Flashback Friday: The Strange History of American Cults

Over 300 years of sex, death, and weirdness.
Flashback Friday: The Strange History of American Cults
An influx of dropouts from other cults sustained the celibate Shakers for over a century/ Bettman Archive

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 and nights wore on, many in the crowd lost all control—even of the power of speech. The hysterical sounds they emitted were referred to as the “holy laugh” and the “bark.” Groups of penitents would drop to their hands and knees and lope through the forest yelping like dogs. This was known as “treeing the devil.” The most alarming trance state was simply called the “jerks.” Head pitched back, body doubled over, a victim of the jerks bounced violently from side to side with every limb twitching like a galvanized frog. These spasms were highly contagious. Eyewitnesses report meetings where 500 souls began doing the jerk all at once. Not even the society ladies and plantation belles, up from Knoxville for the day to take a gander at the antics of the great unwashed, were immune. Once jerking fever convulsed the crowd, they fell out of their carriages—bonnets flying off, loose hair “cracking loud as a wagoner’s whip,” shaking and frothing down in the mud with the rest.

The largest and most intense meetings were held in the Cumberland Mountains (the same region that later gave rise to the “snake cults” and an occasional human sacrifice), but the phenomenon spread like a brushfire over the American frontier. Charles Grandison Finney, the self-styled brigadier general of Jesus Christ, a preacher rumored to have the power to drive men mad, stormed throughout the “Burnt-Over” district of western Vermont and upstate New York before coming to rest in Ohio. In his wake, the country was filled with prophets, cults and religious excitements.

There were the Vermont followers of Isaac Bullard, who sought their salvation in a return to a “biblical mode of life,” shaving only their upper lips and wearing nothing but bearskins as they wandered around the countryside. Not only were they highly visible but farmers claimed that it was possible to smell these pilgrims from afar. Bullard regarded washing as a sin and boasted that he hadn’t changed his clothes in seven years. In Ohio, Abel Sargent barnstormed the state during the War of 1812 with a dozen female disciples, offering to raise up the dead and preaching that those who believed in him had no need of material food. The cult suffered a terminal setback when one acolyte put his faith to the test, refused to eat for nine days, starved to death, and was not revived.

Several years later, a worldlier messiah named Joseph Dylks appeared in Salesville, Ohio, and converted most of the town. His religious services involved a church full of men and women rolling naked on the floor, committing (in the phrase of one contemporary observer) “sins too revolting to mention.” Other cults attacked organized religion directly. Rochester, New York, newspapers printed stories of one Martin Sweet, an Auburn farmer with six spiritual wives. Sweet sent one of his women out into the street to cleave whomever she met with a butcher’s knife while three others attacked a nearby church, smashing the altar and drinking the sacramental wine.

The most extensively documented of these frontier saviors was Robert Matthews of New York. “Jumping Jesus,” to his neighbors, Matthews returned home after one of Brigadier General Finney’s revival meetings and announced that God had delegated him to convert the city of Albany. After the earth failed to open up and swallow the unrepentant town on the day Matthews predicted for its destruction, he embarked on a grand evangelical tour of the South, where he was jailed for preaching to the Indians. In 1830, Matthews—now “Matthias the Jew”—turned up in New York in rags, wandering the streets and haranguing whomever would listen. He there found a patron in the form of Elijah Pierson, a wealthy merchant with a hot line to God.

In accordance with the divine instructions imparted to Pierson one afternoon as his carriage rode through Wall Street, he and his wife had established a “holy club” dedicated to the redemption of the harlots of New York’s notorious Five Points district. (Their daily 18-hour prayer meetings were somewhat dubious orgies of foot washing, toe kissing, and groveling on the floor.) Mrs. Pierson died, but God promised the bereaved Elijah that He would bring her back. Pierson delayed his wife’s interment for several days, and was in fact still postponing the date of her resurrection when Matthews appeared at his door in the guise of Jesus Christ.

Soon, “Jesus Matthias” had taken over Pierson’s congregation. He moved in with the family of another church elder, Benjamin Folger, where, immersed in a barrel of holy water, he would sanctify the naked devotees of his cult clustered around the tub. Eventually Matthews invited Mrs. Folger to share his bath. Although she was already a mother several times over, she became convinced that her virginity had been restored in anticipation of the holy child Matthews had promised to father upon her. To placate Folger, Matthews arranged to have his own daughter leave her husband and become Folger’s concubine. When he was not engaged in his ablutions, Matthews strode through the city, waving a sword in one hand and a seven-foot ruler in the other, shouting that he had come to save the world. Undeterred by a brief stint in Bellevue, he cut a dashing figure around town until God signaled Pierson to cut off his funds.

