Cedar-by-the-Sea’s most prominent features are the winding roads, large pockets of forests, and dilapidated boat ramp on Nelson Road dipping sharply into the Pacific. The quiet community has foundations dating back to the 1920s, and a wide range of people, from wealthy doctors to outspoken ex-hippies, call it home. Looking at the neighbourhood now, it’s hard to believe that 80 years ago some of these prairie-style houses were home to one of Canada’s most notorious cults.
The Aquarian Foundation was founded in 1927 by Edward Arthur Wilson, a convincing and charismatic charlatan whose origins still remain unknown. Wilson referred to himself as Brother XII and claimed to be the twelfth member and earthly prophet of the Eleven Brothers of Wisdom, an all-knowing council of deities. Brother XII proved to be a prophet of doom. He promised salvation to all who would follow in return for their undying loyalty and all their wealth. Early members included astrologists, chemists, a former US secret serviceman, and a member of the Lippincott publishing family—hardly the crowd one would expect a prophet of doom to attract. Wealthy older women were among Wilson’s favourite targets for recruitment. Among these women was Mary Connally, a widow from Asheville, North Carolina.
Connally joined the Aquarian Foundation in 1928 after handing over $25,000 to Brother XII. The widow’s donation went towards the purchase of 400 acres of land on Valdes Island, where Brother XII established a more isolated commune called “Mandieh.” It was in Mandieh, far from the public eye, that the most shocking of the cult’s practices took place. Connally, despite her age, was not exempt from the slave-like labour Brother XII enforced on Mandieh’s residents. “I was told I must disc and harrow and cultivate a three-acre field,” Connally told a judge in the later court hearings against the cult’s leader. “I was not accustomed to farming, but was getting along. I am a grandmother, your Lordship, and 62-years-old. I had to work in that field from daylight until dark. I lost 28 pounds.”
Brother XII’s partner, Madame Zee, was known to verbally and physically abuse their followers, sometimes to near-death. However, slave labour and humiliating abuse was not Brother XII’s only methods of exploiting his followers.
The charlatan possessed a great amount of charm which he did not use sparingly. While on a train headed to Toronto, where he was to pick up a $25,000 donation from one of his older female donors, he met Myrtle Baumgartner, the wealthy wife of a New York doctor.
Brother XII was able to convince the young woman that she was the reincarnation of Isis, the Egyptian Goddess of children and nature, and he the reincarnation of Osiris. In order to fulfill an ancient prophecy, he told her, she must come to Valdes Island with him to give birth to Horus, the world teacher. Baumgartner followed Brother XII to Mandieh, only to be abandoned by him when she failed to produce a male child. On a later occasion, he seduced Sandra Ruddie, a married woman from Seattle, Washington, and brought her to Valdes Island. After Madame Zee discovered Brother XII’s relationship with Ruddie, their affair did not last long—she was found by police on the mainland, bruised and bloodied. Brother XII was also known to have sexual relations with several women whom he deemed “high priestesses” at one time. One woman in the Aquarian Foundation even accused him of the attempted rape of her twelve year old daughter. Brother XII promised salvation for his followers, but what he delivered was a living hell.
Events culminated in the spring of 1933 when several members, including Mary Connally, revolted and sued Brother XII. After losing the case and being exposed as a fraud, he went on a rampage and destroyed a large portion of the houses and furniture within the commune. Having already exchanged the followers’ money for gold, he presumably fled by ship. Despite several different accounts of where he may have ended up, including Switzerland, Australia, and San Francisco, Brother XII’s fate remains foggy.
During the latter part of the century, cults gained substantial coverage in the media. In 1971, Charles Manson, leader of The Manson Family, was sentenced to death for ordering his followers to murder Sharon Tate as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in California. In 1978, The People’s Temple, led by Jim Jones, committed mass suicide at their commune, resulting in the deaths of 918 members. Across the Pacific, members of Aum Shinrikyo unleashed deadly sarin gas aboard a Tokyo subway, killing thirteen passengers and blinding many more.
