Cults in Nebraska: Nebraska has history of cults

The Gateway (University of Nebraska at Omaha)/March 12, 1993
By Blair J. Davis

The Rev. Larry Doerr of Lincoln said he has seen many religious cults come and go throughout the years in Nebraska.

"It seems to me about every six months some new religious leader or minister comes into town and decides that before he came, nobody ever really heard the gospel truly," Doerr said. "So he has to organize a new church and find a bunch of enthusiastic followers to follow him. Sometimes that group grows, and sometimes it just kind of sits there and disappears."

Doerr said the late '60s and early '70s was a particularly fertile time for cults in the Lincoln area, especially campus-orientated movements.

"There was a whole movement of many kinds that was generally referred to in the early '70s as 'Jesus People,'" he said. "That wasn't just one group of people. That was a number of different kinds of movements that in one way or another focused on the figure of Jesus."

Many of these movements emulated Jesus by living simply or growing beards to look like the picture of Solomon's head of Christ.

"A lot of these were reactions against what they saw as not very interesting or not very vital religion on the part of the church they grew up in. So it was kind of rebellion issue."

It was during this time that the Unification Church began to grow. Members of the movement were also called Moonies, because the religion was based around the Rev. Sun Young Moon. The Unification Church has also been active at various times throughout the years in Lincoln, Doerr said, and sometimes it acted under different names.

Another movement in Nebraska during the '70s was The Way International, which was founded by a clergyman in Ohio in the '60s, Doerr said.

"They had a whole program of Bible studies which were done on video tape which this leader did. They grew quite rapidly."

Doerr said that at one point The Way International even bought a college campus in Kansas. Doerr said he hasn't seen any signs of The Way International in Nebraska recently.

He said some non-Christian groups have come and gone in Nebraska, also. The movement of transcendental meditation was one such group.

"Some people thought that was a cult. I never thought that was a term that would apply to them because they were never that kind of charismatic and authoritarian group," Doerr said.

Maranatha, from Gainesville, Fla., was another movement which came through Nebraska during the late '70s and early '80s. It was the predecessor to the Boston Church of Christ, which is now based in Lincoln and may be coming to Omaha. The Boston Church of Christ, also known as the Lincoln Christian Church, was formed in the early '80s.

Many religious cults, Doerr said, are not permanent.

"A lot of these are very fly-by-night and they're somebody's inspiration. They group around them and they expand a little bit or maybe a lot."

Doerr said The Way International and the Unification Church are two such movements which became quite large with many resources to back them financially.

He said that althought many movements are grouped together as cults, they are not all the same.

"There are a lot of different kinds of characteristics that make people look at groups and say 'this is a cult.' Probably none of these groups would have all of them," Doerr said.

A charismatic leader, a high level of group involvement and a strong sense of identity with the group are some of the characteristics associated with religious cults, he said.

That strong sense of identity, Doerr said, sometimes gives groups the feeling that the world is its enemy.

"I think the result of that sort of thinking is seen down in (Waco) Texas right now," he said.

The movement which followed Jim Jones is another example of that sort of thinking, Doerr said.

Some groups are characterized by a sense of urgency that the end of the world is nearing. With the end of the century approaching, Doerr said these movements will gain in popularity.

"As we come to 1999 and 2000, for a lot of people that is kind of more than a symbol. It's when they expect big changes to happen. Armageddon to happen or the rapture of the millenium or whatever else."

Doerr said he has seen little cult activity recently in the Lincoln area.

"I think things have been pretty quiet around here."

The Rev. Darrel Berg from UNO Campus Ministry said that he hasn't seen many cults in Omaha during recent years.

"I had a representative of the Unification Church call on me during the past year," Berg said. "He wanted my cooperation in reaching the students. I was not able to encourage him."

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