Baylor > Lariat Archives > News

Cult membership increases as new millennium approaches

April 2, 1997

This graphic is displayed on the Heaven's Gate web page on the Internet. The cult was involved in a mass suicide last week which resulted in the death of 39 individuals. The web site address is: http://

By Michelle Van Rysselberge

Lariat Staff Writer

The next millennium is a mere three years away. The approach of the 21st century appears to be coupled with an increase in apocalyptic cults and bizarre events.

Last week, 39 Heaven's Gate cult members packed their suitcases, shaved their heads in crew cut styles, dressed in black and drank a deadly cocktail of applesauce, phenobarbital and vodka.

The group committed suicide in hopes of boarding a spacecraft trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. Heaven's Gate used ads and their Web site on the Internet to inform the public of their beliefs and urge people to join them.

Nearly four years ago, the Branch Davidians, who also committed mass suicide, believed the world was coming to an end.

Jim Jones led more than 900 people to Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 to commit suicide using Kool-Aid and cyanide.

These groups are just a few of the cultic movements that have received publicity in the past couple of decades.

The approach of a new millennium will increase apocalyptic cult activity just as it did before the year 1000, according to experts. Two major groups during that time period included the Bogomiles and Cathari, said religion professor Dr. James Breckenridge.

There are three definitions for the word cult, Breckenridge said.

The first is a religion perceived by some people as strange or odd. Another definition is a group perceived as a threat to society and normal life as we know it.

A final is a group that claims to be a true form of a religious tradition, but most people in that religion would say the group deviates from our tradition in a significant way through their teaching and practice, he said.

'A characteristic of a cult is a leader with a lot of personal appeal, charm and charisma,' Breckenridge said.

'The leader appears to be quite bright and knowledgeable and is an authoritarian who knows how to manipulate people. He or she has the answers to the meaning of life and many times makes the followers feel special.'

Cults are either secluded from or active in the mainstream of society. In both cases, the group holds secret beliefs and practices that are hidden from the public, Breckenridge said.

When people think of cults, many times they conjure up images of crazy people. Just mention the Branch Davidians and most people make jokes about crazy David Koresh.

'Anyone can join these groups whose lives don't have a sense of purpose - you don't have to be crazy,' Breckenridge said. 'Many cults have intelligent people who are well-educated and from affluent backgrounds.'

The Heaven's Gate cult is an ideal example of this viewpoint. They were a highly intelligent group of computer programmers who created web pages for companies.

Anyone with an Internet service provider can use the Internet for any purpose. No one can stop cults from using the Internet, said David Seago, analyst and programmer and University webmaster.

'It is left wide-open,' Seago said.

The Internet is a neutral medium just like television and radio. It can be helpful if used to inform as well as harmful, Breckenridge said.

'It creates a need for a great deal of wisdom about how to handle the information,' Breckenridge said.

Book describes

Davidian raid

By Elizabeth Case

Lariat Reporter

Five years have passed since the incident at Mount Carmel, and Joe Robert has relived it every day.

Robert, a resident of nearby Axtell, is the author of the book Beyond the Flames, an account of the events that led to the stand-off and raid of the Branch Davidian Compound in February of 1993.

Robert, who wrote under the pen name J.J. Robertson as a tribute to his father and uncle, said his book is set apart from other books about David Koresh and the tragedy because it contains information on the origin of the Branch Davidian church that was obtained from the actual church files.

Robert also included eyewitness accounts from survivors of the raid and from his own experiences as a volunteer for the Salvation Army.

Robert, who was under-going rehabilitation for a work-related injury, had free time on his hands. He volunteered the night of Feb. 28, 1993 to serve drinks and snacks to law enforcement and media personnel.

His involvement allowed him to pass through the blockades that brought him up to about 1,500 yards from the law enforcement command center.

Robert's book offers his theories as to why the raid took place and interviews with individuals who were never questioned by investigators.

Robert photographed the events as they unfolded at the compound, and of the 104 pictures in the book, 100 have never been seen before.

Beyond the Flames is available in Waco bookstores and the Helen Marie Taylor Museum of Waco History. The book can also be ordered by calling 1-800-295-3737 or visiting Robert's web site at

Copyright © 1997 The Lariat

Comments or Questions can be sent to The Lariat