Defining Cult: Mormonism a Case Study

I rarely get asked if the Watchtower Society is a cult. People seem to know there is something not right there. From a general antipathy because of their blood transfusion policy, through specific questions of Jesus’ identity and the Trinity, folk are guarded, even hostile when it comes to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mormonism is something else altogether.

One big reason for this is the perception that Mormonism is, in the public mind, part of the established order of things. There are Mormons in Congress, on the Broadway and West End stages, on light entertainment programmes. They are prominent in business, social, civic, educational, and philanthropic circles. Unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, they have much to do with this world and its system.

It seems almost churlish to deny them their place at the top table, their identity as a respectable Christian presence in society. But lets find some context.

Religious Context

In Azusa Street, Los Angeles in April 1906 the Pentecostal Movement was said to have had its roots. The movement has grown in 116 years to represent almost one quarter of the world Christian population of 2.2 billion. Some 500 million believers worldwide who identify as Pentecostal.

Mormonism began over 75 years earlier in 1830 and after 190 years boasts a little over 14 million members, most of whom live in the Americas.

Marlin K. Jensen, church historian from 2005-2012, said that more members are falling away today than at any time in the church’s 190 year history. Jensen has said that times have changed, and “attrition has accelerated in the last five or 10 years.” He said the church is attempting to reach out to the less active church members, update manuals on sensitive church doctrines, and improve the accurate information about the church on the internet. It is thought that this is what won him emeritus status. In other words, he was promoted out of harm’s way.

They might well be worried about sensitive doctrines and so-called “misunderstandings.” Jensen relates how his own daughter said, “Dad, why didn’t you ever tell me that Joseph Smith was a polygamist?” Of course, this isn’t the result of misunderstandings, or incorrect information put out there by “enemies of the church.” Joseph Smith was a polygamist and the reason his daughter didn’t know is because the Mormon Church is less than honest and forthright in telling its story. If there is misrepresentation it is coming from the Mormons not from their critics.

Jensen acknowledged that Google means everything is out there and, “The manuals used to teach the young church doctrine are severely outdated.” (For “outdated” read “inaccurate”) Mormon Church president, Thomas S Monson, has launched an initiative he has called “The Rescue” in an attempt to stem the flow. But why is Google not producing the same degree of attrition among Christian movements like Pentecostalism? Why is Pentecostalism growing in this technological age while Mormonism is in crisis because of it?

World Context

There are 15 million Mormons in the world, but only around one-third of that number have any meaningful relationship with the church. According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith.

There are some 180,000 Mormons in the UK, most of whom are inactive, but, according to the 2009 International Bulletin of Missionary Research it is estimate that approximately 176,000 Christians were martyred from mid-2008 to mid-2009. This, according to the authors, compares to 160,000 martyrs in mid-2000 and 34,400 at the beginning of the 20th century. If current trends continue, it is estimated that by 2025, an average of 210,000 Christians will be martyred annually.

There are 1 billion hungry people in the world today and the figure is growing. Against that backdrop what do 15 million Mormons, around two-thirds of whom are inactive, look like?

The Concern

It is important to see this in context and realise what is truly important in the world.

So why do we do this at all? I have been involved with Reachout for over twenty-five years and one of the things that has been a constant is that Reachout is not about making great statements on movements and organisations, not about bringing down great religious corporations. It is and always has been about the salvation of individuals. Our care is always for souls and the cults are our area of expertise in the battle for every soul we are privileged to know.

Our greatest concern is not that Mormons are part of society and have good jobs in the public eye, but that such prominence and respectability gives weight and credibility to Mormon claims, makes people more vulnerable on the doorstep to the disingenuous and ultimately destructive message of Mormonism. It is going to become harder to credibly criticise Mormonism simply because it looks good (“otherwise it wouldn’t be allowed”) but it is well to bear in mind:

  1. Its about individuals not organisations. We are talking to a person not an organisation, its about the business of saving souls not shutting down corporations.
  2. We could learn some lessons in social skills and diplomacy. It is going to get harder to wag fingers in faces and chide people, which is no bad thing. Too many are still, more out of fear, shouting at the cults rather than sharing Christ.
  3. If we understand the big picture we might better deal with the person. You can’t say Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses are my area of expertise so I don’t inform myself about anything else. Attitudes to our work are shaped by all sorts of influences. If we are to understand what we are dealing with, why things are changing, we need a broader grasp of what is happening in the Christian Church and in the world. Keep up to date with changing attitudes and ideas inside and outside our church.
  4. God is Sovereign however it looks to us. When things look beyond us they are not beyond him.

