Critics of the Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) sometimes refer to it as a "cult." The term is meant to be both derogatory and accusatory. This article will openly address the spirit and content of those claims in light of the truth about Mormonism.
What is a Cult?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary online presents five definitions for the word cult:
- formal religious veneration
- a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents
- a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious
- a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator (as in "health cults")
- a great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work
These definitions provide denotations of the word "cult"—literal meanings devoid of emotional content. The connotations, or emotional definitions of the word "cult" may include the following:
- any group which deviates from orthodox or historical Christianity.
- a group which claims to be in conformity with Biblical truth, but which deviates from it
- a group with an authoritarian, charismatic leader who has an exceptional hold upon his or her followers
- a group which claims to be the only way to God
- a group which uses intimidation or manipulation to gain and keep members
- a group which lays claim to the financial resources of its members
- a group which monopolizes the time and thoughts of its members, leading them to avoid other contacts and activities
- a group which compromises the individual's ability to make free choices without the approval or advice of the leader(s)
- a religion or sect considered by the general society to be extremist, dangerous, or unorthodox
Often, new religious movements are branded by society as cults. These new religions either fade away into obscurity, or gain members and become more accepted, thereby shedding the stigma assigned to them at their origin. For instance, the first followers of Jesus were viewed as apostate Jews, or Jews trying to establish a cult around Jesus, a charismatic leader. As Christianity spread to the Gentiles, it was viewed as a cult by the pagan societies into which it was introduced. It took hundreds of years to establish a Christian orthodoxy. Cultism (as far as Christians are concerned) is now defined in relationship to that orthodoxy.
--It should be noted that in British English, the definitions for the words cult and sect are opposite those of American English. Americans generally view a sect as a branch or division of a larger religious group, and a cult as an extreme or unorthodox group. The British define a cult as a branch or division of a larger religious group, and a sect as an extreme or unorthodox group.
Is Mormonism a Cult by Literal Definition?
The first literal definition for the word cult—"a formal religious veneration"—defines every religious group on earth. Mormonism is a religion and a church. It is also a system of religious beliefs and ritual, conforming to the second definition, as do all churches.
- Is Mormonism unorthodox? The answer to this question depends on one's point of view. Christian orthodoxy dates back to councils making decisions on doctrine after the death of the Apostles. Protestant orthodoxy dates back to the Protestant Reformation, which began with Martin Luther in 1517. If one measures Mormon doctrine against these orthodoxies, then Mormonism is unorthodox. However, Mormons believe that the Lord taught true doctrine to Adam and to every prophet after Adam, and that orthodoxy itself is an apostasy from true doctrine established with Adam and all the prophets. Mormonism, then, is a restoration of the Lord's established doctrines, and all other sects of Christianity could be viewed as unorthodox.
- Is Mormonism spurious? Mormons believe that God alone can answer that question, and that He is willing to answer that question for anyone who asks Him in sincerity: "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." (Moroni 10:4-5)
- Is Mormonism a health cult? No. Nor is Mormonism a substitute for health care. Mormons seek medical assistance when they are sick or injured, as well as divine help through prayer or Priesthood Blessings. Mormons follow a health code given by the Lord, called the "Word of Wisdom," found in section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Latter-day Saints are counseled by their leaders not to go off on a tangent, reading into this health code things that are not there: "If we turn a health law or any other principle into a form of religious fanaticism, we are looking beyond the mark."1
- Do Mormons show great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work? Mormons are devoted to Christ.
Is Mormonism a Cult by Emotional Definition?
- Does Mormonism deviate from orthodox or historical Christianity? Yes, but not from original Christianity as it was given to Adam and all the prophets since Adam.
- Does Mormonism claim to conform to Biblical truth but deviate from it? Mormonism conforms to Biblical truth exactly. Some examples:
- The Bible says Christ was resurrected. Mormons believe he is still a resurrected being.
- The Apostle Paul talks about baptism for the dead, an ordinance now found only in the Mormon Church. (1 Corinthians 15:29)
- Christ prayed to God the Father. Mormons still believe they are two separate beings. (John 14:16)
- Christ was baptized by immersion. It is the only acceptable form of baptism for Mormons.
- Does Mormonism have a charismatic, authoritarian leader who has a remarkable hold over the Church's constituents? Those who accuse Mormonism of being a cult feel that Joseph Smith fills this role. Joseph Smith is honored for being the first prophet of the latter-days and for standing for his testimony with unwavering courage. He was indeed charismatic, in that he saw visions, communed with God and angels, and exercised spiritual gifts, such as prophecy and healing (as do all prophets). However, it is Christ whom Mormons truly venerate, and Christ governs with a gentle hand, always guaranteeing free agency to His followers.
- Does Mormonism claim to be the only way to God? Mormons believe that the only way to God is through Christ. There is, however, no condemnation of those without knowledge. God looks upon the heart when He judges Mankind.
- Does the Mormon Church use intimidation or manipulation to gain and keep members? No. When missionaries teach investigators, they very quickly ask them to pray in order to find out the truth for themselves. Free Agency and inspiration from above are central to the workings of the Church. It is true that only worthy members may enter the temple. A critic could say that the withholding of temple blessings is a form of intimidation. Simply, the temple is the House of God and no unclean thing may enter it.
- Does the Mormon Church lay claim to the financial resources of its members? The Mormon Church has no paid clergy. The Church condemns "priestcraft," that is, the practice of religion for profit, and it has no ministers who preach in order to make money. Dedicated Church members pay tithing—ten percent of one's income. Once each month, Mormons fast for two meals and donate the monetary value of the meals to the poor. There is also the opportunity to donate to missionary work and humanitarian aid. All donations are voluntary and are made in confidentiality.
- Does the Mormon Church monopolize the time and thoughts of its members, leading them to avoid other contacts and activities? Mormons are free to donate as much time as they like to Church service. Mormons are counseled to refuse invitations to serve when such service encroaches on family time. Programs are so organized so as not to encroach on family time. Sometimes, when a person first converts to the Church, family members and friends revile and abandon him. The Church counsels patience and loving communication. As time goes by, friends and family usually soften and find that familial relationships can still be carried on as they were before.
- Does the Mormon Church compromise the individual's ability to make free choices without the approval or advice of the leader(s)? Leaders serve in organizational, teaching, and advising capacities. In the process of repentance, members of the Church may seek counsel from a Bishop or Stake President. Everything in the Church is done on a voluntary basis. Choices are personal and members are counseled to seek inspiration from the Holy Ghost on personal matters.
- Is Mormonism considered by the general society to be extremist, dangerous, or unorthodox? Yes. That is, until the society gets to know them. Mormons earn the respect of their families, neighbors, communities, and countries through their responsible behavior, honesty, and general good conduct. The twelfth and thirteenth Articles of Faith summarize the orientation of Mormon behavior:
12. We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
13. We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul--We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
How Mormons Respond
Mormons invite those who incite controversy to preach the truth rather than falsehoods about the Church. Mormons invite uninformed people to gain knowledge about Mormons and Mormonism. Though criticisms, misrepresentations, and falsehoods about Mormons and Mormonism are a constant challenge, Church leadership has counseled members not to react to or debate but keep their responses "in the form of a positive explanation of the doctrines and practices of the Church" (Church News, Dec. 18, 1983, p. 2).
1 Quentin R. Cook, "Looking Beyond the Mark," Ensign, March, 2003, p. 40.