Cult Leaders Throughout History Essay

Peggy Riley's debut novel Amity & Sorrowis a fierce but compassionate look at nature vs. nurture through the lens of a polygamous cult. Riley, who took inspiration from a photograph of a burning wooden church, walks us through the history of the American cult.

My 1970s California childhood was filled with violent faiths and death cults in a decade feeling the hangover of the Summer of Love and suffering the fallout of the nuclear family. I was five when Charles Manson was sentenced to life for the murders committed by his Family of former hippies, pretty girls whose minds had been opened and broken. I was in Junior High when the bodies were discovered in Jonestown, the jungle commune in Guyana where Reverend Jim Jones had hoped to build a new Eden. I will never forget the shape of them, lying flat and embracing, all having drunk poison punch at his command. I wondered how it was possible to have such faith, such all-consuming, passionate awful faith that you would follow such a leader, however charismatic he was.

The history of American faith is filled with charismatic leaders, eager to change the world and to destroy it. In a nation founded by religious radicals in search of freedom, we are raised to believe and raised to protect the right to believe at all costs. The faithful pushed their wagons into the empty west, missionaries and prophets spreading the word, building utopian societies with a violent certainty. The Mormon pioneers irrigated and settled an uninhabitable land of salt lakes. Their communal, utopian church would split over the practice of polygamy, which stood in opposition to the government and statehood. The recent raids on the fundamentalist Mormon Yearning for Zion Ranch of Warren Jeffs in Texas reminds us of the history of secret societies, with young women in pioneer dresses, trapped in cycles generations old, of men who must have multiple wives to attain the highest levels of heaven, a tenet of faith revealed by the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Joseph Smith.

In a post-war world, our faiths have turned darker and deadlier. We have grabbed hold of our freedom with both hands. Urbanization has led to isolation, to a rootless people in search of connection, estranged from the families that might have cautioned them or saved them. New cults formed in cities with followers drawn to a range of new gurus, Sun Myung Moon, Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, “Fathers” Yod and David “Moses” Berg. All have been accused of a range of abuses, sexual, physical, mental, financial. Groups were made through abduction and maintained through brainwashing. New Age communes developed on the fringes, where charismatic men gathered harems and drugs provided the only escape.

A new Millennium brought more fears, of outsiders, of technology, of cities and terrorism. A post 9/11 world inspired a new generation of people to seek Eden in the wilderness, one that was isolationist and survivalist, anti-city and anti-government, armed to the teeth. New communities have sprung up, in secret, and new gurus continue to emerge with a romantic message that reminds followers of their American roots, their right to worship, and their history of standing and fighting for their freedom. Meanwhile, new Americans fill up the empty cities again, making churches in Main Street shop fronts, worshipping saints of death like La Santa Muerta, currently packing them in in my old hometown. Modern cults rise and fall, from Lord Our Righteousness Church in rural New Mexico to The Citadel in Idaho. More false gurus emerge, year on year.

I began to write my first novel, Amity & Sorrow, when I saw a newspaper image of a wooden church on fire. I didn’t know if the church was old or new. I didn’t know its history. I lost the clipping long ago, so I can’t find the true story of the church, but I remember the tall, dry grass. I remember the church’s isolation. I began to wonder how the fire had started and what the worshippers wanted, inside the church. I wondered what they were praying for. A story began to emerge of the church and its people, the church created from the handmade faiths of America: utopian, communal, ecstatic and violent. It has drawn away from the world, living off the grid and eschewing the government, as so many faiths have. It waits for the end of the world, as the Branch Davidians did in Waco.

The church at the center of the novel is a fundamentalist rural compound of one man and his fifty wives. The women are drawn from a modern world that has forgotten them or rejected them, women abandoned in divorce or estranged from their families due to addiction, women who have cared for their parents and had run out of time for their own lives. When the faith’s leader tells them that there is a family waiting for them, that they need never be alone again, they are eager to join it. It is how faiths like Manson’s, like Jones’s, like David Koresh’s, like Smith’s were formed, by leaders who believe they are commanded by God, who have special access to his teachings, men who want to be godlike for their followers and who, sometimes, come to believe that they are gods. And this is always the beginning of the end.

When a leader comes to identify with God and to see himself as the next Messiah, as did Sun Myong Moon, as did Jim Jones and David Koresh, as do any number of men who come to believe that their urges, however selfish, are divine, the cult moves into its final phase and the followers must prepare for the end that will come – or summon the courage and the resources to escape. This is where Amity & Sorrow begins.

It is a uniquely American impulse, this desire to build utopia, the self-belief that it can be done and the ability to forget how the first Eden ended. It is our humanness - our jealousy and lust, our envy and greed - that makes our utopias fail every time.

Note from the author: After my essay An American Cult: A History was published online in PW on April 12, 2013, I received a letter from Werner Erhard's attorney alerting me that "Dr. Margaret Singer, the most prominent cult expert of the Est time period, when asked if Est was a cult stated unequivocally and under oath: 'It is my opinion that it is not a cult.'" As a result, I've withdrawn the reference to Werner Erhard and Est from my essay and it has been corrected in PW's online posting. There was no intent to make any false statement and it is unfortunate that there was a misunderstanding.

-Peggy Riley, author of Amity & Sorrow

One of the questions that I am often asked by students of criminology and psychology is how do you know when a cult leader is “evil” or “bad”? These of course are vague descriptors to some extent but I get the question, “When is a cult leader pathological or, better said, a danger to others?” This is a valid question in view of the historical record of suffering and hurt caused by various cult leaders around the world.

I am sure others have addressed this issue before and I realize that it comes with its own minefield as many religions started out as cults - I am simply not going to enter that fray. But the question is valid from the point of view that there are people out there who are cult leaders and who do great harm to others emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, or financially.

