Mind Control: What it is and What it is not
In the aftermath of the Jonestown tragedy, people across the globe were not only horrified by the awful loss of life but were also dumbfounded by the shocking reality that one man could control so many human beings. The followers of Jim Jones were fully aware that the Kool-Aid mixture they were being ordered to drink contained a deadly poison–yet few made any attempt to resist. How could human beings be reduced to the level of what seemed to be a mindless robot? This was indeed a frightening question, but one that demanded an answer.

Public fear and outrage over the Jonestown massacre caused numerous scholars and psychologists to begin to investigate the educational techniques of cult groups. Slowly a pattern emerged–each group seemed to use a similar method of education designed specifically to obtain control over the minds of individuals. The methods were alarmingly analogous to the brainwashing techniques used in World War II and the Korean War, but in many aspects far more sophisticated. Gradually a new term emerged to describe the phenomenon that occurs in the life of a cult member, mind control.1

Steven Hassan defines mind control as:

. . . a system of influences that disrupts an individual’s identity (beliefs, behavior, thinking, and emotions) and replaces it with a new identity. In most cases, that new identity is one that the original identity would strongly object to if it knew in advance what was in store. . . . The essence of mind control is that it encourages dependence and conformity, and discourages autonomy and individuality.2

Hassan also notes that there are four basic components of mind control; namely, control of behavior, thoughts, emotions, and information.3 Behavior control includes the control of the individuals’ environment (living quarters, clothing, food, amount of sleep, etc.), as well as of the jobs, rituals, and other actions they perform. Thought control refers to the indoctrinational process where individuals are taught what to believe and how to think. Emotional control is the attempt to manipulate and narrow the range of people’s feelings. Information control involves the denial of information which individuals require to make sound judgements.

Mind control is to be distinguished from brainwashing. Brainwashing is typically a coercive method of indoctrination. Abusive treatment, even torture, is often involved. Victims are aware at the outset that they are in the hands of an enemy. However, in the case of mind control, the perpetrators are regarded as friends. This causes individuals to cooperate with their controllers and will-ingly receive the information that will be used to deceive and manipulate them. In most cases, no overt physical abuse is involved.

Mind Control Techniques
As outlined in the American Family Foundation’s definition of a cult, unethical techniques are commonly employed by cult groups to persuade, manipulate, and control. Among those techniques are: isolation from former friends and family, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it. Though not all cult groups are guilty of using all of the above methods, even one mind control technique can influence an individual’s thinking. A combination of two or more can be powerfully effective in producing total thought reform.

Cult groups, almost without exception, portray the present world system as being inherently evil, dangerous, under the power of Satan, and very close to self-destructing. The only rational course of action is to seek refuge under the wings of God’s chosen servant or God’s organization. Inside the group is a spiritual paradise–outside is a spiritual wasteland inhabited by devils, enemies of God, and conspirators working to thwart the plan of God. The huge conspiracies opposing the group are, of course, proof of its tremendous importance.

This kind of mentality produces a strong sense of dependence upon the group as well as a cautionary, distrustful, and oftentimes hostile attitude toward the people of the world. Faithful cult followers are strongly encouraged to break off all unnecessary association with people, even close friends and family members, who do not understand the truth. Thus the group forms the member’s true family; any other is just his outmoded physical family.4

Indoctrination and conformity now become simple processes as individuals are surrounded by a group of people who all speak, think, and behave in the same way. Cult members are noted for having strikingly similar clothing styles, haircuts, speech mannerisms, facial expressions, behavior patterns, etc. This is often regarded as true biblical unity.

Use of Special Methods to Heighten Suggestibility and Subservience
In a cult group, “obedience to a leader’s command is the most important lesson to learn.”5 This submission is firmly grounded in the assumption that the cult leader is the annointed messenger of God who has special insight into spiritual matters and has therefore been entrusted with unlimited authority–the very authority of God. Simply put, to obey the leader is to obey God; to reject the leader is to rebel against God.

Psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, in his classic work on the psychology of persuasion, Influence, points out that human beings are programmed from early childhood to submit to authority. Obedience to parents and teachers has practical advantages, simply because they possess greater knowledge and control rewards and punishments. In the great majority of cases, obedience leads to appropriate actions. However, Cialdini warns, there can be conspicuous exceptions where people react rather than think.6

The danger of mindless obedience was dramatically illustrated in an experiment conducted in 1965. Psychologist Stanley Milgram tested people for obedience to authority and discovered that over 90 percent of his subjects would obey orders, even if they thought that doing so caused physical suffering to another individual. Milgram concluded:

The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his own actions.7

For many, the attraction of a cult lies in the fact that an escape from responsibility becomes not only possible but justifiable. Countless people find great relief in being able to blindly follow the directions of God’s messenger. Cult leaders are fully aware of this weakness in human nature and exploit it to the fullest. They will brazenly lay claim to divine authority and then demand total compliance to their every wish and whim.

