There are dozens of cults still active today, despite the very public demise of many well-known ones. Current cults range from New Age mystic groups to hardcore fundamentalist Christians preparing for the end of days. Many have been around for decades, with some as old as a century. But a few others have sprung up only in the last few years.
What these groups have in common is a cult of personality built around a charismatic leader, a devotion to poverty which usually doesn't extend to said leader, and a belief that they are somehow chosen above all others to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Many keep their flocks in thrall, refusing to let them leave, while others disconnect people from their families so they don't want to.
Here are some of the most well-known modern and famous cults (if we can call them that) and how they began.
Formed in 1972 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Twelve Tribes have gone by a number of names, and have an international presence. Formed out of the "Jesus movement" of the early 70s by Elbert Spriggs (who calls himself Yoneq), the group started as an offshoot of a prayer group for teenagers, which broke off from their Presbyterian church after a January service was canceled in favor of watching the Super Bowl.
Spreading quickly around the South, the group embraced the peace and love vibe of hippie culture, and sought to recreate the first-century Christian church described in the Book of Acts. As such, they have no formal ties to any branch of Christianity, practice messianic Jewish beliefs that teach Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, and seek to establish 12 Israeli tribes around the world to presage the end of the world.
They've also been accused of being a cult, and exploiting their children for slave labor and tax evasion. They have between 2,500 and 3,000 members.
Formally known as the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, this is
a cult of personality based around founder Dwight York. Combining Christianity, ancient Egyptian iconography, African rituals, and a belief that aliens are coming, the Nation believes that 144,000 chosen people will be taken away in a flying city, spirited to Orion to prepare for the final battle against Satan.
Shockingly (or not), York's mish-mash of New Age, Black Power militancy, and ancient Egyptian religion caught on in both the hip hop community, and in rural Georgia, where York built a massive compound, made with donated funds. York's mythology grew, incorporating cloning, racial theory, cosmology, anti-government conspiracies, and linguistics. Even as the cult grew, York was under investigation, and he finally arrested in 2002 for running a massive child molestation ring - comprising as many as 1,000 victims.
He was sent to prison for life, and his compound was seized and demolished. The group still exists, though in much smaller numbers.
Congregation for the Light avoids the backwater compounds common to many cults, instead, having its headquarters in the heart of Manhattan. But it has much else in common with cults, including all-powerful control by one guy, bizarre racial theories about Aryans and Atlantis, doomsday prepping, complex mythology involving owls, strange medical woo about cancer being caused by bad karma, shunning those who break away, and a powerful grip on the sex lives of members.
Oh, and it marries old men off to young girls, and enjoys tax-exempt status as a religion. The Light only has about 200 members, but they're kept in virtual seclusion, often born into the cult by member parents. Most of their money comes from pillaging the estates of dead members.
Catholic Freemason Paul Foster Case created the Builders of the Adytum in 1922, combining esoteric teaching, tarot, Masonic iconography, and Kaballah. Case saw himself as called to "accept the enormous responsibility of founding an Order dedicated to the welfare of all mankind" - and his BOTA group has about 5,000 members worldwide, with a major presence in Los Angeles.
As cults go, it's pretty benign, devoted mostly to the study of mystic rituals, magic, religion, and ancient spirituality. It wants to sell you a lot of books and lessons, but that's about as dark as it gets.