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Faith Healers and Self-Help Brands: A History of American Cults: Part One Of the Fringe Beliefs Series

Written by Finnialla, one of our current world events writers, and edited by Stephanie O., our editor-in-chief.

“The reason for their blind faith lies in the core belief that they alone have the answers to eradicate the ills of humanity. You run back to the safety of the group that shares your mentality, and in this way, your world becomes very insular.”

 – Leah Remini 


Cult is a word that seems to get thrown around a lot. This insistence in our culture to call anything different than us a cult can cause us to lose meaning and muddle it to have very little impact. A word’s meaning is its whole identity. For many, the true definition is lost to fluff. What makes something a cult, but not a religious movement? Can we call cults that have become a mainstream religion a cult still? Is my tantric yoga class a cult? 

Yes and no, except for that last one. Tantric yoga is definitely a cult. You can’t change my mind on that one. Anyway, cults have been around longer than we want to think about. Ever since religion was invented by humans tens of thousands of years ago, there will always be cults, or fringe religious movements that weren’t accepted by the rest of society. Even the three biggest religions of today, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, respectively, were once considered cults and new religious movements. As the time progressed, they would become mainstream modern religions, and lose all fringe aspects to work with a global audience. 

While mainstream religions can now find themselves with their own offshoots, and most cults thrive from being said offshoots of the main three, we can’t fully understand what a cult or new religious movement is until we define it. When does a cult become a religion, and when does an offshoot of the religion become a cult? 

I’ve been throwing around the words cult and new religious movement, or NRM, around a lot, and it’s better if we understand that while they are similar, they are not exclusive to each other. 


A cult has many definitions, but many sociologists agree that most cults have a set of guidelines that they follow. Not every cult follows all of the guidelines, and there are a myriad of factors that could make something a cult, but these are the six foundations for a successful cult. 

The most important trait of any cult is a charismatic leader or leaders. The difference between a religion and a cult is the idea of someone living that we follow versus an idea everyone follows. For mainstream religions, the main person that is prayed to is either dead or might be a conglomeration of thousands of years of stories. 

Think of the Christian God. Everyone has their own idea of what God might be, but what the figure represents is more important than the figure itself. Same with Jesus. Jesus might have been a real person, and he might have started modern Christianity, but it isn’t about him anymore. He is a collection of ideas on how to live your life and has gained an almost mythical status about him. 

Cults don’t have that. They have either one or multiple people who are the modern messiah. They are the end all be all of what says and goes. It isn’t up for debate or speculation. While these people might try to tell their disciples that the words are God’s, the ideas are their own. That’s important to remember. Every cult has a person(s) running it, unlike a religion. 

The second trait is what sociologists call, the “blinding of the outside world.” This constant barrage of us vs. them is repeated and drilled into members heads. Churches aren’t normally like that. It’s not like you aren’t allowed to watch your aunt berate a waitress at the Chili’s after hearing a sermon on kindness. People in churches can watch news, read newspapers, and interact with the world, but cults cant. Most are literally cut off, from family, friends, everything. Their life and work is the cult. They have no distractions or guiding voices to convince them of the manipulation taking place. Many ex-members of cults even talk about the suppression of their own inner thoughts, that subconscious being replaced by that of the leader. 

The third trait goes hand in hand with the second, and it’s the intense manipulation of thought. Now, I know that churches have chanting, prayers, and that back and forth. Every religion has that, but it’s not a constant. Cults intentionally sleep deprive members, so they are more susceptible to whatever chant the leader comes up with. It’s the chipping away of self, to make you another cog in the machine. It’s like a gnat, just buzzing. Then there is two. Then four, and soon, it’s a swarm devouring you whole. Your brain chemistry is altered in cults, the brain making new connections and synapses that are dangerous. 

The whole breaking down of physical and mental barriers is what they do best. As Leah Remini spoke about as an ex-scientologist on her A&E show, and I’m paraphrasing here, “They don’t start you out with the crazy stuff. Nobody would join if they started with aliens.” What’s she’s referring to is the belief of Scientology that we are actually a race of aliens called Thetians, and we were captured and brought to earth by an intergalactic warlord, Zenu. Yeah, if I came up to you on the street and told you that then asked you to join me, I would be taking a lovely trip to a place where they don’t have sharp edges to hurt myself with. 

