Like the self-proclaimed Christ in a Texas shootout last Sunday, dozens — if not hundreds — of people claim to be the Messiah, according to cult experts.
Some attract sizable flocks, such as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s worldwide Unification Church, with tens of thousands of members who accept his claim to be Lord of the Second Advent.
There’s no National Association of Messiahs. They’re not registered, certified or board-examined. They come to public attention only if their following becomes so large they are discovered by Geraldo, Oprah or Sally Jessy Raphael, or if their behavior is so threatening that they attract the interest of law enforcement officials.
Vernon Howell and his Branch Davidians were practically unknown outside of Texas before a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, but since then Howell probably has been on every newscast and in every major newspaper in the country.
The Cult Awareness Network, a Chicago-based group, had had “very few complaints” about the Davidians, said Executive Director Cynthia Kisser.
“We could not have predicted that it would evolve into this violent tragedy, but that’s not unusual,” she said. “The real tragedy is that the potential for this happening exists in every state.”
Few messianic figures resort to violence, but many have other similarities to Howell, Kisser and other experts say.
Leaders of extremist groups have historically controlled their followers’ sex lives, practicing promiscuity or, on the opposite extreme, demanding celibacy.
At the Oneida Community in upstate New York during the 19th century, followers of John Noyes lived communally, wore unisex clothing, and mated indiscriminately within the community. The ultimate honor was to have sex with Noyes.
On the other hand, Ann Lee, who claimed to be the female Christ, required celibacy of her Shaker follower.
Like Howell, messianic figures often warn of the imminent end of the world and regard people who don’t heed the warnings as enemies.
There’s a progression to messiahship, experts say, from leader to prophet to god.
“You will see that claims become more grandiose as time goes on,” said James Lewis of Goleta, Calif., editor of a journal about alternative religions.
Self-proclaimed messiahs may be mentally ill, or con artists, or both, said Dr. Alexander Deutsch, a New York psychiatrist who has studied cult leaders.
“I think we’re dealing with some sort of perversion of the religious instinct.”