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Why Mormonism is Not a Cult

19

November 25, 2013 by mattfradd


first vision

Last week I wrote an article, 1 Very Useful Tactic When Dialoging With Mormons.

I have to say that I was surprised at the amount of interest it generated.

One of the comments read:

Ask a Mormon if there has ever been a verified miracle in their cult, there hasn’t. Ask one why Joey P. Smith who made all the nonsense, couldn’t convince his wife at the time of any of the nonsense. I have watched the BYU channel on television, and it is very sad to see decent looking, seemly educated white people talking nonsense about that cult.

The commenter went on to use the word cult four more times. His comment made my skin crawl a little. Is this the “gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15) that St. Peter said we ought to use when defending our faith? I think not. Either way, it got me thinking. Is Mormonism a cult? And what does cult mean anyway?

In this post I’d like to make the case that Mormonism is not a cult.

Looking forward to your colorful comments below. 🙂

Cult: Then and Now

The term ‘cult’ has a very different meaning today than it did originally. It was once used (and in some cases still is) as a term to describe a system of ritual practice. Hence, Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation, Marialis Cultus, or, in English, Marian Devotion.

Another example can be found in a general audience of Pope John Paul II where he quoted the Second Vatican Council, urging that “the cult … of the Blessed Virgin, be generously fostered, and that the practices and exercises of devotion towards her, recommended by the teaching authority of the Church in the course of centuries, be highly esteemed”.

We may also rightly speak of the cult of the infant of prague, or the cult of the Sacred Heart. In referring to these devotions as cults we’re simply acknowledging them as systems of ritual practice.

Over the years, however, “the word cult has come to denote a relatively small, far-from-mainstream group that typically displays several characteristics such as centering around a highly charismatic leader, utilization of mind control techniques, the giving of large amounts of money/possessions to the group, inability to leave at will, and other similar issues that revolve around control.” [1]

Due to this confusion, the word cult, it seems to me, has become essentially useless; little more than a  4-letter slur people lodge at one another to dismiss them out of hand. After all, If you’re a part of a cult, I don’t have to take you seriously. I don’t have to take the time to listen to you.

The Dictionary

That said, perhaps you disagree with me. Perhaps you think that cult does have a hard and fast definition and that that definition describes Mormonism perfectly. Well, let’s look at that. I’ve researched several reputable online dictionaries and found that the term ‘cult’ had several common elements.

Let’s take a look at them and see if they describe Mormonism:

1. A relatively small group of people 

Mormons have around 13 million members in over 100 countries throughout the world. Not what I’d call a relatively small group.

2. Religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.

Now if you’re not a Mormon and know anything about their teachings, you’ll probably agree with me that they believe a lot of strange stuff! But does that really justify us in calling them a cult?

If it does then it also justifies non-Catholics in calling Catholicism a cult. The immaculate conception? The Scapular? The Eucharist? Now, some of you are going to accuse me of putting Catholic teaching on the same level as Mormon teaching; I’m not doing that. I think the Catholic is justified in believing these three things and the Mormon lacks justification for, say, thinking that God (the one we are supposedly bound to worship) lives on or near a planet called Kolob. But this doesn’t change the fact that Catholic teaching cannot and does not appear strange, or even sinister to those who aren’t Catholic. [2]

3. A great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work.

Now, while one can argue, as I certainly do, that Joseph Smith was a false prophet and therefore undeserving of great devotion, that’s not how the Dictionary defines cult. It isn’t interested in the person’s credibility, just whether the group has great devotion to him.

If Mormonism can be labeled a cult based on this definition then so can Catholicism. Let’s look at each category. Person: St. Jude. Idea: God loves us and sent his son to die for us so that we can have the possibility of spending eternity with him in Heaven. Object: ah, this medal around my neck. Movement or work: the proclamation of the Gospel?

4. Controlled by threats of isolation

I often hear Christians telling horror stories of Mormons who left Mormonism only to have their family and friends shun them. Okay, perhaps this happens in some circumstances, but—and unless you can prove me wrong on this—it’s not an official teaching of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If some Mormons are acting in this way then they’re not acting consistently with what their religion teaches.

Any justification a person might think he has from dictionary definitions for labeling Mormonism a cult, I think, can be turned around to make any religion seem cult-like. It’s all relative.

Evangelizing Mormons

Does all of this mean that we should not be evangelizing Mormons? Of course not. I just think that telling them that they’re a part of a cult is neither helpful nor accurate.

Instead of quibbling over terms that have no objective agreed upon definition we should discuss the substance of what they believe, help them see why they’re in error and share the truth with them with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).

If you’re looking for a substantive and charitable debate between a Christian and a Mormon, you should download Patrick Madrid’s debate with Elder Gary Coleman, The First Catholic — Mormon Dialogue  

———-

[1] I found this insightful quote on a bluelight forum (http://www.bluelight.ru/vb/archive/index.php/t-608517.html?s=f8f7068e5e1a375b3bdc3104d840d59a)

[2] For example, The Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically evil is considered sinister by a growing number of Americans, wouldn’t you say?

