I always run into the claim that Mormonism is some sort of disgusting cult. The way they define cult, however, seems to be rather narrow, and meant to fit specific religious movements .
In this blog I simply wish to share quotes from various scholars of Mormonism and their view of cults.
Bushman, Richard L. Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pg 1-2.
For many people, the mention of Mormon conjures up an assortment of contradictory images. Fresh-faced missionaries knocking on doors with a religious message; the Mormon Tabernacle choir broadcasting on Sunday mornings from Temple Square in Salt Lake City; church members cooperating to provide for their own poor; Brigham Young University students consistently being voted the most strait-laced college students in the United States; tightly knit families teaching their children to live clean lives: All these suggests that Mormons are happy, uncomplicated, kindly, and innocent-if perhaps naive.
A contrasting set of associations begins with the extravagant stories of the founder Joseph Smith. Smith claimed that an angel directed him to gold plates, which he translated as the Book of Mormon. In the 1840’s, he instituted plural marriage among his followers, and in 1844, he was assassinated by his non-Mormon enemies. His successor, Brigham Young, took scores of wives after he led the Mormons to Utah in 1847. Today, some people think of a powerful religious hierarchy controlling the church from the top. These less innocent Mormons are secretive, clannish, and perhaps dangerous. Frequently Mormonism is labeled a cult rather than a church. Some say it is not Christian.
Which of these is the true Mormonism? Are both descriptions accurate? Mormons react strongly to the negative images of themselves. They wholeheartedly believe the stories of Joseph Smith and the gold plates. The visit of the angel and the translation of the Book of Mormon, far from being fabulous fairy tales, constitute Mormonism’s founding miracles, the equivalent of the Resurrection of Jesus for traditional Christians or the deliverance of Israel from Egypt for the Jews. Yes, these are controversial, Mormons say, but founding miracles always are. Miracles give a religion its original impetus, its evidence that God intervenes in human life, while at the same time they are its most contested assertions. The resurrection of Jesus is fiercely debated to this day.
Okholm, Dennis. “Apologetics as if People Mattered” Talking Doctrine: Mormons and Evangelicals in Conversation. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2015. Pg 51.
When I was in seminary I took a course in apologetics that trained me in a two-step strategy. First we proved that God exists, then we proved that Jesus is who he said he is. If our interlocutor disagreed with us at any point it was because he or she was “irrational.”
I have learned since that was just one of many approaches in apologetics-an approach I have chosen not to espouse to the students who have taken my apologetics course over the past few years. In fact, I opted for what some might call a “postliberal” approach and subtitled my course, “Winning Disciples Rather Than Arguments” or “Apologetics as if People Mattered.”
When we covered “cults” in my seminary course, Mormonism was in the mix. We were absolutely certain that Mormons were going to hell, but then I had always been taught the same fate for Roman Catholics, and I wasn’t sure about Presbyterians, and Anglicans were not even on my radar. Though my assessments have radically change-I later became an ordained Presbyterian, am now an Anglican priest and have been associated with Roman Catholic Benedictine monks for over two decades-I still embrace one very valuable lesson I learned in our unit on cults. Our professor told us that when we engage a member of such a religious group we should focus on just one question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” Ironically, it is that question that has also radically changed my assessment of those members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) who have become some of my cherished friends, though I am fairly certain that that is not at all what my seminary professor intended.
Turner, John G. The Mormon Jesus: A Biography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pg 294.
” . . . it no longer makes sense to consider Mormonism a ‘new religion,’ a ‘new world religion,’ or even a ‘new religious tradition,’ if that implies a suppression of or definitive break with Christianity. Instead, Mormonism is a vibrant new branch of Christianity, one in which temples, ordinances, and prophets have taken their place alongside a Jesus who is both utterly Christian and distinctively Mormon.”
Webb, Stephen H. Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians can Learn from the Latter-day Saints. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pg 11.
I am not a Mormon, but sometimes I wish I were one. I grew up in a tight-knit religious community that shaped every aspect of my life. My church was a world set apart, not unlike the way Mormonism has chosen for much of its history to say on the sidelines of the American mainstream. Many aspects of Mormonism take me straight back to the powerful experiences I had in the evangelical church of my youth. Indeed, Mormonism cultivates a sense of belonging, purpose, and focus that is not easy to find in many churches today. . . . Mormons have a strength of religious character that helps them to put religion ahead of popular culture, and that is no easy task.