The enraged messiah responded by poisoning everyone in sight. Pierson died in convulsions after eating some blackberries that Matthews had picked and prepared for him; the entire Folger household came down with a mysterious intestinal ailment after Matthews fixed their breakfast. When the abandoned son-in-law showed up, “Jesus Matthias” was charged with blasphemy, theft, assault, insanity and murder. Matthews’s rantings during his sensational trial were so severe that he was dragged from the courtroom screaming “Dissolved! Dissolved! Dissolved!” Perhaps the greatest miracle of his career was that he was found not guilty.

Matthews made one last appearance before vanishing from recorded history. In November 1835, he was reported at the house of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. The two consorted and swapped visions, until Smith decided that Matthews’s God was really the Devil and sent him away. Nevertheless, some credit Matthews with revealing to Smith the “esoterics” that the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints, were soon to practice in their Nauvoo, Illinois, settlement. To have influenced Smith even a bit is surely to Matthews’s credit, for Smith remains, without a doubt the most successful prophet that the United States has ever hatched. His cult grew from a handful of disciples into a full-fledged religion.

Smith, like Matthews, was a product of the Burnt-Over district, where as a teenager he dazzled the local farmers by divining for buried treasure on their land and reading the future in his “peep stone.” But he was evidently made for more than amateur necromancy. After a visitation from the angel Moroni, Smith discovered the gold tablets of the Book of Mormon. Buried with this sacred text were a pair of divine spectacles that allowed him to translate the book, which he did behind a curtain hung up in his living room, dictating it to five disciples.

In 1836, Smith led a band of followers westward and established the town of Nauvoo. By 1844, Nauvoo was the largest city in Illinois; and it was there that Smith received the revelation of polygamy. He became not only Nauvoo’s mayor, judge and hotelkeeper, the king of the Kingdom of Heaven, and a candidate for U.S. president, but the husband of 50 earthly wives. (In one of his last sermons, Smith paused and remarked almost to himself, “I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself.”) Ultimately, he was arrested by the Illinois National Guard and murdered in his prison cell. Two years later, in 1847, Brigham Young, more an organizer than a prophet, guided the rest of Smith’s flock on their last great trek, to Utah, where they practiced polygamy openly until 1890.

At the same time that Joseph Smith and the Mormons were battling the state militia for control of Illinois, the most sizable millennial movement since the days of the Roman Empire had grasped hold of the American people. More than 50,000 citizens were fanatically convinced that sometime during the year 1843-1844 Jesus Christ would appear, transport the saints to heaven, and send the wicked to hell. Their prophet was William Miller, a mild-mannered New England farmer whose Bible studies led to the conclusion that the world was about to end. Throughout the 1830s, Miller’s movement snowballed through New York, Vermont and western Massachusetts. By the time it swept Boston in 1839 it had achieved epidemic proportions. It’s been estimated that over a million Americans were at least partially persuaded that the latter days were at hand. As the millennium grew nearer, Millerite newspapers and tabernacles were established in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Rochester. A hysterical crowd of 3,000 gathered in Washington, D.C., just on a false rumor of Miller’s appearance.

Miller spent the summer of 1842 orchestrating a series of camp meetings throughout the Northeast, having pinpointed the end as occurring between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. Meanwhile, the most brilliant comet of the 19th century blazed nightly in the skies, frightening thousands more into the cult. Astonishingly, the failure of the Last Judgment to arrive on schedule only served to further inflame the Millerite madness. His followers quickly accepted a new prediction put forth by the Reverend Sam Snow, putting the Day of Wrath on October 22, 1844, and their enthusiasm surpassed that of the first few months of the year. From mid August, things were at a fever pitch. Farmers refused to plow their fields, shopkeepers gave away all of their stock.

