New Religions & the Cult Controversy

Edited by James R. Lewis

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2001 James R. Lewis. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-57392-842-9

Chapter One



The cult controversy is a complex social issue that has engendered an emotional and often mean-spirited debate. At the center of this debate are a wide variety of diverse groups that often have little in common. While some are political organizations or psychological movements, the great majority are religious groups. Most embrace belief systems at odds with the Judeo-Christian mainline, although some are quite orthodox. Also, while they are usually relatively small, new organizations, almost all have roots in older, larger traditions. The one trait these groups share is that they are controversial. Decades of social conflict have left their impress on the term "cult," which, to the general public, indicates a religious group that is false, dangerous, or otherwise bad.

    The sharpness of the cult controversy has tended to polarize participants into extreme positions, making it difficult to find a middle ground from which to approach the issue. Hence, rather than tackling the problem directly, it might well repay our efforts to work our way into the debate indirectly, through the stories of two contrasting religious groups that will serve to highlight some of the dilemmas associated with the cult controversy.

    In the following sections, the story of Heaven's Gate, the UFO group that committed suicide in 1997, will be used to exemplify the concerns that "anticultists" bring to the controversy. The Island Pond raid—involving the Twelve Tribes, a less well-known Christian group—will, on the other hand, be used to exemplify the concerns of religious libertarians.

Heaven's Gate

Getting off the Planet

On March 26, 1997, the bodies of thirty-nine men and women were found in a posh mansion outside San Diego, all victims of a mass suicide. Messages left by the group indicate that they believed they were stepping out of their "physical containers" in order to ascend to a UFO that was arriving in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. They also asserted that this comet, or parts of it, would subsequently crash into the earth and cause widespread destruction. In a taped message, their leader further noted that our calendars were off—that the year 1997 was really the year 2000, as if everyone was in agreement that the world would end precisely two millennia after the time of Jesus.

    Heaven's Gate—formerly known as Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM)—originally made headlines in September 1975 when, following a public lecture in Waldport, Oregon, over thirty people vanished overnight. This disappearance became the occasion for a media event. For the next several months, reporters generated story after story about glassy-eyed cult groupies abandoning the everyday lives to follow the strange couple who alternately referred to themselves as "Bo and Peep," "the Two," "Do and Ti," and other bizarre monikers.

    Bo and Peep founded one of the most unusual flying saucer religions ever to emerge out of the occult-metaphysical subculture. Bo (Marshall Herff Applewhite) and Peep (Bonnie Lu Nettles) met in 1972. In 1973, they had an experience which convinced them that they were the two witnesses mentioned in Revelation 11 who would be martyred and then resurrected three and a half days later—an event they later referred to as the Demonstration. Preaching an unusual synthesis of occult spirituality and UFO soteriology, they began recruiting in new age circles in the spring of 1975. Followers were required to abandon friends and family, detach themselves completely from human emotions as well as material possessions, and focus exclusively on perfecting themselves in preparation for a physical transition (i.e., beaming up) to the next kingdom (in the form of a flying saucer)—a metamorphosis that would be facilitated by ufonauts.

    As an unusually fascinating form of rejected knowledge that mainstream scientists tend to classify as paranormal anyway, UFOs have attracted considerable interest within the occult-metaphysical subculture. Almost from the beginning, however, this subculture had transformed flying saucers and their presumed extraterrestrial pilots into spiritual beings who had come to earth to help us along the path. To accomplish the transformation of E.T.s into wise, esoteric beings, "ufonauts" were assimilated into earlier models of spiritual sages, particularly the so-called ascended masters.

    The concept of ascended masters or the Great White Brotherhood was codified within Theosophy by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the 1880s, and from there has been derived by the various religious groups that descend from the Theosophical Society. Many people in the New Age movement believe that such masters guide the spiritual progress of humanity. The equation of ascended masters with ufonauts seems to have developed out of an earlier idea, which was that at least some of the masters were from other planets in our solar system, such as Venus.

    Even much "secular" thinking about UFOs embodies quasi-religious themes, such as the crypto-religious notion that the world is on the verge of destruction and that ufonauts are somehow going to rescue humanity—either by forcibly preventing a nuclear Armageddon or by taking select members of the human race to another planet to preserve the species. The psychologist Carl Jung was referring to the latter portrayal of ufonauts when he called them "technological angels." Jung interpreted the phenomenon of flying saucers—which often appear in the form of circular disks—as mandala symbols, reflecting the human mind's desire for stability in a confused world. From a depth psychological point of view, it is thus no coincidence that the chariots of the gods should manifest in the form of a circle, which is a symbol of wholeness.