In fact, Mormons can be so intense about their church that some Protestant fundamentalist call them a cult. That accusation is ironic, because Mormons and fundamentalist have a lot in common. They share a commitment to absolute truths, the sacredness of the family, the need for strong moral communities, and a reverence for the King James version of the Bible. Like fundamentalists, Mormons know how to draw a sharp line between who they are and what they do not want their children to become.
This comes from a PBS report in 14 September 2012. You can find the report by clicking here.
SEVERSON [reporter]: Mason says antagonism toward Mormons stretches back to the beginning of the church. They’ve been called a cult, demonic, a false religion with a false prophet.
MASON [historian at BYU]: Mormons in a lot of ways are scarred from a long history of misrepresentation in what they see as false reports about the church or unfair treatment of the church, and this goes all the way back to the 1830s.
SEVERSON: As for lingering animosity today, Professor Mouw says some of it is because the Mormon Church has grown so big and prosperous.
MOUW [Fuller Theological Seminary]: And I think it has something to do with the growth of Mormonism. While on the one hand they’re entering into the mainstream in a lot of ways, they’re also a very powerful presence globally—14 million Mormons around the world. They’re identified with some of the major businesses. There’s a sense that it’s a kind of juggernaut, that it has tremendous clout.
SEVERSON: As for the claims that Mormonism is a cult, Professor Mouw takes exception.
MOUW: I mean one reason why I don’t think it’s very helpful to call Mormonism a cult is that they have a world-class university. They have scholars who consider all kinds of complex topics. You know, Scientology doesn’t have a world-class university. Hari Krishna doesn’t, Jehovah Witnesses don’t. But Mormonism has pretty much entered into the mainstream of intellectual life.
SEVERSON: Mouw goes even further, accusing some some of Mormonism’s accusers of “shading the truth.”
MOUW: I want to say I think the motives of people who often attack, for example, attack Mormons as evangelical leaders or other kinds of Christian leaders is that they do want to protect their people against falsehood, against being led astray. But when it comes in terms of standing up for the truth, if you tell falsehoods about another religion that’s bearing false witness against our neighbors.
SEVERSON: Mouw expressed those sentiments to a packed house at the Mormon Tabernacle. His words did not sit well with many evangelicals.
MOUW: The press the next morning the big story was “Fuller Seminary president says we’ve sinned against Mormons,” and boy, I get hate mail yet on that.
Peterson, Daniel and Stephen Ricks. Offenders for a Word. Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 1992. Pg 211.
Instead of the abused, and abusive, term “cult,” we propose more neutral terminology, such as “religious movement,” “religious group,” or “church.” According to Lawrence Foster, “there is no analytical substance to the popular definition of a cult as a dangerous group with bizarre religious beliefs that follows a deranged or cynically opportunistic leader. One person’s ‘cult’ is another person’s ‘true faith’ . . . In effect, the only popular meaning of the word ‘cult’ is, ‘a religious group that someone else doesn’t like.’ Such definitions are less than useful as analytical tools. . . . Since ‘cult’ is essentially a pejorative term without analytical precision, I shall henceforth refer to such groups as ‘new religious movements’ or ‘new religions.’”78 Perhaps the best approach would be to apply to each group the name that its adherents use in referring to themselves.79 This action alone would practically eliminate the term “cult” from religious discourse. (Further, no false uniformity would be imposed upon widely differing faiths.)
- For example, Walter Martin in Kingdom of the Cults defines “cult” as “a group of people gathered about a specific person or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible” (pg 17) and that “cults contain many major deviations from historical Christianity” (pg 18). Martin ignored, however, the fact that American Protestantism, the faith he adhered to, had understandings of the Bible that weren’t only inconsistent with historical Christianity, but with other forms of Protestantism itself. Indeed, historian Mark Noll writes that the “ever-present internal conflicts” within Protestantism have generated “an immense range of variations among Protestants in fleshing out this general picture of salvation” (see Noll, Mark A. Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. pg 5). So, therefore, by his own definition of “cult,” American Protestantism would also fit the bill. For a review of Walter Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults, see Midgley, Louis C. ““A Tangled Web:” The Walter Martin Miasma.” FARMS Review of Books 12/1 (2000): 372-434.