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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sex, Celibacy and Science: My 2 Favorite 20th Century Doomsday Cults

     The word doomsday is ominous enough but it also has several synonyms which are just as sinister; like “Judgement Day” or “end time” or “end times” or even “end of days”. The word doomsday most certainly hails from the period directly following the conquest of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD. William I, a.k.a. William the Conqueror, wanted a census held throughout his newly pacified dominion. The census taking was ostensibly to register the property holdings and livestock of the residents of England and Wales in order to levy sufficient taxes. The benchmark was to be established by assessing the revenues based on material wealth due the last Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor Military conquests are never friendly to a state's coffers and the subjugation of England and Wales was no exception to this rule. The census was finally completed as of 1086. This book, dubbed the “Domesday Book” in the vernacular, was an absolute codification and the last definitive word as it pertained to the law and material wealth and holdings. Although the survey was initially conducted as a purely secular means of filling the empty Royal treasury it eventually took on a life of its own among the general populace. The Domesday Book gained the perception of a written testament to the impending end of days among the subjugated peoples of England and Wales. The logic inferred by the people was that those whose names appeared in the Domesday Book were earmarked for imminent departure from this earth. The book took on a sacred and apocalyptic theme among some people. Of course, there were other end of days cults and religious movements throughout history. Most notably the movements centering around the first Millennium AD. Millenarianism (taken from millennium) is applied theologically to the concept of the second coming of Christ which will, according to Christian believers, usher in a Golden Age of rapture and dissolution of terrestrial evils. The modern social sciences of Anthropology and Sociology have in a broader sense termed these movements as Millenarian when they apply to religious, social and political movements. The definition we will employ is a simple working definition but one that will be able to set parameters in order to further enjoy my favorite Doomsday Cults. Millenarian movements are for believers a struggle between of good and evil which will culminate in the good triumphing and establishing a sovereignty of righteousness. After the triumph all historical misdoings will be rectified, and injustice and oppression curtailed. There will be retribution for those who have profited from the injustices and oppressions. The righteous and true believers are pivotal in this drama as the vanquishers of evil or the benefactors of the millennial reign.

     What set apart my favorite 20th century Doomsday cults are three ingredients which they both acknowledged but not necessarily embraced. The first characteristic they both shared was the existence of a single charismatic omnipotent leader. A second attribute they acknowledged but were not uniform in embracing was sex and reproduction. It might seem odd that by espousing celibacy you de facto restrict your ideological movement from sustaining itself. Nonetheless, one abstained from procreation. Lastly, the 20th century was a boon for scientific discovery and it's incorporation into the mundane aspects of everyday life. Again one of the movements manipulated and spuriously altered science to conform to their specific world views. While the other movement rejected out of hand any scientific underpinnings. As you read the two vintage examples of Doomsday cults it's perhaps interesting to bear in mind the parallels in the social, economic and political climates of those movements and today's social, economic and political incubator for potential Doomsday cults.

     The Koreshan Unity was established in New York during the 1870's by Cyrus Teed. Teed was an Electrical Physician and a “would be” alchemist by education and trade. An electrical physician was a branch of medicine which could most aptly be labeled a homeopathic physician. The electrical physician concocted tinctures and remedies based on herbs and botanicals which surely ld Teed to dabble in alchemy. Teed eventually changed his name to “Koresh” which is the Hebrew name for Cyrus. He changed his name after formulating his scientific and religious doctrines into what he deemed Koreshanity. Teed claimed divine providence as a Messiah after his 1869 epiphanies. A key component of Koreshantiy was the hubristic scientific theory of the Hollow Earth. The Hollow Earth theory contends that the Earth encompasses a sphere. The sphere contains on the outside surface all the stars, planets and heavens. Around 1894 Teed gathered his flock and traveled to Estero Florida to construct his version of a Utopian society. The compound was to be self sufficient and remain laboriously vigilant waiting for the end of days. Teed was embroiled in constant disputes with the residents of Fort Myers which ultimately sealed his fate and that of the movement. In 1908, as records show, Tweed was accosted at gunpoint by some Fort Myers men and received injuries from which he never recovered. He died a few days later and from that moment forward the Koreshan movement went into steady decline. Naturally, the Utopia established by Teed faced an inevitable decline which was foreshadowed by the strict celibacy ideals autocratically formulated by Teed. The remnants of the Doomsday cult, Koreshan Unity, can be visited in Estero Florida which is now a state historical park.