Powerful Group Pressures
Prospective cult members, in their initial contact with a cult group, inevitably experience what is called a “love bomb” or “love shower.” This involves effusive praise and flattery, enthusiastic expressions of friendship, and exaggerated demonstrations of kindness. Cults thus appeal to a basic need present in every human being, the need to feel loved and the need to be recognized as a vital member of a group. In the words of Robert Cialdini,

The information that someone fancies us can be a bewitchingly effective device for producing return liking and willing compliance. So, often in terms of flattery or simple claims of affinity, we hear positive estimation from people who want something from us. . . . We are phenomenal suckers for flattery.8

Steven Hassan, reflecting on his initial experience in the Unification Church, relates that “I was barraged with flattery from all sides all evening. . . . I was told over and over what a nice person I was, what a good person I was, how smart I was, how dynamic I was, and so forth.”9

This kind of royal treatment can become addicting to any who are not aware of the ulterior motive behind it. A love shower comes with an expensive price tag, total submission and obedience to the group. Cults will lavish love and attention on anyone willing to listen and obey. But the moment the prospective convert begins to doubt, have questions, or defy the cult authority, “the ‘love’ formerly directed to him turns into anger, hatred, and ridicule.”10 This conditional love can be a powerful force in influencing an individual’s decision-making process.

Information Management
Information management, or more commonly “information control,” has a long history of use not only by religious groups but by governments as well. Members (citizens) are denied access to information critical of the organization (government). The only information made available is a distorted form of propaganda that applauds the wisdom, power, and exploits of the leadership.

Consequently, the faith nurtured in a cult environment rests on a very shaky foundation indeed. Because it is a faith built upon limited knowledge and maintained only by a strict regulation of information, even the smallest amount of critical data can cause the superstructure to totter and fall. Herein lies the reason why cult members are kept busy reading their own literature and attending various instructional meetings. Some cults even have their own news magazines to replace secular newspapers. Little time is left for a critical examination of cult doctrine. Many cults also have severe penalties for anyone who ventures to read literature that exposes the errors of the group; the strictest chastisement is reserved for those who talk to former members.

Suspension of Individuality and Critical Judgment
The educational program in a cult group is sometimes compared to a factory assembly line. Members are presented with a role model and expected to conform to it. “Self” must be destroyed; special talents, interests, behavior patterns or hobbies that do not further the cause of the “truth” must be abandoned. In the words of Steven Hassan,

In all destructive cults the self must submit to the group. The “whole purpose” must be the focus; the “self purpose” must be subordinated. In any group that qualifies as a destructive cult, thinking of oneself or for oneself is wrong. The group comes first. Absolute obedience to superiors is one of the most universal themes in cults. Individuality is bad. Conformity is good.11

The loss of individuality inevitably results in the loss of critical judgment. Since the cult doctrine is perfect and the leader is perfect, any problem that occurs is assumed to be the fault of the individual member. He learns always to blame himself and put to death a critical spirit. Hassan concludes:

Loyalty and devotion are the most highly respected emotions of all. Members are not allowed to feel or express negative emotions, except toward outsiders. Members are taught never to feel for themselves or their own needs but always to think of the group and never to complain. They are never to criticize a leader, but criticize themselves instead.12

Promotion of Total Dependency on the Group
As the process of mind control progresses, a state of extreme dependency begins to develop. Cult trainees learn to ignore their inner selves and put explicit trust in the leader. They come to the point where they need the authority figure to tell them what to think, feel, and do.

Herein perhaps lies the most frightening and dangerous aspect of mind control, the suspension of mental and emotional growth. Since there are answers to every question, there is no need for individuals to think for them-selves. The mind is put on hold.

Fear of Leaving the Group
Once the program of indoctrination is complete, it is nearly impossible for cult members to feel they can have any security, happiness, or success outside of the group. Cults are exceptionally thorough in implanting negative images deep within members’ unconscious minds–images of what may happen if they ever entertain the thought of leaving God’s organization.

Members are programmed either overtly or subtly (depending on the organization) to believe that if they ever leave, they will die of some horrible disease, be hit by a car, be killed in a plane crash, or perhaps even cause the death of loved ones. Some groups program members to believe that if they ever leave the group, planetary nuclear holocaust will be the result.13

Fear is the fence that keeps cult members safely within the fold. Irrational though the fear may be, for the person in the cult it is very real. With the passage of time, the fence gradually becomes a prison wall, robbing the member of freedom. Cult propaganda would give the outsider the impression that members are free to leave at any time. However, such is not the case. Members are indoctrinated to believe that separation from the group brings catastrophic results–they have no real choice.

Does the Watchtower Use Mind Control?
The February 15, 1994 Watchtower magazine features a cover story article entitled “Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult? or Ministers of God?” Increasing numbers of people must be asking the question, are Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult?–hence the need for a six page article dealing with the subject. The problem is summed up as follows:

Occasionally, anticult organizations and the media have referred to Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult. A number of recent newspaper articles lump the Witnesses with religious groups known for their questionable practices.14

The Watchtower then proceeds to offer arguments to disprove the charges of critics. The main points are: Jesus and his disciples were falsely accused;15 a Russian official who had a preconceived idea that Jehovah’s Witnesses were an “underground sect sitting in darkness and slaughtering children and killing themselves” discovered them instead to be “normal, smiling people;”16 their meetings consist of Bible study and discussion;17 their activities are public, not secretive;18 with more than 11 million people attending, they are “far from being a small fringe cult;”19 they do not live in communes, isolating themselves from relatives and others;20 Jehovah’s Witnesses do not venerate or idolize their leaders;21 victims of alleged brainwashing are lacking.

