Twentieth-Century Spiritual Expression

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Twentieth-Century Spiritual Expression

Although millennial thought dates back to the ancient Persian philosophers and was sustained through the centuries by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim teachers, Americans especially seem always to have been fascinated by the horror of a certain apocalyptic vision that includes plagues, earthquakes, and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions. Christopher Columbus was a devout student of biblical prophecies who believed that the world would end in 1650. He perceived that his personal mission was to find a new continent that would be a special refuge for those who survived the purging of Armageddon, the final battle between the armies of Christ and Satan, that he believed would occur during the mid-seventeenth century.

Scores of American preachers and mystics from colonial times through the Civil War and up to the present day have continued the precedent set by Columbus and occupied themselves with predicting the exact time of Christ's return and the subsequent final battle between Good and Evil.

Of course such obsessions with apocalyptic teachings and personal quests for spiritual fulfillment are by no means limited to Americans. By the twentieth century, many formerly loyal followers of organized religious bodies throughout the world were beginning to become impatient with doctrinal rules of order and began to blend the new discoveries of science with the faith of their forefathers. In the West, many spiritual seekers chose to combine the teachings of Eastern religions with those aspects of western science which they felt supported their spiritual beliefs, including meditation, biofeedback, and extrasensory perception as means of attaining higher awareness.

These amalgamations of science, conventional Christianity, and such eastern religions as Hinduism and Buddhism offended many individuals who deemed themselves to be the true followers of the revelations disclosed in the Bible; and these apocalyptic groups, such as the Branch Davidians set themselves apart to prepare for the time of judgment that they believed was imminent.

While members of organized church bodies, as well as the general public, were quick to brand these various splinter groups as cults, in contemporary language usage such a term is considered negative and judgmental. Although the beliefs practiced by some of these groups may seem strange to certain of the more conventionally religious, the sincerity of the members of such evolving spiritual bodies cannot be so readily discounted by those who have not carefully examined what may be a blending of several traditions and a serious attempt to achieve enlightenment.

It may be that many of the spiritual experiments of the twentieth century will be assessed by more conventional students of theology as modern expressions of the Christian Mystery Schools that combined elements of the occult within their dogma. Unfortunately, far too many of these newly emergent groups began with visions of peace and love and ended with the mass suicides and deaths of their followers. In the United States, The Peoples' Temple began with Pastor James Jones expanding the teachings of a liberal Protestant denomination into a doomsday cult and later revealing himself to group as being the reincarnation of Jesus and the Buddha. In Jonestown, Guyana, on November 14, 1978, Jones joined 638 of his adult followers and 276 of their children in a mass suicide. In Rwanda, Credonia Mwerinde combined a cult of the Virgin Mary and Roman Catholicism with aboriginal religious traditions and allowed the heavenly messages to end the lives of over 1,000 members by mass murder on March 15, 2000. In Switzerland, The Order of the Solar Temple sought to prepare humankind for the return of Christ through the wisdom of occult and extraterrestrial masters, but when the illusion of immortality faded, a series of mass suicides of cult members took place in Switzerland, France, and Quebec, from October 1994 to March 1997.

Many of the new spiritual groups combine aspects of Christianity with the "new gospels' that they claim to have obtained from extraterrestrial Masters. Members of some of these UFO groups call Jesus by what they believe to be his true name of Sananda and recognize him as an extraterrestrial who is circling Earth in a spaceship, awaiting the proper time for his Second Coming. While UFO cults such as Heaven's Gate, the Raelians, and the Order of the Solar Temple developed sensational or negative images, there are many UFO groups who seek to develop a new religion that will blend science and more traditional religious concepts.

Falun Gong, although branded an evil cult by the Chinese government in 1999, claims to have 100 million members worldwide. Li Hongzhi, the founder of the movement who lives in the United States, insists that his group is not a religion, but a series of five daily exercises by which individuals may activate the higher abilities of mind, body, and spirit.

The Church of Scientology is classified as a cult by its detractors, but its members assert that Scientology is a new religion that was founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the twentieth century and has its roots in the deep beliefs and ancient wisdom that go back more than 50,000 years. By combining with the physical sciences, Scientology offers an application of scientific methodology to spiritual questions and allows individuals to approach their lives with more confidence.

As the world continues to shrink and millions of pulpits on the Internet become available to new mystics and visionaries, it remains for the individual reader to judge which groups contain the precepts, the truths, and the moral values to survive into the twenty-first century and beyond.

Branch Davidians

The Branch Davidian religious group had its origins when Victor Houteff (18851929) separated from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in 1929 to form the Shepherds Rod, Branch Seventh-Day Adventist. In 1935, with 11 of his followers, Houteff founded the Mount Carmel Center near Waco, Texas. In 1942 he changed the name of his group to the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Association.

Houteff died in 1955, and his wife, Florence Houteff, focused the group with her vision that Judgment Day would occur on April 22, 1959. Her prophecy having failed, she sold Mount Carmel in 1965 to Benjamin Roden, who named his faction the Branch Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Association. After Roden's death in 1978, his wife, Lois Roden, declared herself the Sixth Angel in Revelation and a prophet speaking through the feminine aspect of the Holy Spirit.

A young man named Vernon Howell joined the Branch Davidians in 1981 and almost immediately caught Lois Roden's eye as the group's next prophet. Howell assumed control of the Davidians in 1988 and changed his name to David Koresh in 1990. He pronounced himself the Lamb of Revelation, who would open the seven seals of the scroll and interpret the secrets that would immediately bring about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Koresh believed that the final struggle between good and evil would begin in the United States, rather than Israel, so the community of believers stockpiled food, water, and weapons. In 1992, Koresh renamed the Mount Carmel commune "Ranch Apocalypse."

Rumors began to circulate that the Branch Davidians were abusing children and storing large amounts of illegal firearms and explosives. On February 28, 1993, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) agents raided Ranch Apocalypse, resulting in ten deaths and 25 wounded. The FBI took over, and the ensuing siege lasted 51 days. On April 14, Koresh had a vision that instructed him to write his translation of the seven seals in Revelation and then surrender. But the encircling forces had grown tired of his biblical babblings and apocalyptic pronouncements. On April 19, the FBI attacked and ended the stand-off at Ranch Apocalypse.

Koresh and 75 of his followers, including 21 children, died in the fire that swept through the entire compound. Prior to the siege at Ranch Apocalypse, there were about 130 members of the Branch Davidians. After the destruction of the compound, there were estimates of 30 to 50 members who had managed to leave the commune before the final days or who had escaped the inferno. Accusations circulated that the FBI was responsible for starting the fire with incendiary tear gas cartridges.

Delving Deeper

Neville, Leigh. "We Didn't Start the Fire." Fortean Times, April 2000, 3438.

Kantrowitz, Barbara, with Peter Annin, Ginny Carroll, and Bob Conn. "Was It Friendly Fire? In the Bungled Waco Raid, Federal Agents May Have Been Shot by Their Own Men." Newsweek, April 5, 1993, 5051.

Rainie, Harrison, with James Popkin, Dan McGraw, Brian Duppy, Ted Gest, Jo Ann Tooley, and David Bowermaster. "Armageddon in Waco: The Final Days of David Koresh." U.S. News and World Report, May 3, 1993, 2434.

Reavis, Dick J. The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, Reprint, 1998.


Those who follow the alternative religion of Eckankar say that theirs is the religion of the Light and Sound of God. The Light of God is the ECK, known to many saints and mystics as the Holy Spirit. The Sound of God is the rushing wind that the disciples of Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.) heard on that first Pentecost.

