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Top 10 Most Notorious Religious Groups in America

Ranked from mildly strange to completely crazy, these new religious movements have attracted criticism and media attention. Although only Church Universal and Triumphant is active in Montana, we wanted to give you the full range America has to offer. Let’s dive in, shall we?

10. Church Universal and Triumphant

A branch of the Summit Lighthouse church started by Mark Prophet, CUT was run by Prophet’s wife, Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Originally headquartered in California, the group relocated to Paradise Valley, Mont., where they had bought a considerable piece of land on which to build bunkers that they could live in should nuclear war break out unexpectedly.

Although they were watched closely by both the media and law enforcement, this group did not react violently and still exists in small numbers today in Paradise Valley. More can be read about this group in our article Inside the Church Universal and Triumphant: What happened when doomsday didn’t come and the science behind cults.

9. Scientology

Recognized as a church by the United States IRS, this group is labeled a cult by most governments in Europe and Canada. Started by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who once said, “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion,” this group believes in Dianetics, a concept Hubbard created as “an alternative to modern psychology.”

While some members of The Church of Scientology have died under suspicious circumstances, no proof has ever been found that members of the Church were in on anything. The group is also known for keeping tight control on their congregation.

The main beliefs of Scientology are hidden from members until they have achieved a certain rank within the group, but what we do know is that an evil alien named Xenu overthrew the Galactic Council, loaded everyone into “space planes,” and brought them to Earth, where they were implanted with all the different religious beliefs we have today: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc….we could go on, or you could just watch this:

8. Twelve Tribes

After having a vision on a beach in Los Angeles, Elbert Spriggs began a group based on a belief in the “Three Eternal Destinies,” or the lack of dichotomy between Heaven and Hell.

Thirty years later, Spriggs had numerous homes all over the world, as well as an estimated 30 compounds. In 1984 law enforcement removed over 100 children from the cult after allegations of brutal child abuse were brought to light.

Spriggs moved his group around the country several times in order to avoid scrutiny.

7. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

On top of being a mouthful of a name, this group was founded by convict Warren Jeffs, whose resume includes charges of incest, sexual misconduct with minors, and a spot on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list.

As the name would suggest, this group branched off from the main Mormon church, mainly because of their differing views on what “polygamy” means. Since he was imprisoned, it is unclear who is leading the group in his absence.

Some may argue that this group of 10,000 members does not count as a cult, but TV interviews with some of the women in the group suggest that they have been brainwashed, a major red flag on the list of cult identifiers.

6. Remnant of Fellowship

Through a uniquely startling mix of Christianity and weight loss-slash-self-help, dietician Gwen Shamblin found a unique way to target both religious housewives and those prone to eating disorders. Shamblin teaches her followers that eating less mirrors the self-sacrifice of Christ, while overeating is considered a sin.

In 2003, a child in the group died after the parents took disciplinary actions that were encouraged by Shamblin. This group is known for being very closed-off toward those who don’t share their beliefs, and advocates disciplining children by beating them with glue sticks.

5. Family International

The true extent of the horrors in this group were not known until the granddaughter of leader Moses Berg spoke out. Merry Berg, once in the safety of her mother’s home and away from the commune, told shocking stories of the beatings, isolation, and even exorcisms she was punished with after questioning her grandfather’s leadership.

After refusing to “repent” for her alleged sins, Berg was sent to live with an uncle in Macau. When that didn’t work, she and other teenage members were forced to live in a group home that forced them to remain in the cult.

When THAT didn’t work, Berg was checked into a mental institution and kept heavily medicated. Once she turned 18, she went to live with her mother and finally opened up about her experiences.

4. Manson Family

Currently serving a life sentence for orchestrating nine murders in 1969, Charles Manson has a history of paranoid delusions and schizophrenia, which is always what you want in a religious leader.

Manson spent his life in and out of prison and reform schools, before moving to San Francisco in 1967 after being released from prison (again). Attempting to become a musician, Manson attracted a group of followers, mostly women, and together the Manson Family moved to the isolated Spahn Ranch in California.

Manson believed in what he called Helter Skelter, an apocalyptic race war that would soon take place, according to the Beatles song of the same title in which Manson claims the Beatles spoke directly to him. He had in mind a few ways to incite the race war, including murdering particular people to create a panic.

By 1969, Manson had his followers killing at his request, first killing music teacher Gary Hinman in July. Then, one day in August, Manson’s followers broke into the home of director Roman Polanski and killed his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, Folger’s Coffee heiress Abigail Folger, writer Wojciech Frykowski, hair stylist Jay Sebring, and Steven Parent, who was a friend of Polanski’s gardner. They were beaten, shot, and stabbed to death.