19 thoughts on “Why Mormonism is Not a Cult

  1. genefadness says:

    Even if Mormonism were a cult — and I agree with you that it is not — why even use the term to begin with? If I meant a Branch Davidian (if they still exist) on the street, the very last thing I would do if I hoped for any chance at dialogue is say he belonged to a cult or was a cultist. (When I was on my Mormon mission in Canberra, Australia we were working one side of the street and Jehovah Witnesses were on the other side. “Stay away from them,” we told folks in the neighborhood, “they’re a cult.”)

  2. Mia Tremblay says:

    I thought what you wrote was very insightful. Also, I listened to Tom Smith (no relation) and ex-mormon spoke of Mormonism as not a cult but a cultural religion. I thought that was a good explanation; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYoEUil7rPU

  3. Adam says:

    Matt,
    Thank you for this post! I think it gives us Catholics (and all Christians, for that matter) a lot to think about when it comes to how we speak to/about LDS members. I will own the fact that in discussion with fellow Christians, as well as in educating youth about LDS beliefs, I often have found myself using the term “cult” to describe or categorize them, as that’s what I’ve always thought was true. I’ve always been clear that I never mean it in a pejorative way. I never perceived it as uncharitable, but simply (what I thought was) best fitting a description.
    My question: if we are to classify someone who is a member of the LDS faith, what would we classify them as? Or, what would the best term be? I’m not asking out of a need to be divisive or for the sake of categorizing people simply based on their belief system, but as their beliefs and doctrines are not Christian, what would be most appropriate? Would it be best to simply call them members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? I know that this could be confusing, especially to the under-catechized, as the title uses the term “church” and the name of Jesus. To those, it may all seem the same. I know that some LDS members that I have encountered throughout my life can carry a bit of a stigma about being referred to as “mormon”.
    I hope that my question/desire for clarity is not mistaken as prejudicial or argumentative. I’m genuinely interested in this topic, as I’ve had many opportunities to share with and evangelize to LDS members. As far as I know, I’ve never referred to them as “cult” members to their faces (at least I hope I didn’t!). I totally agree that we have an opportunity to show charity and grace to those who are members, as well as those seeking answers and understanding about LDS beliefs.

    • Chris Roeper says:

      True, they are not Christian, although they claim to be. They are simply their own unique belief system. That is how I describe them to the youth group that I teach. Their beliefs in many gods and the idea that they can (the men anyway) themselves become gods sets them far apart from any Christian teaching. Like any other non-Christian religion their beliefs do not mesh with ours as Catholics. I just refer to them as the Mormon church. I refuse to link the name of Jesus Christ with who they are and what they believe. I know many Mormons and while we have had discussions it is best to say that on almost all theological points we simply agree to disagree. I speak the truth in love and I believe that they believe that they are doing the same, but this does not mean that I believe or agree with their message.

  4. Lourdes says:

    Perhaps they are not a cult, I don’t know. But I studied them and spent 7 years around them. One thing they are not: Christians.

  5. billreel says:

    Matt, I appreciate this article and the previous one you mentioned here. I am LDS and appreciate the tone of civility you write with. While differing faiths will also disagree on at least some things, it is this kind of friendly tone that brings people together to talk out their differences and to see where each other stand. Often we can realize that while there are stark differences there are usually less then we think on the surface. God bless you in all you do. As for one poster saying Mormon’s are not Christian, I guess it depends. Just like their are social catholics who are unconverted to the gospel (in spite of outward behavior and attendance) there are also Mormons who while going to Church a and serving with 2 feet in, that are cultural. I also realize we never agree on how we define Christian. But if Christian means I worship Christ as my Savior. That I acknowledge his atonement as having paid the full price, and if relying wholly upon his merits, mercy, and grace is required then by that standard I am Christian. Many people write off Mormons as having a different Jesus and while that is fair as one can establish their definition any way they want, I am hurt by that type of rhetoric as I think there is way more common ground here then most of the Christians who use a narrow definition of “Christian” are perhaps aware. Any Matt, keep up the good work as you serve to bring all unto Christ.

  6. Thanks Matt, your points are very good.

    Using the word “cult” in apologetic dialog is counter-productive, of course. It is not useless however in classifying groups and understanding the challenge. I don’t see any problem or conflict in understanding the historic meaning and the modern one as independent uses of the word.

    One group to which I believe it fits (in the modern sense of the word) is the Church of Scientology. To that end, I would say the first “common element” that you list (size) is an incorrect qualifier.

  7. Honestly, I thought of LDS with the same stigma: that it was a cult. So I greatly appreciate you clearing that up. I have had people come to me claiming that the Church is a cult and as they meant it to be a slur (and as I myself would use it as a slur), I took it as such but now I will be able to pass this along to them if need be and hopefully begin to open up more productive portals of communication. Thank you again, Matt!

