Apocalypticism, the belief that the world will end soon, is found in practically every religion on the planet. The Romans were periodically gripped by panics involving the prophesied downfall of Rome throughout their history, and early Christians believed they were living in the End Times with as much zeal as modern American evangelists. The following are 10 doomsday cults that still exist.
In 1792, part-time fortune teller Joanna Southcott started collecting “divine revelations” and had them sealed in a box with strict instructions to open it only for Jesus. Her followers called themselves Southcottians and were mostly early-19th century Spiritualists. Southcott dramatically announced that she was pregnant with the messiah, Shiloh, whose birth would kill all but her followers. However, Southcott was a 64-year-old virgin who showed no signs of pregnancy. To Southcott’s credit, she began doubting her beliefs when she failed to give birth but died before she was able to do anything about it. The sudden power vacuum among the Southcottians brought out all sorts of leadership, all of whom claimed they could psychically communicate with Southcott’s box, and transformed the Southcottians into a bizarre cult that refused to bury Southcott’s corpse, believing that she would be resurrected. They renamed themselves the Panacea Society under the belief that they had healing powers, and still believe that Shiloh will descend from heaven to reboot the world at a later date. The Panacea Society spends most of its time issuing press releases in British newspapers demanding that the bishops of the Church of England assemble to open Southcott’s box, presumably because Jesus is too busy.
In 1957, traveling salesman Mark Prophet founded The Summit Lighthouse to teach the way of the Ascended Masters. According to him, Ascended Masters are individuals who have acquired enough worldly knowledge to attain immortal souls. Most of his original followers were nice old ladies who liked the idea of immortality, but membership exploded through the New Age self-help seminar circuit. Things became a bit bizarre after Prophet died in 1973. His wife, Elizabeth, co-opted a large portion of the followers and founded the Church Universal and Triumphant. She started referring to herself as Guru Ma, claimed that the world’s elite were malevolent aliens, and moved the organization to a remote Montana ranch patrolled by armed guards. There, members are forced into celibacy and aren’t allowed to eat chocolate (it was created by aliens). In the ’90s, Elizabeth made headlines by announcing that the alien elite would wage an nuclear war that would kill all but her followers. Cult members constructed the world’s largest fallout shelter and began stockpiling arms in preparation. When nothing happened, Elizabeth denied ever setting a date and claimed that she was merely warning the world. The Church continues to collect weaponry and upholds that the alien elite will wage their war on a future date.
In 1875, Charles Taze Russell, the son of a wealthy haberdasher, used his wealth to inform as many people as possible that the Armageddon would take place in 1878. 1878 passed without a blip but Russell was unphased: he simply created an organization which transformed into the Jehovah’s Witnesses and issued another date. Russell taught that Jesus had secretly been enthroned in heaven in 1914 and will return after the Armageddon, which only Jehovah’s Witnesses will survive. After ruling for 1,000 years, Jesus will return to heaven with the most righteous 144,000 souls. The remaining Jehovah’s Witnesses need not worry as they’ll get to enjoy paradise on Earth. Russell developed complicated algorithms to issue alerts about when Armageddon would occur and continued to do so even after the dates kept passing without anything happening. His death in 1916 didn’t seem to deter the organization from arbitrarily announcing a new date either. Jehovah’s Witnesses kept issuing dates until a mass walkout of members in 1976. Since then they’ve been reluctant to say when the Armageddon will occur, but still uphold that it can happen at any moment.
In 1971, agricultural engineer Shukri Mustafa joined a splinter of the Muslim Brotherhood called Takfir wal-Hijra (”Excommunication and Exodus”). His loose interpretation of Qur’anic verses involving the Apocalypse transformed the group into a cult that believes it is their right to conquer the Muslim world by any means because it has become too decadent. Takfir wal-Hijra believes that the end of the world will occur after the appearance of the Mahdi, an agent of God who will purify Islam. An epic battle between good and evil will kill all but the followers of Takfir wal-Hijra. Mustafa originally hinted that he was the Mahdi and declared that the end of the world was right around the corner. After Egypt hinted at peace with Israel, he took his followers to prepare in Egyptian caves. When nothing happened, he stated that cataclysmic destruction was required to bring the true Mahdi out of hiding and unleashed a program of terror in Egypt. Most of the group was killed by the Egyptian government fairly quickly. Mustafa was dead by 1978, and Takfir wal-Hijra has been operating in secret since. They were a massive influence on a young Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s second in command, who took the concept of using violence to bring about Armageddon to heart.
In 1902, insurance salesman Edgar Cayce began undergoing hypnosis to cure a bad case of laryngitis. He claimed to have discovered his underlying clairvoyant powers during these treatments and became one of history’s most influential psychics. Most of his early followers were Theosophists, but he became popular with the New Age movement in the ’60s and more recently with the History Channel whenever they’ve run out of Nostradamus shows. After a brief stint as a psychic healer, Cayce set up a nonprofit organization to shield himself from fortune telling laws and had a stenographer record 14,000 prophecies. His most dramatic prophecies involved “Earth Changes“, cataclysms brought on by the United States discovering a crystal powered Atlantean death ray in 1958. The Earth’s axis would shift, California would fall into the Pacific Ocean forever, and New York would be wiped out. Cayce died in 1945 and when nothing happened 1958, his followers associated atomic weapons with his Earth Changes prophecies. The Association for Research and Enlightenment, a modern incarnation of Cayce’s original organization, still studies his prophecies, hosts discussions over them, and occasionally releases cryptic warnings about the coming Earth Changes.