Speaking to the “millions of non-Witnesses who are studying the Bible with the Witnesses or who have studied with them at one time or another,” the Watchtower asks rhetorically, “Were there any attempts to brainwash you? Did the Witnesses employ mind control techniques on you?” The Watchtower answers for them, “‘No’ would doubtless be your frank response. Obviously, if these methods had been used, there would be an overwhelming number of victims.”22

Amazingly enough, the article offers no discussion of mind control techniques. Readers are left totally in the dark as to what exactly mind control techniques might entail, yet the Watchtower prompts them to agree that no such techniques have been used on them. The magazine also ignores the countless former Witnesses who have testified in radio and television interviews, in law courts, and in print to Watchtower mind control. These testimonies, combined with a careful examination of organizational policy, have led many cult researchers to conclude that the Watchtower Society’s program of indoctrination shares basic elements with other mind control programs.

To Isolate or not to Isolate
The Watchtower magazine last quoted denies that Jehovah’s Witnesses isolate themselves from outsiders, “And they do not live in communes, isolating themselves from relatives and others.”23 However, the same magazine, in another separate article on page twenty-four, warns that

We must also be on guard against extended association with worldly people. Perhaps it is a neighbor, a school friend, a workmate, or a business associate. . . . What are some of the dangers of such a friendship?

Here is an example of what cult researchers refer to as “double-think.”24 A double standard exists–one set of logic for people on the outside of the organization and another for those on the inside. The first quote is from an article designed for the general public; the second quote is part of an article prepared for a Jehovah’s Witness group study. Though there is little physical isolation in the Watchtower, the leadership does indeed encourage members to isolate themselves socially.

Submission to Watchtower Authority
The “Governing Body”25 of the Watchtower Society utilizes various titles to support its claim to divine authority. “Prophet of Jehovah,” “God’s channel of communication,” and “God’s faithful and discreet slave” all refer to Watchtower leadership. The following quotes are but a few examples of how far the organization will go in its claims to spiritual authority and demands for total submission from followers.

One can come to understand that Jehovah is a God of surpassing wisdom by observing creation. . . . A second way to know God is through his Word of truth, the Bible. . . A third way of coming to know Jehovah God is through his representatives. In ancient times he sent prophets as his special messengers. While these men foretold things to come, they also served the people by telling them of God’s will for them at that time, often also warning them of dangers and calamities. People today can view the creative works. Today they have at hand the Bible, but it is little read or understood. So, does Jehovah have a prophet to help them, to warn them of dangers and to declare things to come? . . . . He had a “prophet” to warn them. This “prophet” was not one man, but was a body of men and women. It was the small group of footstep followers of Jesus Christ, known at that time as International Bible Students. Today they are known as Jehovah’s Christian witnesses.26

But regardless of how Christendom views or regards this group of annointed witnesses of Jehovah, the time must come, and that shortly, when those making up Christendom will know that really a “prophet” of Jehovah was among them. . . . Better it is to know now, rather than too late, that there is an authentic prophetic class of Christians among us, and to accept and act upon the Bible message, “not as the word of men, but, just as it truthfully is, as the word of God.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13) Concerning the message faithfully delivered by the Ezekiel class Jehovah positively states that it “must come true.”27

As Jehovah revealed his truths by means of the first- century Christian congregation so he does today by means of the present-day Christian congregation. Through this agency he is having carried out prophesying on an intensified and unparalleled scale. All of this activity is not an accident. Jehovah is the one behind all of it.28

Today, a remnant of this “faithful slave” is still alive on earth. Their duties include receiving and passing on to all of Jehovah’s earthly servants spiritual food at the proper time. They occupy a position similar to that of Paul and his colaborers when that apostle said of the wonderful truths God gives to his people: “It is to us that God has revealed them through his spirit.” (1 Cor- inthians 2:9, 10)29

But Jehovah God has also provided his visible organization, his ‘faithful and discreet slave,’ made up of spirit-annointed ones, to help Christians in all nations to understand and apply properly the Bible in their lives. Unless we are in touch with this channel of communication that God is using, we will not progress along the road to life, no matter how much Bible reading we do.30

Today God does not speak to his servants directly as he did to Job. Instead he reproves them by means of his Word and his spirit-directed organization.31

Jehovah’s organization as directed by his “faithful and discreet slave” class should influence our every decision.32

What, can we say, is the basic principle underlying the movement of Jehovah’s living organization? It can be expressed in one word: obedience.33

In the face of this unlimited spiritual authority, Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to respond to the directions of the organization as they would the voice of God.34

Failure to respond to the direction of the Watchtower is regarded as a rejection of divine rulership.35

Raymond Franz, a former member of the Governing Body, makes the following comments concerning indoctrination and subordination in the organization:

True, there is periodic acknowledgement in the publications that the writers are, after all, “imperfect men,” and that the organization has “never claimed to be infallible.” In actual practice it works out quite differently. One finds out that this only applies to the past, not to the present. While the organization must recognize that it has changed a considerable number of its past teachings–which makes it evident that they were in error–it does not feel moved to modesty by those errors, so as to remind its readers that what it now says may also suffer due to that same imperfection. To the contrary, Jehovah’s Witnesses are called on to take whatever is currently taught as if it were infal- lible. In effect they are told, “You should accept everything published as absolute truth until such time as we may tell you it isn’t.” This is, purely and simply, mind control.36

The Power of “Shunning”
Jehovah’s Witnesses feel privileged to be a part of God’s family-like visible organization, whose members get along so well. They also look forward to the time when they will “live forever in paradise on earth with such a loving family.”37 The Watchtower organization is indeed a loving family–to those who remain loyal and submissive. But for those who do not fully support Watchtower teaching and policy, the organization can quickly transform into an assembly of cruel and cold-hearted strangers. Any who lose faith in the “faithful and discreet slave” and vocalize their doubts will be branded as “apostates,”38 “haters of God,”39 “opposers,”40 and likened to a poisonous snake.41 They will be disfellowshiped and forced to face the consequences of their sin: shunning.

