As part of a History course at Massey University, New Zealand, in 2008 Dr. K irsty Carpenter taught a module titled “Headlines in History.” Headlines in History took a series of current national and international issues and examined them in their historical context.
This approach was designed to demonstrate the relevance of historical context to modern issues, and the ways in which modern societies understand and shape their present in terms of their past. Topics which were covered in the module included: cults and suicide; sport and politics - the Olympics; the wars against Iraq; disease in history and the royal family.
The lesson on cults and suicide discusses a number of current and past cults from around the world with a particular focus on cults that have called on members to commit suicide, including Falun Gong. Dr. Carpenter made a PowerPoint presentation, to accompany the lesson, which introduced several cults and key information about them.
According to Dr. Carpenter, strange cults are always developing. New cults include two ‘French’ ones: the Neo Phare group and the Order of the Solar Temple. The Neo Phare group was active in Nantes and expected the end of the world to occur on 24/10/02. The Order of the Solar Temple was founded by Luc Jouret and was based in Switzerland and French Canada. Members of the Order of the Solar Temple committed suicide in 1994. Cult suicides are not just a feature of French cults as many other cults have also encouraged members to commit suicide, such as the American cult, Heaven’s Gate. The Heaven’s Gate cult believed that they would escape the Earth on the Hale Bopp Comet in 1997. The cult committed mass suicide on the 26th March 1997.
Another American ，cult was the The Branch Davidians of Waco. The cult was founded by David Koresh and its membership was made up of ex Seventh-day Adventists. The cult was based in Waco, Texas after splitting from another sect called the Davidians. The cult was besieged in Waco by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and then the FBI on the 28th February 1993. The siege ended on the 19th April.
The Jonestown cult was also an American cult which ended in mass suicide. The cult was a Pentecostal Sect in Redwoods Valley and was founded by Pastor Jim Jones in 1968. The cult set up an agricultural project in Guyana, where it came to an end with a massacre on the 18th November 1978. 914 people died.
The lesson moves on from these incidents to a discussion of Asian cults, starting with Falun Gong. Dr. Carpenter highlights the Tiananmen Square Incident which occurred on the 25th April 1999. She then mentions government repression before stating that the cult responded to the government crackdown with suicides. She later compares Falun Gong to the Taiping Movement from China’s history when discussing possible reasons for the presence of cults in China. Dr. Carpenter also mentions Aum Shinrikyo from Japan, who tried to gas the Tokyo underground on 5th May 1995.
Other issues touched upon include: death, sex and insanity; prophecy, magic & witchcraft; Millennialism; types of sects; Doomsday Cults; new religious movements; anit-cult traditions; reasons for the proliferation of cults in America and possible reasons for the rise of cults in Asia and Africa. She finishes the class with a look at suicide cults in New Zealand.