Eckists believe that they follow ancient wisdom teachings that were revived in 1965 for modern men and women by the Living ECK Master Paul Twitchell (1910?1971). According to Twitchell and such masters from higher planes as Rebazar Tarzs, whose teachings he relayed, the soul is on a journey of self-and god-realization. To assist the individual soul to achieve contact with the ECK, the Divine Spirit, the Mahanta, the Living ECK Master, provides spiritual exercises and guidance available to all sincere seekers.

Because the Mahantas emphasize that Eckankar is a living faith that changes constantly, Eckists must pay close attention to the teachings and revelations of the Living Master, who comes from a long line of masters from the Vairagi Order, whose spiritual essences reside in the Golden Temple of Wisdom on higher dimensions of being. The Living Master is never worshipped, but he is highly revered by all Eckists. According to official Eckankar records, there are approximately 50,000 members in more than 100 countries.

Shortly before Twitchell's death in 1971, critics accused him of fabricating the religious origins of Eckankar, borrowing concepts from other spiritual groups, and plagiarizing ideas from previously published works. A firm denial by Twitchell did little to quench the controversy, and Twitchell's successor, Darwin Gross, became involved in an internal struggle that resulted in his expulsion from Eckankar and his founding of the Ancient Teachings of the Masters, which he claimed perpetuated the true teachings of Twitchell.

The present Living ECK Master, Harold Klemp, who claims to be the 973rd initiated Mahanta, became the spiritual leader of Eckankar in 1981. At the present time, the spiritual home of Eckankar is the Temple of ECK in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

Delving Deeper

Eckankar: The Religion of Light and Sound. [Online]

Klemp, Harold. The Art of Spiritual Dreaming. Minneapolis: Eckankar, 1999.

Lane, David. The Making of a Spiritual Movement: The Untold Story of Paul Twitchell and Eckankar. Del Mar, Calif.: Del Mar Publishing, 1978.

Main Site of Eckankar, Religion of Light and Sound of God. [Online]

Twitchell, Paul. Eckankar: The Key to the Secret Worlds. New York: Lancer Books, 1969. Reprint, Minneapolis: Eckankar, 1989.

Falun Gong

For 13 hours on April 25, 1999, 15,000 members of the Falun Gong qigong sect, five or six rows deep, stretching for more than a mile along the Avenue of Everlasting Peace in central Beijing, China, protested their negative treatment in the state media and demanded official recognition for their sect and the freedom to publish their texts. The protest managed to get the State Council of China to agree to negotiate with the Falun Gong. However, in July 1999, Chinese officials branded the Falun Gong an evil cult, claiming that it had caused the deaths of 1,500 of its members. The Chinese government banned the practice of the cult and sent more than 50,000 adherents to prisons, labor camps, and mental hospitals.

Falun Gong means the "Practice of the Wheel of the Dharma." (Dharma is a complex Hindu and Buddhist concept that translates in a broad sense to "law," especially to the natural order of personal ethics and principles of conduct, equivalent to what is commonly referred to as "religion.") The founder of the movement, Li Hongzhi, a former Chinese government grain clerk now residing in the United States, claims to have been born on May 13, 1951, the supposed birthday of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (c. 563c. 483 b.c.e.), but government records list his birthday as July 7, 1952. Hongzhi also claims that Falun Gong has 100 million members worldwide, 80 million of whom are in China. The Chinese government says the number in their country is closer to two million.

Founded in 1992, the movement prescribes five daily exercises are to activate the higher abilities of mind, body, and spirit, and contribute to an individual's self-examination and self-knowledge. If practiced properly, Hongzhi promises, Falun Gong will enable one to attain enlightenment and to master many supernatural powers, including levitation, psychokinesis, and telepathy.

Hongzhi has often stated that he believes that Earth has been quietly invaded by evil aliens from extraterrestrial worlds who have come to undermine humans' spirituality by contributing to the rapid expansion of technology. In his opinion, humankind would be much better off without computers and all other machines that seek to replicate human activity and to supplant human productivity.