It’s easy to identify groups like these as cults, but what exactly is a cult? The term “cult” itself was first used in the 17th century to describe the worship of a particular diety (its origin being the Latin cultus). The word fell out of use until the mid-19th century, and today it encompasses several meanings depending on the group using it. Sociologists use the term to describe “a small religious group that exists in a state of tension with the predominant religion.” This definition would make Buddhism a cult in Canada, and Christianity a cult in Thailand. Another popular use of the word is to describe a small and somewhat recent religious group. However, much more biased uses for the term exist as well. With sensationalist coverage of these religious groups, a deeply negative connotation has found ground. One may hear someone speak of a cult and immediately think of legions of robed, brainwashed zombies blindly committing acts of murder, suicide, and terrorism.
The truth is, these groups do exist, but not in the extreme numbers that some, such as the anti-cult movement, would have you believe. Cults that promote acts such as murder or suicide, and utilize practices such as brainwashing or severe manipulation are called “destructive cults.” Destructive cults make up only a handful of the total amount of cults in the world, but get an uneven share of popular attention, creating a misconception that all cults are dangerous.
In 1979, sociologists David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe, Jr. published the analysis “The Tnevnoc Cult.” Bromley and Shupe wrote about the shocking recruitment techniques that the Tnevnoc used on young women. These included flagellation, requiring abstinence and the separation of sexes, and not allowing any recruits to have contact with the outside world for the first year of their training.
The authors note that this particular group has received far less criticism than similar groups in recent years because of its “degree of legitimacy,” based on the “power and number of supporting groups.” Some readers wrote letters to Bromley and Shupe, inquiring for more details on the Tnevnoc cult. What Bromley and Shupe were actually describing was the Catholic Church (tnevnoc being convent spelled backwards).
One man’s cult is another man’s religion, and the borders between each have constantly moved since the birth of theology. It may be hard to imagine the world’s most followed religion (with ~30 per cent of the world population), Christianity, being considered a cult, but this was the case in Ancient Rome. The state religion of Rome was a polytheistic collection of the deities whose people had been conquered by the Roman Empire. The cult of Isis (Egypt), the cult of Mithras (Persia), and the cult of Jupiter (Greece) were all considered important religions within the empire. Judaism was considered an “outside cult,” though they were tolerated for the most part. As a newer and less “legitimate” denomination, however, Christians were scapegoated in dire times, such as the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. Christians were regularly persecuted until Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity and made it Rome’s state religion. In the years following the change, those who clung to the cults of the old gods were persecuted instead.
Persecution of Christianity is still alive today, and its followers are still called cultists by some. Most notably, these accusations come from other Christians. The Counter-Cult Movement (CCM) is a Christian group that works to “strengthen the Christian faith” by persecuting the followers of smaller sects of Christianity. Followers of CCM believe that members of sects as large as Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses practice heresy and will be punished with eternal damnation. In other words, CCM believes that one cannot achieve salvation simply through belief in God and Jesus Christ, but by believing a particular interpretation of God and Jesus Christ.
More radical beliefs are found in the Anti-Cult Movement (ACM), an organization that believes in the reprogramming of former cult members under any means necessary. ACM has accused many cults of practicing kidnapping, brainwashing, and abuse in order to gain followers. In turn, ACM has been accused of kidnapping, brainwashing, and assaulting cult members as a means of forcing them to abandon their faith. Both religious scholars and social scientists have accused ACM of using immoral means to achieve questionable goals, noting that many of ACM’s targets are adults who have joined a religious movement by their own free will, and that most cults are benign rather than destructive.
It’s hard to clearly define whether a faith falls into the territory cult or religion, as practices are often very similar. Most cults are completely harmless and are simply an alternative to mainstream religions, although destructive cults do exist and membership can have disastrous effects. This may be hard to swallow, especially when it results in death or psychological damage, but this is the price that is paid for freedom of religion. Because of their isolationist nature, and the sensationalist coverage of them, it can be difficult to see whether or not a cult is dangerous. It’s never clear whether today’s cult will be tomorrow’s Christianity, or like the members of the Aquarian Foundation came to realize, the motives are less than divine.