    But if UFOs are the chariots of the gods, then why don't the Space Brothers just land and communicate their ideas to humanity in person? The same question has sometimes been asked with respect to the Great White Brotherhood. One of the salient characteristics of the ascended masters was that they preferred to communicate their occult teachings through the medium of telepathic messages sent to select individuals. These chosen vessels then relayed the masters' messages to the larger public, either vocally in a form of mediumship later called "channeling" or in written form via a process usually referred to as automatic writing. Because the ascended masters are the primary model for the Space Brothers, it comes as no surprise that later-day UFO prophets should employ the same methods for communicating the wisdom of the ufonauts to the larger public.

    Applewhite—the son of a Presbyterian minister, who himself had aspired to a ministerial career—supplied some distinctly Christian elements to his and Nettles's theological synthesis. Of particular importance was the notion of physical resurrection: In the early phase of their movement, Applewhite and Nettles taught that the goal of the process they were teaching their followers was to prepare them to be physically taken aboard the spacecraft where they would enter a cocoonlike state, eventually being reborn in a transformed physical body.

    The notion of resurrection is central to chapter 11 of the Book of Revelation, the biblical passage Applewhite and Nettles came to view as describing their particular ministry. This chapter recounts the story of two prophets who will be slain. Then, three and a half days later, they will be resurrected and taken up in a cloud:

At the end of the three days and a half the breath of life from God came into them; and they stood up on their feet to the terror of all who saw it. Then a loud voice was heard speaking to them from heaven, which said, "Come up here!" And they went up to heaven in a cloud, in full view of their enemies. At that same moment there was a violent earthquake. (Rev. 11:11-13)

In the early phase of their movement, Applewhite and Nettles prophesied that they would soon be assassinated. Using the above passage as a script for future events, they further predicted that they would be resurrected three and a half days later and taken up into a flying saucer. The Two asserted that this event—which, as was said earlier, they termed The Demonstration—would prove the truth of their teachings. As for their followers, they taught that Heaven was the literal, physical heavens, and those few people chosen to depart with the Two would, after their physical transformation, become crew members aboard UFOs.

    While the basic teachings seem to have remained constant, the details of their ideology were flexible enough to undergo modification over time. For example, in the early days, Applewhite and Nettles taught their followers that they were extraterrestrial beings. However, after the notion of walk-ins became popular within the New Age subculture, the Two changed their tune and began describing themselves as extraterrestrial walk-ins.

    Another notion the Two picked up from the metaphysical subculture of their day was the ancient astronaut hypothesis. The term "ancient astronauts" is used to refer to various forms of the concept that ufonauts visited our planet in the distant past. The basic idea that many, if not all of the powerful sky gods of traditional religions were really extraterrestrial visitors intervening in human history has been around for many decades. However, it was not until a series of books about the "chariots of the gods" authored by Erich van Däniken in the 1970s that this notion was popularized.

    One aspect of the ancient astronaut hypothesis is the idea that the contemporary human race is the offspring of a union between aliens and native terrestrials. In a somewhat different version of the same idea, ancient ufonauts stimulated the evolution of our apelike forebears to produce present-day humanity. Our space "fathers" have subsequently been watching over us, and will, according to some new age notions, return to mingle with their distant offspring during the imminent new age.

    Applewhite and Nettles taught a slightly modified version of the ancient astronaut hypothesis: Aliens planted the seeds of current humanity millions of years ago, and have come to reap the harvest of their work in the form of spiritual evolved individuals who will join the ranks of flying saucer crews. Only a select few members of humanity will be chosen to advance to this transhuman state. The rest will be left to wallow in the spiritually poisoned atmosphere of a corrupt world.

    Applewhite would later teach that after the elect had been picked up by the space brothers, the planet would be engulfed in cataclysmic destruction. When, in 1993, under the name of Total Overcomers Anonymous, the group ran an advertisement in USA Today, their portrayal of the post-rapture world was far more apocalyptic than Applewhite and Nettles had taught in the seventies:

The Earth's present "civilization" is about to be recycled—"spaded under." Its inhabitants are refusing to evolve. The "weeds" have taken over the garden and disturbed its usefulness beyond repair.

For followers of the Two, the focus of day-to-day existence was to follow a disciplined regime referred to as the overcoming process or, simply, the process. The goal of this process was to overcome human weaknesses—a goal not dissimilar to the goal of certain spiritual practices followed by more mainstream monastic communities.

