Arming for the fast-approaching Day of Judgement: There may be hundreds of US millennialist cults preparing to do battle with non-believers. David Usborne reports

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The Independent Online
UNTIL nine days ago, few of us had ever heard of the Branch Davidians. Even most of the residents of Waco, the town nearest to the group's besieged compound, were apparently unfamiliar with them and their beliefs. How many other such cults are there scattered around the United States?

There is, it seems, no telling. Even with a narrow definition of a cult - a group headed by a charismatic, authoritarian leader which deliberately sets itself apart from 'normal' society - scholars suggest there are hundreds, perhaps thousands. The range includes witches, who in some areas have their own cable-television channels, devil- worshippers, followers of Hindu gurus, even anti-tax crusaders.

Since the first settlers demonised the rituals of the Indians, the US has always faced social disturbance because of the activities, harmless or otherwise, of social groupings outside the mainstream. In the 19th century there were violent clashes between Mormons and government officers. Today, the activities of such groups as the Hare Krishna movement, which has a large compound in West Virginia, and polygamists in Utah attract local hostility.

Such problems often go to the courts and are resolved peacefully. In the past 20 years, however, the number of violent confrontations has risen sharply, in cases usually involving secretive cult groups which have deliberately turned against 'disbelievers' and often hold that the Day of Judgement, or Armageddon, is nigh.

Most dramatic of all was the mass suicide of the followers of Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple, in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. More recently, though, the US has seen a string of confrontations between law officers and sects. In February 1991, FBI officers arrested members of the Ecclesia Athletic Association in Portland, Oregon, on charges of child slavery. In January 1990, a defrocked minister of the Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was arrested and accused of ritualistic killings of five family members. In May 1985, police in Philadelphia killed 11 people and destroyed a whole city block after dropping a bomb on a building holding members of Move, an anti-technology cult.

Some experts say that the Waco scenario could be played out at similar encampments in the coming years. 'It is not a shock to me at all,' said Margaret Thaler Singer, a psychologist famous for her study of the Jonestown massacre. Speaking of David Koresh, the Branch Davidian leader, she went on: 'A cult leader has to start getting an us- against-them attitude going, to convince his followers that all the world outside is against them. It is therefore 'right' for them to start collecting weapons to protect themselves.'

Others warn that such violent eruptions will multiply because of the spreading acceptance of the millennialist belief, held by many Americans since Puritan days, that the world has entered troubled times and that the Second Coming is close, after which Jesus will reign over a world peopled only by the saved for a period of 1,000 years. According to recent surveys, between one- third and a half of all Americans believe that the world's future can be interpreted in biblical terms.