     Lou de Palingboer (the Eel Monger) was born Louwrens Voorthuijzen around the turn of the 20th century in a small village in a Northern province of the Netherlands. His father was, according to posthumous documents, a deeply pious man who undoubtedly fostered a similar religiosity in Louwrens. The first divorce in a series of failed marriages caused Louwrens to equate a malevolent supernatural as the impetus for the failures; namely, the devil's influence on the women. He soon made his way to Amsterdam and set up an eel vendor's stand at the Dappermarkt. He is remembered to be an ironic funny yet extremely zealous orator at the market and at the nearby cafes. At some point Louwrens gained a foothold of notoriety due to his unwavering believe that he not only was he the Messiah Jesus Christ, but additionally that he was instrumental in writing the Bible. In the ensuing years Lou de Palingboer, as he was notoriously called, began amassing a moderate following of believers and devotees. He preached a mixture of Doomsday and redemption which naturally, only he could resolve. Lou left Amsterdam in 1957 for the town of Muiden where a rich patron had purchased a large estate for the cult. The “witte huis” (white house), as it was deemed, was simultaneously a spiritual center for the devotees as well as a boarding house. Lou would suffer not insolence and was above all else the benevolent messiah.This temperament led many followers to defect from the cult due to conflicts with Lou's increasing erratic teachings about the end of the world and the cult leaders devious behavior. There doesn't seem to be any substantial scientific rhetoric used by Lou to bolster his messianic claims. For those living at the compound life was spartan. There were no technological frills nor excessive contact with general society outside the witte huis compound. It was insular and mysterious and revolved around the veneration of Lou as the Messiah; especially among the women in the cult. The Dutch press began referring to Lou's megalomania as a religious figure as a cult due, no doubt, to the salacious rumors of loose sexual morals at the compound. Lou was accused in the popular media as being a sexual Svengali to the women in his following. To make the scandal even more tantalizing, Lou was married and divorced several times during these religious love tryst and apparently his wives had full knowledge and even engaged in the alleged affairs. In order to avoid the prying eyes of the press Lou relocated his movement to Belgium. Soon after the move to Belgium Lou died and the cult of Lou the Eel Monger died right along with him.

     Putting Doomsday cults into a historical frame work is the most prudent way, not only understand their acclaim, but also to allow us to identify the social, economic and political aspects of today's emerging Doomsday cults. Cyrus Teed was a first hand witness to the economic panic of 1893 in New York. The collapse of the railroad industry spawned a backlash of economic turmoil which ended in the collapse of many banking firms. The panic of 1893 was the first serious depression in the United States. In 1898 the United States under the military command of Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in Cuba began its salt water colonies expansion. The period of expansion is known to history as the Spanish America War. America in only a few years captured Cuba and Puerto Rico as well as the far flung island nations of Guam and the Philippines. America was now a global colonial power and with that power came vast responsibilities which America had not yet been groomed to manage. Lou de Palingboer was confronted with a different set of circumstance which appear on a deeper level to be similar to turn of the century America. Europe in the 1950's was slowly emerging from the devastation that World War 2 had ravished upon it. The Marshall Plan was in low gear and the hope of prosperity which European saw first hand from the Americans stationed there only magnified the disparity of the post war period. The Netherlands was not unlike other areas of Europe where abject poverty was the norm. It's not hard to imagine the listless feeling that things may not get better soon coupled with the anxiety that for the past 40 years every 20 years meant a continental war with all its crippling ramifications.

    Today's maelstrom of economic malady and social unrest in the United States is the perfect storm for burgeoning Doomsday cults. If the CERN organization eventually pulls off the scientific coup of unraveling the God particle then we can throw religious ambiguity into the volatile mix. With these ingredients peculating we can rest assured that sooner rather than later we will witness the reemergence of more Doomsday cults.

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