Although cult experts and everyday people still differ in what makes a religious group a cult, most definitions of cult—or “new religious movements,” as sociologists call them—are either too narrow or too general. This is why cult leaders have an easy time recruiting unsuspecting members into their religion-masked followings.
Despite the controversies surrounding cults, they have been a source of great interest and entertainment to the general public. And some cults have massive followings that we wouldn’t think are possible. Here are the top 10 cults with massive followings.
10 The Children of God
David Berg formed one of history’s most infamous cults, The Children of God, in the 1960s. What made the cult’s beliefs deviate from mainstream religion was its fine blend of promiscuous sex and worship of Jesus Christ. In the 1970s, the group even adopted an evangelic approach dubbed “flirty fishing.” Leaders encouraged young females in the cult to have sex with potential converts to win them over. This resulted in many female members working as prostitutes.
The Children of God grew to over 130 communities across the globe and had over 10,000 dedicated members in the 1970s. It discouraged children from attending any form of formal schooling since they believed the apocalypse was imminent. They also taught that kids should only involve themselves in eschewing the world to yearn for the kingdom of God. The CIA and Interpol began investigating sexual abuse allegations made by members against Berg. The following year, Berg died, but the group continued as The Family International until 2010.
9 Heaven’s Gate
In the early 1970s, Bonnie Nettles and Marshal Applewhite founded a group of devout followers called The Crew. Both Nettle and Applewhite believed that they were the two witnesses that the Bible referenced in the book of Revelations 11.
The two traveled across Oregon and California, preaching apocalyptic beliefs. Applewhite sold their congregation the idea that he was the second coming of Jesus. The group gained a lot of followers, and the church’s founders demanded that all followers of the cult rid themselves of sexual thoughts through a master cleanse diet. Eighteen male members went as far as volunteering to be castrated surgically.
In March 1997, the group made national news when they conducted one of the largest mass suicides in history. Thirty-nine followers of Applewhite and Nettle donned purple outfits and white Nike shoes. They gathered to commit suicide as a way to enter a higher spiritual state. After drinking vodka and eating applesauce, they suffocated themselves with plastic bags over their heads.
8 Aum Shinrikyo
Shogo Asahara, leader of the doomsday cult in Japan, preached that all who were not part of his organization were bound to go to hell. His teachings were something of a mixture of apocalyptic, Hindu, and Buddhist beliefs.
The cult masked itself as a yoga-based community. They, however, had some strange and horrific practices. The non-believers, that is, people who were not members of the cult, could only receive salvation if they died. Therefore, members of Aum Shinrikyo took the obligation of killing people as a way of ‘saving’ them. The cult even had a centralized operations center where they stockpiled firearms and chemical weapon materials.
The cult was responsible for a Tokyo subway gas attack that killed 13 people and injured many more. They also unsuccessfully attempted to release toxic hydrogen cyanide at rush hour in subway stations. The cult is still in existence today and has a massive following. Members maintain that they have since deviated from the violent ideology of their founder.
7 Branch Davidians
David Koresh was quite a troubled young man. It all started when the church he grew up in kicked him out after he insisted that God’s orders were that he marry the pastor’s daughter. This didn’t go over too well. He then joined a growing Branch Davidian cult in Texas. Here, he made claims that God had once again ordered him to father a child with the cult founder’s 65-year-old wife. With little chances of success with the founder’s wife, he set his eyes on an underage girl who consented to become his wife.
After a fallout with the cult founder, he led the cult members to live in buses and tents in Palestine, Texas. He soon gained control of the whole group after the founder died.
The cult gained popularity across the country for making claims that they could resurrect the dead. They engaged in disturbing practices such as exhuming dead bodies in an attempt to restore life in them. Federal agents raided the Waco compound only to be involved in a four-hour gunfight with the cult members. A two-month siege followed without the police knowing that the cult members acted out ‘divine’ orders. Over 80 people, including David Koresh, were killed after a fire engulfed the compound during the siege.
6 Unification Church
Members of the unification church are also known as the Moonies. This cult emerged in South Korea and gained a massive following in the 1960s. The cult subjected its members to teachings that were a conglomeration of Christianity, shamanism, Confucianism, and anti-communistic beliefs. Sun Myung Moon was the leader and founder of the cult.
He claimed that Jesus Christ had instructed him to finish His divine mission on earth. This, he intended to achieve by creating ‘pure families’ by conducting mass weddings between complete strangers. Moon even made his way into the Guinness book of world records when he married 6,500 strangers in one mass wedding. After his followers to married complete strangers, Moon required them to sell their possessions to him.
