No truly great man, from Jesus Christ
down, ever founded a sect.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Journal
One might suppose that it would be difficult to found a new
religion. A little study however shows that this is not so.
Throughout history countless thousands of religions have flourished,
and new ones spring up all the time, especially in times of
change and popular dissatisfaction. Below we mention a few religions
and sects, mainly related to Christianity, in which the founders
have established themselves as specially appointed as God or,
just as often, actually being God.
Around the time of Jesus there were numerous frauds pretending
to be divinely inspired. Amongst them were Simon Magus and his
lady friend, Sophia, the Divine Wisdom incarnate, purportedly
a reincarnation of Helen of Troy. Another was Simon's successor
Menander*. Another was
Dositheus. Celsus regarded Christ as one of many such frauds
who had been around at that time. There had been many prophets
wandering about in Palestine claiming to be God, or a son of
God, or a divine spirit*.
Such religious frauds were still around in the second century,
during the lifetime of Celsus. Lucian of Samosata, the satirist,
used them as stock figures of fun. Two notable ones were Peregrinus
(also known as Proteus, see page 597) and Alexander of Abonuteichos,
both of whom had been regarded as gods*.
Alexander was the pupil of Apollonius of Tyana, another divine
philosopher. Apollonius had been born in miraculous circumstances,
became immortal after his disappearance from this world, and
returned to Earth to convince a doubter of the reality of immortality.
In the second century a Christian called Montanus claimed immediate
inspiration of the Holy Ghost and formed a popular sect. It
was especially popular with women, to whom God was known to
appear dressed as a woman. Montanism was on the way to developing
into a new religion when other Christians suppressed it as heretical.
Mani (216-277) was a prophet who
claimed to be the Holy Ghost incarnate. He founded Manichæism,
a Zoroastrian religion that heavily influenced Christianity.
He belonged to an offshoot of a Persian royal house. He was
credited with a Virgin Birth, regarded as Saviour and Lord,
had 12 disciples, and was executed by the state when his Gnostic
ideas became popular. Also in the third century, one Melchisedec
established a following that acclaimed him as the Messiah.
In the seventh century Mohammed founded Islam in western Arabia,
having failed to be accepted by either Jews or Christians. For
the next 1,000 years many other new religions appeared, but
were generally extirpated either by Christians or Muslims. Sects
who predicted the imminent end of the world flourished in Europe
throughout the Middle Ages, mostly without being regarded as
heretical. Various dates around AD 1000 were favoured, but they
were missed one after another. Another wave swept Europe after
1150. Just a few of the main dates confidently given as the
end of the world up to 1400 were 1186, 1229, 1260, 1290, 1300,
1310, 1325, 1335, 1346, 1347, 1348, 1360, 1365, 1375, 1387,
1395, 1396 and 1400 itself. In parallel with this, new groups
were popping up all over. Sometimes they were absorbed into
the Christian Church, but more often they ended up as its enemies.
From the eleventh century to the fifteenth the pattern was
the same. A group would appear, often inspired by a charismatic
leader, who would advocate apostolic views and then for
various reasons having failed to get recognition, the
group would be driven into opposition. It would adopt more and
more extreme anti-hierarchical and anti-sacerdotal views and
the Church would turn the full weight of its authority and might
against the group until it had been harried and battered into
submission or extinction or driven out to seek survival as a
persecuted heretical sect*.
have already seen the fate of many other groups during the late
Middle Ages and the Renaissance who left, or were forced out
of, the Church. They too were generally founded by highly charismatic
leaders. Often, miraculous supernatural powers were attributed
to them. The only difference is that as a general rule the earlier
ones were successfully exterminated, and the later ones have
given rise to modern denominations. Often the modern denomination
has changed significantly from its charismatic or even messianic
early days. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, had an assistant
called James Naylor who, around 1656, started to be worshipped
as Christ by a group of Ranters. He was credited with raising
the dead and (as we have already seen page 341) incurred
the wrath of the authorities after he had entered the city of
Bristol on a donkey. In 1662, a Flemish woman, Antoinette Bourignon,
proclaimed herself to be the woman clothed with the Sun mentioned
in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation. Her followers, known
as Bourignonians, flourished in Scotland in the early eighteenth
century. In England Joanna Southcott, born in 1750, heard voices
and attracted a large following who believed her to be the Messiah.
Her followers continue into the third millennium. Another Englishwoman,
Mother Ann Lee, also claimed to be a female messiah. She went
to America in 1774 and took over the Shakers, a millenarian
sect that had seceded from the Quakers in 1747. By the 1820s
there were many thousands of Shakers living in self-supporting
communities from Kentucky to Maine. The Church of the New Jerusalem,
or Swedenborgianism, was founded in 1783 by the followers of
Emanuel Swedenborg, who had died eleven years earlier. Believers
held that their Church represented a new dispensation from God
that superseded Christianity, just as Christianity had previously
the early nineteenth century a large number of Adventists flourished.