Church, Sects, Cults, and Mystics

The word cult originally meant a system of ritual practice. It first appeared in the 17th century and meant homage paid to a divinity, from the Latin cultus, worship.

The concept of cult as we understand it goes back to 1932 and is a sociological classification. We didn’t make this up! You will hear Mormons insist that we use this word about them simply because we don’t like them and want to exclude them. But this is not true. There is a scientific classification in sociology of “cult” and using the sociological definition we define Mormonism as a cult.

Sociologists first distinguished between three types of religious behaviour: church, sect and mystic. If “church” is the mainstream body of believers a “sect” is a break-way from that body, where we get the idea of sectarianism, division. Mysticism goes even further, putting forward the idea of enlightenment, or mystical attainment regardless of faith. Later church was split into ecclesia and denomination and sect became sect and cult. Cult then came to mean a deviant religious group “deriving their inspiration from outside the predominant culture or denomination.”

Sociologists say that sects are products of religious schism and maintain a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices while cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices. It is, then, a legitimate sociological category we are using when we use the term cult and when we define a cult as a deviant religious group.

Richard Mouw’s Marks of a Cult

One of the things that has prompted this question of defining cult and whether Mormonism is a cult is the controversial apology given by Richard Mouw, professor of faith and public life at Fuller Theological Seminary, at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in Nov. 2004. He was president of Fullers at the time. We will come on to the apology presently but his teaching demonstrates what we are up against in contending for the faith.

Richard Mouw said in 2004:

“For the past dozen years, I’ve been co-chairing, with Professor Robert Millet of Brigham Young University – the respected Mormon school – a behind-closed-doors dialogue between about a dozen evangelicals and an equal number of our Mormon counterparts.”

In defending Mormonism Mouw identifies four things that show Mormonism is not a cult and argues that the dialogue he describes shows these four things not to be true of Mormonim.

Us-versus-them:

“Religious cults are very much us-versus-them.”

Clearly, he has never seriously considered the words of the Book of Mormon, declaring, “Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.”

The only ones with divine approval:

“Their adherents are taught to think that they are the only ones who benefit from divine approval.”

Clearly, he has never read Joseph Smith’s claim that God told him all other churches “were all wrong, their creeds were an abomination in his sight, that those professors were corrupt.” (JSH 1:19) Or heard a typical Mormon testimony that the Mormon Church is “the only true church on earth today.”

Dialogue:

“They don’t like to engage in serious, respectful give-and-take dialogue with people with whom they disagree.”

Well, it has to be admitted that in any engagement with Mormons there is indeed give-and-take. That is to say, if you are soft enough to give they are more than ready to take. The question is what is their purpose in dialogue? Is it the discovery of common ground? We will come on to that.

Scholarship:

“Nor do they promote the kind of scholarship that works alongside others in pursuing the truth.”

There certainly is such a thing as scholarship associated with Mormons but whether it works alongside others in pursuing the truth is seriously questionable.

The late Karl Sandberg, a lifelong Mormon and a French professor (emeritus) at Macalester College, shortly before his death at 69 in 2000, wrote a piece entitled Whither Mormon Scholarship? He wrote:

“There are Mormons who do scholarship in all of the various disciplines — they play by the same rules as everyone else, they participate in the same dynamics, and they produce the same kind of knowledge. This is not the case, however, when Mormons do scholarship about Mormonism or directly related subjects.”

“There are prominent examples of Mormon scholarship whose purpose appears to be that of giving scholarly permission to people to believe what they already believed on subjective grounds and of answering and repulsing any perceived attacks on the Church.”

He goes on to compare Mormon scholarship with the Greek myth of Procrustes.Procrustes

“The figure for this kind of scholarship is Procrustes,” he writes, “the robber chief of antiquity, who had a bed in his cave upon which he placed every prisoner taken by his band. If the prisoner was too short for the bed, he was stretched out, or if too long, chopped off. One could not know the length of anyone going into the cave, but one could be entirely sure of anyone coming out. [Could there be a better description of a cult?]