Delving Deeper

"Beijing, Falun Gong Group in New War of Words," Yahoo! Finance/DowJones, January 6, 2001. [Online]

"Falun Gong." Religious Movements Homepage. [Online]

Falun Gong Official Website. [Online]

Order of the Solar Temple

The Order of the Solar Temple claims a spiritual heritage from the Order of the Knights Templar (founded c. 1118 and dissolved in 1307). Among its declared goals are helping Earth to prepare for the return of Christ in solar glory and assisting humankind through a time of transition as spirituality assumes primacy over materiality. Although the group claims it is descended from the original Templars, the Order of the Solar Temple was founded in 1984 by Joseph Di Mambro (19241994) and Luc Jouret (19471994). By 1989, the cult had gathered about 500 members, most of them in Switzerland, France, and Canada.

Joseph Di Mambro, of Pont-Saint-Espirit, France, had a fascination with the occult dating back to his childhood. In 1976, he became a self-appointed spiritual master, and by 1978, he had established the Golden Way Foundation in Geneva. About then he made a hard assessment of own appeal, deciding that if his cult was to expand, he needed to find a more charismatic individual to share its leadership.

In 1981, Luc Jouret, a physician who had been grand master of the Renewed Order of the Temple, another group that combined concepts of the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians, left that order over a policy dispute. Di Mambro appealed to him to jointly form a new order. Jouret agreed, and the two founded the Order of the Solar Temple.

Jouret's credentials as a physician and his dynamic platform personality drew large crowds to his lectures. From 1984 to about 1990, Jouret convinced many that the time of the apocalypse was drawing near and the best way to survive was in the safety of the Order of the Solar Temple.

But by 1992, Jouret and Di Mambro had made too many unfulfilled predictions and promises. Even Di Mambro's son Elie declared that he doubted the existence of the masters who were allegedly guiding his father and Jouret, and he went so far as to expose some of the illusions his father employed to create certain phenomena during demonstrations.

With the structure of the Order crumbling, Di Mambro and Jouret began preparing for their transition to another world. Those who remained faithful to the teachings also began their own transitions.

When authorities from Chiery, Switzerland, investigated a fire in a farmhouse on October 4, 1994, they discovered a secret room containing 22 corpses, many of them wearing ceremonial capes. On October 5, three adjacent houses burning in the village of Granges-sur-Salvan yielded the bodies of 25 more members of the Order. Six charred bodies found in Morin Heights, Quebec, a day earlier, were also members. In December 1995, 16 more members were found dead in France, and in March 1997, five killed themselves in Quebec. Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret had convinced at least 74 of their followers to join them in mass suicide.

Delving Deeper

Hall, John, and Philip Schuyler. "The Mystical Apocalypse of the Solar Temple." In Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem. Edited by Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer. New York: Routledge, 1997, 285311.

Mayer, Jean Francois. "Apocalyptic Millennialism in the West: The Case of the Solar Temple." Critical Incident Analysis Group. [Online]

"Order of the Solar Temple." Religious Movements homepage. [Online]

The People's Temple

Although James Jones (19311978) held degrees from Indiana University and Butler University, he had received no formal training in theology when he was invited to speak at the Laurel Street Tabernacle, an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, in Indianapolis in September 1954. Following his powerful sermon on racial equality, many members left the congregation to follow Jones and to form a new church, the Wings of Deliverance, which was renamed the People's Temple. Within a short period of time, Jones's gospel of equality and love attracted more than 900 members. In 1965 the temple moved to Ukiah, California, where Jones believed racial equality could be preached with greater openness and less fear of retaliation. Seventy families moved with him. A second congregation was added in San Francisco in 1972.

In 1977, following various exposes directed at the temple, Jones moved his community to the South American nation of Guyana, where he had acquired a lease from the Guyanese government for 4,000 acres of land to be used for colonization. The new community was called the People's Temple Agricultural Project, and eventually more than 900 men, women, and children would follow their charismatic leader to Jonestown.