After the deed was done, Manson, displeased with how poorly done the murders were, drove around with the followers who had committed the murders until they found and promptly killed supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife.

Manson and his followers were indicted in December of the same year, and Manson went on trial in June of 1970, appearing in court with an “X” carved into his forehead. He insisted on defending himself without the help of an attorney.

In 1971, all involved members of the Manson Family, including Manson himself, were given the death penalty. When the death penalty was abolished in California in 1972, their sentences were commuted to life in prison.

Manson continues to apply for parole, with his most recent opportunity having taken place in 2012. He is denied every time, because he has never shown remorse for the murders.

Manson was recently on the cover of People magazine for applying for a marriage license so he could marry a 26-year-old who moved across the country to live near the prison he resides in.

3. The Branch Davidians (Students of the Seven Seals)

Beginning as an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists and led by Victor Houteff, this group settled near Waco, Texas so they could prepare for the impending return of Jesus. Initially, they were a pretty self-sufficient group, laying low and making everything nice for Jesus.

Houteff died in 1955, leaving his wife in charge. After this, the group changed leaders periodically until Vernon Howell came to power in 1987. One of his first acts as leader of the group was to change his name to David Koresh. He took a couple wives from the pool of unmarried members, and revealed his plan to create a lineage of children who would one day rule the world.

The fact that Koresh’s wives were teenagers led to accusations of child abuse among the group, and the fact that Koresh had begun a retail gun business attracted the attention of law enforcement, namely the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).

In early 1993, the ATF raided Koresh’s compound, the strangely named Mount Carmel. What happened next is known as the Waco Siege. The raid erupted in a two-hour shootout and ended 50 days later when the FBI launched another assault against Koresh that caused three fires throughout Mount Carmel, killing 76 Davidian members, including Koresh himself. When the dust had settled, 82 people were dead as a result of the conflict.

2. Heaven’s Gate

Led by the comically named Marshall Applewhite, this cult was introduced to him by a nurse in the hospital where he stayed while healing from a near-death experience in 1972. By 1975, Applewhite and the nurse had convinced 20 people in Oregon to abandon their families and belongings and move to Colorado, where they thought an alien spacecraft would pick them up and take them to Heaven.

This is a big promise to make without knowing much about aliens or their spacecrafts, and when it didn’t show, membership dwindled. But not to worry, by the early 1990s, Applewhite had recruited a veritable church-load of people, and once the Hale-Bopp comet was discovered, Heaven’s Gate members became convinced that an alien craft was well on its way, hidden by the comet. In 1996, Applewhite rented a home in Rancho Santa Fe, where his “angels” could wait to get picked up by the alien spacecraft (we all know how much aliens love the deserts of Santa Fe).

In March 1997, when the Hale-Bopp comet got as close to the Earth as it was predicted to, Applewhite and 38 of his followers drank a mixture of phenobarbital and vodka. Obviously the presence of this cult on this list would denote that things didn’t end well for Applewhite and his followers, and they left their “bodily containers” pretty soon after drinking the poison. The second half of that plan was to enter the spacecraft and set out on the weirdest road trip ever, until they reached Heaven. But we’re willing to bet that Heaven’s Gate didn’t make it past step one.

1. People’s Temple

What began as an interracial congregation in Indiana that sought to fight against capitalism turned into the one of the most shocking events in recent history. Founded by Jim Jones, the People’s Temple had over 900 members in the 1950s. By the ‘70s, Jones also had followers in Utah, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In 1977, when New Age magazine published an expose on the organization, they disappeared almost overnight, with 950 people moving to Guyana and setting up a commune called Jonestown where they could live “safely”.

After the U.S. government tried to intervene in 1978 by sending California Congressman Leo Ryan (along with reporters and a camera crew) to the jungles of Guyana to find out what had happened, all hell broke loose. Once Congressman Ryan tried to leave Jonestown with a few residents who wished to leave, Jones’ guards shot him and three other people to death.

Then, Jones told his congregation that Ryan’s assassination would prevent the group from being able to function. He, with the help of cult members, created a concoction of Fla-Vor-Aid, Valium, and cyanide, and first fed it to babies and children before dispensing it among the crowd of over 900 people. Jones himself didn’t take it; he was found dead of a gunshot wound.


Featured photo courtesy of Joanne Fong 

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