    The group developed quietly until the media interest evoked in the wake of the Waldport, Oregon, meeting. They subsequently canceled a planned meeting in Chicago, and split the group into a number of autonomous "families" consisting of a dozen or more individuals. Another change was the subsequent announcement that the Demonstration had been canceled because their followers had not been making rapid enough progress in the overcoming process. Rather than focusing on the time when they would be taken up by the saucers, they must concentrate on their own development.

    The seminomadic period ended within a few years when two followers inherited a total of approximately $300,000. They then rented houses, initially in Denver and later in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Each house, which they called a "craft," had the windows covered to prevent the neighbors from watching their activities. Followers adhered to a strict routine. Immersed in the intensity of their structured lifestyle, the teachings of the Two became more and more real to members.

    The group's strict segregation from society was suddenly altered in 1983 when many followers visited their families on Mother's Day. However, these members dropped out of contact as soon as they left. It was during these visits that they communicated to their families that they were learning computer technology. Another change took place in 1985, when Nettles died of cancer. The group surfaced again in 1994 when, thinking the lift-off would begin in a year or two, they held another series of public meetings. It -was as part of this new cycle of missionary activity that the USA Today ad appeared.

    Details about how the group came to attach apocalyptic significance to the Hale-Bopp Comet are tantalizingly scanty. For whatever reason, someone outside the group had come to the conclusion that a giant UFO was coming to earth, "hidden" in the wake of Hale-Bopp. This individual then placed his opinion on the Internet. When Heaven's Gate retrieved this information, Applewhite took it as an indication that the long awaited pick-up of his group by aliens was finally about to take place. The decision that the time had come to make their final exit could not have been made more than a few weeks before the mass suicide.

    The idea that the group might depart via suicide had emerged in Applewhite's thinking only within the last few years. The earlier idea—an idea that had set Heaven's Gate apart from everyone else—was that group of individuals selected to move to the next level would bodily ascend to the saucers in a kind of "technological rapture." Applewhite may have begun to rethink his theology after his beloved partner died because, in order to be reunited with Nettles, her spirit would have to acquire a new body aboard the spacecraft. While the death of Nettles may or may not have been the decisive influence, he later adopted the view that Heaven's Gate would ascend together spiritually rather than physically.

The Anti-Cult Movement: A Response
to the Anti-Social Actions of Extreme Groups

The deaths of Heaven's Gate members was, at the time of this writing, the latest in a series of dramatic incidents involving members of minority religions. Other incidents include the Jonestown murder/suicides (1978), the ATF/FBI raid on the Branch Davidian community (1993), the Solar Temple suicides (1994), and the Tokyo subway poison gas attack (1995). In the wake of these events, the mass media sought out a variety of "cult experts" in an effort to make sense of seemingly irrational behavior. Most of these experts offered the public an explanation in terms of the notion of cultic mind control, colloquially known as "brainwashing." The seemingly crazy actions of "cult" members were not difficult to explain, this group of experts claimed, as long as one understands that megalomaniacal cult leaders like Applewhite are able to control the thought processes of their followers: Under the influence of mind control, cult members are capable of anything because they have given up their wills to the leader.

    According to spokespeople for cult "watchdog" groups, our society is populated by hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of cult groups, many of which are capable of extreme actions. Beyond mind control and the imputation of sinister motives to the leader, standard accusations leveled against minority religions unfortunate enough to be labeled cults include deceptive recruiting practices, financial and sexual exploitation, food and sleep deprivation of members, various forms of illegal activities, child abuse, ritual abuse, and so forth. Because of the interest the mass media have taken in this issue, this stereotype has become widely accepted in contemporary society.

    Putting aside the problematic notion of "cultic brainwashing" for the moment, there are or have been groups for which some of these accusations are or were appropriate. In particular, children have been abused within a few religious communities. Members of certain organizations have been financially and/or sexually exploited by the leadership. A handful of minority religions have taken the law into their own hands. And at least one group consciously deceived potential recruits by systematically hiding their identity until after workshop attendees had become de facto members.

    There are, however, obvious dangers in unreflectively applying the cult stereotype to every religious group that strikes one as strange or different. The situation is not unlike that of viewing a race or an ethnicity in terms of a generalization derived from the minority group's least reputable members. The types of problems that can be generated by jumping to the conclusion that unusual religious communities must be guilty of misdeeds simply because hostile former members level accusations against them are well exemplified in the raid against the Northeast Kingdom.

