Cultism: NRMs

·         Cult- a social group defined by their religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or common interest in a particular personality, object or goal.

The very idea of cults is something popularly consider controversial due to such events as the People’s Temple mass suicide and terrorist attacks such as the Subway Sarin Incident caused by the Aum Shinrikyo movement. However, cults are much more diverse than mainstream would have you believe. This series of blogs here to show the many versions of cultism that can exist.

NRMs: New Religious Movement

The term new religious movement simply refers to any religion formed after the 1800s but most of these movements have also been considered cults. The boom of such movement came in the mid-19th century as spiritualism and esotericism became popular in Europe and North America. Such religions include Tenrikyo in 1838, Japan, Bahá’í Faith in Iran and Donghak (which would become Cheondoism) in 1860, China.

In 1893, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago. The conference included NRMs of the time such as spiritualism and Christian Science and was the first time Asian religious teachers were given a wide American audience. In 1911 the Nazareth Baptist Church, the first and one of the largest modern African initiated churches, was founded by Isaiah Shembe in South Africa. The 1930s saw the founding of the Nation of Islam and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States, the Rastafari movement in Jamaica and Hòa Hảo in Vietnam. It was around this time that NRMs became to be referred to as such by their critics like more traditional religions such as Christianity and though NRMs expanded throughout the 1950s and 1960s, they came under fire in the 1970s from the newly organized anti-cult movement and by some governments, as well as receiving extensive coverage in the news media. The media coverage of the deaths of over 900 members of the Peoples Temple by suicide and murder in 1978 is often cited as especially contributing to public opposition to cults. Later in 1999 the Falun Gong came under scrutiny for apparently harvesting the organs of its members in China between 2000 and 2008.

The People’s Temple

The Peoples Temple was a new religious movement founded in 1955 by Jim Jones in Indianapolis, Indiana. The movement was to spread a message which combined elements of Christianity with socialist politics, with an emphasis on racial equality. The group moved to California in the 1970s and established several locations throughout the state, including its headquarters in San Francisco.

Although some descriptions of the Peoples Temple emphasize Jones’s autocratic control over the Temple, in reality, the Temple possessed a complex leadership structure with decision-making power unevenly dispersed among its members. However, within that structure, Temple members were subjected unwittingly and gradually to sophisticated mind control and behavior modification techniques borrowed from post-revolutionary China and North Korea.

In the 1970s, the Temple established a more formal hierarchy for its socialistic model. At the top were the Temple’s Staff, a select group of eight to ten college-educated women that undertook the most sensitive missions for the Temple. They necessarily acclimated themselves to an “ends justify the means” philosophy. The earliest member was Sandy Bradshaw, a 24-year-old socialist from Syracuse, New York. Others included Carolyn Layton, a 31-year-old Communist since the age of 15 who was the mother of a child with Jones; Sharon Amos, who worked for the social services department; Patty Cartmell, Jones’ secretary; and Terry Buford, a Navy brat turned pacifist. The group was often scorned as being elitist within the egalitarian Temple organization and were viewed as Temple secret police.

A group of rank-and-file members, referred to by outsiders as “the troops”, consisted of working-class members that were 70–80% black who set up chairs for meetings, filled offering boxes, and did other tasks. Many of these were attracted by the Temple’s quasi-socialist approach both because of the Temple’s political education offers and because the Temple’s highly passionate congregations still maintained the familiar forms of evangelical prayers and black gospels. Jones also surrounded himself with several dozen mostly white, privileged members in their twenties and thirties who had skills in law, accounting, nursing, teaching, music, and administration. This latter group carried out public relations, financial duties, and more mundane chores while bringing in good salaries from well-paying outside jobs.

For recruiting the Temple used ten to fifteen bus cruisers to transport members up and down California freeways each week for recruitment and fund raising. Jim Jones always rode bus number seven, which contained armed guards and a special section lined with protective metal plates. Beginning in the 1970s, the bus caravan also traveled across the United States quarterly, including to Washington, D.C. The Washington Post ran an August 18, 1973, editorial-page item stating that the 660 Temple visitors were the “hands down winners of anybody’s tourists of the year award” after spending an hour cleaning up the Capitol grounds. The Temple distributed pamphlets in cities along the route of these fund raising trips bragging of Jones’s prowess at “spiritual healing”, while not mentioning the Temple’s Marxist goals. Temple members pretended to be locals and acted as shills in the various faked healings and “revelations”. Local viewers did not realize that they were in the minority in the audience. The Temple also set up Truth Enterprises, a direct-mailing branch that sent out 30,000 to 50,000 mailers monthly to people who had attended Temple services or had written to the Temple after listening to Temple radio shows. Donations were mailed in from all over the continental United States, Hawaii, South America, and Europe. In addition to receiving donations, the Temple also sold trinkets, such as pieces of Jones’ robes, healing oil, Temple rings, key chains, and lockets. In peak periods, mailer revenue grossed $300 to $400 daily. This figure even surprised Jones.

