Just below the surface of our polite society, it’s not really a surprise for many of us that there are doomsday cults. A 2020 study by BioMed Central Geriatrics found that roughly 1.25% of people had persistent death wishes, and that was among people who did not have underlying mental illnesses. Of even that group less than a quarter admitted being suicidal. That’s a lot of the general population that would respond well to a group that tells them that it will all be over soon without necessarily bringing the stigma of suicide into it.
Some of these brought the eyes of the world upon them for sheer spectacle. Others had influence that spanned the globe and lasted for generations if not to this very day. Such is the bewildering, passively self-destructive spirit concealed in society.
10. Plymouth Brethren
One of the earliest known surviving doomsday cults is generally reported to have been founded in 1831 near Dublin, Ireland. It was founded by the clergyman John Darby and his non-clergy associates, such as the lawyer John Bellett and Anthony Groves, a dentist. This was not really an issue for the group since they claimed they all directly studied the bible and consequently didn’t need a clergy that was separate from the congregation. After reaching the United States in 1860, it expanded to roughly 50,000 members. Along the way, it picked up some bizarre beliefs, according to John Spinks, a member for 22 years. For example, members are not allowed to go to theaters or even watch television. A rule which emerged in 1964 said that all pets were to be put down as a distraction from God. Such is the commitment to the doctrine that members are to attend a service every day, except on Sunday. Sunday they’re supposed to attend five.
The influence of the Plymouth Brethen’s doctrine is most felt today in the popularization of rapture media, the Left Behind franchise being the best known example. It helped its spread and longevity that John Darby avoided a mistake that many of the other doomsday cults listed here avoided. He didn’t specify a date or even a year, just that the rapture and tribulation would happen at the end of the “Church Age”, the last of seven ages that he described in dividing human history.
9. Society of the Woman in the Wilderness
While the Plymouth Brethren brought doomsday beliefs to America relatively early, they were old hat compared to a collection of German immigrants led by Johannes Kelpius that arrived in Philadelphia in 1694. Their name was a reference to Revelation 12:6 where a woman flees into the wilderness and is nourished by God. As that implies, their goal was to set up a community of their own in the frontier wilderness and await the end of the World before the year was out. They were of numerical necessity a tight knit group, as they held that the number 40 had spiritual significance and thus they kept their ranks at forty people. They also settled on Wissahickon Creek because they determined it was at 40 degrees longitude and built a 40 foot tall tabernacle, particularly difficult to do with the tools available at the time and only wood for a construction material. From their numerically significant tabernacle they watched the skies for signs the end had arrived.
It must be said that not everyone in a doomsday cult is exclusively a glum drone. By Colonial American standards, the cult was actually relatively enlightened. They built the first observatory in the American colonies and brought the first telescope. They wrote popular music that circulated for centuries. In the years after 1694, the forty of them peacefully joined the surrounding Lutheran societies. Shame more cults aren’t so amiable.
8. Laodicean Remnant Adventist Church
In Brazil’s capital city Brasilia, one of the most common ways that the practice of enslaving people is kept alive is through religious indoctrination through fringe groups. For example in 2018 a series of police raids found that a church called Igreja Cristã Traduzindo o Verbo (roughly translating to “Church Translating the Word”) was subjecting 565 people to uncompensated labor. How do they do it?
Well in the case of the Laodicean Remnant Adventist Church, which was raided in March 2019, 79 people were put into forced labor by promising them that they would achieve salvation before the world ended through their work. They had to sleep in tents, use dangerous machinery while sleeping near containers of dangerous pesticides, and all while having to pay for their own food and other necessities. At the time of the raid, the slaves claimed that they didn’t want to be freed and hadn’t sought police intervention. As a result Brazil’s police were prevented by law from removing them from private property against their will.