Now, imagine it’s been 20 years. You’ve made it through the ranks of this cult, and spent millions to reach OT 3, (A very high level in Scientology) and I told you that same story. You’d believe me. Of course. Why would I lie to you? That’s what cults do. They take your hunger for knowledge, for curiosity, and they twist it into their narrative. 

The fourth trait is a ritual, or type of indoctrination that takes place. For a religion, such as many branches of Christianity, it’s baptism. For Judaism, it’s a bat or bar mitzvah. In cults, it’s the same type of thing, but usually more exploitive.

Think of NXIVM. When many joined, it was a self-help group. The unknowing participants gave these people money, and NXIVM gave them a sense of community. That’s a transaction, not an indoctrination. When DOS, a subsect of NXIVM, was founded however, the price for admission was steep. It included nude photos, blackmail, and a branding service where women would get Keith Raniere’s initials burned into a patch of skin near their crotch as a show of loyalty. That is fundamentally abusive, and paired with the sexual and emotional abuse those women suffered as a result of that causes NXIVM to be considered a cult. 

The fifth trait is that cults thrive off of physical, emotional, sexual, and financial abuse, and most are a mix of all four. A religion is fundamentally not based on the abuse of its congregants. While there are many examples of modern mainstream religions that do just that, the core belief in the three major players is that it’s purely a transactional community based in faith. 

Cults are not that. They need money from followers to survive. For many of the fringe beliefs, they use a myriad of intimidation techniques to keep the congregants in line, and a lot of times, the type of person sitting at the top who call themselves a messiah will use that to sexually abuse the others at the bottom. As for emotional abuse, it is the bedrock of any good cult. The indoctrination and “mind control” that cults use fundamentally changes people for the worse, and it is a constant remembrance that they are trapped. 

The last trait ties all of those together. It’s the insistence on this correct way of living. Now, at face value, yeah, all religions have that, to an extent. If you’re a Christian and you kill a person, I mean, that’s not great. Kinda says so in the book to not do that, but it’s basic stuff. Don’t steal, don’t hurt others. You know, things that seem super obvious to the point of, did we really need to write these down? Cults, no. They believe, usually, that they are above the law. All cult leaders do, until they’re killed, like David Koresh, or imprisoned, like Warren Jeffs. The cult believes because they are the chosen people, the government can’t get to them, but we’ve seen time and time again, they can. 

This also causes a breakdown in moral and societal laws. Now, we could talk about the multiple scandals that churches, mostly evangelical Christian churches have with this. It’s horrible what happens behind closed doors, and the government is complicit in turning the other check. This is a huge problem, and there needs to be a reckoning, especially in holding people of the cloth and church on the depravity they have caused. No one is above the law, and certainly not whatever court you will face when you die.

Cults are the same way. This can lead to sexually assaulting children, like Children of God, to incest, to blood atonement, to murder. These are usually considered more taboo, but they are very similar. People are getting hurt, and the United States Government can do little to stop it in its current iteration. 

So, we’ve defined cults. What’s a new religious movement? It’s exactly as it sounds. It’s a religious movement that is new. Most are offshoots of the three main religions, but some are completely new ideas with the same core building blocks used in every single mono-theistic religion in the world. 

Mormonism is an example of a new religious movement with cult offshoots. Early Mormonism was very violent and fringe, with plural marriages and blood atonement being the norm. When the Mormons settled in Utah and asked to join the United States, they were forcibly required to erase that part of the religion. 

Because of this, what the Latter-Day Saints worship today is fairly normal for what is considered a religion, but they had offshoots, such as the FLDS, or Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, and others that are considered cults today. The FLDS is the biggest of the offshoots, and allowed for plural marriage, tax evasion, and sexual abuse of minors even after the eventual manhunt, capture, and trial of their prophet Warren Jeffs in the 2000’s. More on that later.  

