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Top 10 Cults

by Listverse Writers
fact checked by Alex Hanton

A cult refers to a cohesive social group devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture considers outside the mainstream, with a notably positive or negative popular perception. Many cults are destructive or suicidal though others, whilst being controversial, do not commit extreme acts.

SEE ALSO: 10 Bizarre Cult Teachings

Strap in, this is a list of the top 10 cults. In no particular order:

1. Church of Bible Understanding

Stewart Traill

The Church of Bible Understanding (formerly known as the Forever Family) is a destructive cult, which started in 1971 in Allentown, Pennsylvania by former atheist and vacuum repairman Stewart Traill. The cult targeted teens as young as 13 by drawing on their weaknesses. Throughout the 1970s, the cult expanded to many other parts of the United States.

Traill, born in Quebec in 1936 is the son of a Presbyterian minister, who teaches that he is the reincarnation of Elijah, and that he knows the date of the return of Christ. Members of the cult live in a commune and donate 90 percent of their income to the cult. Traill amassed a fortune and owns four planes and a half-million dollar mansion. According to former members, Traill controls every aspect of members’ lives through harsh criticism, shame, and public humiliation.

Ron Burkes, a staff member at a residential treatment center for former cult members says this:

“[Traill] has one of most effective means of shutting down critical thinking I’ve ever seen. Of the hundreds of people I’ve treated, COBU is definitely in the top five in terms of harm and psychological damage.”

The cult also runs a mission in Haiti, where some former members claim Haitian children are indoctrinated in exchange for food and clothing. According to an article originally appearing in the Manassas Journal Messenger, COBU received government funds for its Haiti Mission as part of President Bush‘s Faith Based Initiative.

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2. Manson Family


The Manson Family

The Manson Family was a cult started by Charles Manson. Manson was born to Kathleen Maddox, an unwed 16-year-old girl, in 1934. It’s said that his mother, an alcoholic, sold him to buy beer. When he was returned to her she had him sent to a boarding school. After a number of years living with his religious aunt and uncle, he returned to his mother who rejected him. After a number of robberies, he was put in jail for the first time. One month before his parole hearing in 1952, he raped a boy in jail by holding a razor to his throat. Two years later he was paroled. Manson began to pimp a young woman he met and eventually took her, and a second woman to New Mexico to work for him as prostitutes. He was caught and tried under the Mann Act (a 1910 act that prohibited white slavery and trafficking for immoral means).

In 1967 he was released (having spent more than half of his life in institutions). Upon release, he requested permission to move to San Francisco which was granted. When he arrived he became part of the Hippie movement centered around the Haight-Ashbury region and he set himself up as a guru. He moved in with 23-year-old student Mary Brunner and convinced her to allow other women to join them. Eventually 18 other women were living with them. This was the beginning of the family.

By 1968, Manson had established a home for the “family” at a ranch owned by George Spahn. Manson convinced one of the family members, Lynette Fromme, to sleep with Spahn in order to get free rent. Manson began teaching his followers that social uprisings were coming, using the assassination of Martin Luther King as evidence. He also told them that the social turmoil he had been predicting had also been predicted by The Beatles. The White Album songs, he declared, told it all, although in code; in fact, he maintained, the album was directed at the Manson Family itself, an elect group that was being instructed to preserve the worthy from the impending disaster.

In 1969, on August 8, Manson told Family members at Spahn Ranch, “now is the time for Helter Skelter.” That evening the family, under the direction of Manson, would commit the famous murder of Sharon Tate, leading to other murders over the two day period.

3. Aum Shinrikyo


Aum Shinrikyo, is a Japanese religious group founded by Shoko Asahara. The group gained international notoriety in 1995, when it carried out a Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subways. In 2000, the organization changed its name to “Aleph” (the first letter of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabet), changing its logo as well. In 1995, the group had 9,000 members in Japan, and as many as 40,000 worldwide. As of 2004 Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph membership was estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 people.

