The Cable

An Incomplete Atlas of Self-Proclaimed Messiahs

From Saudi Arabia to China to Brazil, here are some of the places where self-styled saviors have proclaimed their kingdoms.

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Jews speak of a Messiah who has yet to come. Christians put their hope in Christ’s return. And Muslims look for signs of the Mahdi. All three major Abrahamic faiths look to the prophesied arrival of a man who will usher in a new era for believers.

As it turns out, a lot of people think they fit the job description. A lot. And the phenomenon isn’t limited to cult leaders in Texas or 19th century revivalists.

Self-proclaimed messiahs have popped up in Sudan, India, Java, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Colombia, Ukraine, and Florida, to name just a few. Some of them established lasting religious movements, such as Mirza Ghulam Aḥmad, who lived in British India in the 19th century and founded the Ahmadiyya movement, which has millions of present-day adherents.

Others started bloody wars that went on for years, such as Hong Xiuquan, a 19th century Chinese rebel who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus. Hong instigated the Taiping Rebellion, one of the deadliest civil wars in history, lasting for 14 years and killing some 20 million people.

Below are a few more highlights from the partial list represented on the interactive map, courtesy of Nick Danforth of the Bipartisan Policy Center:


Abu Isa. This eighth-century self-proclaimed Jewish prophet led a rebellion against the caliph of Persia and was killed shortly thereafter. His followers believed he was the Messiah.

Jacobina Mentz Maurer. This German-Brazilian woman, raised Protestant, was believed to have special powers, and she led a fanatical sect called the Muckers. Amid a conflict with a rival group, Mentz Maurer ordered her followers to commit a massacre in 1874 in a town in southern Brazil. Later that year, she was killed in a confrontation with armed troops.

Muḥammad bin abd Allah al-Qahtani. His brother declared him the Mahdi in 1979, then took tens of thousands of worshippers hostage at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, in what became the largest hostage crisis in history.

Ann Lee. This 18th century woman founded the Shakers. She believed herself to be the female counterpart of Christ. She and her followers left England and arrived in the American colonies in 1774.

Map credit: Nick Danforth/Wikipedia/Google Maps.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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