(Investigator 25, 1992 July)


In the 1970s it was estimated that three million Americans belonged to 3,000 religious and non-religious cults

Marijuana-smoking Rastafarians considered Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia the Messiah. The Bible Church of Satan taught: "If someone smite you on one cheek, smash him on the other." The UFO cult led by Bo and Peep believed the two leaders would be killed and resurrected after three days after which all the members would be beamed aboard Flying Saucers and taken to the Kingdom of Heaven.

By 1971 Jim Jones, whose cult committed mass suicide in 1977 (910 died), was already behaving like a lunatic. He claimed to have raised 43 people from the dead, claimed he himself couldn't be killed, and "proved" this by appearing in a blood stained shirt with bullet hole. He made cult members sign phony confessions of rape, murder and child molestation in order to increase his power over them. Jones' meetings were full of fake cancer cures and other fake miracles in which willing stooges cooperated.

Worldwide the number of cults could be in the tens of thousands. In many of them the members give their welfare cheques to the leaders or live in secluded communes or reject medical treatment or even get physically beaten or sexually abused.

Obviously by "cult" I don't refer to long established and respectable groups whose theology varies from the dominant denominations. Such a group (e.g the Christadelphians) would be a "sect". By "cult" I refer to groups which have such serious anti-social tendencies that most people would view the group as fanatical, irrational and destructive.

Let's take a brief look at some more cults:


In Germany Catholic priest Joseph Stocker was defrocked and excommunicated in 1952 because of an affair with plump Magdalena Kohler. He then started religious meetings with himself as leader. In 1960 the cult made international headlines by gathering on a Bavarian mountain-top to escape catastrophic floods God was sending.

After three days they descended amidst jeers of spectators. Stocker and Kohler skipped to Switzerland to escape fraud charges filed by converts. Near Zurich Kohler gathered new followers and ruled them with iron discipline. One girl, Bernadette Hassler, was kept locked up from the age of 15-17, accused of being a witch, and forced to write a 322-page diary of alleged sexual exploits. Bernadette was flogged to death on May 14 1966 during worship in an attempt to exorcise the Devil from her.

Stocker and Kohler were sentenced to ten years.

Adolpho de Jesus, the Godfather of a voodoo drug smuggling cult perished, May 6 1989, in Mexico City during a shootout with police. The cult, which prayed to the Devil and sacrificed human victims had gained world attention when 15 murder victims were found, April 12, on a ranch 35km west of Metamoras, Mexico. Five cult members, taken into custody, admitted worshipping Satan: "So the police would not arrest them, so bullets would not kill them, and so they could make more money."

In March 1969 nine members of a California Bible study group were charged with conspiracy, use of explosives, terrorism to affect political change, and vandalism. The group was apprehended while preparing to disrupt meetings of a Unitarian Church with tear gas. Police later confiscated weapons, Nazi relics and pro-Nazi tracts. Led by James McGees the Bible class of 25 to 30, which included hippies and businessmen, met Friday nights to hear doctrinal tapes of Rev. Robert Thieme, pastor of an independent Dallas (Texas) church. In jail the group led prisoners in singing patriotic songs and hymns.

In Australia Sydney recluse Violet Prior (b. 1923) called herself "God", took tithes of 50% of followers' incomes, punished complainers by locking them under guard in bedrooms for up to five days, claimed she could sprout wings, and claims to have a son who will rule the world.

Mrs Prior joined the Anglican Church in 1973, organized the "Zion Full Ministry", gained personal followers by alleged ability at faith healing and set herself up in a shore-front mansion in the exclusive Palm Beach suburb. After surviving a car crash in 1977 she convinced devotees she was God. She settled all arguments by quoting the Bible. She claimed that she had written the Bible and therefore knew the right interpretation. The woman isolated herself more and more. No one saw her after 1984 when she began acting through three trustees whom she commanded from behind locked doors. Before 1973 Mrs Prior lived in the New South Wales country town of Leeton where she had two nervous breakdowns.

In the Netherlands town of Staphorst (population 10,000) the girls have to be pregnant before getting married. A virgin leaves a "love window" open on the ground floor for the boy she fancies. If she gets pregnant the guy has to marry her. If he refuses he gets rolled around in animal excreta. It's an ancient custom still promoted by the Reformed Association Church a branch of 16th century Calvinism. The sect bans TV, mirrors and cosmetics and still uses the birch rod and stocks to punish thieves. Attendance at movies and discos is also banned. Boy meets girl when they size each other up in church.