The movement was founded by Shoko Asahara in his one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward in 1984, starting off as a yoga and meditation class known as Aum-no-kai and steadily grew in the following years. It gained the official status as a religious organization in 1989. It attracted such a considerable number of young graduates from Japan’s elite universities that it was dubbed a “religion for the elite.” Aum’s PR activities included publishing. In Japan, where comics and animated cartoons enjoy unprecedented popularity among all ages, Aum attempted to tie religious ideas to popular anime and manga themes: space missions, extremely powerful weapons, world conspiracies and conquest for ultimate truth.

Aum Shinrikyo had started as a quiet group of people interested in yogic meditation, but later transformed into a very different organization. According to Asahara, he needed “to demonstrate charisma” to attract the modern audience. Following his decision, Aum underwent a radical image change. The rebranded Aum looked less like an elite meditation boutique and more like an organization attractive to a broader, larger population group. Public interviews, bold controversial statements, and vicious opposition to critique were incorporated into the religion’s PR style. The cult started attracting controversy in the late 1980s with accusations of deception of recruits, and of holding cult members against their will and forcing them to donate money. A murder of a cult member who tried to leave is now known to have taken place in February 1989.

At the end of 1993 the cult started secretly manufacturing the nerve agent sarin and later gas. They also attempted to manufacture 1,000 automatic rifles but only managed to make one. Aum tested their sarin on sheep at a remote ranch in Western Australia, killing 29 sheep. Both sarin and VX were then used in several assassinations (and attempts) from 1994 to 1995. Most notably on the night of June 27, 1994, the cult carried out the world’s first use of chemical weapons in a terrorist attack against civilians when they released sarin in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto. This Matsumoto incident killed seven and harmed 200 more. However, police investigations focused only on an innocent local resident and failed to implicate the cult. Eleven cult members have been sentenced to death, although none of the sentences have been carried out, nor the time and date for the executions to take effect has been publicly established.

4. Restoration of the 10 Commandments


The full name of this cult is the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was a breakaway group from the Roman Catholic Church that formed in Uganda in the late 1980s. As the name implies the group strongly emphasized the Ten Commandments. This emphasis meant they even discouraged talking: out of fear of breaking the commandment about giving false witness. They also believed that their strict adherence to the Ten Commandments would be advantageous after the apocalypse.

This proved significant as the group had a strong emphasis on the apocalypse, highlighted by their booklet, A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Time. New members were required to study it and be trained in it, reading it as many as six times. They also taught that Mother Mary had a special role in the apocalypse, and communicated to the leadership. They saw themselves as a sort of Noah’s Ark: a ship of righteousness in a sea of depravity.

The group tended to be secretive and as mentioned above, was literally silent. Therefore it was relatively unknown to the outside world until 2000, although in 1998 the school they ran was sanctioned by the government due to unsanitary conditions and violation of child labor statutes.

In March of 2000, around 300 followers died in a fire in what is considered a cult suicide. Investigations conducted after the fire discovered mass graves, raising the death toll to over 1,000. This may mean it was larger than the Jonestown murder/suicide in 1978, but some speculate the death toll was around 800. There are also allegations that the event was more of a mass murder by the leadership.

5. Raëlism

643Px-Claude Vorilhon (Right)-1
Founder, Claude Vorilhon (right)

Raëlism or Raelian Church is a UFO religion founded by a purported contactee named Claude Vorilhon, who is known recently for supporting Clonaid’s claim that an American woman underwent a standard cloning procedure, which led to the birth of her new daughter Eve in December 26, 2002. National authorities, mainstream media, and young adults have increasingly investigated the church’s activities as a result of controversial statements by Clonaid’s head Brigitte Boisselier the day after.

Members of the Raëlian Church consist of people who have been baptized by Raëlian clergy in quarterly ceremonies, and among the converts are members of Raëlian-founded free-love groups such as the Order of Angels and Raël’s Girls. The organization, which preaches a sensual philosophy and a physicalist explanation of the origin of life, could have as many as 65,000 members.