[Disfellowshiping] serves as a powerful warning example to those in the congregation, since they will be able to see the disastrous consequences of ignoring Jehovah’s laws. It is a great tragedy for one to be disfellowshiped. For this means a cutting off from Jehovah and his favor. The disfellowshiping action taken by the congregation is merely the confirmation of what has already taken place in the heavens. . . . A disfellowshiped person is cut off from the congregation, and the congregation has nothing to do with him. Those in the congregation will not extend the hand of fellowship to this one, nor will they so much as say “Hello” or “Good- bye” to him. . . . [The members of the congregation] will not converse with such one or show him recognition in any way. If the disfellowshiped person attempts to talk to others in the congregation, they should walk away from him. In this way he will feel the full import of his sin.42

Haters of God and his people are to be hated, but this does not mean that we will take any opportunity of bringing physical hurt to them in a spirit of malice or spite, for both malice and spite belong to the Devil, whereas pure hatred does not. We must hate in the truest sense, which is to regard with extreme and active aversion, to consider as loathsome, odious, filthy, to detest. Surely any haters of God are not fit to live on his beautiful earth. . . . What do you do with anything loathsome or repugnant that you detest and abhor? The answer is simple. You get away from it or remove it from your presence. You do not want to have anything at all to do with it. This must be exactly our attitude toward the haters of Jehovah.43

The rules of shunning also apply to family members who have left the organization: Another sort of loss may be felt by loyal Christian grandparents whose children have been disfellowshiped. They may have been accustomed to visiting regularly with their children, giving them occasion to enjoy their grandchildren. Now the parents are disfellowshiped because of rejecting Jehovah’s standards and ways. So things are not the same in the family. Of course, the grandparents have to determine if some necessary family matters require limited contact with the disfellowshiped children. And they might sometimes have the grandchildren visit them. How sad, though, that by their unchristian course the children interfere with the normal pleasure that such grandparents enjoyed!44

Certainly the Watchtower’s policy of shunning does indeed “serve as a powerful warning example to those in the congregation.” The whole social life of the average Jehovah’s Witness resides within the congregation. If associated for many years, to be disfellowshiped means to be cut off from virtually every friendship he or she has. For many, this frightening possibility leaves members with no choice but to remain in God’s organization.



1The media of Japan chose to use the Japanese rendition for “cult” (“karuto”) instead of a native Japanese word. The word has been popular ever since, being used to refer to any dangerous religious group.

2Webster’s New World Dictionary (Cleveland: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 337.

3American Family Foundation, “Cultism: A Conference for Scholars and Policy Makers,” Cultic Studies Journal 3,1 (1986): 119-20, quoted in Madeline Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds (Alameda, CA: Hunter House, 1994), 12.

4Margaret Thaler Singer, “Cults: Where Are They? Why Now?” Forecast for Home Economics, May/June 1979, 37, quoted in M. Tobias and J. Lalich, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds (Alameda, CA: Hunter House, 1994), 13. Singer is a clinical psychologist who has been researching cults since the 1950s.

5Steven Hassan, Combatting Mind Control (Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 1988), 99.

6Ibid., 80.

7See Jer 17:5, Pro 29:25, Isa 2:22, etc.

8See John 3:30, Acts 14:15, etc.

9See Rom 10:11.

10See 1 Pet 5:2-3. This and all subsequent biblical citations are from The New International Version. This version has been used because of its overall popularity and basic accuracy.

11Hassan, Combatting Mind Control, 79.

12See John 16:13.

13Hassan, Combatting Mind Control, 80.

14It should be noted that the Bible states unequivocally that salvation is not by works (see Eph 2:8-9, Tit 3:5-6).

15Hassan, Combatting Mind Control, 30.

16It is interesting to observe that false teachers in New Testament times consistently worked toward enslaving Christians (see Gal 5:1, Col 2:8, 2 Cor 11:13, 20).

17Mind control will be discussed in detail in the next chapter.

18Followers of the Watchtower are known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

19The Watchtower, January 1, 2000, 20.

20The Watchtower denies the Trinity, the visible return of Christ, and the doctrine of eternal punishment. It teaches that only 144,000 will go to heaven and that all others deemed worthy of salvation will live on a paradise earth. God the Father is referred to by the name “Jehovah,” a modern transliteration of the Tetragrammaton YHWH. The organization also maintains an extensive list of rules that prohibit the celebration of Christmas and birthdays, service in the armed forces, blood transfusions, etc.

21The Watchtower, May 1, 1957, 274.

22The Watchtower, June 15, 1957, 370.

23The Watchtower, March 1, 1979, 1.

24The Watchtower, December 1, 1981, 27.

25The Watchtower, February 15, 1983, 12.

26The Watchtower, January 1, 1996, 30.

27The Watchtower, January 15, 1996, 6.

28The Watchtower, March 15, 1996, 20.

29The Watchtower, July 15, 1996, 20.

30Our Kingdom Ministry, June,1969, p. 3.

31Our Kingdom Ministry, May, 1974, 3.

32Awake!, November 8, 1974, 11.

33The Watchtower July 15, 1976, 441.

34Awake!, May 22, 1994, 2.