In 1987, blind acupuncturist Shoko Asahara started a yoga class after visiting India. It attracted Japan’s educated elite at first, but quickly transformed into a rigid cult that called itself Aum Shinrikyo (”Supreme Truth”) as Asahara incorporated more occult teachings. Advertising campaigns announced that Asahara had attained enlightenment, was Jesus, and could cure everything from venereal diseases to brain cancer. Members were required to live on sparse compounds where children were forced into solitary confinement, had their eyebrows dyed green, and were forced to wear headgear that was designed to produce the same frequency as Asahara’s brainwaves. After a failed attempt to win 1990’s Japanese elections, Asahara began preaching that the Japanese government would wage a cataclysmic war with Aum Shinrikyo in 1997. Ever the altruist, he decided that it was Aum Shinrikyo’s duty to kill as many people as possible before the war since it relieved victims of bad karma. To make this happen the group manufactured Sarin and released it in crowded subways in 1995. Asahara was sentenced to be executed for the deaths of 11 people. Aum Shinrikyo has since reformed itself as Aleph and is under constant scrutiny from the Japanese government.
In 1974, sports journalist Claude Vorilhon renamed himself Raël and held a press conference to announce that he had been visited by benevolent aliens called Elohim. Vorilhon claimed that he had been tasked to save humanity from an impending nuclear holocaust. This “Age of Apocalypse” (not the X-Men arc) can only be averted if an interplanetary embassy is built in Israel. The Elohim will reveal themselves at this point and humanity will enter a new era of peace. Unfortunately, Israel won’t allow the embassy to be built because the swastika is prominently displayed in the Raëlism symbol. Raël claims he is from a long line of alien prophets which includes Muhammad, Jesus, and Buddha. He knows this for a fact because he visited them on another planet and they told him so. Although they’ve been cautious enough not to give an exact day for when the nuclear apocalypse will occur, Raëlians have hinted that not building the embassy by 2030 will yield massive destruction. When he isn’t saving humanity from the nuclear holocaust, Raël spends his time playing video games because racing exotic cars that wealthy members donated was too exhausting.
In 1992, cereal factory guard Li Hongzhi started claiming he had godlike powers that allowed him to turn invisible, levitate, immobilize people, control the weather, and see into the future. This last power is especially important, because Li has seen that Fa-rectification, a cosmic process that reduces humanity to a pure state, will cause a “Great Havoc” soon. Li has developed a series of meditation techniques rooted in Taoism and Buddhism called Falun Gong to help mankind attain salvation in its time of need. It is spreading very quickly, there are an estimated 70 million Falun Gong practitioners in China alone. The Chinese government responded by banning the immensely popular religion under the argument that it has all the auspices of a dangerous cult. In 2003, Li announced that the SARS epidemic was the first wave of Fa-rectification. Falun Gong practitioners generally brush criticism aside, claiming that it is slander planted by the Chinese government.
In the early-’30s, stories were published in Jamaican newspapers claiming that Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the leader of an East African possession cult known as the Nyahbinghi. These stories were fabrications written by Italian Fascists wanting to smear Selassie, but Jamaicans found them inspirational, and cults which venerated Selassie started appearing. The Rastafari movement developed out of this but didn’t have a central theology until 1933, when Leonard Howell returned after visiting the United States. Howell, a close friend of Marcus Garvey, distributed Afrocentric pamphlets that claimed Selassie was the messiah and was leading a war against western civilization, called Babylon. This struck a chord with Jamaicans who were weary of British rule. Howell never gave a date for the impending race war, but other Rastafari prophets were not as tight-lipped. Some preached that Jamaica would be torn apart in 1977 and that only Rastafarians would survive. Nothing happened and the Rastafarians fractured into various “mansions” who only share a belief in the evils of white society and the divinity of Selassie. Its modern form was brought to a worldwide audience through reggae music.
In 1932, retired diamond dealer Lekhraj Khubchand Kripalani began claiming he was an avatar of Shiva and was receiving apocalyptic visions. He taught that a nuclear holocaust would destroy every continent except for the Indian subcontinent and quickly attracted a core group of 300 followers. Only they would be equipped to lead after the genocide, and they would usher in a perfect paradise. Most of his early converts were wealthy wives who made celibacy oaths and pledged their fortunes to him. Pissed off families starting lobbying the Indian government to ban the group, forcing Kripalani to create the organization that eventually became the Brahma Kumaris. They operated in secret, lobbying foreign governments to recognize them and putting out meditation pamphlets, until they found a lucrative niche teaching meditation techniques to the New Age movement. The Brahma Kumaris exploded across the planet until Kripalani died in 1969, leaving behind strict instructions that he would send messages through the Kumari leadership. The Brahma Kumaris still teach that a great destruction is right around the corner. Their most famous adherent is Pratibha Patil, the current president of India, who in 2007 announced that she had received a message from Kripalani stating that a “great responsibility” was headed her way.