New religious movements and cults are like siblings. All cults are new religious movements, but not all new religious movements are cults. Cults have a number of options of which they can go. So do NRM’s. They can become religions, which is rare. They can burn and fizzle out, which is common. Or they can turn into something different. Something sinister. 


Listen, we don’t know what the first religion was. We’ll probably never know as humans, but the oldest ones we have on record are quite similar. They’re all polytheistic, which means they believe in the existence of more than one god, and most of their gods and goddesses represented nature or problems they faced. It’s pretty straightforward. I mean, the most well-known would be the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

Most religions started out as polytheistic, and then became more monotheistic (only one God) over time. It’s just a weird shift in the narrative of religion. I mean, what we see in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are far cries from their fringe beginnings. Most sociologists will agree that all religions start as either a cult and then transform into a religion or start off as a new religious movement and then transform into a religion. 

From what many sociologists have studied, the general public has the most experience with physical cults. As a person thinking about cults, your mind probably went to Jonestown, or Heaven’s Gate, or even the Manson Family. All of them are cults. No question. They are burned into the fabric of our country and our minds. I mean, we still use the expression “drinking the Kool Aid,” which comes straight from the Jonestown Massacre where Jim Jones forced his congregants to drink Flavor Aid mixed with cyanide. Those physical cults come from the second wave of cults in America. 

While I have been talking about American religions and cults, please remember that any religion and culture can and still does have cults in them. They are spread all around the world. Many of them you might know them, too. With America, however, the unique founding of the country plays very well for new religious movements. 

America, at least the European part of it, is founded in part by criminals and people fleeing religious prosecution. The Puritans and Quakers and Pilgrims and every other religion who came to “the new world” were either too progressive with their views or too restrictive. I mean, the Puritans didn’t celebrate birthdays, or Christmas. They went to church like three times a week. The Quaker’s believed slavery was a sin and abolished it in their communities. Pilgrims, well, they held mostly the same beliefs as the Puritans. Protestantism was correct, the Church of England was corrupt. What I’m pointing at is that this country, along with the freedoms around religion that were scribed into the Constitution made this country a fertile breeding ground for cults. 

While our founders didn’t do this on purpose, the freedom of religion is just a petri dish for cult leaders. It’s nice to not have to be for a certain religion or the other, but certain people loved taking advantage of this. This mix of cultures gave us almost “pidgin” religions. Pidgin a term used when two or more languages are mixed together and create a hodgepodge of a language out of the sources, but it is probably the best way to describe the circumstances that this country had on religion.  

Of course, we don’t live in a bubble. Race, socioeconomic, and location factors all played a significant role in religion. It’s why there are so many religions in the world today. But this story starts on a small farm on upstate New York, with a man and an angel named Moroni. 


Mormonism could be considered America’s first religion. It went from almost getting wiped off the Utah territory for their beliefs to having a contender for president in less than 150 years. That’s impressive. Is this the start of the first wave of cults? Many argue it is. Mormonism is an example of a new religious movement with some very fringe views basically water themselves down and become a whole religion. Others from the time, not so much. 

The first wave, at least what most sociologists would call the first wave of American cults happened in the late 19th century and early 20th. Spiritualism was all the rage, and a new type of religious movement would come about, Pentecostalism. You may not recognize the name, but you recognize them. These are the faith healers, the snake handlers, the laying of hands speaking in tongues people. The tent preachers. 

The advent of radio was key for faith healers, and they used it to their advantage. See, it was a period of time where the people of the United States weren’t sure how strong their convictions were. 

They had just fought a civil war, a promise for a better future, but to most, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Reconstruction was failing, the Industrial Revolution, while it made the country the powerhouse it was, killed countless lives and disabled still more. The railroad, the battles over land from indigenous tribes, the outbreaks of cholera, typhus, malaria, and tuberculosis was too much for many to bear. They needed something to have hope, and those preachers found it. Those cult leaders found it. See, every wave of cults usually starts with a generational and societal crack in the American identity, and that’s what happened. A crack that can never full be healed.