Northeast Kingdom

The Island Pond Raid

In the wee hours of the early morning on June 22, 1984, the residents in the small village of Island Pond, Vermont, awoke to a literal governmental invasion of their community. With no advance warning or notice, more than 150 law enforcement officers and agents from various state agencies stormed the twenty or so homes where the members of the Twelve Tribes (then known as the Northeast Kingdom Community Church) lived, arresting more than 100 adults and 112 children.

    What was so unusual about this church? How did the State of Vermont become so entangled in the controversy surrounding this community that they acted precipitously, without first conducting a thorough investigation—actions for which they were later forced to apologize? How did a small, peaceable Christian sect become a major target for such radical activities?

    The Twelve Tribes began in the foothills of Tennessee around 1972, when an independent fundamentalist preacher, Elbert Eugene Spriggs, built a loyal following of believers into a model New Testament community church. Spriggs called his group the Light Brigade and he spent most of his early ministry pulling drug addicts and alcoholics off the streets of Chattanooga. Later, the name was changed to the Vine Christian Community Church and the ministry spread into surrounding communities.

    The church members separated themselves from worldly pursuits and materialistic gains, supporting themselves with homegrown foods and necessities which they also sold to local area residents. One of the mainstays of financial support has been their delicatessen and take out shop, which features natural foods. The church has always attracted the attention of the local residents, but most of them accepted the group as "different, but nice folks." At first glance, the members of the church remind you of the Amish church members. The women wear kerchiefs on their heads, long dresses, little or no make-up, and the men usually wear beards, long hair, and overalls.

    The Tennessee community grew to more than four hundred residents and became a very successful example of the "community paradigms" which dotted the countryside during the early seventies and eighties. There was never any violence and very few confrontations with anyone outside of the community. There were a few marital disputes, but only a small number of divorces compared to a typical church of similar size. One of the few problems to surface during the Tennessee years lit the match for the attacks which have followed them for the past fifteen or more years.

    Clifford Daniels, a young man with a history of personal problems, joined the community and soon rose to a leadership position managing one of the business interests of the community. Problems developed with the church elders when Daniels "borrowed" some of the business funds and a church vehicle without authority. When the indiscretion was discovered and he appeared before the church Board of Elders, he became violent and attempted to attack one of the leaders with a tire iron.

    He was banished from the community. Seeking revenge, Daniels fell in with another former resident of the area, Ted Patrick. Patrick had migrated to southern California, but was still active in the Tennessee foothills where his family and friends continued to live. It was the mid-1970s, and Patrick had gained some notoriety among a growing number of anticult activists as a "deprogrammer"—a term he coined to give credibility to his kidnapping and abductions of young people from religious groups. Borrowing from the brainwashing techniques used by the communists on the American prisoners of war, Patrick's exploits were quickly giving him wide recognition among concerned relatives of adult children who had joined the religious versions of the hippie revolution. Many were more than willing to hire him to return their adult "children" to their control.

    Daniels became a good team member for Patrick. The members of Spriggs's quaint community church provided excellent potential for Patrick's deprogramming-for-hire enterprise. Daniels was an eager student, and soon became an independent deprogrammer on his own. By 1984, he was kidnaping twenty to thirty people a given year from a variety of local churches. Throughout his career, Daniels's favorite target has always remained the Northeast Kingdom Church. In spite of the publicity stirred up by Patrick and Daniels against the church to support their kidnapping activities, the church continued to grow and prosper.

    In 1976, the church had an opportunity to move onto land they had acquired in northern Vermont. It offered the perfect haven for their lifestyle and the vision which Spriggs saw for his church. The move provided even more fuel for the anticult activists whose numbers had also increased significantly.

    Former members who had been deprogrammed by Patrick, Daniels, and other deprogrammers had jumped on the lucrative circuit. Local anticult contacts throughout the country were prompting uneasy relatives to "rescue" their adult offspring with the deprogrammer's expert services, even if it meant that they returned to a life of drugs and purposelessness. Many of the kidnapping incidents were perpetrated by the deprogrammers as a means to gain custody of children who were still in the church when one of the parents had left or were previously deprogrammed.

    Some of these would end up in court where the noncustodial parent would seek a new custody hearing by injecting stories by deprogrammed former members about child abuse. A campaign of letters and charges to various officials continued in order to build their cases. At one point, several families were even charged with truancy for failing to send their children to a public school instead of home schooling or because their children were in the church school. The charges were always dropped for lack of evidence.