35Golden Age, February 4, 1931, 293.

36The Watchtower, November 15, 1967, 702-4.

37The Watchtower, May 15, 1962, 302.

38Awake! July 8, 1969, 30.

39The Watchtower, September 1, 1975, 519.

40The Watchtower, March 1, 1971, 134.

41See Gen 9:3-4 and Lev 17:10-14.

42Acts 15:29. This admonition was given to the Gentile believers so that they might avoid undue friction between themselves and Jewish believers. An appreciation of the kosher diet would further the cause of united Christian fellowship. Obedience to the suggestions of the Jerusalem Council was not a requirement for salvation, as the Jeho-vah’s Witnesses often maintain. Such an interpretation goes against the central conclusion reached at the assembly; namely, Gentiles and Jews alike are saved not by keeping the Mosaic Law but by the grace of Jesus Christ (see Acts 15:7-11).

431 Cor 4:6.

44Mark 2:27.

45Mark 3:4. The September, 1999 issue of Consumer’s Report states that approximately ten thousand lives are saved daily through use of blood transfusions (p. 61).

46John 10:10.




The Metamorphosis of the Term “Cult”
The people of Japan will long remember March 21, 1995, as the day when they first heard the word “cult.”1 At approximately 8:00 a.m., six members of a radical Buddhist group called “Aum Supreme Truth” boarded a Tokyo subway, each man toting plastic bags filled with lethal nerve gas. Moving with clockwork precision, the men carefully sifted their way through the crowded train and deposited their deadly luggage at the end of the car. Quick thrusts from a sharply-pointed umbrella was all that was then needed to poke small holes in each bag and cause the invisible nerve gas to begin to slowly fill the commuter train.

The Aum band was long gone before anyone realized what was happening. Suddenly pandemonium erupted as hundreds of commuters began to choke and pass out. Victims were carried up and laid out on the street to await transportation to local hospitals, but confusion reigned there as well because doctors had no idea of what they were dealing with. It was hours before proper treatment was made available for the victims. In the meantime, thirteen people died and over five thousand suffered varying symptoms of gas poisoning.

Subsequent police investigations revealed that the Aum group was producing large amounts of nerve gas and had plans to diffuse it over wide areas of metropolitan Tokyo. Hand guns were also being manufactured at a number of secret factories. The head of the Aum Shinrikyo, Mr. Shouko Asahara, was well known for prophecies about Armaggedon and the end of the world. Apparently he had decided to try and bring about the fulfillment of those predictions.

The word “cult,” along with “culture” and “cultivate,” originally comes from the Latin word “colere” which means “to till.”2 Medieval society was centered around agriculture. Cultivation of the soil and all activities connected to it helped form the basis for the culture of the Middle Ages. With the growth of the Christian church, religious activity also began to influence culture and play a major role in the life of the average person. A system of religious worship or ritual subsequently began to be referred to as a “cult.” In Germany and England “cult” still retains its original meaning and has no negative implications whatsoever.

In America, however, the word went through a trans-formation of major proportions. “Cult” was conveniently used to identify a small, unusual religious group with unorthodox views and beliefs. However, when the 1970s produced a rash of violent incidents that left a trail of blood leading to certain religious organizations, secular scholars and Christian leaders began to refer to such groups as “cults.”

The Modern Definition of a Cult
During the past twenty years numerous groups have endeavored to refine the definition of a cult and provide the general public with useful data about cults and their unethical recruitment techniques. One such group which has taken the lead in this work is the American Family Foundation (AFF), a nonprofit, educational organization. At an AFF conference of scholars and policy makers in 1985, the following definition was adopted:

Cult: A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management,
suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.3

This definition has been accepted widely by many scholars and cult researchers. It continues to be the standard by which cults are distinguished from other communities or groups.

Characteristics of a Cult
As outlined in the definition above, cult groups are distinguished by certain characteristics, which may be present to a greater or lesser degree. It is also conceivable that a certain religious organization, even a Protestant church, may carry some of the marks of a cult but not actually be considered a true cult group. The key issue is whether members are being manipulated and exploited to the point where they can cause harm to themselves, their families, or the community.

Devotion to the Leader or Organization
As pointed out by the AFF, cults are known for their excessive devotion to a person, idea, or thing. Normally the leader or the organization itself becomes the object of the members’ veneration. In the eyes of the average faithful follower, the cult leader is someone with a special gift from God striving to fulfill a special mission in life.4 The leader is said to be God’s prophet, God’s messenger for this hour, God’s mouthpiece, God’s only channel of communication with the human race, etc.

Support for these bold assertions is drawn from the charisma of the leader himself, the growth and activity of the group, a unique sense of comradery among the members, and a system of theology that claims to be Bible-based, but in reality distorts the basic message of Scripture. Every effort is made to create and maintain a picture of uniqueness and an aura of spiritual authority. The leader must always be represented as the one who has reached the unattainable heights of true spiritual maturity, has been entrusted with the keys to spiritual knowledge, or has been given divine authority to safely guide souls along the path to life.

The Leader Exalted to Equality with Christ
Exaltation of the cult head inevitably leads to a form of deification. Though a cult may expound on the importance of a personal relationship with God, in reality emphasis is placed upon obedience and faith in the leader or the group. Simply trusting in Christ is not enough for salvation. Maintaining membership in the organization, obedience to the commands of the leader, and working diligently for the advancement of the group’s goals are all essential for obtaining God’s blessing and approval. Disobeying the leader is regarded as a flagrant violation of God’s law, while laboring for the group is considered “doing the will of God.” Leaving the group is equivalent with turning one’s back on God; remaining by the leader’s side ensures that the cult member will remain under the protection of God.

