 Children Of God

David Brandt Berg founded the Children of God cult, combining Christian theology with bizarre reinterpretations of scripture, trance channeling from angels, and a hearty dose of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Earlier, he had founded an offshoot of the Teen Challenge youth ministry called Light Club, which sought to entice flower children to sermons with rock music and free peanut butter sandwiches.

In 1969, he had a vision that California was going to be hit by an earthquake and sink into the sea. He led his group to wander the American Southwest for eight months, and they renamed themselves the Children of God.

His group adopted bizarre, unorthodox beliefs. Some were relatively harmless, such as the notion that there was no hell and all humans would eventually be saved by Jesus Christ.

Others were dodgier, such as the notion that sex and masturbation were gifts from God and that cult members should masturbate while fantasizing about having sex with Jesus. This focus on sexual pleasure brought extreme views on free love, including pedophilia. It also encouraged the notorious “flirty fishing” and “love bombing” means of recruitment.

Berg became known as Moses David, Mo, King David, Father David, Chairman Mo, David Fontaine, Dad, and Grandpa. He was depicted in evangelical tracts as an anthropomorphic cartoon lion, with photos of him doctored to include lion features. This was likely to associate Berg with Jesus (aka the Lion of the Tribe of Judah) and possibly to obscure the fact that Berg was aging.

Berg’s theology and style were largely derived from apocalyptic Adventist preaching tradition, influenced by his grandfather’s involvement in the separatist Disciples of Christ church. He made a great deal of failed prophecies, including that Comet Kohoutek would cause havoc on Earth in 1974. He also claimed that a socialist Egyptian leader would become world dictator in 1986, that Armageddon would be fought in the late 1980s, and that Jesus would return in 1993.

One of the most high-profile former cult members is actor Joaquin Phoenix, whose family traveled with the cult around South America. Berg died in 1994, and his cult is now known as Family International. Karen Zerby, the current leader as of 2016, has been accused of sexually molesting children.

9 The Source Family

Self-professed guru and alleged bank robber Jim Baker (aka Father Yod and Ya Ho Wha) used his popular health food restaurant as a vector for spreading his cult. He attracted the young with appealing teachings, such as the idea that marijuana-enhanced sex was the true route to enlightenment.

Baker was an ex-Marine and jujitsu expert who moved to LA to audition for the role of Tarzan. He fell under the mystical guidance of the Philosophical Research Society as well as the proto-hippie lifestyle. He opened a sandal shop, followed by two health food restaurants.

In 1969, Baker opened The Source, a health food restaurant, just as he was falling under the influence of Sikh kundalini master Yogi Bhajan. Baker was soon leading meditation sessions in his restaurant and developing his own teachings. He attracted followers and established a commune at Chandler Mansion known as the Mother House.

His devotees dressed in white robes and followed a spiritual regimen of breathing techniques, cold showers, gender role shifts, yoga, home birth, chanting of the tetragrammaton, ego suppression rituals, and tantric sex. They became known for their fastidious cleanliness, economic self-sufficiency, solid work ethic, and seeming disinterested in proselytization.

The cult even had its own psychedelic rock band, Ya Ho Wha 13, which released nine records. While 65 albums based on improvisations by cult members were recorded, the most interesting tracks have Baker giving sermons of his wisdom, including “die to live again” and “I can be you and you can be me—ultimate orgasm we will see!”

In 1998, these albums were rereleased in a box set by a Japanese label. The music betrays a self-aware, ironic humor that is rare in most other cults.

The Source Family began to suffer negative social pressure following the Manson Family murders. After abandoning the restaurant in 1974, Baker toured the world with a group of followers in an unsuccessful bid to find a new home for the group.

The following year, Baker returned to San Francisco and died after leading some of his congregation to a cliffside and leaping off with a hang glider he didn’t know how to use. Despite this, some believers remain convinced of his spiritual power 40 years later. One acolyte said, “I know this sounds insane, but I saw lightning bolts coming out of his ears.”

8 Symbionese Liberation Army

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Photo credit: Ofeig

Escaped convict Donald DeFreeze (aka General Field Marshall Cinque Mtume) led this political cult of Berkeley radicals that was inspired by communist and South American revolutionary theory. The organization grew out of the Black Cultural Association, a black inmate group that was active in Vacaville Prison.

The group began as an organization that brought white Berkeley students to lecture inmates on political science, black sociology, and African heritage. Over time, they became more politically militant. DeFreeze formed a splinter group known as Unisight. He attracted some student radicals and escaped from prison in 1973.

