Twists of faith

In earliest days, America's spiritual path had its turns

Union-Tribune/November 9, 1997
By Philip J. LaVelle

In earliest days, America's spiritual path had its turns

Cults, sects and offbeat religious movements aren't new to America -- in fact, they predate our national independence by well over 100 years. The earliest settlements, for example, were Puritan communities, and some future states -- including Rhode Island and Maryland -- began as enclaves for religious minorities.

Even a brief historical description would fill a thick tome -- roughly 300 such emerging groups sprang up between colonial times and 1900 alone. Here is just a sampling of America's cultic/sectarian tradition in colonial times:

1620-1680: America's early social fabric is predominantly Puritan -- with deviance from the religious norm tantamount to an assault on society itself. One early dissenter, Roger Williams, is labeled a heretic by New England's Puritan establishment and withdraws from society to found Providence (R.I.), which became a haven for religious dissenters.

1683: The first Labadist colony in America -- founded by followers of French separatist Jean de Labadie -- is established on a 3,750-acre estate in the region where Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware meet. Labadists sought isolation to purify themselves for the millennium and lived monastic, sexless lives. (Believers thought that since history was about to end, why breed?). They disbanded after 10 years.

1694: The "Woman in the Wilderness," followers of mystic Jacob Zimmerman, settle on a 175-acre tract in Germantown, Pa., believing Zimmerman's prediction of the arrival of the millennium that year. On the roof of their tabernacle was an observatory enabling them to scan the skies for millennial signs. Local German settlers gave the group their name, drawn from The Book of Revelation. Zimmerman died in Rotterdam the day his group left for America; his successor sought to reset the date of the millennium after Zimmerman's date passed without incident. Too late; disaffected followers were heading for the exits.

1790s: The first of three manifestations of the Shakers appears along the Hudson River and in New England. Also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, the Shakers were hardworking, austere people who gave up sex and believed they had created a "Millennial Church." Shakers were among the forebears of modern spiritualists, thinking they could communicate with the spirit world. Because of their sexless ways, the group died off -- literally.

The 19th century was fertile period for new religious groups

America - the land of opportunity for European settlers seeking religious freedom - has a long history of providing fertile ground to sects, emerging religious movements and attempts at communal utopias. Here is a look at some of the movements that sprang up during the explosive growth of the 19th century:

1805: The Rappites, one of several German Separatist sects of the era, establish a 5,000-acre commune in Butler County, Pa. They practiced self-denial, humility and celibacy, believing it would prepare them for the millennium. These followers of George Rapp, a charismatic figure who split from the Lutheran Church and led his flock out of Germany, also built a thriving economic system -- including a successful oil company -- but otherwise kept separate from the world. The community declined after Rapp's 1847 death.

1830: Joseph Smith establishes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the Mormons -- seven years after he claimed receiving new scriptures from an angel. Smith moved from New York state to Illinois, preaching the need for salvation in the latter days before Christ's second coming. Early followers practiced polygamy and proclaimed themselves God's chosen people. Persecution followed them. Smith was slain by a mob and Mormons were massacred in Missouri. In 1847, Smith's successor, Brigham Young, led the Mormons to the Great Basin, settling the future Salt Lake City and state of Utah. Today, with 4.8 million U.S. members, it is the seventh-largest church in America; its assets are estimated at $30 billion.

1831: William Miller, a Vermont farmer and War of 1812 officer, gives his first sermon after undergoing a religious conversion in which he determined that the second advent of Christ would occur in 1844. Miller preached widely, urging preparation for the final judgment. His predictions of apocalypse seemed supported by economic crisis in the late 1830s and he drew followers by the tens of thousands. But the predicted second coming was a flop, and the Millerites declined. Still, Miller and his remaining faithful took the name Advent Christians; other Adventist movements followed, leading eventually to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

1848: Followers of John Humphrey Noyes, who called themselves The Perfectionists, establish a commune at Oneida, N.Y. The Oneida community practiced "mutual criticism" and "complex marriage." The former required members to individually face a committee of elders who evaluated personal strengths and weaknesses. The latter involved group marriage, based on Noyes' belief that heaven would not include marriage, but a divine feast where every dish is open to all guests. The Oneida community was a commercial success, producing brooms, chairs and shoes. Noyes fled to Canada in 1879, threatened with an immorality-law prosecution. The group declined, its early factories replaced by a company that exists to this day -- Oneida Silverware.

1875: The Theosophical Society is founded in New York by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian, and Henry Steel Olcott, an American. This international organization combined Western occult tradition with Eastern teachings, such as karma and reincarnation. Blavatsky's version of theosophy sought to advance three doctrines -- the study of Eastern religion, the universal brotherhood of man and the investigation of psychic phenomena -- in America. Theosophists established three communes in California -- one of them at Point Loma (1898-1942) on the site of today's Point Loma Nazarene College. Shadings of theosophy are seen today in a derivative movement, the Church Universal and Triumphant.

