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Profile of a Cult Leader


by Randall Watters

Question: What did Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Joseph Rutherford have in common?

Answer: They were self-styled leaders of religious cults that started the deadly mind control machinery in motion (such as Rutherford), or who were directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of their own followers.

Early in 1993, in Waco, Texas, the news media focused extensively on the events surrounding the Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh, and what appeared to be a mass suicide by himself and his followers. Koresh had figured that the government raid upon his compound was a precursor to the events of Revelation, and that Armageddon was then imminent — an event which, to him, was focused solely against his group.

What causes a man or woman who is a leader of such a group to become so egocentric, feeling that it is his or her group versus the world in the battle between good and evil?...

The key to understanding the cult leader tends to lie in a fundamentalist attitude-gone-bad. While in Christianity a fundamentalist is one who sincerely believes in all aspects of the 66 books of the Bible as being true with no errors, a broader, more psychological definition would be "one who believes in a world of black & white issues; and that he or she is fully right and others are fully wrong." Such a definition of fundamentalism then may also include those who are not affiliated with any religious groups or ideals at all, but channel their fundamentalist thinking into politics or psychology. While there are many Christians who consider themselves fundamentalists, who believe strongly in the Word of God, and who cause no trouble to their family or friends, there are many others who make fundamentalism itself a religion. Many communists, fascists, and even some ultra-right wing Republicans, for example, are fundamentalist in their thinking, often to the detriment of others.

The most visible cult leaders of late seem to be the Christian fundamentalists who go one step beyond the Bible, or who read themselves into the Bible in such a way that it all seems to apply to them... exclusively.

Reverend Moon feels that Jesus failed in his mission to produce the "perfect children" when he was killed, and that Moon himself was the Messiah appointed to finish the work and produce those children. His Unification Church will one day be the "universal (and only) church."

Jim Jones started out as a conservative fundamentalist Bible teacher in San Francisco, praised by California state official Willy Brown and others as "the man whom we all ought to be about," mainly due to his efforts to relieve racial tension among blacks and whites. In time, Jones began to feel himself above the Bible and the law, isolating his followers in the jungles of Guyana. Stripped of their self-worth and ability to make decisions of their own, they became like children waiting to obey his every command. They did; Nine hundred of them died in 1978 when Jones ordered them to drink poison-laced KoolAid.

Joseph F. Rutherford, though not the founder of the Watchtower movement (Jehovah’s Witnesses), was responsible for the persecution complex and us-versus-them mentality ("them" being Christendom) of the modern-day Watchtower, which allows for little or no trust in those outside the movement, including family. This mistrust goes even to the point of viewing one’s fellow cult members with suspicion if they appear to fall back into pre-cult ways of thinking. Rutherford’s writings were antagonistic against all those outside the movement (seen as "agents of the devil"). He even periodically purged from among his own followers any who regained some of their own healthy ego and self-respect. One could not question Rutherford or the organization without risking being cast out and shunned completely. How deep does this control go? Consider that since the 1940’s thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses have died due to their policy against taking blood transfusions.

David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians that perished in a conflagration at their compound in Waco, Texas, believed himself to be a messiah (if not the Messiah), and that the history and future of his cult were written in the pages of Revelation. He controlled every move of his followers, and was the only male allowed to impregnate his host of female followers.

The following are certain characteristics that are common amongst such leaders:

• Their ego and sense of self-importance swells, and they lose all accountability to anyone else. They see themselves as the only ones truly doing God’s work.

• Their sense of righteousness and their simplistic black and white mentality cause them to wage war against the agents of the devil; i.e., outsiders. The followers are indoctrinated with a persecution complex and a deep sense of paranoia towards the world. They will finally only trust and obey their one leader or organizational dictates. They have a righteous cause, which tends to alleviate their own consciousness of guilt and failure, and this becomes a drug that insures their continued obedience with a fanaticism that no logic seems able to dismantle. Like the heroin addict who needs his fix, the cause or leader is their drug that must be retained at any price, even to the point of death. (Religion can be a much stronger and more addictive drug than heroin.)

• The Bible is written to them and about them, indeed it cannot be understood without them in mind. The Book of Revelation is their own history: past, present, and future. JW’s, for instance, feel that the seven trumpet blasts of Revelation 8-11 were the seven Watchtower district assembly talks given between 1922 and 1929! The cult leader practices various forms of mind control over his followers, including control of their thoughts, their emotions, and their behavior, as well as restricting what they are allowed to read or listen to.

• Cult leaders keep their followers so busy that they do not have time to return to previous, more intuitive and natural ways of thinking. Such ways of thinking are now seen as worldly or "of the devil."

Are such leaders a special breed of people, or are they much like you and I? Evidence indicates that in most cases they are not outstandingly different than any of us, except in their making of wrong choices, in coping with the insecurities of life, and in not being comfortable with who they are. An unmet hunger for approval, the desire for power over others for the sake of attention and self-worth, and even the desire for riches and fame seem to be gradually nurtured in such persons over a period of years. Politicians often suffer the same fate, and in many countries such people have become dictators. They are very much cult leaders by the exact same process! In other words, "God" does not have to be the key figure in extreme fundamentalist thinking.

Pastors of mainstream churches or independents can become cult leaders over time. That is why many churches have a board of directors whom the pastor must answer to, or some other devise to check their power. If you are a part of a church whose pastor makes you feel he is "God’s chosen instrument" or who disparages most all other churches, or who humiliates or otherwise seeks control over his flock, watch out! (I recommend reading Churches That Abuse by Ron Enroth for more information.)

Randall Watters

© Free Minds, Inc.. Reprinted (by permission) from an article in The Free Minds Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4, July/August 1993. Free Minds Inc., Box 3818, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
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