Then DeFreeze and his followers formed the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), which focused on ending racism, monogamy, the prison system, and capitalist institutions. Their name was derived from the word “symbiosis,” which referred to a union of classes and races in this case.

The group adopted a seven-headed cobra as its symbol and vowed “death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.” Soon, the group began military tactical training in the Berkeley Hills.

They followed the urban propaganda theory of French Marxist writer Regis Debray and believed that selective violence would attract media attention and popular support. They sought to create a network of homelands for minority groups in the US.

After settling down in a safe house in Concord, their culture was characterized by political indoctrination, military drills, and free sex. In November 1973, they murdered Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster, who supported a controversial student identification system. The following year, the SLA famously kidnapped Patty Hearst, who soon joined the group.

LAPD SWAT teams killed DeFreeze and five of his followers at a safe house in Compton. Hearst’s father eventually withdrew his $50,000 reward for her return as it became increasingly clear that she identified with the group and wasn’t coming home. The group fell apart after a bank robbery in Carmichael, California. The remaining members were arrested and convicted of various charges of armed robbery and kidnapping.

7 The Blackburn Cult

The Blackburn cult (aka the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven) based its theology on a single line from Revelation: “And I will grant my two witnesses power to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.”

May Otis Blackburn, 60, and her daughter Ruth Wieland Rickenbaugh Rizzio claimed to be those witnesses. Supposedly, they were in contact with the angels Gabriel and Michael, who told the women to shut themselves off from the world for three years and write a book called The Great Sixth Seal explaining the world’s mysteries.

The book also promised to reveal “lost measurements” leading to all of the world’s gold and oil deposits, which were apparently stolen from Noah by his son Ham. The pair secured a $40,000 loan from the gullible son of an oil magnate in exchange for the “lost measurements.”

The women used the cash to build the Santa Susana Knolls community in Simi Valley, which included a dozen cabins and a temple that was sealed off in anticipation of Christ’s return. While devotees worked at a local tomato-packing shed, their paychecks were collected by Blackburn and her husband.

The priestesses of the cult gathered followers in a natural clearing to sacrifice mules, and forest rangers reported seeing them dancing naked in the woods. They also built a brick oven to “bake” a disciple named Florence Turner. Supposedly, this was to cure her “blood malady,” but she died two days later.

Eventually, the oil heir who lost his money had Mrs. Blackburn arrested on grand theft charges. Soon, other former cult members came forward with complaints. The police also turned their attention to the discovery of the body of 16-year-old Willa Rhodes.

The Rhodeses were devotees of the Blackburn cult. Daughter Willa, a priestess called the Tree of Life, died of a tooth infection in 1925. On Blackburn’s orders, her body was placed in a bathtub with ice, salt, and spices with a promise that the girl would be resurrected in 1,260 days.

Eventually, Blackburn was convicted of eight counts of grand theft but later released on $10,000 bail. The group departed for Lake Tahoe and was never heard from again.

6 Mankind United

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Photo credit: BiblioBazaar via Amazon

Founded by Arthur Bell during the Great Depression, Mankind United believed that the world was controlled and manipulated by a conspiracy of hidden rulers and money changers. Stealing from older philosophies like Theosophy, Bell claimed that a hidden order of sponsors worked against the conspiracy of the worldwide slave state.

After the sponsors revealed their presence, they were going to create a utopia based on universal employment with a short workweek, an economy of financial credit, and an artificial language. Bell taught that only when 200 million people accepted the Mankind United plan would the sponsors emerge from hiding.

Mankind United reached its apogee with a few thousand members in 1939. Bell claimed that he could be in multiple places at once and had access to ray guns that could knock out people’s eyeballs from miles away.

In reality, Bell was exploiting his followers for cash while hanging out in luxurious residences and spending his nights at popular bars and clubs. Meanwhile, cult members worked long hours in cult-owned hotels, ranches, and shops for minimal pay.

The book Mankind United appeared between 1936 and 1938, becoming the holy text of the group. It described the plan of the hidden rulers as 40,000 principalities, one billion slaves, and death for all of the world’s educated and religious peoples. Only through Christians joining the Mankind United vision could this be averted.

During World War II, Mankind United was reincorporated as the Church of the Golden Rule as a tax dodge. The original group fell apart when Bell left in 1951 following legal battles with disillusioned former members and eventual bankruptcy.

A core membership of around 100 people survived and settled in Palomarin Ranch near Bolinas in Marin County. The ranch became valuable and was bought by the federal government in 1962. The cult then bought the famous Ridgewood Ranch, home of renowned racehorse Seabiscuit, and remains there to this day.