They were millenarians, many of whom believed William Miller
when he predicted the end of the world in 1843, and then again
in 1844 after which his credibility must have been stretched
a little too far. Nevertheless there are still Adventist groups
around, the best known of which is probably the Seventh Day
Adventists. Mormonism, an American form of millenarianism, was
founded in 1830 by the visionary Joseph Smith following some
unusual communications from God, through the Angel Moroni. Smith
claimed to have been ordained by John the Baptist, who had descended
from Heaven for the purpose. The Mormon Church, or Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now boasts ov er 12 million
members , even though Smith's claims have been comprehensively
Christian Scientists were founded by Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910),
who taught that disease and illness were unreal and existed
only in the mind. Medical treatment is prohibited, except dentistry
(since Mrs Eddy was once caught by a newspaper reporter having
dental treatment). Millions of people, mainly in the USA, still
follow Mrs Eddy's teachings.
In 1850 the Anglican priest Henry James Prince attracted many
followers who believed him to be God incarnate. In the following
century one George Baker convinced hundreds of thousands in
the USA that he was God. Calling himself Father Divine, he established
"Heavens" in Harlem, New York. He taught that true
believers would not die. Baker himself died in 1965, but his
followers seemed not to experience any difficulty with this
unexpected event, and carried on believing in him just the same.
1870 Charles Taze Russell fixed 1874 as the date for Christ's
return to Earth. When Jesus failed to show up Russell became
increasingly isolated from existing Churches. In 1881, he founded
the Jehovah's Witnesses in Pennsylvania. They were adventist
millenarians who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Russell
foretold Christ's return to Earth in 1914, but once again Christ
missed his appointment. With some embarrassment Russell's prediction
was re-interpreted. The year 1975 was the next appointment advertised
by the church, once again missed. Nevertheless, there are now
more than 14 million Jehovah's Witnesses , waiting for the end
of the world, all hoping to be chosen as one of God's 144,000
elect when it comes.
In Southeast Asia a sect called Iglesia ni Cristo was founded
in 1914 by Felix Manalo, who claimed to be God's last messenger.
In the late 1920s Joseph Weissenberg attracted a sizeable following
in a Berlin suburb. He was particularly good at healing young
women by passing his hands over their bodies. Later he discovered
that he could heal by the liberal application of cream cheese,
and many attested to the efficacy of the miracles achieved through
its use. Over 100,000 people believed that he was the Messiah
and that he could heal the sick. When he died in 1941 his followers
tried to preserve his body in cream cheese pending his imminent
resurrection, but without success. It is surprisingly common
for followers to accommodate the death of their divine immortal
leaders without dismay. Members of the Gralsbewegung, founded
in the Tyrol by another son of God, Oskar Ernst Bernhardt, continued
to believe in him after his death in 1941. So did the followers
of another incarnation of God, a Dutch fisherman called Lourens
van Voorthuizen. In 1950 he had declared himself to be God and
therefore unable to sin, become ill or die. He attracted a large
number of believers, many of whom continued to believe in him
after his death in 1968. In Provence, George Roux discovered
himself to be Christ and attracted thousands of followers. Some
are still to be found in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. When
the Rev. William Branham, a faith healer from Jeffersonville,
Indiana, died in 1965, his body remained unburied for four months
because his followers expected him to rise from the dead at
Easter. They were disappointed.
messengers also flourish in Africa. Alice Auma, brought up a
Roman Catholic, founded the Holy Spirit Movement in Uganda in
the mid-1980s, adopting the surname Lakwena, which means messiah
in the Acholi language. She started a war against the Ugandan
government in 1986, supported by thousands of unarmed adherents.
They believed that they were protected from bullets as long
as they covered their bodies with sheanut oil, and that if they
threw stones at their enemies they would explode like grenades.
These beliefs turned out to be mistaken, yet new converts were
attracted as fast as existing ones were killed. Beliefs like
these are not uncommon in East and Central Africa. Many wars
have been fought by armies whose leaders have told them with
divinely inspired certainty that enemy bullets would turn into
water by magic. Black Christ figures have long been popular
in Africa too. Some of the best known are Enoch Mgijima around
1920 in South Africa; Edward Lekganyane around 1950 in the Transvaal;
Shembe the messiah of the Zulus; and Simon Kibangu in the Congo
around 1960. The Never Never Die Church was founded
in Liberia in 1970 by Richard Sleboe. Sleboe had made a pact
with God allowing his followers to engage in free sexual relations
and to enjoy eternal life. He died in 1986, but his Church still
exists. The Lord's Resistance Army came to prominence
in 1996 in Uganda. Its members believe its leader Joseph Coney
to be the Messiah and to be in direct communication with God.