Steven Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church, cult exit-counselor, and author of the best-selling book, Combatting Mind Control, states that in his experience, most cult leaders “believe they are ‘God,’ or the ‘Messiah,’or an enlightened leader.”5 Hassan also declares that, “Absolute obedience to superiors is one of the most universal themes in cults.”6

Cult leaders are quick to quote Scriptures that admonish obedience to spiritual authority. However, while obedience may be a scriptural principle, the Bible does not condone totalitarian control. Nor do the Scriptures encourage dependency on a human being. In fact, numerous passages give a stern warning to any who put their trust in man.7 Spiritual leaders who seek to follow the teaching of Scripture will never draw attention to themselves but always point people to Christ.8 He or she will continually stress the gospel message that, whoever believes in Christ will not be disappointed.9 This leader will not “lord it over” the flock of God but rather work to be an example.10

Doctrine Exalted to Equality with Scripture
Just as cults deny the sufficiency of faith in Christ, they also deny the sufficiency of Scripture. Cults claim no one can hope to understand the message of the Bible without the help of “God’s chosen messenger.” This “help” comes in the form of sermons (lectures) and publications.

Cult doctrine always requires that the individual distrust his or her own self. Doctrine is to be accepted, not understood.11 Here again, dependency on the leader is nurtured and the promises of Scripture are negated. Jesus, however, stated clearly that the “Spirit of truth” would guide believers into all truth.12

As outlined in the American Family Foundation’s definition of a cult, cult groups use “unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control. . . designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders.” Cults are well known for their impressive work ethic. It is not unusual to see cult members work fifteen to eighteen hour days without any form of remuneration. This sacrificial lifestyle is made possible by maintaining an elitist mentality. In the words of Steven Hassan,

As a community, they feel they have been chosen. . . to lead mankind out of darkness into a new age of enlightenment. Cult members have a great sense not only of mission but of their special place in history they will be recognized for their greatness for generations to come. . . . This feeling of elitism and destiny, however, carries a heavy burden of responsibility. Members are told that if they do not fully perform their duties, they are failing all of mankind.13

Another incentive used to spur members on to sacrificial labor for the group is the teaching of salvation by works. Believers must always demonstrate their worthiness, establish their own righteousness, and prove their loyalty to God and His “servant.” Only those who “pass the test” will enter God’s kingdom; the dropouts will be rejected.14

Still another powerful weapon of manipulation is prophecy warning of the imminent end of the world. Most cult members are told frequently and forcefully that Armaggedon is just around the corner. These warnings of doom cause loyal followers to reconsider their list of priorities in life. If the end is near, they reason, then seeking higher education, a full-time job, a home, or a family is a selfish endeavor. One’s time should be spent working for God’s organization and warning people of the disaster that awaits them if they do not accept God’s prophet.

One of the tragic realities of cult life lies in the fact that unsuspecting people are turned into slaves.15 The will of the group always takes precedence over the will of the individual. “Self purpose” is sacrificed for the “whole purpose.”16

Unethical Techniques of Persuasion and Control
Mind control17 is an expression frequently used to describe the recruitment and educational techniques of a cult. It refers to a state of extreme dependency in which members need someone (inevitably the leader, “God’s messenger”) to tell them what to think, say, feel, and do. Dependence and conformity are encouraged, while autonomy and individuality are discouraged. All former beliefs and values are replaced by those of the group.

Mind control frequently produces a sudden and dramatic personality change. Individuals often change their clothing style, speech patterns, and behavioral patterns. Previous interests, hobbies, and goals are abandoned because they are no longer important. A totally new identity is assumed.

The unethical aspect of mind control lies in the deception used in the recruiting and educational process. Deception can include outright lying, leaving out important information, or distorting information. Cult leaders reserve the right to determine what members should or should not know. They also think nothing of lying to further the plan of God.

The destructive nature of cult groups came to light dramatically in the Jonestown massacre of 1978. Jim Jones, leader of the “People’s Temple” group, took his followers to Guyana, South America, and founded the village of “Jonestown” in the middle of a remote jungle. Even in spite of the seclusion, however, reports concerning violations of human rights began to filter in to the United States Congress, prompting Senator Leo Ryan to personally initiate an investigation.

The investigation produced undeniable evidence of numerous unethical practices, but before Senator Ryan could board his plane to return to America, he was shot and killed dead by several People’s Temple followers. Jim Jones then proceeded to order his faithful following to drink a mixture of Kool-aid laced with a deadly poison. More than nine hundred people, including three hundred children, sacrificed their lives in blind obedience to their egotistical leader. Destruction in a cult can mean more than just loss of life. Countless homes have broken up due to cult-related problems. Many have witnessed their life savings go up in flames. Young people have seen their dreams for the future wither and die. Numerous others have experienced the trauma of witnessing the destruction of their identities and personalities.