SEE ALSO: 10 Former Cult Members And Their Chilling Stories

Raëlians emphasize secular and hedonistic ideas, rather than worshiping a supreme metaphysical deity. The Raëlian Church members follow a UFO religion that favors a strong version of physicalism: the belief that everything consists only of physical properties. Raëlians deny the existence of the ethereal soul and a supernatural god, and believe that the mind is a function of matter alone. This ties into their belief that mind transfer is possible and that it will be possible to create an identical human clone in terms of mind and personality—as long as the clone and the original are not alive at the same time.

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6. Scientology

What is Scientology?

The Church of Scientology is a cult created by L. Ron Hubbard (Elron) in 1952 as an outgrowth of his earlier self-help system called Dianetics. Scientology and the organizations that promote it have remained highly controversial since their inception. Journalists, courts and the governing bodies of several countries have stated that the Church of Scientology is an unscrupulous commercial enterprise that harasses its critics and abuses the trust of its members. Journalists, governments, religious groups and other critics worldwide have often referred to the organization as a cult.

Reports and allegations have been made, by journalists, courts, and governmental bodies of several countries, that the Church of Scientology is an unscrupulous commercial enterprise that harasses its critics and brutally exploits its members. In some cases of US litigation against the Church, former Scientologists were paid as expert witnesses and have since stated that they submitted false and inflammatory declarations, intended to be carried in the media to incite prejudice against Scientology, and deliberately harassed key Scientology executives, by knowingly advancing unfounded opinions, either to get a case dropped or to obtain a large settlement.

Although Scientologists are usually free to practice their beliefs, the organized church has often encountered opposition due to their strong-arm tactics, directed against critics and members wishing to leave the organization.

7. Order of the Solar Temple

Joseph Di Mambro

The Order of the Solar Temple also known as Ordre du Temple Solaire (OTS) in French, and the International Chivalric Organization of the Solar Tradition or simply as The Solar Temple was a secret society based upon the new age myth of the continuing existence of the Knights Templar. OTS was started by Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret in 1984 in Geneva as l’Ordre International Chevaleresque de Tradition Solaire (OICTS) and renamed Ordre du Temple Solaire. It is believed that other members were also involved who have remained unknown to the public.

In October 1994 Tony Dutoit’s infant son (Emmanuel Dutoit), aged three months, was killed at the group’s centre in Morin Heights, Quebec. The baby had been stabbed repeatedly with a wooden stake. It is believed that Di Mambro ordered the murder, because he identified the baby as the Antichrist described in the Bible. He believed that the Antichrist was born into the order to prevent Di Mambro from succeeding in his spiritual aim.


A few days later, Di Mambro and 12 followers performed a ritual Last Supper. A few days after that, apparent mass suicides and murders were conducted at two villages in Switzerland, and at Morin Heights. Fifteen inner circle members committed suicide with poison, 30 were killed by bullets or smothering, and eight others were killed by other causes. Many of the bodies when found were drugged, possibly to prevent the members from objecting. The buildings were then set on fire by timer devices, purportedly as one last symbol of the group’s purification.

In western Switzerland, 48 members of a sect died in another apparent mass murder-suicide. Many of the victims were found in a secret underground chapel lined with mirrors and other items of Templar symbolism. The bodies were dressed in the order’s ceremonial robes and were in a circle, feet together, heads outward, most with plastic bags tied over their heads; they had each been shot in the head. It is believed that the plastic bags were a symbol of the ecological disaster that would befall the human race after the OTS members moved on to Sirius.

A mayor, a journalist, a civil servant, and a sales manager were found among the dead in Switzerland. Records seized by the Quebec police showed that some members had personally donated over $1 million to the cult’s leader Joseph Di Mambro. There was also another attempted mass suicide of the remaining members which was thwarted in the late 1990s. It is believed that The Solar Temple group continues to exist, with 30 surviving members in Quebec at the St-Anne-de-la-Pérade center, with from 140 to 500 members remaining worldwide.

