Jim Roberts and the Cult of the Garbage Eaters


Followers of Jim Roberts and his 'Brethren' cult wander around spreading a message that the end of times is upon us. DNY59/Getty Images

The United States has been home to some of the most powerful cults in history, including the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Jones's Peoples Temple, the Rajneeshees and the Manson Family. Most of these cults have had varying philosophies, but to some degree they've also had striking similarities, especially when it comes to recruitment and organization practices.

That definitely is the case for one unusual cult that Stuff They Don't Want You To Know profiles in this episode of the podcast. Hosts Ben Bowlin and Matt Frederick tell the story of Jim Roberts' Brethren cult, or as it's sometimes called, The Cult of the Garbage Eaters, and how Roberts, who's now deceased, was able to attract and convince a loyal following that the end of times was near.

This group began infiltrating small towns, rundown cities and college campuses across America in the 1970s. But still today, groups of 10 to 12 young people wander around cities spreading a message that the end of times is upon us. And not only that, they also believe — and prophesize — that they are the only true Christians and their path to righteousness is the only way to be saved.

The members shun material things and family members, and they live primarily off the grid, basically as drifters on the fringes of society. This has proven extremely effective at keeping them away from law enforcement and concerned relatives.

The leader was — and still is — the late Jim Roberts. Roberts was born in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1939, the son of a part-time preacher. He soon followed in his father's footsteps, preaching his first sermon at the age of 15, saying, "hell is hot, and there's no ice water." After serving in the Marines, he went to Chicago, where he met people who adhered to his religious philosophy. Thanks to his leadership skills, air of authority and "mesmerizing eyes," he managed to gain enough control over some adherents, and in 1971, he ordered them to completely drop out of society with him, forming the Brethren.

Roberts formed this "brotherhood" because he thought that the end of the world was imminent. He believed and preached that, in order to secure a place in heaven, people had to begin purifying themselves, according to passages of the Bible, which he took extremely literally, especially those that preach about following Jesus Christ.

Followers of Roberts and the Brethren must forsake their families and friends, as well as material goods; they sew their own clothing and eat discarded food from bakeries and grocery stores, or dumpster dive (hence the name "garbage eaters"). They use only bikes, buses and hitchhiking to get around. Men wear their hair short and have long, untrimmed beards and women wear long tunic dresses; women are subservient to men and everyone was subservient to Roberts while he was still alive.

Initially Roberts sent members of the Brethren in small groups to college campuses to recruit new followers, and they were fairly successful: The group had more than 100 members at one point, though it's hard to know for sure how many were indoctrinated. What is clear is that Roberts used many tried-and-true (and emotionally abusive) cult tactics to control his members.

Despite Roberts' death from cancer in 2015, converts are still completely cut off from their old lives. Members are required to give their money to the group, and live by certain regulations. Laughing and dancing are forbidden, and children are not allowed to play. Using medicine and getting medical care (including doctor visits) is considered not "living by faith," so they also are prohibited. The cult has been accused of negligence for allowing members to suffer or even die from perfectly curable illnesses.

Thanks to coordinated efforts by parents of cult followers, who created The Roberts Group Parent Network, several members have managed to be deprogrammed and returned to their families. But there are still members out there. Listen to the entire podcast to hear more about how they still live in accordance with Roberts' teachings and interpretations of scripture — while they await the apocalypse, of course.


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