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Leadership Can Be Deadly

The name, “Jim Jones,” has become synonymous with “cult leader.” Even in the following excerpt, from a 1976 talk in Philadelphia, one can sense his charisma and discern his lies:

All right, all right, all right. Now, have I got your ears open? I hope so. ‘Cause they’re coming. I’ve prophesied the date, the month, the hour and the year. . . but I claim that if you’ll let me be your natural father, if you’ll let me adopt you as an earthly father, I will save you . . . I’m promising that if you go to jail, I’ll go to jail. If they come after you, they have to come after me. If they hurt you, they’ll have to hurt me. [in full throat] That’s what I promise.1

Two years later, he led the members of his Peoples Temple, who had established a community in Guyana, South America, to drink Flavor Aid laced with poison. Their “natural father” killed them. Cult leaders do not have the interests of their followers in mind, as these examples make clear:

  • Order of the Solar Temple. In 1994 a series of explosions took the lives of fifty-three members of this cult, including its leader, Luc Jouret, a Belgian homeopathic doctor. Jouret recruited the rich and influential for his organization that rallied around his apocalyptic messages. When the bodies were found, they were not merely burned. Some had been shot, stabbed, or suffocated. Bodies were discovered dressed in ceremonial robes facing a portrait of Jouret.2

  • Aum Shinrikyo. This international cult wreaked havoc on March 20, 1995, when it released poisonous gas on Tokyo’s subway, killing twelve and injuring thousands. Shoko Asahara led the ten to thirty thousand member group worth over a billion dollars. His followers were affluent, educated, and told they were building heaven on earth.

  • Heaven’s Gate. Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles told a Hollywood audience in 1975 that they were from outer space. They promised eternal salvation to those who gave up material possessions as well as sex, family, and stimulants.3 In the spring of 1997, believing the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet was a spacecraft sent to take them away, the group of thirty-nine members committed collective suicide, after explaining that through death they would reach the “Level Above Human.”4

  • Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. Credonia Mwerinde convinced hundreds of Ugandans to devote themselves to “absolute discipline, prayer, silence, and self-abnegation.”5 She told her followers that the world would end on January 1, 2000. When this did not take place, a mass murder did. Around 1,000 members of the cult were killed; 500 in a church that was nailed shut from the outside and burned to the ground; another five hundred were buried elsewhere, stabbed to death, their faces disfigured by acid.6

  • International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Swami Prabhupada founded this ascetic cult in the 1960s. It reached its pinnacle in the ‘70s, able to support fifty temples throughout the United States.7 Scandal erupted in 1998 when it was found that children were typically forced into temple-run boarding schools to free disciples up to lives of worship, asceticism, and fund-raising. However, these schools were plagued with sexual and physical abuse. The cult separated families and put children in harm’s way.8

Editor and writer LaVonne Neff put it well, “New religions will not evaporate in the heat of Christian argument. They may, however, lose some of their appeal where the Christian church is alive and well.”9


Jim Jones, “Sermon in Philadelphia, 1976,” in New Religious Movements: A Documentary Reader, eds. Dereck Daschke and W. Michael Ashcraft (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 248-249.


Margaret Thaler Singer, Cults in Our Midst (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2003), 335-336.


Ibid., 341.


Stephen J. Stein, Communities of Dissent: A History of Alternative Religions in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 137.


Signer, 344.


Ibid., 345.


Stein, 125.


Singer, 348-349.


LaVonne Neff, “Evaluating New Religious Movements,” in A Guide to New Religious Movements, ed. Ronald Enroth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 195.