The Apostle Peter, writing nearly nineteen hundred years ago, identifies clearly the most tragic characteristic of a cult group: destruction.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them bringing swift destruction on themselves. (2 Pet 2:1)

Is the Watchtower a Cult?
One religious organization that has caught the attention of cult researchers is the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, usually referred to simply as “The Watchtower.”18 Founded in 1879, this group has experienced phenomenal growth in many countries around the globe. The current world-wide membership is estimated to be over five and a half million.19

The Watchtower organization is well known for its evangelistic activities, its unique system of theology,20 its predictions of the end of the world, and its separation from many other religious and secular organizations. Believers work diligently to present the image of a clean, godly, and happy body of Christians striving to obey the teaching of the Bible. Many cult researchers, however, cite specific problem areas that would seem to clearly brand the Watchtower as a cult.

Devotion to the Organization
Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to support, obey, and believe the Watchtower organization as a condition to receiving God’s favor. The following quotes from Watchtower literature, spanning a forty year period (1957-1996), will suffice in demonstrating this point.

If we are to walk in the light of truth we must recognize not only Jehovah God as our Father but his organization as our mother. 21

Respond to the directions of the organization as you would the voice of God.22

Put faith in a victorious organization!23

But Jehovah God has also provided his visible organization, his ‘faithful and discreet slave,’ made up of spirit-annointed ones, to help Christians in all nations to understand and apply properly the Bible in their lives. Unless we are in touch with this channel of communication that God is using, we will not progress along the road to life, no matter how much Bible reading we do.24

Jehovah is using only one organization today to accomplish his will. To receive everlasting life in the earthly Paradise we must identify that organization and serve God as part of it.25

Today, a ‘faithful and discreet slave’ has been appointed . . . . Jehovah, by his spirit, reveals deep scriptural truths by means of this loyal slave.26

Loyalty requires that we. . . loyally uphold the Bible teachings found in the Watchtower and Awake! magazines as well as all other spiritual food provided by the Watch Tower Society.27

. . . being loyal to Jehovah’s visible organization . . . Thereby we will win his favor and will receive the prize of everlasting life.28

. . . how unsound it is to rely on human reasoning. . . stay by the faithful organization. How else can one get Jehovah’s favor and blessing? 29

Obviously the Watchtower society and its leaders have put themselves in the place of Christ. The loyalty, faith, and obedience that they demand of their followers can only be placed under the category of idol worship. This form of religion has no basis in Scripture, though Watchtower leaders do not hesitate to quote from the Bible in order to undergird their authority.

One passage frequently referred to in Watchtower literature is found in Acts 8:30-31.

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

In this well-known story, Philip is led by the Spirit of God to speak with an Ethiopian eunuch. The man was reading from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, a prophetic passage which speaks about the suffering Messiah, but he was not able to comprehend its meaning. “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” he appeals to Philip. The Watchtower Society jumps upon this anguished cry of the Ethiopian eunuch and then proceeds to apply it to every human being who has ever attempted to read the Bible. “Just as the Ethiopian eunuch needed Philip’s help, you need someone to explain the Scriptures to you,” they declare, as they conveniently produce the latest edition of their Watchtower literature.

A careful examination of this passage, however, will reveal that the Watchtower has ignored the most important aspect of the story. The reason why the eunuch could not understand the Old Testament prophecy was because he did not have a copy of the New Testament in his possession. In other words, he had not yet heard that the prophecy had been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. After hearing the gospel from Philip, the eunuch readily understood and confessed faith in Christ. One may therefore conclude that the words of the eunuch, “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” apply only to those who have never read the New Testament.

Manipulation of the Faithful
Watchtower history is dotted with several prophecies concerning the end of the world. 1914, 1918, 1925, 1941, and 1975 are all dates which the organization predicted would usher in the Millennium. With the introduction of each new prophecy, Jehovah’s Witnesses were strongly encouraged to focus their energies on the work of evangelism and not the matters of this world.

In 1966 the Watchtower published the book Life Everlasting–In Freedom of the Sons of God. This volume assured Jehovah’s Witnesses that the end of the world would come in the fall of 1975. This prophecy was repeated numerous times in subsequent editions of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines. There was also specific advice for faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the “end times.”

Of course, there may be a tempting offer of higher education or of getting into some field of work that promises material rewards. However, Jehovah God holds out to you young folks many marvelous privileges of service in his organization. Which will you decide to take up? In view of the short time left, a decision to pursue a career in this system of things is not only unwise but extremely dangerous. . . . Many young brothers and sisters were offered scholarships or employment that promised fine pay. However, they turned them down and put spiritual interests first.30

Yes, the end of this system is so very near! Is that not the reason to increase our activity? . . . . Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property and planning to finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service. Certainly this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the world’s wicked end.31

Today there is a great crowd of people who are confident that a destruction of even greater magnitude is now imminent. The evidence is that Jesus’ prophecy will shortly have a major fulfillment, upon this entire system of things. This has been a major factor in influencing many couples to decide not to have children at this time. They have chosen to remain childless so that they would be less encumbered to carry out the instructions of Jesus Christ to preach the good news of God’s kingdom earth wide before the end of this system comes.32

When 1975 came and went without any fulfillment of the Watchtower’s prophecy, many Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the painful realization that they had been manipulated. That realization moved one million believers to leave the organization. For the ones that remained, the Watchtower offered the following words of comfort.

However, say that you are one who counted heavily on a date, and, commendably, set your attention more strictly on the urgency of the times and the need of people to hear. And say you now, temporarily, feel somewhat disappointed; are you really the loser? Are you really hurt? We believe you can say that you have gained and profited by taking this conscientious course. Also, you have been enabled to get a really mature, more reasonable viewpoint.33

Loss of Life
The cover of the May 22, 1994 edition of the “Awake!” magazine features pictures of twenty-five attractive youth. Underneath the photographs are the words, “Youths Who Put God First.” Only upon opening the magazine do readers discover that the appealing photos represent young people who died in obedience to the Watchtower Society’s ban on blood transfusions.