Members were required to labor 11 hours per day, six days per week, and eight hours on Sunday, clearing land for agriculture, planting crops, and erecting buildings. They ate primarily of rice and beans, and their evenings were filled with required meetings before they were allowed to get some rest. Jones claimed to be receiving messages from extraterrestrials that described a process called "Translation," in which he and his followers would all die together and their spirits would be taken to another planet to enjoy a life of bliss. Jones directed rehearsals of a mass suicide, having followers pretend to drink poison and fall to the ground.

On November 14, 1978, California congressman Leo Ryan and several representatives of the media visited Jonestown to investigate claims of civil rights violations that had reached the United States. On November 18, a temple member made an attempt on Ryan's life, and the visitors decided to leave Jonestown immediately. While they were boarding two planes on the jungle airstrip, some heavily armed members of the temple's security guards arrived and began firing on the group. Ryan and four others were killed and 11 were wounded before the planes could get into the air.

Jones decreed that it was time to put "Translation" into effect. Some members of the temple committed suicide by ingesting cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, and others injected poison directly into their veins or were shot. An investigation revealed that 638 adult members of the community died, together with 276 children. A few fled into the jungle and survived.

Various investigations continue into the reasons why such a tragedy could have occurred and what appeal James Jones could have had to cause so many individuals to take their own lives. Conspiracy theorists argue that the deaths at Jonestown in November 1978 eliminated evidence of a CIA experiment gone bad. Others suggest that Jones subjected his followers to mind-control experiments of his own and lost control of the situation. And then there are those who insist that Jones was mentally ill and complicated his mental imbalance with drug abuse.

Delving Deeper

Jonestown: Examining the People's Temple. [Online]

Maaga, M. McCormick, and Catherine Wessinger. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

Wright, Lawrence. "Orphans of Jonestown." The New Yorker, November 22, 1993, 6689.


Some have called Scientology a cult of celebrity because of the number of well-known entertainers who ascribe to its teachings. In spite of endorsements regarding the benefits of Scientology from various well-known persons, the organization is often in the center of controversy. Richard Behar, writing in Time magazine, stated that rather than being a religion or a church, Scientology "is a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner."

The founder of the church, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (19111986), known to Scientologists as "L. Ron," is said to have studied many Eastern philosophies as he journeyed to the various countries of their origins. When injuries suffered during service as a naval officer during World War II (19391945) left him crippled and blind, Hubbard claimed that his ability to draw upon mental insights allowed him to cure himself of his disabilities. He called this process Dianetics, and outlined its central elements in an article for the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Shortly thereafter Hubbard published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

Dianetics deals with what it terms the Analytical and the Reactive components of the mind. The Reactive mind absorbs and records every nuance of emotional, mental, and physical pain. Hubbard called the impressions or "recordings" made by the Reactive mind during moments of trauma "engrams," and while the conscious, Analytical mind may remain unaware of their presence, they can cause debilitating mental and physical problems and inhibit one's full potential. The Dianetics process enables a person to explore and be "cleared" of such impediments by an "auditor"a minister of Scientologyclearing the way to a state of freedom from all the constraints of matter, energy, space, and time and a transcendent level of near-perfection.

In August 1952 the Journal of Scientology began publication, and in 1954 the first Church of Scientology was founded in Los Angeles. Increasing demand for more information about Scientology led to the establishment of the Founding Church of Scientology and the first Academy of Scientology in Washington, D.C., in 1955. Today, Scientology claims a worldwide membership of around eight million and more than 3,000 churches.

Delving Deeper

Behar, Richard. "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power." Time, May 6, 1991, 5057.

"Church of Scientology." Religious Movements. [Online]

Frantz, Douglas. "Scientology Faces Glare of Scrutiny after Florida Parishioner's Death." New York Times, December 1, 1997.

Hubbard, L. Ron. Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Bridge Publications, 1985.

Scientology: Applied Religious Philosophy. [Online]