On the morning of October 22, Millerites all over the country wrapped themselves in white linen “ascension robes” and gathered on hill summits. Others waited in graveyards or climbed into the treetops. By midnight, the movement had collapsed in despair. Millerite preachers were tarred and feathered; many of their pauperized followers committed suicide. In the ensuing weeks dazed Millerites filled local insane asylums to capacity. One congregation near Brattleboro, Vermont, selected a young man from its cadre as the scapegoat and bludgeoned him into oblivion. Many ex-Millerites joined the Shakers, a traditional last resort for the most pious devotees of every religious mania that swept the frontier. (As the Shakers had a strict ban on sexual intercourse, their movement was largely sustained by such conversions.)

Other Millerites became Perfectionists, reasoning that the elect had entered the millennium, only instead of being transported to heaven they had been given permission to enjoy a heavenly lifestyle on earth. Soon Millerite preachers were being charged with receiving stolen goods or operating brothels; the notorious “House of Judgment” in Springfield, New York, was the site of group gropes led by naked spinsters and interspersed with direct messages from the Almighty.

The cult of Perfectionism, so attractive to the Millerites in their postapocalyptic confusion, began in New England in the mid 1830s. Lucinia Umphreville and Simon Lovett preached that spiritual perfection could be attained when two lovers lived together in total chastity. The doctrine had a cute kicker: if the couple proved so weak as to succumb to temptation, that only proved they were an unworthy, ill-matched pair who would have to find new partners and try again. In Brimfield, Massachusetts, two young women visited Lovett’s bedroom to prove that their piety could overcome their carnal desires. It didn’t. That same summer, Lovett, Umphreville and several others made a similarly failed experiment. Afterward one woman’s husband was struck blind when he went after the Reverend Lovett with a horsewhip. This “act of God’’ gave the final stamp of approval to the doctrine of human perfection and security from sin.

The greatest Perfectionist was John Humphrey Noyes. At the age of 22, Noyes received the revelation that the Second Coming of Christ had occurred in 70 A.D. Thus, men and women should be able to live their lives by the same conventions that governed the angels in heaven. In a holy community, it followed, there should be no more reason why sex should be regulated than eating or sleeping. Noyes’s first utopia was established in 1843 at Putney, Vermont. It abolished private property, established a six-person “complex’’ marriage, and was run out of the state in 1847.

Noyes then took his cult to Oneida, New York, to establish the most successful and sexually unorthodox commune in American history. The 87 members of the Oneida farm were all married to each other. At Putney, Noyes had served as the traffic cop deciding who would pair off with whom on any given night; at Oneida, partners were obliged to obtain each other’s consent through the intervention of a third person, but the ground rules were more complicated. The younger members were encouraged to bed down frequently, if not exclusively, with their seniors. This insured that no one would feel left out. Male adolescents were initiated in sex by women who had passed through their menopause, while girls between 10 and 13 were deflowered by Noyes and then further introduced to sex by the commune’s older men.

Central to Oneida’s erotic practice was the theory of male continence. The men of Oneida engaged in sex without ejaculation (or at least attempted to), thus keeping the sexually active commune’s birthrate at a manageable level. The Oneida Perfectionists thought their discovery of orgasm sans ejaculation an innovation greater than that of the combustion engine or the telegraph. Noyes regarded the practice as an art form destined to surpass all others. In this shared bliss, the complex marriage of the Oneida community flourished for over 30 years, until the pressure of local authorities forced Noyes to end, in 1879, his experiment in perfect communism.

Oneida was one of many communes that appeared throughout America in the middle of the 19th century. There were Brook Farm and Fruitlands, the communities established by the otherworldly Massachusetts transcendentalists; the French Icarians who settled in the ready-made, deserted Nauvoo; the spiritualist utopia of Thomas Lake Harris, which claimed to be situated on the exact spot of the Garden of Eden (in Virginia). The optimistically named Modern Times, located on Long Island 40 miles from New York City, was established by the anarchist Josiah Warren in 1850. Based on complete tolerance, it attracted a number of misfits from other, more uptight communes. The citizens of Modem Times included nudists, polygamists, wife swappers, transvestites, and a woman who starved to death because she refused to eat anything but beans. Despite these freewheeling personalities and a lot of newspaper publicity, Modem Times lasted over three times longer than the average commune. Without any central government it remained operational for seven years, until the depression of 1857 wiped it out.