5 Aggressive Christianity

Aggressive Christianity was founded in 1981 as Free Love Ministries by Jim and Lila Green. Earlier, they had joined a group called the Bear Tribe that sought to emulate the Native American lifestyle. While scouting for land for the group in Montana, they were picked up by a driver who talked to them about Christianity, and they “felt the drawing presence of Jesus.”

After spending time in a Kentucky church, doing missionary work in Central America, and working at a Miami Salvation Army shelter, they felt disillusioned by the “corruption” of other churches and founded their own in Sacramento.

By 1984, their group had attracted around 50 members. They lived in four communal houses under the auspices of the church. Their theology was highly militant, and their monthly publication Battle Cry: Aggressive Christianity was replete with images of warfare against demonic forces.

They also had a local radio program, where they exhorted Christians to join an army of God to fight the demons responsible for the world’s ills, which included karate, homosexuality, psychoanalysis, and fairy tales.

The radio station eventually stopped the broadcast as the content became more disturbing. The station head Tom Wallace said:

Basically, what Green was saying was that any particular problem was controlled by a demon. Colds were caused by a cold demon. And if you needed deliverance, you just had to attend a Jim Green service. He taught that Christians could be demon-possessed. We were concerned that many could be misled into thinking the only solution would be to go to Green and they would build up a Jim Jones–type emotional dependence on him. We didn’t want to be associated with one of those cultish groups.

The group refers to its dwellings as barracks and uses military uniforms and ranks for members. The Greens began as colonels, later becoming brigadier generals of Aggressive Christianity. Their unorthodox belief system is almost Gnostic, teaching that God and Satan battle by filling up the empty vessels of humanity with their respective wills.

They also teach that a group alternately called the Manifest Sons of God, Man-Child Company, or the Overcomers will leave the church, attain sinless perfection and divine powers through commitment to Christ, and eventually smite Satan and death.

4 Hua Zang Si

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Photo credit: huazangsi via YouTube

The International Art Museum of America in San Francisco opened in 2011. But it had already been noted in the media for its links to the Hua Zang Si, an obscure Buddhist sect operating out of the former St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Deconsecrated in 1992, the building was supposed to be turned into condos when it was purchased and remodeled by the United International World Buddhism Association.

Hua Zang Si is led by His Holiness Dorje Chang Buddha III, who was born in China’s Sichuan province and was originally known as Wan Ko Yee or Yi Yungao. His followers believe that he is the third incarnation of the original Buddha.

But he is also distrusted because his teachings differ from those of other enlightened beings. Some identify him with the rising number of tulkus (“living Buddhas”), who are granted certification for their enlightenment by bribing religious officials.

His followers paint a different picture:

Both humans and nonhumans have prostrated to H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III and have listened to His Holiness’s discourses on the dharma. Sentient beings, non-sentient things, birds, aquatic animals, land animals, flowers, grass, trees, tiles, and stones have all expressed respect for His Holiness’s dharma discourses either verbally or through physical actions. His Holiness taught a disciple how to transmit dharma on His behalf. When the person who was transmitted dharma by that disciple died, that person’s body emitted light. Thunder rumbled in the sky in reaction to the voice of His Holiness.

The museum mostly holds works of art created by Dorge Chang Buddha, complete with idolizing descriptions. The museum is filled with examples of his esoteric and somewhat psychedelic artwork, with a few token pieces by others to showcase diversity.

In China, the Buddha is a wanted man. According to a spokesperson from the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC: “From 1984 onward, Yi and his accomplices committed fraud by means of deception, causing losses of CNY 60.8 million ($7.32 million).”

There was a worldwide warrant for his arrest until it was overturned by Interpol. His lawyer had successfully argued that the Chinese government was only motivated by political concerns.

3 Marcus Wesson Cult

We’ve already discussed the sickness and tragedy of the Wesson family but haven’t covered the bizarre pseudo-religious beliefs that held it all together. Marcus Wesson saw himself as the leader of a new religion combining Christianity with vampire lore.

He wrote a religious text called In the Light of the Light for the Dark, which stated that he and his family were vampires and that “incest . . . produces the seed of perfection of one’s self.”

Though he was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, he later claimed that God was speaking through him and that the End Times were nearly here. He moved in with an older woman in San Jose, had a child with her, and then married her 15-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.

Eventually, he had 17 children with Elizabeth and her sister. The family became an insular cult that was based on homeschooling, corporal punishment, and sexual abuse.

Wesson separated brothers from sisters, forcing the girls to wear head scarves and long skirts. He would begin to sexually abuse them at age eight, claiming that “Jesus was a womanizer and God’s people are becoming extinct. We need to preserve God’s children. We need to have more children for the Lord.”