7. The Ant Hill Kids
As heartbreaking as the situation from the previous entry is, what we know is not nearly so harrowing as what Roch “Moses” Thériault inflicted on his followers. The excommunicated member of the Seventh Day Adventist church began assembling his couple dozen followers on the promise that the world would end in February 1979, and to that end they drifted from community to community until they settled in Burnt River, Ontario in 1977. There their main connection to the surrounding community was selling baked goods at the local general store.
The passing of the date of doom did nothing to lessen Moses’s sway. He adopted a strange habit of performing all surgeries on his followers despite not having a medical background, including unanesthetized amputations, castrations, and appendectomies. Not only were the followers too afraid of him to leave until one Gabrielle Lavelle staggered away from the compound in 1989 while missing a recently amputated arm, but some were so under his sway that they would take punishments of hitting their own legs with sledgehammers. Thériault was ultimately arrested in 1989, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1993, and met his personal doomsday at the hands of another inmate in 2011.
6. Heaven’s Gate
One of the most tragic groups, this group treated as a laughingstock in the 90s began in 1975 under the influence of former music teacher Marshall Applewhite and his wife Bonnie Nettles as the Human Individual Metamorphosis after they read the Book of Revelation and saw a reference in Chapter 11 Verse 3 to two witnesses to the end times (“And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth”). that they believed would be them. That year they held gatherings in Oregon and California where they believed a UFO would transfer them to a higher state of being. When that didn’t happen, they moved to Texas for a couple decades of commune living. In the ’90s they got involved in early web development.
As of 1994, Applewhite’s statements specified that he did not believe suicide would be necessary for ascension. Still the group had taken on such habits as cleansing themselves by only consuming tea, pepper, and maple syrup. There was also their belief in uniform action, hence one of their last public activities being going out to eat and all ordering the exact same meal. It was also why when they committed group suicide in three waves in 1997 because they believed their souls would be transferred to bodies in a spaceship following the Hale-Bopp Comet, they were all wearing matching black shirts and black shoes.
Regarding the infamous fact that Applewhite and others were castrated, there are a few points we’d like to end on. First, only eight of the 18 male members had voluntarily undergone the operation. In the second place, a former member reported that even the members themselves were laughing and giddy about having the operation at the time. Perhaps there are some celibate (or not) individuals that can understand the sentiment.
5. Children of God
While Applewhite put great value in sexual purity, David Berg emphasized essentially the opposite. Not that he began his commune in Huntington Beach, California in 1968 with that as the initial mission statement. For the first ten years, it was a self-isolating cult that claimed that by abandoning traditionalist values they were actually closer to the original spirit of Jesus Christ, who was sufficiently anti-establishment that the Pharisees convinced the Romans to execute him. But even the most radical interpretation of Christ’s teachings would have difficulty justifying the practice introduced in 1978 that the perpetually isolated Berg referred to as “flirty fishing.”
Essentially a recruitment tool, it was free love to the point of prostitution. Berg rationalized it by citing the verse 1 Corinthians 6:20 that since our bodies belong to God, using them to spread the faith is still righteous. It was sufficiently successful that it swelled the ranks of the cult to 14,000 at the height, and an estimate was put forward that 223,000 services were performed through it. It also allegedly led to large amounts of child abuse.
Prostitution for God basically ended by 1987 when the AIDS epidemic made it no longer viable. Berg set a hard deadline that the world would end in 1993. Instead he himself ended in 1994. With its central figure gone, the cult shriveled down into the much smaller Family International.
4. Church of the Almighty God/Eastern Lightning
Ever since the religiously-motivated Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s and 60s cost roughly 20 million people their lives, Chinese authorities have had little tolerance for fringe religious movements, creating an entire anti-cult task force called the Beijing Counter-Cult Association. One of the cults that has drawn the most attention is known as both Church of Almighty God and Eastern Lightning. It is based around the belief that an obscure woman from the Henan Province in central China who was believed to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. One of the few things consistently claimed about her was that she failed her government entrance exams, which coincidentally is a second aspect she shares with Hong Xiuquan, the self-proclaimed reincarnation of Jesus Christ who led the Taiping Rebellion. Her obscurity is intentional, as most members are not allowed to know her whereabouts or have contact with her.