From the ideas of tent preachers to the killing of Joseph Smith by an angry mob because he kept trying to marry his followers’ wives; yeah, you guys probably didn’t know that one, did you? Anyway, the first wave of cults is still pretty much intact. Mormonism is such a mainstream religion that we had a Mormon presidential candidate in 2012. Pentecostalism is coming back into the mainstream, and spiritualism is still practiced. The Long Island Medium proves that anyone can just cold read a room and get like 17 seasons. 

It's interesting to look at the first wave and see how many of them are still here in some capacity. In the second wave, not so much. 


The second wave of cults is the most well-known. Ripping through the country in the 60’s and 70’s, our big players come up to bat. The grips of the Vietnam war has ripped the country apart. The civil, women, and gay rights movement are coming out in full force, and young Americans are disillusioned with traditional religion. Communes become the new norm, the idea of peace disfigured by gurus and leaders in it for power and control. It lasts a good decade, and one could even argue that it never went away. 

Many of the cults still exist today. The Family, formally the Children of God, still exist. You might know that name because River and Joaquin Phoenix grew up in it for a while. The Twelve Tribes own the Yellow Deli, the sub sandwich shop you might see on your college campus. They are also responsible for one of the biggest fires in Colorado history. The Moonies, and their gun toting offshoot still attracts people, even though the leaders for all three of these are dead. 

Some died like a moth to a flame. Marshall Applewood and the members of Heaven’s Gate died by suicide believing they would ascent to a spaceship trailing the Hal-bop comet to be with their other leader Bonnie Nettles, who passed away from cancer years before. Waco, David Koresh, and the Branch Davidians is a terrible moment in American history, and made many people distrust the ATF, FBI, and Janet Reno for years after, and is directly linked to the Oklahoma City Bombing that happened two years after.  

Obviously, the most recognizable cult of the time was Jim Jones and Jonestown. It’s the cult to end all other cults. As someone whose seen real Flavor Aid drink packets, pictures, and heard parts of the audio from the mass homicide in a museum in college, it’s one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. More than 900 people were killed before Jim Jones would take his own life, but it obviously didn’t start that way. It was a progressive church when Jim Jones started preaching, actually being one of the first interracial churches in the country. Hundreds of people joined, and before Jones started doing speedballs, (a mix of heroin and cocaine), it was just a church. 

Then the fake mass suicide drills started. Jones’ messages got more political, more extreme. Sooner rather than later, he’s moving the most devoted of his flock to the small country of Guyana and they’re building what would be known as Jonestown, a commune in the rainforest of the small South American country. By this time, many members of the devotees’ families were asking for something to be done. They hadn’t heard from their loved ones in months, and they wanted answers. 

When Leo Ryan, a congressman from California came to visit the commune to learn what was happening to some of his constituents’ members families is when things started going downhill. A small group, around 40 or less, wanted to leave, and at first, Jim Jones seemed open to the idea. That was until the congressman and his aides, along with the members trying to flee were shot dead. The rest is, as they say, history. 

From the 60’s to the late 80’s, America was struck with these notions of cults. It was a time where America was finding itself and finding others. It was a transitional period in which the world is exposed to both the good and the bad that America has to offer. 


Maybe you didn’t hear about cults during your childhood. I didn’t. Many of the ones that remained underground, hidden from the public view. In the 90’s and 2000’s saw the rise of global cults, like The Ant Hill Kids in Canada or Aum Shinrikyo in Japan. That all changed when a man with long hair and a scraggly beard was arrested in Mexico. NXIVM had been around for years, but many hadn’t heard the name when Keith Raniere was arrested. Most people just thought it was a self-help seminar, and it was, until it wasn’t. 

Keith Reniere is many things. He’s very good at volleyball, can make himself sound smart, probably owned a good 20 knitted sweaters, most than likely killed two people in the early 2000’s, and made women brand his initials on themselves to be a part of a secret society within his self-help cult. What can we say? He had a lot of hobbies.  

When 2019 rolled around, after an explosive trail of allegations of branding, sex slaves, and human trafficking, founder Keith Raniere got sentenced to 120 years in prison for multitudes of crimes including, racketeering (making other people commit crimes on your behalf for an organization. Think the mob.), sex trafficking, multiple types of fraud, and multitudes of sexual offences. 

