The Six Biggest Cult Leaders of the Last 50 Years

From Jones to Jeffs

Religious groups with wild and varying ideas are nothing new. Beginning in the sixties and seventies, humanity saw a rise in people searching for religious truth. People who wanted to belong to something. People who wanted someone palpable that they could follow to the ends of the earth.

Some of these in the list below may be considered religions or at least an offshoot of a recognized religion. Some were just thrown together during a fever dream and made desirable by charismatic individuals.

The Manson Family

Years Active – Late 1960’s and Early 1970’s

Members – 100

Beliefs – Followers believed that Manson was a manifestation of Jesus Christ. He believed that an apocalyptic race war was imminent.

Crimes – The murder of Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe. The murder of Gary Allen Hinman. The Cielo Drive murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Steven Parent, and Wojtek Frykowski followed by the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. All of which occurred in 1969. It’s believed that ‘The Family’ may have been involved in over a dozen more murders.

Outcome – Manson and at least 8 other family members are deceased. Manson served life in prison before dying in 2017. A number of members are still in prison while at least two have been paroled.

The Peoples Temple

Years Active – Between 1954 and 1978

Members – 3,000–5,000

Beliefs – A combination of Christianity with communist and socialist ideology, with an emphasis on racial equality.

Crimes – U.S. Representative Leo Ryan went on a fact-finding mission in Guyana after reports of abuse within the Peoples Temple. As he was leaving on November 18th, 1978, Ryan was shot and killed at a local airstrip along with three journalists, and one defector. That evening, in Jonestown, 918 people either willingly drank or were injected with cyanide-laced, Flavor Aid.

Outcome – Leader Jim Jones, shot himself in the head that evening. The Peoples Temple headquarters and branches in the United States declared bankruptcy.

Aum Shinrikyo

Years Active – Between 1987 and 2019

Members – 1650

Beliefs – Interpretations of elements of early Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Hinduism. Shiva is the main image of worship. There are Christian millennialist ideas woven in with the theory and practice of yoga, and the writings of Nostradamus. It is considered a doomsday cult.

Crimes – Extortion, wiretapping, assassination attempts, manufacturing the nerve agent sarin, and, later, VX. 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano killed 8 people and injured 500 more. 1995 chemical weapon attack on five trains in the Tokyo subway system. 13 people died, and 54 people were seriously injured.

Outcome – The leader of the cult, Asahara, was arrested in 1995. The other members that took part in the various chemical attacks continued to be arrested over the next twenty years. In July of 2018, Asahara and twelve other members were executed for their crimes. The United States removed Aum Shinrikyo from its terror blacklist in 2022. The group functions under a new name now and is heavily monitored.

Branch Davidians

Years Active – 1955 to Present Day (in various forms)

Members – 126

Beliefs – Apocalypticism, millenarianism, polygamy. Koresh believed in the Seven Seals that secure a document from the Book of Revelation. The opening of the seals meant the second coming of Christ and the start of the apocalypse. The group believed that they were preparing for the apocalypse and that their messiah, Koresh, was the only one who could open the sealed document. Followers believed that Koresh had a direct line of communication with God.

Crimes – The possession of unlawful weapons. Child abuse. Statutory rape. The deaths of four ATF agents that led to a 51 day stand-off.

Outcome – 35 people, mostly children, were allowed to leave during the siege. Nine surviving adults served time in prison. 79 Branch Davidians perished in the fire that ended the siege; 21 of these victims were children under the age of 16. Eventually, a few of the group’s members slowly moved back to the Mount Carmel site in the years that followed. Two separate groups formed, one believes that David Koresh and those who died in the raid will be reborn one day, and one group who have tried to go back to the original teachings. They believe that Koresh corrupted the intended message.

Heaven’s Gate

Years Active – 1974 to 1997

Members – 41

Beliefs – A mix of Christian millenarianism, New Age, and ufology. Considered to be a ‘UFO religion’ by many scholars. The core belief was that members could transform themselves into immortal extraterrestrial beings by rejecting their human nature. The goal was accension to heaven, which they referred to as the “Next Level” or “The Evolutionary Level Above Human”. Applewhite believed that a spacecraft was following the oncoming Comet Hale–Bopp and that this event would represent the “closure to Heaven’s Gate”.

Crimes – The 39 members involved in the mass suicide consisted of 21 women and 18 men between the ages of 26 and 72. They died in three groups over three days. One former member believes that the mass suicide event should be considered murder.

Outcome – A small number of original members remain. They were left behind to “share the group’s story”. For a while the group operated as the TELAH Foundation and maintained a website. There is no evidence that the group has experienced any new membership.

Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Years Active – 1929 to Present Day

Members – Between 6000 and 10,000.

Beliefs – Based on the Latter Day Saint movement and on Mormon Fundamentalism. The group splintered off from the LDS when they were told to end their practice of plural wives. FLDS members believe that the more wives a man takes and the more children they have, the higher in heaven they’ll end up.

Crimes – Sexual abuse, forced marriage, polygamy, fraud, child abuse. Listed as a hate group. The leader of the modern-day FLDS, Warren Jeffs, was found guilty of two counts of being an accomplice to rape and was sentenced to ten years to life in prison. He was later sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years and fined $10,000 after being convicted on charges of aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault.

Outcome – After raids on their Texas property, new church settlements have been built in Pringle, South Dakota, Mancos, Colorado, Minot, North Dakota, and Grand Marais, Minnesota. Warren Jeffs is still considered ‘the Prophet’ and runs the FLDS from behind bars.

Further Reading/Viewing on the subject of Cult Leaders

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