15 Notorious Cults That Amazingly Still Exist
By the time we hear about most cults, it’s because the group has disbanded, its leader has died despite certain immortality or faced legal charges of being a freaking cult leader, or it’s otherwise been outed as, you know, a cult. Sometimes, though, neither death nor HBO can keep a cult down -- especially some of the most famous ones.
The Family International
The creepy child sex cult formerly known as Children of God is nothing if not a veteran of rebranding. They’ve been known as the Family of Love, just the Family, and now the Family International, run by deceased leader David Berg’s wife, which they call “an online Christian network … committed to sharing the message of God’s love with people around the globe.” It’s not clear exactly how its 1,450 members do that, but their website has a whole page explaining without explaining that they super don’t abuse kids anymore, so there’s that.
The Branch Davidians
You might assume the Branch Davidian cult died when so many of its members, including the David in question, did during the 1993 siege of their Texas compound, and it did for a while, but a handful of members splintered off into two, uh, branches that still preach doomsday, one of which still occupies the site of the famous ranch. More like Branch Dividians, right?
Even more confusion is the continued internet presence of Heaven’s Gate, whose members died in a ritual mass suicide in 1997 under the belief their bodies would be taken to an otherworldly advanced civilization, but their website has been dutifully maintained by two people in Arizona who still believe they’ll join their brethren on the “Next Level” someday. They insist “there is no group or members” any longer, but that’s clearly what they are, there are others they keep in touch with, and they use the website to sell books and videos about the group. So. That sure sounds like a group.
Most cults close ranks as soon as someone whispers “HBO documentary,” but Gwen Shamblin’s hair’s legacy is too big for that. They even still hold Weigh Down workshops.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Even with leader/mega-creep Warren Jeffs in prison for life, the FLDS not only soldiers on with as many as 10,000 members, it’s still led by Jeffs using coded letters and possibly secret recording devices. It’s like James Bond but somehow rapier. Jeffs even wrote a book in prison from the perspective of God, warning people that they were gonna be super sorry for imprisoning him.
The Church of Bible Understanding
Few cults have inspired ‘90s sitcom episodes, but even after Seinfeld made them famous, the Church of Bible Understanding has kept on trucking (if not carpet cleaning) in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a town surely sick of being claimed to fame at this point. They most recently made the news after one of their orphanages in Haiti burned down.
Aum Shinrikyo was found to be behind the 1995 bioterrorism attacks on the Tokyo subway system and many of its members were sentenced to death, which is the sort of thing that tends to kill a cult, but they just changed their name to Aleph and terrorized on. As recently as 2019, a guy injured eight people in an attempted vehicular homicide spree in retaliation for the executions the previous year, though his victims (that is, randos on the street) were almost certainly not responsible.
Order of the Solar Temple
The Order of the Solar Temple is somehow both a doomsday cult and something out of The Da Vinci Code and exactly as creepy as that sounds. The heyday of the Knights Templar worshippers ended in the ‘90s, when its leader killed a whole family for naming their son the same name as one of his and then dozens of members died in a mass murder-suicide complete with a staging of the Last Supper. A few hundred members are somehow still around, but what they’re even up to is both anyone’s guess and extremely concerning.
The Unification Church, known to normal people as the Moonies, was founded in 1954 in South Korea by self-proclaimed messiah Reverend Sun Myung Moon and soon became famous for its mass weddings of total strangers. Not only did the cult survive its leader's death in 2012, they’ve moved worryingly into American politics. They even hosted Donald Trump in 2021, though to be fair, he takes any opportunity to stand at a podium these days.
The Nation of Yahweh
In 1978, Hulon Mitchell, Jr. left the Nation of Islam because it just wasn’t extreme enough for him, rechristened himself Yahweh ben Yahweh, and founded the Nation of Yahweh. Things went okay for a while, and Yahweh even proved so popular that he got his own day in Miami, but then he started commanding his followers to kill for him, went to prison for conspiracy to commit murder, and died shortly after his release. He still has a handful of followers in Miami, though their activity appears to be mostly limited to “Yahweh-touting posts, anti-abortion memes, and homophobic scourges” on their Facebook page.
The Nuwaubian Nation
The Nuwaubian Nation was another black supremacist cult, but instead of enacting a race war, its leader, Dwight York, mostly used it to amass a stable of child sex slaves. He’s still in prison for, you know, that, but his followers have continued popping up over the years, mostly after they do crimes.
Before 2002, Raëlism was mostly known for its beliefs in aliens and nudity, but they became most famous for claims that they’d cloned a human being and not allowing anyone to actually verify that. It turns out that, despite claims of sexual abuse, they were never proven to have done anything arrestable, so they remain active, making the news most recently after a Canadian firefighter sued his employer for religious discrimination for failing to provide him vegan food.
The Rajneesh Movement
At its inception in the ‘70s, the Rajneesh Movement had all the trappings of your average cult -- orgies, admonitions to reject material wealth while its guru trucked around his giant estate in a Rolls Royce, etc. -- but then it turned to “bioterrorism, election rigging and attempted murder, including the first (official) American bioterrorism attack via the contamination of salad bars (yes, really). Its leaders went to prison and their guru died in 1990, but that hasn’t stopped the movement, which runs the Osho International Meditation Resort in Mumbai, attracting around 200,000 visitors a year. So if you’re in the market for a spiritual getaway, maybe avoid that one.
The Larouche Movement
Though scholars debate the designation, what distinguishes the LaRouche movement, which began in the ‘60s as a Marxist faction before swinging hard right, from other political organizations is their reputation for harassment, violence, and conspiracy theories and blind worship of their leader. Even most Trump fans abandoned him after his 2020 defeat, but even Lyndon LaRouche’s death in 2019 couldn’t stop his followers from … completely warping his message, according to his widow, who took legal action against the Lyndon LaRouche Political Action Committee in 2021.
Though the company officially suspended operations in 2018, members of NXIVM and associated groups have reportedly continued meeting in secret and big bad Keith Raniere has maintained communication with his followers from prison via a complicated scheme of burner phones and false identities, so it’s still not safe to accept any invitations to self-development seminars from washed-up actresses. It never was, but the outcome is potentially even worse than overpriced headshots.
Top image: McLennan County Sheriff's Office/Wikimedia Commons