Now, one physical cult doesn’t make a wave. It barely makes a splash. And you’re right. It doesn’t, but that’s not what sociologists need to focus on though. It’s the internet cults that could absolutely cause the third wave, and we have to be prepared, because it might already be starting. 


The difference of physical cults and digital cults is that one is a physical place people are forced to be in and one is not. That’s the biggest downside of digital cults. You can’t forcibly make people stay in a compound when it’s just a 4chan group chat or Discord server. That’s why digital cult leaders have to be extra charismatic since even trying to act normal in a video call is nearly impossible by anyone’s standards. 

What digital cults have on physical cults, however, is the reach. In this interconnected world, even more people can get radicalized, and what may start on the internet can have real-life consequences. Most of the digital cults I talk about later eventually get a physical counterpoint somewhere down the line, and that should worry people.

Another thing that is a weird quality of internet cults is that they aren’t usually religious. Ninety-nine percent of the cults I’ve mentioned had religious backgrounds. Most were offshoots of Christianity if you’re wondering. NXIVM could even be considered religious if you think self-help groups are a religion, which I do. Everyone seems so happy at those things. I often wondered what they were hiding, and now I know it’s branded sex groups. I knew something was up. 

Anyway, digital cults don’t seem to be religious. They actually seem to be more social and political from the ones that have bloomed in the past ten years or so. With many younger generations becoming less and less religious each cycle, I guess it makes sense, but that’s what makes them harder to track. All of the research that sociologists have are mainly on religious physical cults, not digital political cults. They have to ask if the research and methods of deprogramming from old cults will work, or if they’re dealing with a completely different monster. 

Also, the internet is a relatively new thing. Sure, it’s from the nineties, but it’s evolving at speeds that humans can’t keep up with. This is the age of global instant news, and that also means global instant disinformation. A lot of companies and practices have been able to run wild without regulation. It’s only recently that Congress has tried to act on the disinformation spreading on social media, mainly Facebook, something a twenty something could have told you was happening in 2012. 

I mean, if the TikTok ban theory that’s been circling Republican primary debates actually becomes a law, the GOP will have to deal with Swifties and those kids who watch the subway surfer along with three other videos playing at the same time TikToks. They aren’t winning that fight. Those two demographics of people are terrifying. Put together, unstoppable. 

Back to what I was saying; internet cults are dangerous, and we need to stop them in their tracks before more people get hurt. This is the age of disinformation, and it’s spreading, like disinformation. I don’t have a good analogy here since disinformation is usually my example. It’s like the fire the Twelve Tribes caused, I guess, except for a million times worse. Some of these cults have already started growing out of control and there is no end that doesn’t include violence or even death. 

With physical cults like the ones I just described, it’s easy to track, but can the United States be prepared for what comes next? I don’t know, but I intend to find out. This look into the cults of the past is to wet the palette, so to speak. For the next several months, I’ll be looking at fringe internet cults, online societies, and radical religions plaguing the U.S. My goal has one hope in mind, trying to figure out if we stop the siege of disinformation and fraud before more harm is done? 


Speaking on the past is always hard. We have a hindsight they didn’t. If the first Mormons knew they let black people in the church and got rid of blood atonement, well, they’d probably blood atonement them. It’s the same with all these cults. Nobody would have followed Jim Jones if they knew he would be doing speedballs and trying to make a compound in Guyana when he first opened his church doors to the public. Now, it’s my goal to weed out all the nonsense and get to the bottom of this once and for all, and along the way, probably go insane. 

For me, this is to learn the enemy, and then relay that information to you. It might not stop your parents from following down the rabbit hole, but I hope that someone can take from these what I hope they convey, a way of defending yourself from these movements. Until next time, just remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a cult. Also, don’t lick the fruit-smelling markers. They do not taste like the fruit they smell like. I learned that the hard way when I was six. 


Berman, Sarah. Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of Nxivm. STEERFORTH PRESS, 2021. 

Cutler, Max, and Kevin Conley. Cults: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them. Simon & Schuster, 2022.


This piece was written by one of our current world events writers, Finnialla. Reach 'em at @finni_all_uh on Instagram!

This piece was edited by our editor-in-chief, Stephanie O.

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