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What constitutes a "cult"?

On our Monday adventure, Wayne and I took a tour at the Ephrata Cloister. It was one of the first religious communities in the country, founded in 1731by this guy named Conrad Beissel. Beissel was orphaned young (age 8), took up the craft of baking, and was eventually kicked out of Germany and moved here, to central Pennsylvania, where he met some Anabaptists (who are the modern day Amish).

He was charismatic and had some radical ideas-- like celibacy was the way to be closer to God-- and gathered a following. They formed a religious hermitage in Ephrata composed of about 80 members, men and women, who were celibate, and about 200 "homesteaders," married couples and families who supported the celibates.  The brothers and sisters lived separately in separate areas

Weird enough yet? Beissel's weird theology encouraged giving up of every day comforts because they kept you from God. Celibates wore white hooded outfits to "muffle" the body, only took one vegetarian meal a day, spent several hours in their small cells praying every day, and when they slept, they slept on a wooden board, 15 inches wide, with a wooden block for a pillow. They didn't use a blanket unless it was freezing. Every night, Beissel would ring a bell at midnight to wake the community up from sleep (bedtime was 9 pm) and call them to church, where they'd spend two hours waiting for the second coming, because the Bible said Jesus would come "like a thief in the night. " Then they would return to "bed" for another three hours.  The only time the followers of Beissel were permitted to eat meat was during the celebration of communion when they ate lamb, because it was mentioned in the Bible.

Still aside from the monastic life, their beliefs allowes for families (for the homesteaders), limited industry and creativity. The community became known for its self-composed a cappella music and Germanic calligraphy known as Frakturschriften. They had their own complete publishing center which included a paper mill, printing office, and book bindery. The first book of hymns composed entirely in the (now) USA, Turtel-Taub, was written by Beissel.

When Beissel died, the monastic aspects of the community dwindled and then ceased. Their faith was later incorporated as the German Seventh Day Baptist Church, because they practiced a Saturday sabbath.

So I find myself wondering, what makes this celebrated religious community, that ultimately failed, any different from what we would today call a cult?  Is it because the remnants of the church were folded into what is today considered a conventional faith? How were these people different from the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the polygamist Mormons who were all over the news a few moths ago) or even the Branch Davidians? 

iskender- thoughts?

The main museum building, where you pay your admission and start the tour.

The dining room in the Sister's building.  The pillow-like thing in the foreground is a recreation of the type of bread they made at the Cloister.  It wasn't wheat (because wheat was a cash crop) so likely rye and it had to be eaten stale, because it would cause stomach cramps and other issues if eaten too fresh.  They also made baskets out of the rye grass because the smell of it kept insects and rodents away.

A cell in the Sisters' house.  This is the bed, a wooden bench, 15" wide, with a wooden block for a pillow.

The "Saal"-- meetinghouse, church.  Completely unheated in the winter.

Kitchen off the Saal.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 25th, 2008 07:50 pm (UTC)
Hinduism says that you might as well fight in accordance with God's will, since life is an illusion anyway. That's the Bhagavad Gita.

The Old Testament rejoices in images of dashing the enemies' children against rocks. That's Psalm 137.

Fuck yeah, it's a cult. Hell, archaeologists use the phrase "cult" all the time, in a neutral and descriptive sense. It's only in popular parlance that the phrase is automatically derogatory. But once you look deep enough into the religious soul, you realize that it's all one continuum, cults and religions. Some are merely more violent than others.

But don't take my word for it. Look at how perfectly Mayan and Aztec sacrifices were co-opted by Catholicism's rich pageantry of blood, power, and death. Or the Filipinos' tendency for self-crucifixion. Or Shi'a bloodletting. Or Martin Luther's profound paranoia, his calls for violence against the Jews as, after all, it was nothing compared to the fires of hell.

Show me a religion that wasn't founded by madmen and I'll... Well, just go ahead and show me one. They don't exist. There are merely religions so old that their madnesses become transmuted into mysteries, awesome wonders, and supposed wisdom. Such madnesses suck dry the thought of their ponderers who, finding nothing that makes sense, come up with ingenious explanations for the seeming contradictions and cruelties. And anything such ponderers discover they, of course, attribute to the tangled faith, which itself brought nothing but expectation and pretense.

But, to answer you directly, it really does come down to this. Cults are relatively unpopular, or less popular, religions. Religions are successful cults. We may also find that minority movements of faiths like ours are not cults. "Cult" usually means "religion I don't like, don't recognize, or don't belong to." I've heard paganism described as a cult, Catholicism too. It's an almost meaningless word. Which is why I tend to look at harmful religion as the meaningful divide. But that's a long, long conversation.

Edited at 2008-06-25 07:54 pm (UTC)
Jun. 26th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC)
Come on, Juli. Don't provoke me if you're not going to respond. ;)
Jun. 26th, 2008 04:01 pm (UTC)
Well, the problem is that I agree with you. This guy was a nut job leading a cult and the fact that his death pretty much ended the experiment "proves" it. That's why I don't really understand the Commonwealth's reverence for this nut. He pulled from all of the different Bretheren groups and made up his own kooky brand of the Baptist faith and he wrote some pretty music. That's really it. It's funny, PA is full of interesting historical stories and this is certainly one of them, but there's so much more relevant history, the history of the nation, that they could be focusing on.

Like the story about Buchanan I wrote about yesterday. I had no idea the rumors about his life but it took something that grabbed my attention to get me to look him up- a romantic little detail about his engagement. The story turned out vastly different than I'd expected but whatever, I learned something.

So now I'm thinking about a religion not founded by a madman, "mad" meaning insane. The first thing that came to mind was the Bah'a'i faith but I guess one could argue that the Bab and Baha'u'llah are/were somewhat radical and/or insane.

I think also at issue is the duration of the cult. Perhaps one of these days someone will announce themselves the prophet of a new religion and it will catch on before the megalomania takes over, before the government steps in and shuts the group down.
Jun. 26th, 2008 10:02 pm (UTC)
I have a deep respect for many teachings of the Baha'i faith, actually. And maybe I betray my prejudices here, but I'd still say that Baha'ullah was still a lunatic. Claiming to be the messiah takes a special kind of delusion, or a special kind of cynicism. I mean, I'd like to take each claim of personal revelation as its own phenomenon, but there's no reason to accept Baha'ullahs experiences with a messenger of God over those of anyone else who claims the same. And yet they can't all be right, right? And why should one attribute his charisma or intellect or vision to God, when others who, by his teachings, are schismatics and not divinely inspired have been able to possess the same capacities? Why would God touch some and not others? That gets into a lot of other questions, but I'm more willing to believe that he was a great man who was, nevertheless, quite insane. At least with, say, Napoleon, we know he was just a liar when he claimed to represent Christianity, Islam, liberty, and any other god he sought to champion.

And yes, duration has a lot to do with it too. As I said, familiarity. Religions that have long existed become normalized. Those formed last week instill fear. And yet, the oldest religions can be the most arcane, organized, elitist, and cruel. Examples abound. There is nothing inherently favorable toward evil or good in most religions, however. Their adherents reinterpret them freely, and no religion that outlives its prophet fails to see such corruption, evolution, and reform. But now I'm really talking in generalities.
Jun. 25th, 2008 08:04 pm (UTC)
I gotta say I really enjoy these adventures and the subsequent posts you're making afterward! You really take the person along on the journey with your descriptions and pics. I'm finally "traveling" and getting to see some of the world I probably wouldn't have otherwise!! :) Thanks Jules :)
Jun. 26th, 2008 04:02 pm (UTC)
Glad you enjoy them. Sorry it's only been PA lately...
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )