We all know the stories of some famous cults… But you may not know that some have taken up residence close to home. Pennsylvania has had its share of interesting religious societies, especially because it was originally formed as a colony of religious freedom. More than one group on this list took refuge in Pennsylvania from religious persecution in Europe.
Contrary to what you might associate immediately with the word “cult,” most aren’t violent. A cult is any system of religious veneration that is focused toward a particular figure, so you could say any religion is a cult. I’ve included historical religious communities on here that could be considered cult-like, as well as a few that might satiate your need for utter weird-ness a little bit more… Some are long gone, while others are still active.
1. The Church of Bible Understanding
If you're a fan of Seinfeld, you might recognize the above screenshot from the episode with the "Sunshine Carpet Cleaning Cult." The carpet cleaning cult in this episode was actually inspired by The Church of Bible Understanding, which was founded in Allentown, PA in 1971. Its founder, Stewart Traill, taught evangelical Christianity and enforced a communal lifestyle, encouraging members to eschew ties with friends and family. The church raised money with "Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning."
At one point, the church was headquartered in New York with over 10,000 members, but controversy has always been at its tail and membership has dwindled since the 1970s. Most recently, it has been accused of transporting youth under the age of 18 without parental consent, luring youth out of shelter, and with running a dirty and overcrowded home for orphans in Haiti.
2. Kelpius Monks
The story of the Monks of Wissahickon dates back to a time before the United States itself. In the late 1600s, Johannes Kelpius and his followers emigrated to the American colonies from Germany and settled in Pennsylvania due to its values of religious freedom. There the "Society of the Woman in the Wilderness" set up shop in the woods outside of Philadelphia.
The brotherhood was founded on the belief that the world would end in 1694. Though today the community of monks would be considered a doomsday cult, they were respected and sought out members of the local community as members were highly skilled in medicine, music, and scholarly pursuits... Kelpius and his followers were big into numerology and meditation outdoors. The leader lived in the wilderness until his death from pneumonia. He is considered to be the first Rosicrucian in America.
3. Rosicrucian Pyramids of Quakertown
The Rosicrucians are a Christian mystical sect whose name translates into "Brotherhood of the Rose Cross," and they have been a presence in Pennsylvania from the time of Johannes Kelpius until today. The secretive group believes in esoteric wisdom handed down from ancient Egypt, and as you can see above, they like pyramids.
The Rosicrucians of Bucks County have for a long time been shrouded in mystery, posting "No Trespassing!" signs on their property, chasing away intruders, and carrying on their rituals behind closed doors. However, in 1990
they made headlines due to a fight between two factions.
4. The Utopian Harmonists
The Harmony Society was formed in Germany in the late 1700s, but relocated to the United States due to religious persecution. The group, led by Johann Georg Rapp purchased 3,000 acres of land in Butler, Pennsylvania to build the beginnings of the Society that would last for roughly 100 years and build three successful communities in the U.S. Two of these communities were located in Pennsylvania: first in Harmony, then later in Economy (which is now known as Ambridge.)
Members of the Harmony Society were known as Harmonists or Rappites and they put all their goods in common. Because they believed that second coming of Christ was close at hand, they did not put effort into gaining converts. The Harmonist Society is remembered best for its financial success and the attention it gained from economists and politicians nationwide before its dissolution in 1892.
5. The Cult House of Beaver Valley
This is one entry that is more of an urban legend than historical fact; though no account of cults in Pennsylvania would be complete without mention of this crazy legend that has circulated for over 60 years.
Some say those trees were trimmed because of power lines... Others say they lean away from the road to get away from evil. Whether or not these trees are really sentient, rumors circulate endlessly about an old mansion that stands in the woods off of Cossart Road in Chadds Ford. Legend links the mansion to the DuPont family and the specifics of what happened there remain unknown... Stories of eugenics, inbreeding, and Satanism abound. The area is so creepy and shrouded in mystery that M. Night Shyamalan filmed "The Village" on site.
Do you know of any other cults that would fit on this list? Share your stories in the comments below.