The number of people in the People’s Temple ranged from 3’000 to 20’000 but most source believe it was close to 5’000. Regardless of those who were official members, the services drew 3’000 people in San Francisco. In the fact, the Temple could produce 2,000 people for work or attendance in San Francisco with only six hours’ notice.

The People’s Temple soon earned a reputation for aiding the cities’ poorest citizens, especially racial minorities, drug addicts, and the homeless. The Peoples Temple made strong connections to the California state welfare system. During the 1970s, the Peoples Temple owned and ran at least nine residential care homes for the elderly, six homes for foster children, and a state-licensed 40-acre (160,000 m2) ranch for disabled persons.

Of course defections occurred, most notably in 1973, when eight mostly young members, commonly referred to as the “Gang of Eight”, defected together. Because members of the Gang of Eight were aware of sinister threats to potentially defecting members, they suspected that Jones would send a search party to look for them. Their fears proved to be correct when Jones employed multiple search parties, including one scanning highways from a rented airplane. Due the Gang of eight defection Jones suggested that,

“To keep our apostolic socialism, we should all kill ourselves and leave a note saying that because of harassment, a socialist group cannot exist at this time.”

While the Temple did not execute the suicide plan to which Jones referred, it did conduct fake suicide rituals in the years that followed.

In 1974, the Peoples Temple signed a lease to rent land in Guyana. The community created on this property was called the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, or informally, “Jonestown”. It had as few as 50 residents in early 1977. Jones saw Jonestown as both a “socialist paradise” and a “sanctuary”. The population grew to over 900 people by late 1978. Those who moved there were promised a tropical paradise, free from the supposed wickedness of the outside world.

However on November 17, 1978, Leo Ryan, a Congressman from the San Francisco area investigating claims of abuse within the Peoples Temple, visited Jonestown. During this visit, a number of Temple members expressed a desire to leave with the Congressman, and, on the afternoon of November 18, these members accompanied Ryan to the local airstrip at Port Kaituma. There, they were intercepted by Temple security guards who opened fire on the group, killing Congressman Ryan, three journalists, and one of the Temple defectors. A few seconds of gunfire from the incident were captured on video by Bob Brown, one of the journalists killed in the attack. On the evening of November 18, in Jonestown, Jones ordered his congregation to drink a concoction of cyanide-laced, grape-flavored Flavor Aid. In all, 918 people died, including 276 children. It was the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until the events of September 11, 2001.Temple insider Michael Prokes, who had been ordered to deliver a suitcase containing Temple funds to be transferred to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, committed suicide in March 1979, four months after the Jonestown incident.

However there has been some opposition to the idea that NRMs are generally cult movement. An article on the categorization of new religious movements in U.S. print media published by The Association for the Sociology of Religion, criticizes the print media for failing to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of new religious movements, and its tendency to use popular or anti-cultist definitions rather than social-scientific insight,

“The failure of the print media to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of religious movement organizations impels us to add yet another failing mark to the media report card Weiss (1985) has constructed to assess the media’s reporting of the social sciences.”

Since 1988 a resource created by Eileen Barker called INFORM: The Information Network on Religious Movements, has sought to provide access to information to develop informed, reasoned, and balanced opinions on NRMs.

NRMs usually look for people who have questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept. Dick Anthony, a forensic psychologist noted for his writings on the brainwashing controversy, has defended NRMs, and in 1988 argued that involvement in such movements may often be beneficial:

“There’s a large research literature published in mainstream journals on the mental health effects of new religions. For the most part the effects seem to be positive in any way that’s measurable.”

In the 21st century many NRMs are using the Internet to give out information, to recruit members, and sometimes to hold online meetings and rituals. This is sometimes referred to as cybersectarianism. In 2006 J. Gordon Melton, executive director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The New York Times that 40 to 45 new religious movements emerge each year in the United States.


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