In rural India are the "hijra"–males castrated without anaesthetic who (if they survive the bleeding) become prostitutes and are worshipped as representatives of the goddess. Mothers often bring sick children to a hijra for blessing. The cultural clan, Muslim in origin, came to India in 1540 with the Moghuls.

The Holy Spirit Movement led by Mama Alice (b. 1960) was virtually wiped out in 1987 when they tried to replace the government of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. The daughter of an Anglican clergyman she claimed to possess supernatural powers. She gave followers a powder to make them invisible to government troops and an oil (otherwise used in shampoo) to make bullets slip off their bodies. Mama Alice had doubters murdered and claimed to be led by the messiah who spoke 74 languages through her. Up to 6,000 Ugandans died mainly in battles with government troops and Alice herself was wounded.

American break-away cults from Mormonism totalling perhaps 60,000 members still practise polygamy. In January 1988 about 150 police surrounded a log cabin in Utah after a polygamous cult member dynamited a nearby Mormon church. The founder, TV repairman John Singer, had died in a previous showdown with police on January 18, 1979. Nine years later someone had a vision that John Singer was about to be resurrected and then would follow the Second Coming of Christ. That's when renewed trouble with the law commenced.

Last century Mormon Leader Brigham Young, who himself had at least 27 wives, taught: "The only men who become Gods, even the sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy."

The examples could go on and on and on. Cults are obviously a serious problem.

SUNDAY MAIL (South Australia) 1976, November 21


BERNE, Saturday:

The leader of a strange religious sect told his 300 followers that love-making was sinful and that even husbands and wives had to keep at least one yard apart at all times

But 59-year-old Paul Baumann did not practise what he preached in his weird hill-top community. 

A jury at Thun, Switzerland, heard the prosecutor describe him as a lecher and seducer of young virgins, a liar and a cheat. 

Baumann was called Big Daddy by the followers of the sect he founded 17 years ago.

Men and women revered him as a saint, the prosecutor Dr Bernard Moser told the court. 

But at night, the ugly little man with the wrinkled bony face, staring eyes, and long black mane went on the prowl.

The jury found him guilty of offences against minors, and as the judge gaoled him for seven years, there were shouts from the public benches: "Hang him, Shoot him."

Baumann's Linden Sect was based as the Isolated Linden estate near Berne.

The young girls of the sect lived in special houses and were easy prey. But Big Daddy was insatiable, and at times he also kept five married women in his "harem."

When new members joined with their families Big Daddy took their money and possessions.

Sex, drink, smoking and gambling were forbidden. Radio, TV and newspapers were banned.

And the men and women worked 14 hours a day in the furniture factory and market garden which made him a millionaire.

They believed he could perform miracles – even walk on the water.

After a while they became like zombies. He put them in chains and they confessed their lustful thoughts for all to hear.

And the young girls longed to become one of the angels – the chosen few who were allowed to enter the "holy zone" where Big Daddy said he communicated with visitors from outer space.

The angels, all aged 14 to 16, undressed and bathed their leader. They danced naked before him and they slept with him in a splendid temple that their parents had built.

Angel Cathy was 15 when Bauman seduced her.

She said: "I had to strip. Then Big Daddy put a new dress on me, adorned me with jewels and diamonds and put a crown on my head.

"He said I needed purification to become a true queen of angels. He was very brutal in bed. But I was proud to be chosen."


In 1980 psychologist George Swope interviewed 125 former cult members of a variety of cults. He sought their motivations for joining up in the first place and categorized cult membership as follows:

Although sometimes grandma gets hooked also, most converts to cults are young people seeking friendship, warmth, meaning and acceptance. If in addition they get simple reasons for conflict and instability in the world and a means of entering utopia, either immediately or in the near future, so much the better.

Most cults have, through years of experience, established standard answers to commonly asked questions and easily stay an intellectual jump ahead of the novice. Praise, affection and acceptance which the newcomer at first gets so freely must soon be paid for by increasing agreement and conformity. Add to this a reassuring routine of regular meetings and a seemingly friendly and inspiring leader and silly doctrines start making sense.