The result of a Procrustean scholarship is the inability to communicate with people outside of the walls. I have heard luminaries of Mormon scholasticism address professional groups-for example, a group of a hundred counselors and psychotherapists about a “Mormon view” of psychotherapy-and gave wonderful talks understandable to any sacrament meeting but totally baffling to the diverse group of professionals they addressed. Procrustes is convincing only to people who already admire the size of his bed.”(Whither Mormon Scholarship)

I was talking a few years ago to Dr Dirk Jonkind, Dr Martin Heide and Dr Peter Williams, all Tyndale House biblical research fellows, experts in Old and New Testaments, and asked them about their view of Mormon scholarship. They were familiar with the work done at BYU on the Isaiah scroll and similar work and described it as routine and competent. When I asked them about Mormon claims to scholarship for Mormonism however they just smiled. There is the scholarship of academics who happen to be Mormons applying themselves to mainstream academic work but nothing you can call legitimate Mormon scholarship.

Respect for Christian notables:

“These folks talk admiringly of the evangelical Billy Graham and the Catholic Mother Teresa, and they enjoy reading the evangelical C.S. Lewis and Father Henri Nouwen, a Catholic. That is not the kind of thing you run into in anti-Christian cults.”

But Mormons don’t read any Christian leaders, authors, or commentators with the attitude of “what will I learn today?” There is no respect, just an exercise in quote mining. You and I might pick up a book on the authority of the Bible, the work of the Spirit, the person of Jesus and have our thinking challenged, our understanding deepened. This is the journey of every healthy Christian. Mormons, when they quote Christian commentators, proof-text them to reinforce their already established view of the world.

A true Christian might learn something from a wide range of sources, sacred and secular, but a Mormon brings what he already “knows” to what he reads and finds there what he wants to find. I have yet to meet a Mormon who will say, “I thought this way because that is the way my church taught me but my mind has been changed by reading this or that Christian thinker.” This is making the Christian thinker fit the bed of Mormonism; a Procrustean approach if ever there was one. The use to which they put the writings of C S Lewis, for example, is scandalous and Lewis would turn in his grave to find Mormons misquoting him to reinforce the idea that men become actual gods!

Richard Mouw, offered this apology at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in Nov. 2004 just before Ravi Zacharias stood and gave an inspired and inspiring sermon on the gospel:

“I am now convinced that we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community. Indeed, let me state it bluntly to the LDS folks here this evening: we have sinned against you. The God of the Scriptures makes it clear that it is a terrible thing to bear false witness against our neighbors, and we have been guilty of that sort of transgression in things we have said about you. We have told you what you believe without making a sincere effort first of all to ask you what you believe.”

It is important to realise that Fuller Seminary is the seed bed of the Church Growth Movement in which pragmatism trumps truth and spirituality trumps spiritual integrity. It promotes the Emerging Church Movement and celebrates the dangerous teachings of Rob Bell and others. How can Mouw say such a thing? What is going on?

Buying the Mormon Idiom

The way we talk about Mormonism: This is a classic example of someone parroting the Mormon line instead of critically examining the facts. Mormonism didn’t start when, in 1820, Joseph Smith claimed he had a vision. The first reliable mention of the Book of Mormon outside Smith’s immediate circle was June 11th 1829 when he obtained a copyright for it at the US District Court.

Before that time all we have are fables, unsubstantiated claims, all of which came to light after the establishment of the church. It was only later that he told the story of the vision because he had to have some account of how he obtained the book. Yet we all too easily do the Mormons’ work for them by telling the story of Mormonism the way they tell it, even as we criticise and challenge Mormon beliefs. This is what Richard Mouw does here.

Richard Mouw has said, “For the past dozen years, I’ve been co-chairing, with Professor Robert Millet of Brigham Young University – the respected Mormon school – a behind-closed-doors dialogue between about a dozen evangelicals and an equal number of our Mormon counterparts.”

He tells enthusiastically the story of persecuted and misrepresented Mormonism because that’s the way Mormons tell it and he has spent so much time with them he has simply gone native. Ironically, in making his apology he demonstrates eloquently why Mormons engage in these exercises, that is not to find truth together but to win over respectable names to their cause.

Mormons have not been misrepresented and there is very little misunderstanding of Mormonism. Mormonism is a cult in terms established and understood by sociologists, by Christian leaders and academics alike. The only “Christians” saying otherwise are liberals who would rather be branded with hot irons than define a doctrine, identify an orthodoxy or draw a line in the sand.

If we are to be clear in ministry we must know why we use the terms we do, be able to explain where the dangers lie, and defend our ministry even as we challenge truth claims.

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