    The fact that they were dropped never troubled their antagonists. The publicity surrounding the charges and the documents alleging the charges proved sufficient documentation to use for more attacks. At the height of his notoriety in the mid-seventies, Patrick traveled the country meeting with local anticult activists and training new converts to become deprogrammers. Long before Spriggs contemplated his move to the New England countryside, Patrick had planted his seeds of destruction.

    Patrick joined forces with a local New England activist who owned a remote farm in upper New York state, and the hide-a-way provided Patrick and other deprogrammers with a perfect "safe-house" to keep their kidnap victims while they attempted to convince them to forsake their religious beliefs. Patrick eventually gathered a number of like-minded individuals together in the New England area and helped found the formal organization that became the Citizens Freedom Foundation (later changing its name to the Cult Awareness Network). All of these organizations were interlocked with overlapping board members, leaders, and deprogrammers who functioned as conduits for the deprogramming network.

    Although numerous members of these organizations have been arrested, charged, and often convicted for crimes involving their attacks against local churches and religious groups, they have been able to maintain an air of respectability that has gleaned support for their activities. There are many sociological reasons for this phenomenon, but their best ally has always been the natural tendency of people to fear the unknown and the unusual.

    The Cult Awareness Network, with the help of New England deprogrammer Galen Kelly, eagerly picked up the campaign against the church from Tennessee. Vermont is a largely rural state, and the Vermonters seemed eager to accept the wild accusations and charges levied against these "strangers" from Tennessee. An article in the Vermont Magazine (March, 1991) makes the point very well:

For the residents of Island Pond, it was watching out for children that proved the greatest challenge to their intolerance of newcomers. It was one thing to wake up and find a couple of hundred New Testament zealots had come to town from heaven knows where. It was another to learn that they had given up all their earthly possessions to join the church—a vow of poverty—and held all things in common, and lived, ate and worked together. It was still another that they criticized much of American culture as corrupt and all other Christian denominations as misguided. It was yet another to see that they drew members from among the young, the transient, the dissatisfied and the burned out. Worse, they looked like hippies.

Jumping on these prejudices, the network of deprogrammers, anticult activists, and deprogrammed former members relentlessly pursued a campaign against the church. The campaign included town hall meetings where lurid stories of abuse and wild allegations of killing babies were proffered with vivid details. Letters of protest and allegations of abuse flooded the offices of the Department of Social Services, the Department of Education, the congressmen, the senators, the governor, and every law enforcement agency that could be found. Even Immigration, the Internal Revenue Service, and state departments were petitioned.

    The allegations and protests were peppered with supposed "atrocities" from other states which involved "similar" local churches that had to be addressed by government officials. The charges were embellished with overtones drawn from publicity surrounding the Jonestown incident. Finally, Governor Richard Snelling and Attorney General John Easton were convinced that there were enough allegations and testimonies to take serious action against the community of believers. The anti-Northeast Kingdom Community campaign was working. Kelly and company were actually invited to tag along for the raid on the community at Island Pond.

    At 6:30 A.M. on Friday, June 22, 1984, a caravan of state police officers, social service workers, sheriff deputies, and an assortment of other officials swooped down on the residents and arrested 110 adults and took 112 children of all ages into custody. They loaded the 222 men, women, and children into separate buses, separating crying children from their distraught and bewildered parents with little or no explanations. A local resident later recalled, "It was awful. It was just like Vietnam!"

    While the Northeast Kingdom Community were huddled in a gymnasium which served as a makeshift detention center, the State Attorney requested a blanket detention order from the District Court in order that a full-scale investigation could be conducted on the incarcerated residents. The judge refused. The court held that "the state failed to present any specific evidence of abuse," and ordered all of the children to be released. After a thorough examination by the social service case workers, no evidence of any abuse of any kind could be found.

    The event, however, served the purposes of the Cult Awareness Network. The raid made headlines in news media across the nation. As usual, the fact that the children were all returned, the parents released, and no charges ever filed for lack of evidence barely rated a back-page mention. Deprogrammers still kidnap children as well as adults from the Northeast Kingdom Community. Some have been taken to courts in other states and custody given to the noncustodial parent and others have been returned by the courts. The deprogrammers get paid for their services either way.

    The children at Island Pond have been investigated by every agency possible, and the church has never been charged with abuse. News reporters have visited the community and found only fresh, happy, well-adjusted children who are growing up to be responsible, mature adults with deep religious convictions. The ministry of Eugene Spriggs continues to grow. Currently, there are expressions of the home base church in Vermont which are now located in areas throughout the world and in a number of cities throughout America.

George Robertson