From my studies of cults and cult leaders during my time in the FBI, I learned early on that there are some things to look for that, at a minimum, say caution, this individual is dangerous, and in all likelihood will cause harm to others.

Having studied at length the life, teachings, and behaviors of Jim Jones (Jonestown Guyana), David Koresh (Branch Davidians), Stewart Traill (The Church of Bible Understanding), Charles Manson, Shoko Asahara (Aum Shinrikyo), Joseph Di Mambro (The Order of the Solar Temple aka Ordre du Temple Solaire), Marshall Heff Applewhit (Heaven’s Gate), Bhagwan Rajneesh (Rajneesh Movement), and Warren Jeffs (polygamist leader), what stands out about these individuals is that they were or are all pathologically narcissistic. They all have or had an over-abundant belief that they were special, that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered. They demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged. And yet, in spite of these less than charming traits, they had no trouble attracting those who were willing to overlook these features.

These personality traits stand out as the first warning to those who would associate with them, but there are many others. Here is a collection of traits that I have collected over the years about cult leaders that give us hints as to their psychopathology. This list is not all-inclusive nor is it the final word on the subject; it is merely my personal collection based on my studies and interviews that I conducted in my previous career.

If you know of a cult leader who has many of these traits there is a high probability that they are hurting those around them emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually, or financially. And of course this does not take into account the hurt that their loved ones will also experience.

Here are the typical traits of the pathological cult leader (from Dangerous Personalities) you should watch for and which shout caution, get away, run, or avoid if possible: 

  1. He has a grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve.
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance.
  3. Demands blind unquestioned obedience.
  4. Requires excessive admiration from followers and outsiders.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement - expecting to be treated special at all times.
  6. Is exploitative of others by asking for their money or that of relatives putting others at financial risk.
  7. Is arrogant and haughty in his behavior or attitude.
  8. Has an exaggerated sense of power (entitlement) that allows him to bend rules and break laws.
  9. Takes sexual advantage of members of his sect or cult.
  10. Sex is a requirement with adults and sub adults as part of a ritual or rite.
  11. Is hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others. 
  12. Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy.
  13. Makes members confess their sins or faults publicly subjecting them to ridicule or humiliation while revealing exploitable weaknesses of the penitent.
  14. Has ignored the needs of others, including: biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs.
  15. Is frequently boastful of accomplishments.
  16. Needs to be the center of attention and does things to distract others to insure that he or she is being noticed by arriving late, using exotic clothing, overdramatic speech, or by making theatrical entrances.
  17. Has insisted in always having the best of anything (house, car, jewelry, clothes) even when others are relegated to lesser facilities, amenities, or clothing.
  18. Doesn’t seem to listen well to needs of others, communication is usually one-way in the form of dictates.
  19. Haughtiness, grandiosity, and the need to be controlling is part of his personality.
  20. Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated or exploited for personal gain.
  21. When criticized he tends to lash out not just with anger but with rage.
  22. Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy.”
  23. Refers to non-members or non-believers in him as “the enemy.”
  24. Acts imperious at times, not wishing to know what others think or desire.
  25. Believes himself to be omnipotent.
  26. Has “magical” answers or solutions to problems.
  27. Is superficially charming.
  28. Habitually puts down others as inferior and only he is superior.
  29. Has a certain coldness or aloofness about him that makes others worry about who this person really is and or whether they really know him.
  30. Is deeply offended when there are perceived signs of boredom, being ignored or of being slighted.
  31. Treats others with contempt and arrogance.
  32. Is constantly assessing for those who are a threat or those who revere him.
  33. The word “I” dominates his conversations. He is oblivious to how often he references himself.
  34. Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly - when he does he acts out with rage.
  35. Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong nor does he apologize for his actions.
  36. Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems.
  37. Believes himself to be a deity or a chosen representative of a deity.
  38. Rigid, unbending, or insensitive describes how this person thinks.
  39. Tries to control others in what they do, read, view, or think.
  40. Has isolated members of his sect from contact with family or outside world.
  41. Monitors and or restricts contact with family or outsiders.
  42. Works the least but demands the most.
  43. Has stated that he is “destined for greatness” or that he will be “martyred.”
  44. Seems to be highly dependent of tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments.
  45. Uses enforcers or sycophants to insure compliance from members or believers.
  46. Sees self as “unstoppable” perhaps has even said so.
  47. Conceals background or family which would disclose how plain or ordinary he is.
  48. Doesn’t think there is anything wrong with himself – in fact sees himself as perfection or “blessed.”
  49. Has taken away the freedom to leave, to travel, to pursue life, and liberty of followers.
  50. Has isolated the group physically (moved to a remote area) so as to not be observed.

             When the question is asked, “When do we know when a cult leader is bad, or evil, or toxic?” this is the list that I use to survey the cult leader for dangerous traits. Of course the only way to know anything for sure is to observe and validate, but these characteristics can go a long way to help with that. And as I have said, there are other things to look for and there may be other lists, but this is the one that I found most useful from studying these groups and talking to former members of cults.

            When a cult or organizational leader has a preponderance of these traits then we can anticipate that at some point those who associate with him will likely suffer physically, emotionally, psychologically, or financially. If these traits sound familiar to leaders, groups, sects, or organizations known to you then expect those who associate with them to live in despair and to suffer even if they don’t know it, yet.

                                                    * * *      * * *      * * * 

Joe Navarro, M.A. is 25 year veteran of the FBI and is the author of What Every Body is Saying, as well as Dangerous Personalities. For additional information and a free bibliography please contact him through or follow on twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook.

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