8. Heaven’s Gate

Videos inside Heaven’s Gate house reveal those lured into cult: 20/20 ‘The Cult Next Door’ Preview

Heaven’s Gate was a destructive, doomsday cult centered in California. The cult consisted of 21 women and 18 men who ultimately and voluntarily committed suicide in three groups on three successive days starting on March 23, 1997. Most were in their 40s; the rest covered an age range of 26 to 72. Two months later, two additional members, Charles Humphrey and Wayne Cooke attempted suicide in a hotel room a few miles from the Rancho Santa Fe mansion; Cooke succeeded. Sometime in February 1998, Humphrey tried again in the Arizona desert and was successful.

They followed a syncretistic religion, combining elements of Christianity with unusual beliefs about the nature of UFOs. They interpreted passages from the four gospels and the book Revelation as referring to UFO visitation. In particular, they emphasized a story in Revelation which described two witnesses who are killed, remained dead for 3 1/2 days, were revived and taken up into the clouds. They look upon earth as being in the control of evil forces, and perceived themselves as being among the elite who would attain Heaven. They held a profoundly dualistic belief of the soul as being a superior entity which is only housed temporarily in a body. Applewhite said that bodies were only “the temporary containers of the soul. The final act of metamorphosis or separation from the human kingdom is the ‘disconnect’ or separation from the human physical container or body in order to be released from the human environment.”

Members called themselves brother and sister (they looked upon themselves as monks and nuns) and they lived communally in a large, rented San Diego County, California home which they called their monastery. Most members had little contact with their families of origin or with their neighbors. Many followed successful professional careers before entering the group. Some abandoned their children before joining. They were free to leave at any time. They dressed in unisex garments: shapeless black shirts with Mandarin collars, and black pants. They were required commit themselves to a celibate life. Eight of the male members, including Do, submitted to voluntary castration. This seems to have been a form of preparation for their next level of existence: in a life that would be free of gender, sexual identity and sexual activity.

Thirty-eight group members, plus Applewhite, the group’s leader, were found dead in a rented mansion in the upscale San Diego community of Rancho Santa Fe, California, on March 26, 1997. The mass death of the Heaven’s Gate group is said to be one of the most widely-known examples of cult suicide. In preparing to kill themselves, members of the group drank citrus juices to ritually cleanse their bodies of impurities. The suicide was accomplished by ingestion of phenobarbital mixed with vodka, along with plastic bags secured around their heads to induce asphyxiation. They were found lying neatly in their own bunk beds, with their faces and torsos covered by a square, purple cloth. Each member carried five dollar bills and a few quarters in their wallets. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike tennis shoes, and armband patches reading “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” The suicides were conducted in shifts, and the remaining members of the group cleaned up after each prior group’s death.

9. Branch Davidians


David Koresh interview

The Branch Davidians are a religious sect who originated from a schism in 1955 from the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists, themselves former members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church who were disfellowshipped during the 1930s. From its inception in the 1930s, the splinter movement inherited Adventism’s apocalypticism, in that they believed themselves to be living in a time when Christian prophecies of a final divine judgment were coming to pass. They are best known for the 1993 siege of their compound near Waco, Texas, by the ATF and the FBI, which resulted in the deaths of 82 of the church’s members, including head figure David Koresh. However, by the time of the siege, Koresh had encouraged his followers to think of themselves as “students of the Seven Seals” rather than as “Branch Davidians,” and other Branch Davidian factions never accepted his leadership.

