Flashback Friday: The Strange History of American Cults

in Culture

For this edition of Flashback Friday, we’re bringing you Jim Hoberman’s primer on American cults from the October, 1979 edition of High Times.

Relax, America. Don’t worry about those cults. Archvillains Jim Jones and Charlie Manson may be scary, but they aren’t quite the very modern aberrations that the media would like you to think they and their cultists are. Dad and Charlie—not to mention more respectable cult leaders such as Werner Erhard, Reverend Sun Myung Moon or Garner Ted Armstrong—are just the latest models in a continuous tradition of fringe religious leadership that has flourished in this nation from its inception. America’s first European settlers were religious cultists (Pilgrims, if you like), and since then this continent has been a Mecca-like magnet and last frontier for Utopians of every denomination. Our history is filled with prophets crying in the wilderness—and you don’t have to be one to see it’s all coming to a boil again.

After all, America has had practice, hailing the dawn of the 19th century with a spectacular outburst of religious mania. Cults popped up like mushrooms in the backwoods camp meetings that were invented in the Kentucky hills during the holy year of 1800. Families pilgrimaged hundreds of miles to cleared-out hollows in the depths of the forest where teams of Bible-thumping evangelists whipped them into a frenzied, screaming mass. The torchlit woods thundered with hellfire exhortations to “Agonize!” as 10,000 sinners shrieked “Jesus save me!” in response. Little children, babbling in incomprehensible tongues, were hoisted up on tree stumps and displayed until they collapsed from exhaustion. Sometimes an entire camp meeting would lie prostrate on the ground while the preacher crept among the sob-racked bodies, moaning “I am the old serpent that tempted Eve …”

As the days …

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Author: High Times / High Times

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