Most religious communes were the expression of a single charismatic leader. Few could survive a change in ministry. After the failure of his Michigan nudist colony, renegade Mormon Cyrus Sprang took his followers to Illinois, where they built for him an ecclesiastical palace modeled upon that of King Solomon. Sprang planned to spend eternity in “repose and meditation” while remaining among his followers as “the Eternal and Invisible Presence.” No one was allowed into the tabernacle except the cult’s “virgins,” who came one at a time on particular nights and were received by Sprang in total darkness. (No one could look upon the face of the Invisible Presence and expect to live.) Ultimately a jealous postman, who had fallen in love with one of Sprang’s handmaidens, broke into the temple and fired three shots. The report soon circulated that the Invisible Presence was dead, but Sprang’s followers refused to believe it. They were reassured the next day when a virgin reported back with the message: “Fear not, thy God is immortal.”

Several months later, however, Sprang’s daughter-in-law accused her husband and his brother of taking turns occupying the temple and greeting the virgins. ‘‘It took two of them to fill the place of the prophet, one wasn’t enough,” she charged. Sprang, Jr., maintained that his father had ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot, but this vision was not sufficiently compelling to keep the sect intact.

As the 20th century approached, some enterprising cult leaders managed to combine business with religion. The first of these was the Australian faith healer Alexander Dowie, who came to Chicago in 1893 and built his first tabernacle/healing room on the outskirts of the World’s Fair. Despite its official doctrine that the earth was flat, his Christian-Catholic-Apostolic-Church-in-Zion became the nation’s fastest-growing cult since the Mormons. In 1901, Dowie revealed himself as the reincarnation of the Prophet Elijah and established the community of Zion City, 42 miles north of Chicago. Zion City was basically the lace factory where all residents worked and a great observation tower for Dowie. He ruled with an iron hand and employed an intricate spy network. The workers in his factory were compelled to deposit their money in his bank; in 1904 he founded the Theocratic party and marked everyone’s ballot for his nominee, President Theodore Roosevelt. Among the things forbidden to Zion City residents were doctors, drugs, dancing, vaudeville, unions, pork, tobacco, war, lust and bad language. In between factory shifts, Dowie’s flock partook in three daily
prayer meetings, and their Sunday services lasted all day. The prophet was finally deposed in 1906 after an indiscreet attempt to ditch his wife for another woman. After his death the next year, it was discovered that he had invested a substantial portion of his profits in a collection of rare pornography.

Dowie’s spiritual successors were religious leaders like Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, Father Divine and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who were able to parlay their cults into substantial corporative entities. But even more commercial—if less lucrative—was William E. Riker’s Holy City, California, the world’s schlockiest utopia. In 1919, Riker, an ex-mechanic who called himself “The Comforter” and claimed to receive messages through his nerves, moved his Perfect Christian Divine Way from San Francisco to a 200-acre site in the Santa Cruz mountains. As the colony grew no food, it was wholly dependent on tourism. With an eye to the state highway that passed through their land, Riker’s several hundred adherents constructed an angel-bedecked Gas and Public Comfort Station, with a barber shop, grocery and restaurant. Huge billboards proclaimed Holy City the “Headquarters for the World’s Perfect Government” and offered a “$25,000 reward if you can find any flaws in it.” A row of wooden Santa Clauses stood on Main Street, each with a Riker axiom affixed to its stomach, such as: “God winks His eye at any act we care to do, if we take Him in on the deal.” During the 1920s and ’30s, Holy City’s industries expanded to include bottled holy water, alcoholic soda pop (sold under the counter during Prohibition), peep shows of naked women (housed in miniature churches), and a zoo. “The Comforter” was no wet blanket: at one time or another Riker was tried for reckless driving (nine accidents in 1929 alone), fraud, tax evasion, breach of promise, sedition and murder. A pen pal of Adolf Hitler’s, Riker maintained that the world belonged to the white race and regularly ran for governor of California on that platform.

After the war. Holy City fell on hard times. The state rerouted the highway, and by 1952 the colony’s principal means of support were the social-security checks of its residents. Although Riker was swindled out of his land in 1960 by the “New Jewish Messiah’’ (and former music director of the “Sergeant Preston’’ radio show), he managed to hang in for nine more years until his death at age 94. During the Summer of Love, Holy City issued an official invitation to the hippies of San Francisco. None responded. Still, when asked about Holy City’s future, one of the old-timers remained optimistic: “Holy City belongs to mankind, and mankind never dies.’’ So far, events haven’t proved him wrong.

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