Some former members of Koresh’s group alleged that he practiced polygamy with underage brides, physically abused children, and stockpiled illegal weapons, legal authorities investigated these charges. On February 28, 1993, the US Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) conducted a raid on Mount Carmel, a property of the Davidians. The raid resulted in the deaths of six Davidians and four ATF agents after a firefight broke out. Following this confrontation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) laid siege to Mount Carmel for 51 days, during which time the FBI and ATF conducted around-the-clock operations including psychological warfare (psyops) on the occupants of the complex.

The government’s siege on the Branch Davidians ended on April 19 when federal agents released tear gas into the compound. During the assault, several fires broke out and spread quickly through the buildings, killing approximately 79 Branch Davidians, 21 of whom were children. Autopsies confirmed that many of the victims, including David Koresh, had died of single gunshot wounds to their heads.

The government put some of the survivors on trial. All were acquitted of conspiring to murder federal agents, but some were convicted of aiding and abetting voluntary manslaughter.

10. Unification Church


The Unification Church (Mooneyism) is a religious movement started by Sun Myung Moon in Korea in the 1940s. The beliefs of the church are explained in the book Divine Principle and draw from the Bible as well as Asian traditions and include belief in a universal God; in the creation of a literal Kingdom of Heaven on earth; in the universal salvation of all people, good and evil as well as living and dead; that Jesus did not come to die; and that the Lord of the Second Coming must be a man born in Korea early in the 20th century who must marry and have children.

In the United States in the 1970s, the media reported on the high-pressure recruitment methods of Unificationists and said that the church separated vulnerable college students from their families through the use of brainwashing or mind control. Moon dismissed these criticisms, stating in 1976 that he had received many thank-you letters from parents whose children became closer to them after joining the movement. Moon and his wife were banned from entry into Germany and the other 14 Schengen-treaty countries on the grounds that they are leaders of a sect that endangered the personal and social development of young people. The Netherlands and a few other Schengen states let Moon and his wife enter their countries in 2005. In 2006 the German Supreme Court overturned the ban.

In 1993, Chung Hwa Pak released the book Roku Maria no Higeki (Tragedy of the Six Marys) through the Koyu Publishing Co. of Japan. The book contained allegations that Moon conducted sex rituals amongst six married female disciples (“The Six Marys”) who were to have prepared the way for the virgin who would marry Moon and become the True Mother. Chung Hwa Pak had left the movement when the book was published and later withdrew the book from print when he rejoined the Unification Church. Before his death Chung Hwa Pak published a second book, The Apostate, and recanted all allegations made in Roku Maria no Higeki.

Bonus. Jonestown

Jonestown Part 1: Who was the Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones?

On November 18, 1978, more than 900 people died in the largest mass murder/suicide in American history. Most of the deaths occurred in a jungle encampment in Guyana, South America, where members of a group called Peoples Temple lived in a utopian community and agricultural project known as Jonestown. Most died after drinking a fruit punch laced with cyanide and tranquilizers, although some may have been injected; two residents died of gunshot wounds. Earlier that day a few members of the group had assassinated a US congressman along with three members of the media and a departing Jonestown resident. And in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown, yet another member of the group killed her three children and then herself after receiving word of the deaths in Jonestown. In all, 918 Americans lost their lives that day.

Since that time, Jonestown and its leader Jim Jones have entered American discourse as code for the dangers of cults and cult leaders. The expression “drinking the Kool-Aid”—which means both blindly jumping on the bandwagon, and being a team player—is one manifestation of this. The story of Jonestown, and of its parent organization Peoples Temple, however, is more complicated than sound-bites comparing strict parents to Jim Jones, or pundits relating religious violence (such as the suicide air strikes of September 11, 2001) to Jonestown. Instead, Jonestown serves as a lesson in how a combination of media, government, and citizens can create a climate of persecution and fear. It also provides an example of how uncritical acceptance of the status quo and social and geographic isolation can lead to violence and even death.

SEE ALSO: Top 10 Cult Escape Stories

Notable Exclusions: The Children of God, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists

Sources: Wikipedia, Youtube, Google Videos

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fact checked by Alex Hanton
Listverse Writers

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