Religious turbulence left its mark on the modern era

Post-World War II America -- particularly the 1960s -- saw a dramatic surge in sects, utopian communes and other emerging movements. Much of this trend was fueled by the rise of the counterculture; the relaxation of Asian immigration laws, which enabled Eastern gurus to settle here; the flowering of New Age thought; and a growing interest in the occult and UFOs. Some of these groups seek mainstream acceptance. Others followed their paranoid gurus to the grave. Here are some examples from the turbulent modern era:

Early 1950s: Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard starts the Church of Scientology, built on the belief a being called Xenu sent "thetan" souls to volcanoes in Teegeeack -- which is now Earth. Scientologists believe humans have "engrams" -- repressed memories of thetan life -- that need to be cleared via a device called an "e-meter." Scientology is popular in Hollywood where followers include actors John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Scientologists have a long history of litigation and battles with critics. Last year a judge dismissed a Scientology libel suit against Time magazine, which called Scientology a "global racket" built on "Mafia-like intimidation" of members and critics. Among victories: the Internal Revenue

Service's 1993 decision

to grant the group tax-exemption.

1965: The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) -- the Hare Krishnas -- is founded in the United States by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who came here that year after the Asian Exclusion Act was rescinded. Inspired by a 16th century Bengali saint, the Hare Krishnas practice ascetic monasticism combined with intense devotional dancing and chanting. The movement, a Hindu offshoot, first attracted hippies in New York's lower East Side. As the decade progressed, Hare Krishnas -- known for dancing through city streets and handing out flowers in major airports -- became embedded in the national consciousness.

1970s: The Unification Church, founded in the United States by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of South Korea in 1954, begins to draw considerable membership and publicity. The church holds that a lord of the second advent is coming, and many followers believe him to be Moon. New church members first practice celibacy, but later are matched with spouses chosen by Moon. The church has been targeted by anti-cultists, who have accused it of brainwashing, and Moon was jailed in the mid-1980s for income-tax violations. Like Scientology, the church seeks mainstream acceptance; among its secular holdings -- the Washington Times newspaper.

1981: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a bejeweled Indian guru, establishes a commune on a 64,000-acre ranch near Antelope, Ore., where thousands of red-clad followers pursued his blend of Eastern mysticism, Western materialism and free love. Followers incorporated the city of Rajneeshpuram, while Rajneesh drew attention to himself with his fleet of 93 Rolls Royces and machine-gun toting bodyguards. Several of his followers, including former top aide Ma Anand Sheela, went to jail for a variety of crimes committed while the group lived in Oregon, including arson and attempted murder. Sheela pleaded guilty to masterminding an attack in which more than 700 residents of Wasco County were poisoned by the release of salmonella bacteria at the salad bars of several restaurants. Two others were convicted of plotting to murder a U.S. attorney. Rajneeshpuram disincorporated in 1985; Rajneesh returned to India after an immigration-fraud conviction and died in 1990. Followers remain active in the United States, Germany, Italy, Japan, England and elsewhere.

Nov. 18, 1978: More than 900 followers of People's Temple guru Rev. Jim Jones die in a mass suicide-murder at Jonestown, a jungle outpost in Guyana in South America. Most of the victims drank a grape-flavored drink spiked with potassium cyanide; some were forced to drink it, while others were shot to death. Jones was found with a bullet wound to the head; it was not known whether he was shot or committed suicide. The massacre occurred hours after U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., three newsmen and a Temple defector were shot to death by Jones' security guards in an ambush at a nearby airstrip. Jones got his start in San Francisco in 1955; from his Fillmore District headquarters, he preached racial harmony and help for the poor. But Jones grew paranoid and destructive, and moved his group to Guyana after allegations of wrongdoing surfaced in the Bay Area.

April 19, 1993: More than 80 Branch Davidians, including leader David Koresh, die as fire sweeps through their heavily armed compound at Waco, Texas. The blaze began about six hours after FBI agents started bashing holes in a section of the compound, filling it with tear gas, in an effort to end a 51-day siege. Davidians were ordered by Koresh, a self-proclaimed Messiah, to douse the compound with lantern fuel and set it ablaze. Many of the dead, including Koresh, died of gunshot wounds to the head. The siege began on Feb. 28, 1993, after agents attempted to arrest Koresh and serve a weapons search warrant. Four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and six cult members were killed during a gunbattle. Testimony at a later trial of surviving Branch Davidians revealed Koresh had sex with several "wives" as young as 11 years old.

March 26, 1997: The bodies of 39 members of Heaven's Gate, including cult leader Marshall Applewhite, are discovered in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. Believing that by "shedding their containers" they would hitch a ride to the "level above human" on a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet, they took a mixture of alcohol and phenobarbital and died in waves over three days. Most were laid out on bunk beds, covered with purple shrouds and wearing black Nike sneakers. The group was founded in the 1970s by Applewhite and his partner, Bonnie Lu Nettles; they called themselves "Ti" and "Do." The group left videotaped messages behind, as well as apocalyptic messages on the Heaven's Gate Web site on the Internet. It was the largest mass suicide on U.S. soil.

Sources: "America's Utopian Experiments," Brian J.J. Berry, University Press of New England/Dartmouth University; "New Religious Movements in the United States and Canada," Diane Choquette, Greenwood Press; "Cults and New Religious Movements," Marc Galanter, American Psychiatric Association.

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