The conversion process reaches completion when the person consents to actions which show commitment, actions which will make it emotionally difficult to ever turn back, public actions involving family and friends and self sacrifice.

This may include public baptism, public preaching and/or fundraising, moving into a commune or to a missionary field, dropping out of college or employment, rejecting former friends or one's own family, donating one's money and/or assets to the cult, rejecting some form of medical treatment, disobeying the law because it "conflicts with God's law," depriving oneself of sleep, etc.

After so much commitment the cultist may stay in the cult even when prophecies or other doctrines fail because he sees no viable alternatives.

Perhaps, then, society needs more "cult busters".


Self designated "cult busters" and "anti cult ministries" and "cult research" organizations usually work along with and/or are sponsored, by a denomination or sect. The goals are to disseminate information about cults, persuade people to stay away from cults, and evangelize cult members and get them out and into a mainline denomination.

The 1988 Directory of Cult Research Organizations lists "305 evangelical counter cult ministries". Another list published in a magazine called Bethel Ministries named over 120 ministries which target the Watchtower Sect.

Counter cult ministries usually include among the cults anyone who doesn't accept the "orthodox" doctrine of the Trinity. Depending on which religion he works for the cult buster may disparage tithing, adult baptism, prophetic time charts, pyramidology, faith healing, "paradise on Earth" beliefs, "the dead are conscious of nothing" belief, the "British are descendants of Israel" belief, etc.

It seems to me very anomalous when fringe groups such as the Christian Revival Crusade (derived from the Assemblies of God) and the Church of the Foursquare Gospel set up supposed "counter cult" ministries.

I suspect that anti cult ministries are capitalising on media application of the word cult to "cargo cults", "suicide cults", the Charles Manson cult, witchcraft cults, the Jim Jones cult, etc. In the media, then, a "cult" is something nasty. Along comes a "cult buster" and labels the Adventists and Christadelphians a "cult". Apparently, in using this label, the "cult buster" is trying to promote a negative attitude to a rival sect and in that way get people to close their ears and eyes to the rival sect.

In 1978 journalists Carroll Stoner and Jo Anne Parke included the following identifying marks of cults:

It's easy to find alternative sets of identifying marks of "cults". The term "cult" remains a slippery concept and even the cult busters have trouble defining it so that every group they call "cult" fully fits the definition and every other group is fully excluded.

Myself, I prefer - along with the media - to apply the word "cult" to obviously nasty groups which deprive members of their money, mind, health or life and kick out and totally shun anyone who objects. The more anti-society the group the more likely I would call it cult but there is no set borderline.

Groups which are long established but still on the fringe I would call a "sect". A letter in The Australian Women's Weekly expressed some valid indignation:

"I am a Christadelphian, and to me a cult is a sect that brainwashes its members, takes their money and performs weird rituals. I think this is an impression many people have, so I was disturbed to see The Weekly put Christadelphians into this category... We do not put people on trial… We are a religious group, not a strange cult." (1988, July, p.97)

Some cult busters are ex members of the "cult" they seek to bust. They may have left because they could no longer stand the falsehoods and manipulations of the leaders – good motives for leaving. Others, however, were tossed out of the "cult" for sexual promiscuity, or for trying to impose a new doctrine obtained via a vision, or for taking up smoking or gambling, etc. In other words they broke rules they agreed to keep when they joined and rules which are valid and worthwhile anyway. I would wonder whether cult busters of such origin have anything useful to offer!

Some cult busters put a lot of effort into raising funds via newsletters which contain little if any useful information. In one instance, I heard of, the cult buster is funded by special collections taken up in church except that the pastors delete all the $100s and $50s for themselves and give the cult buster the small currency. Apparently a case of "Christian" embezzlement which could carry a prison sentence!

A reputable source of information on so-called cults is the Bible College of South Australia. The college offers courses towards Degrees, Diplomas and includes courses on "cults".

Susan and Alan Fehlberg (Investigator 7, pp. 43-45) manage a cult information service called True Light Ministries in Victor Harbour (South Australia). They have also taught at the Bible College on occasion.

Mrs Fehlberg complained that she finds her anti cult campaign a little inconsistent when in her own church are pastors who promote "time charts" and pyramidology – which constitute "cultic tendencies". She viewed her discourses at Bible College as a means of influencing future pastors and lay preachers away from such "cultic tendencies".

(P D)

Investigator Magazine Home Page: