That depends on what you mean by a “cult.” Academics don’t always agree on what constitutes a cult, according to Walter H. Conser, a professor who holds joint appointments in the departments of history and philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“Too often commentators in the public media use the word to mean ‘people we don’t like,’ which is simply an invitation for powerful folks to indulge their prejudices against less powerful folks,” Conser said.
According to Conser, academic views of cults fall into these perspectives:
1) Cults are simply chronologically new religions and as such may be different from established ones but are no better or worse than established ones.
2) Cults or sects, from a sociological perspective, are groups that are not yet a “church,” which in this context means a group that is stable in membership and able to pass on authority over time.
3) Cults or sects from a cultural perspective are groups that have extremely demanding requirements for membership and lie outside the cultural mainstream.
Groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were once denounced as “cults” by opponents, but are now accepted as established religious denominations.
The Old Order Amish, Conser noted, have customs very different from mainstream Americans and demand strict obedience from believers, yet they have a stable membership and have passed down leadership through generations. By contrast, the Hare Krishna movement suffered a leadership crisis and a severe loss in membership after its founder died.
That said, not many groups that might be called “cults” have found a home on the Lower Cape Fear, which is generally reckoned to lie in the heart of the Bible belt.
Rumors attributed some vandalism in the area – notably at Lebanon Chapel near Airlie Gardens in the late 1960s and early ’70s -–to Satanic groups, but no definitive evidence was ever found.
Lawyers and sheriff’s deputies have occasionally reported finding traces of “goofer dust” in New Hanover County courtrooms. “Goofer dust,” often made from bones, herbs, spices, manure, insects or anvil rust (according to a secret recipe), is compounded by practitioners of “hoodoo” or local folk magic. It is used to influence or dominate events – in this particular case, to sway the outcome of a trial or lawsuit.
One group that might qualify as a cult is the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, which in 2008 was identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “hate group” active in the Wilmington area.
A spinoff of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, the church quotes Old Testament scriptures (notably Deuteronomy 28: 15-68 and Amos 9:7) to argue that Africans and Native Americans constitute the true 12 Tribes of Israel and that mainstream Jewish groups are “fraudulent” and represent “the synagogue of Satan.” The group’s priests and worshipers, dressed in colorful robes and headdresses, were highly visible for a while in some Wilmington neighborhoods, and spokesmen used to run videos about their beliefs on the local-access channel formerly maintained by Time Warner Cable in Wilmington.
Date posted: March 26, 2014