New members have their noses, ears and lips cut off, in compliance
with some unspecified Old Testament passage. Amongst the requirements
of the sect are that all white animals should be killed, and
that the Sabbath should be properly enforced (for example by
crushing the legs of Sunday cyclists). Among the many thousands
of African Churches a large number boast leaders whose status
varies from the merely charismatic to the fully divine. Amongst
them are the African Castor-oil Dead Church,
the Catholic Church of South Africa King George Win the
War, and the Christ Apostolic Holy Spout Church.
They are not untypical either in their names or their doctrines.
The World Christian Handbook mentions some 6,000 separate Christian
movements in Africa alone, many of them messianic.
Reverend Jim Jones was another incarnation of Jesus. He proved
it by performing numerous miracle cures and attracted 20,000
followers. In 1978, he and over 900 of his followers killed
themselves in Jonestown, Guyana, planning to meet again in Heaven.
Almost 300 of the 900 were children, poisoned by cyanide in
fruit drinks given to them by their devout parents. In 1993
another messiah, the 33-year-old illegitimate son of a carpenter,
David Koresh, died along with his Branch Dravidian followers.
These Dravidians had ceded from a Seventh Day Adventist sect,
and settled at Waco, Texas. Koresh who regarded himself as a
"sinful Christ" had taken over leadership in 1986
and fortified the sect's headquarters. A total of 81 followers
died with him in a fire there following a 50-day siege by the
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The following year,
53 members of the Order of the Solar Temple died in
a mass suicide in Switzerland.
seems to be no limit to human credulity around the world. In
the USA a man called Jimmy Swaggart claimed a worldwide following
of 200 million. He ministered to the Assemblies of God, the
largest Pentecostalist organisation in the US, until a sex scandal
set back his ministry. Jim Bakker, another television evangelist,
experienced similar problems. In 1987 Oral Roberts, a Pentecostal
and Methodist minister, claimed that God had told him that he
would "call himhome" unless he raised $8 million.
We shall never know if God would have fulfilled his promise,
for enough people believed Mr Roberts to contribute the required
has had its share of divinely inspired prophets too. The visionary
Guy Ballard moved his The Great I Am sect from Chicago
to Alberta in 1937, where God continued to reveal truths about
vegetarianism and reincarnation. A prophetic political party,
the Social Credit Party, founded by William Aberhart,
claimed to be a panacea for the economic ills of the 1930s.
Both Aberhart and his protégé, E. C. Manning,
later became premiers of Alberta. Everywhere sects are created
to serve local needs for messiahs. By the end of the nineteenth
century there were over 20 messianic movements among the indigenous
peoples of North America. Such cults are not peculiar to North
America and Europe. In 1992 some 20,000 South Koreans were disappointed
to find that the world did not end on 28 th October 1992, as
promised by Lee Jang Lim. Many had given up their jobs, abandoned
their families, and given their possessions to Lee's Dami Church
in Seoul. Lee himself was arrested for fraud and found to have
invested large amounts in bonds that were not due to mature
for another three years. Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the
Unification Church, was more successful. Despite his conviction
for tax fraud in 1982, many of his 2,500,000 Moonie followers
believe him to be Christ returned to Earth. Cults have also
appeared in eastern Europe since the collapse of communism.
For example in the Ukraine Maria Devi Khristos (born Maria Tsvigun)
has attracted thousands of followers who believe her to be God,
although she was mistaken about the end of the world, having
predicted it for 24 th November 1993.
brief review has demonstrated three significant points. First,
there seems to be no limit to human credulity. Large numbers
of people are prepared to believe what most others would regard
as arrant nonsense. This is best illustrated by the number of
sects that have continued after the death of their "immortal"
leader or after the scheduled end of the world. It almost seems
that the more improbable a proposition is, the more likely people
are to believe it. Hitler, who unquestionably knew a thing or
two about manipulating the masses, observed that: "The
broad mass of a nation ... will more easily fall victim to a
big lie than to a small one"*.
The appalling truth is that he seems to have been right.
Second, throughout history people have fallen over themselves
to attribute immortality and godhead to ordinary mortals, and
this has made it easy for well-meaning eccentrics, as well as
unscrupulous, megalomaniac and deranged people to establish
Third, the facts provide an answer to those who have found
it surprising that the Christian religion ever took root. Some
have found it inexplicable that the religion should have taken
root without divine assistance. But messiah figures were popular
before the time of Jesus, some of them with large followings.
The small sample of new religions that we have reviewed in this
section shows that starting up a new religion has never been
difficult. The significance is that surprise about the success
of Christianity, or any other religion, becomes difficult to
sustain. Surprise evaporates in the light of messiah figures
successfully founding their own religions year after year, century
after century, for well over 2,000 years.