In former times thousands of youths died for putting God first. They are still doing it, only today the drama is played out in hospitals and courtrooms, with blood transfusions the issue.34

From a Scriptural point of view, it might be possible to applaud these youths as heroes if they had died as martyrs who were faithful to Christ and His Word. However, a careful examination of the Scriptures and the Watchtower track record on various medical issues will soon reveal that the organization’s policy did not originate from divine wisdom.

Past Watchtower Teaching on Medical Issues
Blood transfusions are not the first medical treat-ment banned by the Watchtower. From 1931 until 1952 Jehovah’s Witnesses were forbidden to accept vaccinations, the reason being that they are “a direct violation of the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood.”35 From 1967 until 1980, organ transplants were forbidden, having been designated as “cannibalism” by the Watchtower author-ities.36 At the present time, both vaccinations and organ transplants are allowed.

In addition to vacillating positions on life and death medical issues, the Watchtower has, in the past, published articles that exhibit a profound ignorance of medical science. The following are actual quotes from Watchtower literature.

Moreover, recent medical research has indicated in a realistic way how blood transfusions may damage the individual’s personality. According to one authority: ‘The blood in any person is in reality the person himself. It contains all the peculiarities of the individual from whence it comes. This includes hereditary traits, disease susceptibilities, poisons due to personal living, eating and drinking habits.’ Transfusing blood, then, may amount to transfusing tainted personality traits. How great the danger may become if the blood is taken from blood banks to which criminals and other derelicts of society have contributed!37

Some say blood transfusions are harmless. Do you believe that? For 40 years Robert Khoury was known as an honest man. Then he was given a blood transfusion after a fall. ‘I learned the donor was a thief,’ Khoury told police. ‘When I recovered I found I had a terrible desire to steal.’ And steal he did. He confessed to stealing ‘10,000 in six robberies in three months. Khoury threatened to sue the doctor who arranged the transfusion, if he receives a severe sentence for his thievery.38

It has long been known that heart-transplant patients have a higher-than-average amount of postoperative psychiatric problems. But it seems that the same is true with regard to some other vital organ transplants, such as kidney transplants. . . . A peculiar factor sometimes noted is a so-called ‘personality transplant.’ That is, the recipient in some cases has seemed to adopt certain personality factors of the person from whom the organ came. One young promising woman who received a kidney from her older, conservative, well-behaved sister, at first seemed very upset. Then she began imitating her sister in much of her conduct. Another patient claimed to receive a changed outlook on life after his kidney transplant. Following a transplant, one mild-tempered man became aggressive like the donor.39

The Bible does not speak of a symbolic or spiritual heart in contradistinction to the fleshly or literal heart, just as it does not speak of a symbolic mind, and thus we do not want to make the mistake of viewing the literal heart as merely a fleshly pump as does orthodox physiology today. . . . The heart is a marvelously designed muscular pump, but, more significantly, our emotional and motivating capacities are built within it. Love, hate, desire (good and bad), preference for one thing over another, ambition, fear in effect, all that serves to motivate us in relationship to our affections and desires springs from the heart.40

Anyone who dies as a result of allegiance to Watch-tower policy can hardly be classified as a martyr. “Victim” would be the more appropriate term to describe the tragedy of all those who have offered up their lives on the altar of ever-changing Watchtower doctrine.

Distortion of Scripture
The Watchtower, in support of its ban on blood transfusions, regularly quotes from Old Testament Scriptures that forbid the consumption of blood.41 Reference is also made to a verse in Acts which encourages Gentile believers to “obstain from blood.”42

Quoted in context, however, none of the verses that the Watchtower authorities cite has anything to say about blood transfusions or the use of blood for medical purposes. Like the Pharisees of old, the Watchtower organization has “gone beyond what is written”43 and has fallen into a form of legalism that violates the spirit of love demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus always put first priority on the preservation of human life, even when this appeared to be a transgression of Old Testament law. He allowed His disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath, stating that “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”44 Christ also healed a man on the Sabbath day, an action which aroused the wrath of the Pharisees. He responded to them by saying, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”45 Biblical Christianity always proclaims a Christ who came “that they may have life, and have it to the full.”46 Cults share a common bond with him who is known in Scripture as “the thief.” Commonly referred to by the name “Satan,” he comes “only to steal and kill and destroy.”47



Destructive heresies and cult groups have plagued the church since its inception. Many in the first century were deceived by a false gospel. During the two thousand year history of the church countless others have wandered from the truth, and the list of victims continues to rise at an alarming rate even today. Something must be done. Most Christians, though aware of the cult problem, find themselves totally unprepared to deal with someone involved in such a group. Fear keeps many from even trying to witness for Christ. Clever and deceptive reasoning quickly silences those who do try to share the gospel. This paper will attempt to present practical steps that Christians can take to help deliver Jehovah’s Witnesses from the bondage of mind control and lead them to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Based upon biblical principles as well as the author’s twenty years of experience of working with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan, these steps are powerful tools that–under the guidance and anointing of the Holy Spirit–can break the shackles of deception. It is the author’s sincere and earnest prayer that this material might be shared with truth-seeking Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world. He also hopes that through reading this work Christians may be awakened to a new realization that cult members are included in the Great Commission.