5 The Illuminati
No list of cults with a massive following would be complete without mention of the Illuminati. The cult has a healthy existence in this modern era as many people believe that it is behind the most significant events in today’s world. Formed in 1776 in Bavaria, the Illuminati started as opposition by Enlightenment thinkers. Members strongly opposed all forms of superstition and organized religion. The government outlawed the cult a few years after its formation.
Members continued operating under the radar of authorities, and many people believe the Illuminati orchestrated the French Revolution in 1789. Today, the group is rumored to have significant control of major events in an attempt to gain world domination. Illuminati is surrounded by several conspiracy theories that link the group to the supernatural achievements of alleged members.
4 The Manson Family
Charles Manson was born in 1934. His mother was just 16 years old and single. A few years later, she was arrested and imprisoned for robbery with violence. Charles had no other option but to move in with his uncle and aunt, where he turned to a petty criminal. He spent most of his youth in and out of prison and reformatories. When he came out of jail in 1967, he moved from West Virginia to San Francisco, California. Here, he attracted a few devout young people who we know as the Manson Family.
Unlike most other cults, the group was not primarily founded on religious beliefs. Charles Manson, however, held some bizarre ideas and predictions. He foresaw a violent war between whites and people of color. In his prophecy, the African Americans would win the battle but turn to the remaining whites for leadership roles. So Manson had a plan for his Family.
They would hide during the war and only emerge when the war was over. This would guarantee them leadership roles after the war was over. They then acted to instigate a race war in the country. Manson ordered the murders of white people so that black Americans would be held responsible. However, after two murder cases, Charles Manson and several of his followers were arrested and charged for the murders.
3 The People’s Temple
Pentecostal preacher Jim Jones was at the forefront of championing racial equality and integration and had a significant following. Socialist beliefs and liberation theology had a significant influence on his teachings. He moved his followers from Indianapolis to Ukiah, California, after reading an article on areas that we’re immune to a nuclear holocaust. Over the next five years, his congregation had grown to thousands of loyal followers.
Jones also facilitated the development of a Commune in Guyana called Jonestown. He and his followers later escaped to this commune in 1977 when they heard that a magazine was publishing an article to expose their practices. The cult went down in history after Jones’s men assassinated Leo Ryan, a U.S. Congressman. On the same day, Jim Jones managed to talk his followers into suicide. More than 800 cult members died.
2 The Movement for The Restoration Of The Ten Commandments of God
Joseph Kibweteere and Paulo Kashakun formed a movement after claiming to have received visions from God. According to Kashakun, he had dreams of his dead daughter and other images of Jesus and his mother, the Virgin Mary.
They called their group the movement for the restoration of the ten commandments of God. As the name suggests, the biblical ten commandments played a considerable role in this movement’s operation. The founders held a strong belief that the world would end on the last day of the year 2000. Most of the cult’s followers were former members of the Catholic denomination of Uganda. The apocalyptic belief attracted many devout followers to the group.
The group began to fall apart when the proposed doomsday went by, and nothing happened. As the truth began to unravel, Kibweteere and other cult leaders moved swiftly to set another date for the apocalypse. When that proposed date arrived, Kibweteere set the church on fire while his congregation was inside the building. Five hundred thirty members of the cult died in the fire.
1 The Cult of Santeria Under Adolfo Costanzo
Adolfo Constanzo was born and raised in the Roman Catholic church. However, Adolfo had an intense fascination with the Santeria religion since childhood. The Santeria religion was a blend of Roman Catholicism and Voodoo.
Cult experts believe that Adolfo may have inherited this fascination from his mother, who was also a priestess in the Santeria religion. However, Adolfo was very interested in the faith’s dark side, which even the Santeria members had disavowed. He got in contact and trained with a sorcerer who practiced Voodoo. Adolfo relocated to Mexico with sufficient training, where he lured drug lords and other Mexican crime syndicates.
He offered to perform rituals at exorbitant prices. These rituals, he said, would guarantee them safety from the police and their enemies. He gained a massive following among the drug traffickers and criminal gangs of the country. As the gangs grew more powerful, they attributed their success to Constanzo’s rituals’ supernatural powers. Those who declined his demands disappeared mysteriously. Constanzo was later arrested and charged for the murder of dozens of his followers after authorities discovered his victims’ bodies.