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Mormon Cult?

Question: "I have heard that the Mormon religion is a cult. Is this true?"

This page contains comments from the following authors:

W. John Walsh
Jeff Lindsay
Stephen E. Robinson
Lawrence A. Young


by W. John Walsh

Is the Mormon Church a Cult?  The primary definition of the word cult in most dictionaries is "a system of religious worship."  Certainly, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches a system of religious worship, even the worship of our Father in Heaven and his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.   However, when most people use the term cult, they are referring to a group that promotes unhealthy, harmful practices to either its members or society in general.   For most people, when the world cult is used, scary images of mass suicides, human sacrifice, and the occult spring to mind.  This, of course, is the intent of the critics who attempt to associate the Church with this negative term.

The Church is not a cult and there is absolutely nothing unhealthy or harmful associated with either the beliefs or practices of the Church.  We teach the true gospel of Jesus Christ which allows people to achieve happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come. 

For a discussion of why members from competing denominations use such dishonest, mean-spirited scare tactics, see Why does Mormonism arouse such animosity among so many?


by Jeff Lindsay

One of the most repeated accusations made by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that we are a "cult." When you hear this accusation, please ask precisely what is meant by the frightening term "cult." The use of that word is not really meant to explain anything about the Church or its positions, but is meant to end discussion and investigation with scare tactics. "A cult? Oh no!"

The primary definition for "cult" in many dictionaries is synonymous with "religious organization." Yes, I suppose that definition fits. However, anti-Mormons would not sell many books and pamphlets if they had titles like, "Mormonism is a Religious Organization!" or "Lure of the Religious Organizations!" According to the dictionary, "cult" can also mean a group that pays special devotion to some individual. Yes, we are also guilty of that, and that individual is the Lord Jesus Christ. But recently, contrary to its original generic meaning, the word "cult" in popular use carries frightening overtones. It evokes images of suicidal, comet-chasing groups, physically abusive regimens, corrupt tyrants and Satanic rituals. Clearly there are some odd beliefs and groups in the world - but every religion can seem odd or even extreme to those who do not understand it. The problem is that any general definition of "cult" in the negative, frightening sense is likely to include many presumably "decent" religions, including early Christianity, which was also denounced as a "sect" and a "cult" by its critics. When other Christian label Latter-day Saints as a cult, they implicitly create their own special definitions, but nearly all of these special definitions would likewise condemn Christ and the early Christians as cultists, as I will show below. Many of the special definitions of cult that "cult warriors" use boil down to this: "A cult is any group whose members don't believe exactly the same way I do."

A tongue-in-cheek demonstration of the tactics used by some self-proclaimed cult experts can be found on the Web page for the popular CultMaster 2000 Software System. This powerful software enables you to prove that anybody you don't agree with belongs to a cult. (Not for the comically impaired!) A demo of the one of the many tools that come with the CultMaster 2000 CD set is the Letter of Love to a Cultist. Try it today! (Customize your own version online and send a printout to a cultist you love.)  Also see Proof by Spoof:  Are Your Children in a Cult?.

[Several large parapraphs have been edited out for space reasons.  You can read them at http://www.athenet.net/~jlindsay/LDSFAQ/FQ_cult.shtml]

Conclusion: Before You Condemn. . .

My desire is that people will see through the clouds of misunderstanding that may obscure their view of the Latter-day Saint people, and perhaps seek to understand us better rather than rashly condemning us. To help, I offer a few things to ponder BEFORE you condemn the Latter-day Saints as non-Christians, cultists, villains, or worse.

General questions to ask before you condemn Latter-day Saints as non-Christians or as cultists:

Could your argument equally well exclude many other groups that are widely accepted as Christians?

Could your argument equally well exclude the early Christians themselves, or even Christ himself?

Are you using a Biblical definition of "Christian" or "cult" to condemn and exclude, or a definition that you or some other modern writer has devised? (E.g., are you applying a Biblical verse that uses and defines the word "Christian"?)

Is your definition of Christian a fair, defensible, Biblical standard, or is it just a way of saying, "Anyone who disagrees with my view of theology and my interpretations of the Bible is not a Christian?" (Same applies to "cultist.")

Before you say we are non-Christians or cultists because we accept some books as scripture not found in your set of canonized scriptures, ask yourselves these questions:

Did the early Christians accept some writings as sacred that were not in the standard canon of the day, the Old Testament? (E.g., the writings of Peter, Paul, Matthew, etc.)

When the canon of God's Word grew from the Old Testament alone to include the New Testament, were the parties responsible for these additional inspired writings non-Christian cultists?

Did both Jews and early Christians accept some books as sacred that are not found in the Bible today - books such as the Book of Enoch (see Jude)?

Did ancient writers of the Old Testament have a canon of prophetic writings and books that is larger than the set found in the Old Testament of today?

Must we likewise condemn Catholics and other Christian groups who accept a larger set of writings than typical Protestants?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the restored Church of Jesus Christ upon the earth, led by Christ through modern revelation. Among the many traits we share with the early Christians is that we are spoken against by many, labeled as members of a cult or sect, a group that has departed from accepted "mainstream" views and beliefs. In terms of the basic dictionary definition, we are a cult - that is, a religious organization. In terms of the special definitions our critics use to exclude us from Christianity and to frighten potential converts, those definitions fit the early Christians and the prophets and apostles of the Bible as well as they fit us. If what we have in common with early Christianity makes us a cult, then we're glad to be in such company - and I hope you'll become a fellow "cultist" as well. Sorry, we're not going to brainwash you, put you in isolation chambers, or make you wear special tennis shoes, but you will find that the Lord has opportunities for you to serve others and to grow in faith as you follow Christ with all your heart.


by Stephen E. Robinson

To summarize, cult is a subjective word meaning, to the particular person using it, "a religion I don't like." When someone refers to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a "cult," that simply tells us that the speaker doesn't like the Church. Christianity itself was once a new religion with dynamic leadership, strong in-group bonding, high moral expectations, and additional scriptures, all of which greatly offended the mainline religions of its day. Its leaders were not professionally trained clergy, but they did attempt to convert the world to a truth no one else had. By most of the objective definitions that have been proposed for the term cult, early Christianity was one. And so far any general definition of a cult that would fit the Latter-day Saints will also fit New Testament Christianity. But that's not bad company to be in.

Editor's Note: For a longer and more detailed discussion, see The Exclusion by Name-calling for Stephen E. Robinson's full comments on this topic.


by Lawrence A. Young

"The word 'cult' has usages that range from neutral to pejorative. It derives from the Latin cultus, meaning 'care' or 'adoration.' A neutral usage of the word refers to the system of beliefs and rituals connected to the worship of a deity. By this definition, virtually all religions, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, exhibit some cultic aspects.

However, the term 'cult' more commonly refers to a minority religion that is regarded as unorthodox or spurious and that requires great or even excessive devotion. While the term is commonly used by the mass media and anti-cult movement in the late twentieth century as a negative label for such recently formed groups as the Unification Church and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (the Hare Krishna movement), it has also been used to describe Pauline Christianity, Islam during the life of Muhammad, and Mormonism in the nineteenth century.

The most common social-scientific definition identifies a cult as the beginning phase of an entirely new religion. As defined by this approach, a cult's central characteristic is that it provides a radical break from existing religious traditions (Roberts). The LDS Church's self-understanding of being a restoration movement that restored divine truths, rather than a reformation movement that purified existing truths, is consistent with the social-scientific understanding that nineteenth-century Mormonism was a cult due to its break from the existing religious traditions.

References to cult and other organizational classifications describe the characteristics of religious groups at particular moments in their history. Social scientists use these classifications to describe the normal process of religious evolution. Most groups that start as cults fail to survive more than a single generation; very few evolve into a developed new religion recognized by nonadherents as legitimate or conventional. Obviously, both Christianity and Islam successfully survived the transition from cult to new religion. Social scientists generally agree that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no longer properly classified as a cult and should instead be viewed as a new religion. For example, sociologist Rodney Stark identified the LDS Church as the single most important case on the agenda of the scientific study of religion because it demonstrates how a successful new religious movement differs from the thousands of cults that fail to survive or develop into new religions.

Bibliography

Roberts, Keith A. Religion in Sociological Perspective, 2nd ed. Belmont, Calif., 1990.

Stark, Rodney. "The Rise of a New World Faith." Review of Religious Research 26, no. 1 (1984):18-27.

Stark, Rodney. "How New Religions Succeed: A Theoretical Model." In The Future of New Religious Movements, ed. D. Bromley and P. Hammond, pp. 11-29. Macon, Ga., 1987."

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Cult

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company


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