Is Mormonism a Cult?

Mormonism CultAt times, the question arises, Is Mormonism a cult? While this question can be problematic, the short answer is of course! Let me explain. The word cult comes from the Latin cultus and as a noun describes the “act of tilling or cultivating.”1

Cultus = Cultivating

Such a definition brings to mind the many scriptures evoking similar imagery. For example, the psalmist notes that a righteous man is “like a tree planted by the rivers of water”2, whereas Ezekiel wrote about a “plant of renown”  that would relieve hunger in the land.3 In the New Testament, Christ taught the disciples the meaning of the parable of the sower4 which Paul later drew upon in his letter to the Corinthians.5

Latter-day scripture contains similar language. Alma discoursed upon the process of revelation when he compared “the word” to a seed that a person must plant in order to receive the fruit thereof.6 It is also reported that the resurrected Moroni promised a young Joseph Smith that God would “plant” in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers as recorded in Malachi lest the earth be smitten with a curse.7

Although just a sampling, others have noted the scriptures are replete with related imagery. (More on this later.)

Cultus = Worship

Another meaning of the Latin word cultus is the act of worship, reverence, or adoration.8 As Christians, Mormons adhere to the teachings put forth by one Book of Mormon prophet who wrote:

And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.9

Borrowing a term from scholars, what some may call the modern LDS temple cult10, members of the faith find meaning in Russell M. Nelson’s statement:

The temple is the house of the Lord. The basis for every temple ordinance and covenant—the heart of the plan of salvation—is the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Every activity, every lesson, all we do in the Church, point to the Lord and His holy house.11

While it’s easy to see that Mormonism definitely fits within the original meaning of the term cult, or Latin cultus, modern usage of the term has taken on a new significance.

The Sociological Definition of Cult

The modern definition of the term cult grew out of the church-sect typology developed by Max Weber (1864-1920), a prominent German sociologist and political economist.12 Weber’s “sometime associate” Ernst Troeltsch, a German Protestant theologian, “shifted the emphasis of the type from organization to behavior . . . and stressed the notion of ‘accommodation’ or compromise as differentiating between the different religious styles.”13 He proposed “three main types of Christian thought” which included “church religion, sect religion, and mysticism, or, more properly, ‘spiritual and mystical religion’” the latter which was seen as “extremely individualistic” that did not lead to formal organizations. Rather, “adherents [were] bound together by an ‘invisible church.’”14

It was to these small and transient groups, however, that Howard Becker (1932) subsequently attached the label of “cult,” stressing the private, personal character of the adherents’ beliefs and the amorphous nature of the organization.15

While the LDS Church certainly fits the description of a “church religion”, it also teaches the importance for each individual member to receive their own spiritual experiences.16 Like other prophets before him, Joseph Smith taught that all have the same privilege and are entitled to the same blessings from God.17

Summary

Although modern usage of the term cult has taken on a pejorative connotation based partially on these social typologies18, so-called Mormonism, a restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the dispensation of the fulness of times19, has some affinity with each of these definitions.

Adherents see layers of meaning to the scriptural ideas represented by “tilling” and “cultivating” and seek to “worship the Father” in the name of Christ20 “in spirit and truth.”21 They may also see some kinship with the original sociological definition of a “church religion” as well as with the idea of seeking communion within the confines of an “invisible church.”22

While there are many similarities between the restored gospel of Christ and “historic” Christianity, there are also a number of real and important differences. While Mormons see these similarities through the revelatory lens of the restoration, those who hold to “historic” Christianity see a wide chasm between the two through the lens of available history.

So, Is Mormonism really a cult? You decide and share your thoughts below…

Sources:

  1. Cultus. Wiktionary. 30 Oct 2011.
  2. Psalm 1:3.
  3. Ezekiel 34:29.
  4. Matthew 13.
  5. 1 Corinthians 3:6-7.
  6. Alma 32; cf. Matthew 13.
  7. See Malachi 4:5-6; cf. Doctrine and Covenants 2.
  8. Ibid.
  9. 2 Nephi 25:26.
  10. In the context of this article, readers may refer to Nibley, Hugh W. “Christian Envy of the Temple“. Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. 14 Nov 2011.
  11. “Personal Preparation for Temple Blessings”. May 2001. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 16 December 2008.
  12. “Sociological classifications of religious movements”. Wikipedia. 31 Oct 2011.
  13. Swatos, William A., Jr., ed. “Church-Sect Theory”. Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Hartford Institute for Religion Research – Hartford Seminary. 31 Oct 2011.
  14. Swatos, William A., Jr., ed. “Cult”. Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Hartford Institute for Religion Research – Hartford Seminary. 31 Oct 2011.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Perhaps similar to that “invisible church” described by Troeltsch above.
  17. “Before 8 August 1839 (3)”. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. Comp. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook. Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991. 15 (hereafter Words); Doctrine and Covenants 84:23-24; see also the explanation given in Ehat, Andrew F. “’Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord?’ Sesquicentennial Reflections of a Sacred Day: 4 May 1842”. Donald J. Parry, ed. Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and F.A.R.M.S., 1994. 48-62. This last article is referenced in the post about the endowment.
  18. See for example, Mike Otterson’s comments in Walker, Joseph. “Mormon official challenges ‘cult’ designation”. 20 Jul 2011. Desert News. 14 Nov 2011.
  19. Ephesians 1:10.
  20. Doctrine and Covenants 20:19, 29.
  21. John 4:24; cf. Doctrine and Covenants 50.
  22. Church of the Firstborn; cf. Doctrine and Covenants 76:54.

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  1. Kari’s avatar

    As much as I do agree with your assessment, I think in today world, the word, “cult” is used negatively. If you look up the definition of cult on dictionary.com you will find many meanings.

    Cult (from dictionary.com)
       [kuhlt] Show IPA
    noun
    1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
    2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
    3. the object of such devotion.
    4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
    5.Sociology . a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.

    So yes you are correct but then again a discussion board group that groups together to discuss their pregnancies can be considered a cult. (according to #4).

    So can all religion really. The catholics follow their pope. Other denominations follow what their priest/pastor say but using the examples that he/she sets to pattern their life.

    The word, “cult” just needs to be taken out of the language in general. When I think of cult I think of negative. (but then again maybe thats my problem :) )..

    Good post.

  2. Greg’s avatar

    Thanks Kari. It all depends on the definition of the word cult.

  3. mark s.’s avatar

    I believe that if you look back into the not too distant past you can see where the word “cult” was co-opted to be synonomus with evil. Back in the Sixties they started referring to Charles Manson’s group (or family) as a “cult”. The notorius deeds of these people was ever burned into the public psyche. The word “cult” became associated with evil, devient behavior. To further complicate matters, the Sixties introduced a lot of new philosophical thought, religious beliefs, and “alternative” ways of living. Many times these new paradigms were represented or portrayed in the media as “cults”, in other words something “different”, “strange” or “unconventional”. Of those latter three, us Mormons most definately are. We are a peculiar people, but that does not put us in league with the devil. Mainstream media and born again/evangelical christians would have you belive otherwise.

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