He married several of his daughters and nieces in home ceremonies, forcing each girl to read wedding vows with her hand on the Bible in the bedroom. He gave each girl a marital necklace and gold band.

Wesson was obsessed with vampirism, forcing his children to sleep in coffins he had collected. He called himself “Je Vam Marc Sus Pire” and named one of his sons Jeva, a portmanteau of “Jesus” and “vampire.” The cult broke up when two nieces returned with relatives to retrieve their children.

Wesson was calm during the confrontation, although some of his daughters verbally defended him. However, by the time the police arrived, Wesson was covered in blood. Nine of his children had been slain, apparently part of a preexisting suicide pact in case the authorities threatened to break up the family.

2 Fellowship Of Friends

Robert Burton was an elementary school teacher who sought enlightenment through the Quakers and philosophy when he became enamored of the Fourth Way teachings of early 20th-century Russian mystics George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky. The Fourth Way states that most human beings are spiritually asleep and can only regain true consciousness through a process of self-remembering and refraining from expressing negative emotions.

In 1970, Burton began to attract a group of followers, identifying himself as a “man No.5,” a being with a higher level of emotions and knowledge than most people. His group was incorporated in 1971 as a religious organization called the Fellowship of Friends. They purchased property in California’s Yuba County to establish a winery.

This property was home to many members of the church, although there were smaller centers across the US, Europe, and Latin America. The cult is supported by tithes from members as well as donations of fine artwork, which supposedly assist in the process of self-remembering.

Burton is known as “the Teacher” and has strict rules of behavior, including bans on swimming, joking, and smoking. In one 1981 interview, he was asked if he was Jesus Christ. Burton replied, “Thou sayest it,” which is what Jesus told Pontius Pilate when asked if he was King of the Jews.

Burton taught his followers that the community would serve as an ark protecting his flock from a cataclysm that would consume outsiders. He has claimed to be an angel in human form who communicates with 44 other angels, including Benjamin Franklin and Jesus Christ.

Despite banning homosexuality in the community until 1994, Burton sexually preyed on young male members of his flock. According to claims in a 1997 lawsuit: “Burton spoke openly about his sexuality in the form of jokes at all-male dinners. [ . . . ] He would boast that ‘100 boys would not be enough [for my sexual appetite].’ ”

The cult’s Renaissance winery and vineyards have produced award-winning wines. They were once served to Ronald Reagan and at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel’s restaurant in San Francisco. However, their religious history has made it difficult to promote these wines and has led to tax disputes with county officials.

In 2012, some cult locations were raided by the DEA on suspicions that cult members were selling marijuana and using the proceeds to help the church, which the Fellowship of Friends strongly denied.

1 Berkeley’s Psychic Cults

In 1973, Lewis Bostwick founded the Church of Divine Man and its subsidiary, the Berkeley Psychic Institute. Their creed includes the following: “We of the church believe in limitless space, timeless endurance, never-ending acceptance, everlasting patience, and continuous comprehension.”

Many have criticized both organizations as cults. One reporter from SFGate reported that he went to the Berkeley Psychic Institute for an aura healing and ended up with a “male healing session” in which he was asked nonchalantly if he wanted his balls drained. He felt stomach pains and was allegedly hustled out while being told that something had gone wrong.

Former members have claimed that Bostwick stole his ideas from the Dianetics of Scientology after a falling-out with L. Ron Hubbard. Adherents are put through long hours of “clairvoyant training,” where they are encouraged to obey orders and not ask questions.

Another weird psychic cult in the area is the Spiritual Rights Foundation, founded by William Baldwin (aka Reverend Bill). Influenced by the works of 18th-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and con artist psychic Marc Reymont, Baldwin formed his cult on the basis of fundamentalist Christianity and New Age thinking.

One ex-member described it as “fear God and feel your chakra.” Ministers give classes on energy healing, meditation, and trance hypnotherapy. Meanwhile, members are expected to work over 40 hours per week for the group and tithe up to 80 percent of their income.

Baldwin taught that all people were surrounded by an aura governing actions, illness, and achievement. This could be disrupted by “foreign energy” coming from other people, family history, or the earthbound spirits of dead relatives. One article described the hierarchy in the church as: “God. Women. Children. Dogs. Men.”

Hugging was discouraged as a cause of energy transfer, and sexual relations were strictly monitored. However, Baldwin referred to himself as a “spiritual pimp” and took sexual liberties with female members of his flock while denigrating the males.

If David Tormsen had to choose, he would definitely go with the Source Family. Email him at tormentedsentences@oath.com.