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 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.
Supreme Master Ching HaiVideo: YouTube
Born in Vietnam in 1950, the former Hue Dang Trinh reinvented herself as Supreme Master Ching Hai, expert in Quan Yin meditation, claiming she has the ability to channel God's inner light. What Ching Hai truly has the ability to channel is money - her 20,000 followers have bestowed on her a flamboyant lifestyle, along with an international business group boasting numerous vegetarian restaurants, jewelry boutiques, and a multimedia/web arm.
She also preaches environmentalism, despite building an artificial island in a protected mangrove reserve in Florida - which was seized by the federal government and sold off. Members wear necklaces with her image, are said to work for free at her restaurants, and are not allowed to eat animal products of any kind.
Founded in 1965 by Paul Twichell, this non-profit religion bounced around to a few locations before settling in suburban Minneapolis. Like many other New Age religions, Eckankar is a grab bag of mysticism, Eastern philosophy, meditation, and a made-up iconography. Members claim to have ancient roots, going back tens of thousands of years, speak to each other in an invented language, and take new names for themselves. All of it is done in the name of a mediation where one chants "HU" and separates their soul from their body.
Despite being a registered non-profit, the group sells its founder's materials for a hefty profit - and allegations have abounded that virtually all of Twichell's books laying the foundation of Eckankar are plagiarized.
Church Universal And TriumphantVideo: YouTube
Yet another cult of personality in New Age clothes, the CUT was founded in 1975 as an offshoot of a different movement, Summit Lighthouse. Founder Elizabeth Claire Prophet pitched herself and her husband as messengers of the "Ascended Masters," a set of spiritually awakened ancient beings central to the Theosophy belief system. They also threw in elements of Christian Science, the "I AM" movement, and Mormon-style doomsday prepping .
The Prophets grew wealthy enough to buy large spreads in the Santa Monica mountains and Montana, while members drove themselves into debt building fallout shelters and paying huge sums of money to "reserve a spot" in the post-nuclear-conflict society. The church was also accused of making illicit straw purchases and of using sleep deprivation against members who attempted to leave. In ill health, the Prophet retired in 1999 and passed 10 years later.
Since then, the church has gone through legal problems and succession squabbles - but members still meet on a regular basis.
Apostles Of Infinite Love
Based in the mountains of Quebec, the Apostles of Infinite Love began in 1962 as a Catholic splinter group, formed by excommunicated French priest Michel Collin. Believing he was the true heir to the Church and was receiving messages directly from the Virgin Mary, Collin gave himself the name “Pope Clement XV" and presided over a reign of kidnapping, sexual abuse, and extortion.
The "church" soon split, as Collin feuded with a fellow founding member named Jean Gaston Tremblay, who declared himself to be Pope Gregory XVII, in 1969. He passed in 2011, but not before being the subject of a 34-year investigation that led to a massive raid in 1999 - and ended with all charges being dropped. The cult apparently is at a low point, with no new leader and a number of members having left.