One of the group’s central tenets is said to be that they use violence as a recruitment tool. On December 14, 2012, the year the cult claimed that the World would end, an adherent took a knife to a school and stabbed 22 children. In October 2014, when a woman in a McDonald’s turned down an attempt at recruitment, five members of the cult beat her to death with chairs and a mop, then called her a demon while in custody. According to Pastor Dennis Balcombe, members have been told to kill their own children during the brainwashing process that usually lasts about six months. If those reports are accurate it’s hard not to side with the Chinese government against the cult.
Founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus is devoted to the notion that only through Lee Man-hee is Jesus Christ reanimated and that only through him can followers escape damnation. As they’ve become one of the largest and most radical doomsday cults in South Korea, they’ve adopted such beliefs as the tenet that getting sick is a sin because it distracts a follower from being able to preach the word.
This cult briefly rose to world prominence in February 2020. Their extremely aggressive proselytizing and constant services in extremely crowded halls made them ideal superspreaders of the then newly emergent Covid-19 pandemic. One adherent known as Patient 31 was indicated to have personally spread roughly 75% of all cases in Deenghu, one of the first major cities hit in South Korea. Of all the doomsday cults in the world, so far they’ve come the closest to actually bringing it about.
2. Supreme Truth
When Shoko Ashara began his group in Japan in the 1980s, he went a step beyond many of the cult leaders we’ve seen so far. He not only claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, but also of Buddha, at least in terms of enlightenment. As excessively grandiose as that might sound, even before the group was given official recognition in 1989 his followers placed enough value in him that they paid for strands of his hair, his bathwater, and in at least one instance paid more than £6,000 for a drink of what was said to be his blood.
For many people who were adults in the 90s, Supreme Truth is much more familiar as “Aum Shinrikyo.” Ashara’s assurances that humanity would end on its own from World War 3 became much less convincing for much of his following after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and after that the cult turned to violence. According to nonproliferation.org, Aum Shinrikyo launched seventeen terror attacks between 1990 and 1995, ten of which involved the use of poison gas. 19 of its own members were killed by other members for perceived disloyalty. Most famously the group attack the Tokyo Subway on March 20, 1995, killing 12 and injuring thousands more through gas exposure or trampling in the subsequent chaos.The inevitable crackdown led to the capture and execution of many of its most significant members and for the group to undergo such changes as changing its name to Aleph. However, there were reports ever since 1998 that the group might have not only recovered but resumed growth.
1. The Family
Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s cult sounds like a Stepford Wives-esque satire of nuclear families. In the 1960s in Victoria, Australia she began forming a community that would ultimately include 28 adopted children, many illegally and being told she was their birth mother. The children were also dressed in the same traditional clothing along gender lines, had their hair styled roughly the same, and were put through rigorous domineering physical and emotional abuse. As Hamilton-Byrne had entered the yoga scene to cope with a traumatic loss of her first husband, she eventually also entered the psychedelics scene and became convinced she was Jesus Christ, that her family should also takes LSD while she gave sermons, and instruct her family that they would be the master race after the world ended. She was also able to recruit a number of wealthy women in unhappy marriages and LGBT members as well since they were marginalized in the society of the time,
Eventually the extremely unhealthy domestic situation compelled two children to escape in 1987, and their reports resulted in a police raid. The extremely wealthy Hamilton-Byrne evaded the law for two years, and when she was captured, she only was found guilty of one charge with minor fee before senility hit and she was deemed no longer fit to stand trial. She died in 2019, still using a doll as a substitute for her child victims.
Speaking of doomsday, Dustin Koski and Jonathan Wojcik wrote Return of the Living, a novel about how ghosts get along years after doomsday has killed everyone.