The word cult isn’t easily definable because many people have varying ideas of what makes one. However, while the definition might evade most of us, you’ll know a cult when you see it. Whether it’s affiliated with religion or other beliefs, cults tend to prey on the vulnerable members of society. Cult leaders are often manipulative, oppressive, and dominative.

Most cults come with strict demands, such as cutting ties with family, living in a smaller community, and even giving up wealth and professions. Throughout history, some cults have gained immense fame due to their success, extreme practices, and even horrific ends. Here are the 7 most infamous cults of recent times.

1. The FLDS

FLDS Temple in Eldorado, Texas.

Known in full as the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the FLDS was a sub-branch of the Mormon Church. It broke away because its members still believed in polygamy, which had been banned by the parent Mormon Church.

The FLDS sub-group moved around a lot. They started in Hildale, moved to Colorado, and then Eldorado, Texas. They became famous because of their polygamous activities. For instance, one of the high priests, Warren Jeffs, had about 87 wives, with some brides being as young as 12 years.

FLDS had stringent rules, such as members not being allowed to play sports, celebrate holidays, dance, wear red clothing, or even watch TV. Ladies were forced not to cut their hair and wear long dresses. With the help of the FBI, Warren was caught trying to marry underage girls to older men. He was also caught with recordings of him taking advantage of underage kids. Warren was slapped with a lifetime prison sentence, and ever since, the population and influence of the FLDS have reduced drastically.

2. The People’s Temple

The People’s Temple actually started on a good note. It was initially founded by Jim Jones, a white preacher who was a favorite amongst African Americans because he fought for equality. The cult was initially based in Indianapolis but moved to Ukiah.

In just five years, The People’s Temple had amassed thousands of followers with numerous churches in Los Angeles and San Francisco. During this period, Jim also started building a community called Jonestown. The cult influence was so strong that it caught the attention of the entire country, prompting a visit from Congressman Leo Ryan.

During his visit, Leo Ryan observed that some members were being kept against their will. In fear of being exposed, Jim Jones sent people to kill the congressman at the airstrip. Also, on the same day, he convinced more than 900 of his followers, including 276 children, to end their lives at Jonestown by drinking Flavor Aid packed with tranquilizers and cyanide. Only 87 people survived this ordeal.

3. Branch Davidians

The Branch Davidians cult was founded by Benjamin Roden in 1955. He was then succeeded by Lois Roden, who later handed the leadership baton to David Koresh. From the beginning, this cult was always controversial. However, with Koresh as the leader, things became worse. To begin with, Koresh viewed himself as the Messiah, and all women were his wives, including those already married and young children.

Koresh also had a hobby of collecting firearms. In 1993, the ATF raided the cult’s premises and engaged in a 51-day standoff. A fire started on the premises that killed 80 people, including Koresh and 20 minors. This marked the end of Branch Davidians.

4. NXIVM

NXIVM founder Keith Raniere.

Operating in New York, NXIVM, pronounced as Nexium, is a cult popularized by being affiliated with Smallville actor Allison Mack. NXIVM was led by Keith Raniere, who claimed this was a self-help program. However, it was later on discovered to be a cult engaging in adult activities.

Keith used Allison Mack and Clare Bronfman, daughter to the Seagram’s liquor owner, to recruit women and children into the program, who would then be taken advantage of, used as free labor, or even trafficked to other parts of the US.

Besides being enslaved, women were asked to give up their money and possessions. These would then be kept as collateral if someone decided to run away. Keith was arrested and sentenced to 120 years in prison. His accomplice, Allison Mack, only got 3 years.

5. Angel’s Landing

Angel’s Landing cult was led by Lou Castro, aka Daniel Perez, who claimed to be an angel who could heal people and see into the future. Lou Castro lied to his followers that for him to be alive, he had to engage in intercourse with young girls, and any mothers offered up their daughters for this sacrifice.

The Angel’s Landing cult also intentionally took people’s lives, as there were six deaths that came with hefty insurance checks that went to the organization. Lou was caught in 2010 and sentenced to two life terms for sexual exploitation, aggravated assault, and several other charges. The Angel’s Landing cult mainly operated in Kansas.

6. Movement of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God

In the African country of Uganda, an ex-lady of the night, two ex-nuns, and four ex-Roman Catholic priests started the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments. As the name implies, this group’s main target was to spread awareness about the Ten Commandments.

The seven leaders prophesied that the world would end on 31st December 1999. As a result, they encouraged their followers to give up their earthly possessions. The world did not end on that date, and they moved the prophecy to 17th March 2000.

Members of this cult celebrated heavily the night before. On 17th March, a massive explosion took place, killing more than 700 cult members. Initially, it was believed to be a cult suicide, but investigations later on showed that it was a mass murder.

7. The Family

Anne Hamilton-Byrne believed that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. She married Raynor Johnson, a parapsychologist, and they adopted 28 kids from an organization they had formed called The Great White Brotherhood. The two wanted to create a master race that would outlive an apocalypse predicted by Anne.

Raynor and Anne claimed to be the biological parents of the 28 kids, while the other adults in the family were called aunts and uncles. Defiant kids would be beaten or laced with LSD. Unlike most cult leaders, the two were never really charged for their crimes. Fortunately, the kids were rescued following a successful raid of the family home in 1987.

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Last Update: June 5, 2024