MYTHS & MARTYRS
These People All Thought They Were Jesus
Throughout history, men and women have claimed that they were Jesus reincarnated—some even added Buddha or Lenin. And their reasons weren’t always altruistic.
For nearly two thousand years, mainstream Christians have been awaiting Jesus’ return, but to some small fringe groups they’re way behind the curve. Jesus, they say, is already here. Not in some fluffy, Footprints-style he’s-with-us-in-our-communities-hearts-and-WWJD-bracelets kind of way, but in a real flesh-and-blood human being who walks the earth guiding our lives and trying to get into our pocketbooks and possibly also our pants.
From the very beginning, the Apostles thought that the second coming of Christ, the Parousia, was imminent. When they find Jesus’ tomb empty in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ female followers are told that he has gone ahead of them to Galilee. There seems to have been widespread expectation among the first generations of Christians that Jesus would be back any day now.
At various points since then, mainstream Christian denominations have claimed that Jesus has appeared to people—to the original Apostles, to Paul, to Mary Magdalene, to some fellows traveling to Emmaus, you get the picture. In Mormon theology, Jesus is even believed to have appeared to inhabitants of the Americas after his resurrection.
All of this is very different, however, from 18th-century Englishwoman Ann Lee, the founder and leader of the Shakers. Her followers referred to her as “Mother” and thought that she was the female component of Christ’s spirit and his second appearance on Earth. Lee received a vision that the Shakers should move to the New World, where they formed a community founded upon the principles of hard work, community, celibacy, and equal (if separate) gender roles.
Lee was sincere, but for some their motivations were a little more worldly. Late 19th-century English “Jesus” John Hugh Smyth-Piggot set up shop in a beautiful neo-Gothic home in London and recruited 50 young women to bolster the aging population of his “Abode of Love” (Agapemonite) sect. The sect claimed to be founded on spiritual marriage but, if the number of his illegitimate children is anything to go by, he got fairly hands-on with his spiritual followers.
For others, the motivations are financial. In 1987, Japanese 34-year-old Hogen Fukunaga claimed to receive a vision telling him that he was the reincarnation of Jesus and Buddha (both!). At the time he was 500 million yen in debt but he quickly founded a religious sect popularly known as the “foot reading cult” because it was the podiatrist’s equivalent of palm reading. Fukunaga charged $900 a pop for foot readings and drummed up additional funds through the sales of ornaments and scrolls that he claimed warded off disease. His strategy was uncommonly effective, and he was even able to buy audiences with world leaders like Gorbachev, John Paul II, and Clinton. In 2005 he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
At the other end of the socio-economic scale, and doubtless inspired by the manner of his death, a number of would-be Jesuses are more traditional criminals. Convicted murderer Thomas Harrison Provenzano (d. 2000) compared his execution to the crucifixion. And before his 2008 conviction for criminal sexual misconduct, religious leader Wayne Bent stated that he was “the embodiment of God.”
Some of these figures are a touch greedy. Not content merely to claim that they are the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, they like to think bigger. Jim Jones, of Jonestown massacre fame, claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus, Akhenatan, Buddha, and Lenin. Ernest Norman Norman, a mid-20th-century American electrical engineer, alleged that in past lives he had been Jesus, the archangel Raphael, Confucius, Socrates, the Mona Lisa, Benjamin Franklin, Queen Elizabeth I, Czar Peter the Great, and a French peasant girl named Marie. Just kidding, no one ever claims to have been a peasant.
The comparably humble 19th-century Mormon schismatic William Davies preferred to keep things in the family. Having taught his followers that he was the archangel Michael, he proclaimed that his first son, Arthur, was Christ returned and his second, David, was God the Father.
Like Jesus, many of these figures died violent deaths. Arnold Potter, another schismatic Latter Day Saint, declared that he was the “Potter Christ” and attempted to ascend into heaven by jumping off a cliff. Jim Jones famously tricked his followers into a mass suicide in 1978. Marshal Applewhite declared himself to be Jesus before leading his Heaven’s Gate followers in a mass suicide in 1997. David “Lamb of God” Koresh died in a showdown with federal authorities. And Krishna Venta, founder of the California-based Fountain of the World cult, died in 1958 at the hands of two suicide-bombing former followers who accused him of mishandling funds and sexual impropriety with their wives.
Even today in modern day China, dangerous doomsday cults proclaim the return of the Messiah. The Eastern Lightning movement, or Church of the Almighty God, claims that Jesus has returned in the form of Yang Xiangbin, a Chinese woman from the Henan Province. Eastern Lightning is a Christian movement with a difference: it’s a murderous cult. In 2014, five members attempted to recruit a 35-year-old mother in a McDonald’s and, when she refused, bludgeoned her to death with chairs and a mop. This is not the only occasion that the cult has been engaged in murder. Comparatively little, though, is known about Yang Xiangbin, the woman who claims to be Jesus reincarnated.
What all of these messianic pretenders have in common, of course, is their lack of success. They are either dead, imprisoned, or have slipped off the religious influence radar. With the exception of Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the “Moonies,” and Bahaullah, the eventual founder of Bahai, both of whom claimed to be the second coming, none of these groups have amounted to much. The short of it is that if Jesus returns you shouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid.