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The LDS Restorationist movement

Is the Mormon church a cult?

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"...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps 'the' religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult." Leo Pfeffer.


"A cult is a religious group different from your own." Anon.


"I think most Christians who describe Mormonism as a 'cult' are making a mistake in moving a technical theological term to the public square where it will surely be heard in the wrong way and abused." John Mark Reynolds. 1


On 2007-MAY-17, a Google search for mormon cult produced about 51,500 hits.

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With the presidential candidacy for Mitt Romney in the 2008 elections, a great deal of attention has been focused on his personal religion. He is a member in good standing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- often referred to as the "LDS" or "Mormon Church" -- centered in Salt Lake City, UT. The LDS is by far the largest of the nearly 100 faith groups who trace their history back to Joseph Smith's founding of the Church of Christ in 1830 CE.

The LDS has had a particularly colorful and interesting history:


It once promoted polygyny -- that version of polygamy in which one man marries multiple women.


The LDS played a major role in the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which would have entrenched equal rights for men and women in the U.S. Constitution.


Until 1978, they did not allow the ordination of males who had even a single African American ancestor. In common with many other religiously conservative groups, they continue to refuse ordination to women.


They continue to play a major role in opposing equal rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, including access to same-sex marriage.

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How does the LDS Church view itself?

Mormons do not consider their church to be a cult. However, many Mormons feel that some other organizations in the LDS Restorationist movement are cults, and are not entitled to use the term "Mormon."

The LDS church teaches that their group is a restoration of the original Christian church as it existed in the 1st Century CE. They believe that -- early in the 2nd century after the death of the apostles -- massive heresies developed within the Christian movement. From these heretical deviations from Jesus' teachings came the Roman Catholic church, Eastern Orthodox churches, thousands of Protestant denominations, etc. Thus, they regard the LDS Church as the one true Christian church founded by Jesus Christ. They regard the other tens of thousands of faith groups and para-church organizations who list themselves as Christians to be in error. This feeling is often mutual.

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Meanings of the word "cult:"

In the newsgroup alt.usage.english, terms like "cult" are often called "skunk words." They have so many meanings that they should be rarely used, if ever. Use of the term often causes misunderstanding.

During 1985-MAY, G. Gordon Melton, a leading authority on religious groups in North America, gave testimony in a religious libel trial. He discussed the many negative factors associated with the term "cult."  He said:

"Cults are claimed to be deceitful. They are claimed to be harmful to their members. They are claimed to be undermining American values. Cults are claimed to be just about every bad thing in the book these days, and with the pervasive images of Manson and Jim Jones hanging over us, any group that is called a cult is immediately associated with those two people. ...

"My working definition of a cult is: "a group that you donít like." ... I say that somewhat facetiously, but at the same time, in fact, that is my working definition of a cult. It is a group that somebody doesnít like. It is a derogatory term, and I have never seen it redeemed from the derogatory connotations that it picked up in the sociological literature in the 1930s. ..."

"It began as a sociological term in the twenties and thirties. It was used to describe leftover groups after sociologists had talked about churches and sects. They were a group that just didnít fit, and they were termed cults. They were treated primarily as esoterica in American religion. ..."

Then in the thirties Christian apologists picked up the term and used it to describe groups that were either not orthodox in their theology or were not Christian at all. That became the most popular use of the term up until the l970s. ..."

"Then in the seventies, the secular anti-cult movement came along. America has experienced a great pluralism and a marked jump in pluralism in religion, and it has come to mean something actively destructive, not just something wrong but something destructive, psychologically so." 2

These negative connotations to the term "cult" continue today, although with decreased intensity.

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The LDS meets three definitions of the term "cult:"

"Cult" is derived from the French word "culte" which came from Latin noun "cultus." The latter is related to the Latin verb "colere" which means "to worship or give reverence to a deity."

bullet Theological use: Oxford English Dictionary defined "cult" as:
bullet "worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings."
bullet "a particular form or system of religious worship; especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies."
bullet "devotion or homage to a particular person or thing."

Thus, in its original theological meaning, the term "cult" can be applied to any group of religious believers, whether they be Mormons, Southern Baptists, Methodists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Wiccans, etc.

bullet Evangelical Christians and Counter-Cult Movement usage: This definition is related to heresy -- a concern of almost all large religions. These two groups often define as a cult any religious group that rejects some of the key historical Christian doctrines (e.g. the divinity of Jesus, virgin birth, the Trinity, salvation by faith, not works, etc.). Under this definition, the LDS church, Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Churches, Unification Church, Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Progressive Christianity, Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists, etc. would often be considered cults. Most people who identify themselves as Christians belong to one of these "cults." Outside of evangelical Christianity, these "cults" are simply Christian denominations.
bullet Fundamentalist Christian usage: Some people in the most conservative wing of Evangelicalism consider all faith groups who deviate from some of the historical Christian beliefs to be a cult. Thus, the LDS Church, mainline and liberal Christian denominations, Islam, Hinduism, and all of the other religions of the world -- representing the vast majority of humans on Earth -- would be considered cults.

If you use on of the above definitions, then the LDS Church is a cult. However, its members would be in good company, along with most of the humans on earth.

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The LDS once met a neutral definition of the term "cult" -- but no longer:

bullet Sociological usages
bullet A small religious group that exists in a state of tension with the predominant religion.
bullet A small, recently created, religious organization which is often headed by a single charismatic leader and is viewed as an spiritually innovative group.

The primitive Christian movements, including Jewish Christianity, Pauline Christianity and Gnostic Christianity, would have qualified for these meanings of "cult" back in the first century CE. The LDS Church would have qualified as a "cult" in the 1830s shortly after Joseph Smith founded the Church of Christ.

However, the LDS Church has been established for almost two centuries, and has in excess of 13 million adherents around the world. The sociological definition definitely does not fit. Under this definition, the LDS Church is not a cult.

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The LDS does not meet negative definitions of the term "cult:"

bullet The anti-cult movement usage: A small number of therapists, research psychologists, self-taught individuals, etc., form the anti-cult movement (ACM). They attempt to raise public consciousness about what they see as dangerous and authoritarian mind control cults and doomsday cults. Most do not care about the faith group's theology. They target only what they see as deceptive recruitment practices, and dangerous psychological pressure techniques, such as brainwashing. The ACM appears to hold opinions about the effectiveness of brainwashing that are not shared by the mental-health community generally. They see mind control/doomsday cults as a widespread social problem.

The LDS Church is neither a mind control nor a doomsday cult. They do apply psychological pressure on their members. Examples are the need to be married in the Temple in order to reach the highest level of Heaven, threats to the membership if they reveal Temple secrets, and excommunication of members who deviate from the Church's teachings. But these manipulations are probably not any greater than are found in a vast number of other Christian groups.
bullet Popular, media usage: The media often portray a cult as small, evil religious group, often with a single charismatic leader, which engages in brainwashing and other mind control techniques, believes that the end of the world is imminent, and collects large amounts of weaponry in preparation for a massive war. The earliest use of this definition is believed to have been in a 1965 book by Walter Martin titled "The Kingdom of the Cults." 3

This definition clearly does not apply to the LDS Church.

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  1. John Mark Reynolds, "On 'Cult:' Is the Word Useful in Political Speech?" The Scriptorium, 2007-MAY-11, at:
  2. "The testimony of John Gordon Melton, Ph.D.," Contending for the Faith, at:
  3. Walter Martin, Hank Hanegraaff, Ed., "The Kingdom of the Cults," Bethany House, (2002). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

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Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2007-MAY-17
Latest update: 2007-MAY-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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