  8. Zed says:

    Cult
    a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

    I read it in history that Catholic Church (when it was a small group) in Rome were regarded as a cult by the pagan Romans. To hear the claims of resurrection (the dead comes back to life), Eucharist (they thought we were cannibals eating our God) etc. would sound dangerous and maybe funny to the philosophical pagans. Of course what we are professing are the absolute Truth but it is not to them. Same goes to what the Mormons believe but some of these beliefs we Catholics just cannot accept. Joseph Smith promotes polygamy to his founded small church as he was a polygamist himself. The Mormon Church is big church now and they are not into polygamy although there are separatist groups from Mormons who still does (watch the documentary in youtube).

    A small religious group will grow in number until they have too many members. I think regardless of the size of the religion, if there beliefs and practices are morally unacceptable and inhumane (polygamy, arrange marriage of young girls to elderly men with multiple wives, children are not allowed to go to school because they might realize their wrong beliefs, members lived in poverty and tithes are high while their leaders lived in luxury, etc.) then that group is a cult.

  9. Gwen says:

    My own personal experience with Mormonism proves to me that it is not a cult. It just mystifies me as to why a person who professes to be of Jesus Christ would use the language that you have concerning Joseph Smith. And the fact that you have not seen miracles is not an indictment of Mormonism. Perhaps it is you who should feel indicted? What is it in your own life that is preventing said miracles?

    I was Evangelical for over 30 years and became so disgusted that I left (well and they threw me out too 🙂 ) and became Muslim. In my experience, people like you use mainly hate speech and how do you think that will draw people to a saving knowlege of Jesus Christ. Shame on you.

    • mattfradd says:

      Oh Gwen, I’m sorry that you left Jesus Christ for Islam. Bless you, friend. If you would like to converse with me, please find me through Facebook and I’d be happy dialogue.

  10. billreel says:

    Matt you quoted LDS Doctrine as ” thinking that God (the one we are supposedly bound to worship) lives on or near a planet called Kolob.”. This is innacurate. Unfortunately there is speculation and urban legend that revolves around many LDS teachings that cause Many LDS to not grasp their own beliefs full and for non-mormons to see our Doctrine as something other then what it is. The scripture comes from our Pear of Great Price (additional book of scripture Mormons have) and it states

    “And the Lord said unto me: These are the governing ones; and the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me, for I am the Lord thy God: I have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.”

    1st – Kolob is a star in LDS theology, not a planet. 2nd – there is no reference to God living on a planet but simply a recognition that he resides somewhere in the vast distance.

    In an effort to make the Church look bizarre, many critics mock the idea of “God living on the planet Kolob.” This is false as God does not live on Kolob. Kolob plays no real role in LDS doctrine or discourse.

    Any other information is speculation and non-doctrinal
    more can be found on this here —> http://en.fairmormon.org/Kolob

    Thanks Matt and I hope you have a great day!!!
    Bill Reel

    • mattfradd says:

      Thank you Bill, I appreciate the correction. I stated that Mormons believe that God (the one we are supposed to worship) lives on or near a planet called Kolob. Would have it been more accurate to say “near a star called Kolob.”? If that is more accurate then my point still remains, this seems bizarre. If this is still inaccurate then help me out. Thank you, Bill.

      • billreel says:

        Any belief that one group has that others do not can seem bizarre. There are beliefs that Catholics, Jehovah Witnesses, Pentecostal, and many others who have beliefs that some see as bizarre. My only point was that your quote was a cut and paste from a critical site rather then an LDS point of view. To assume LDS have a bunch of bizarre beliefs that are somehow distinctly more bizarre then other faiths is subject that seems unfair especially when one uses critical information to determine the bizarre beliefs a faith has. As a convert to the LDS faith certainly see some of my beliefs as unique to Mormonism but no more so then other faith traditions and certainly not exponentially more unique and weird. Foreign on some level? sure but within your faith I could name a dozen or two beliefs that to those outside of the Catholic faith are foreign and could even be labeled bizarre but that seems like an unfair label itself unless one has spent time trying to understand their root and reason. There are several non-LDS mormon scholars who have studied Mormonism and I don’t believe they would take a similar view.

  11. Brent says:

    I’m also LDS and appreciate the thoughtful and civil approach you’ve taken here. I totally agree that there is nothing productive that comes from calling mormons a cult (or any major religion for that matter). I also appreciate that you’ve identified that there are varied definitions of the term, some of them quite different. Anyway I feel we can learn a lot from each other despite our differences and that a civil dialogue is essential. By working together in a charitable way, sometimes being willing to put aside our differences, we can produce a lot more positive changes in our world.

  12. Victor Sackett says:

    2. Religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
    Now if you’re not a Mormon and know anything about their teachings, you’ll probably agree with me that they believe a lot of strange stuff! But does that really justify us in calling them a cult?
    If it does then it also justifies non-Catholics in calling Catholicism a cult. The immaculate conception? The Scapular? The Eucharist? Now, some of you are going to accuse me of putting Catholic teaching on the same level as Mormon teaching; I’m not doing that. I think the Catholic is justified in believing these three things and the Mormon lacks justification for, say, thinking that God (the one we are supposedly bound to worship) lives on or near a planet called Kolob. But this doesn’t change the fact that Catholic teaching cannot and does not appear strange, or even sinister to those who aren’t Catholic. [2]

    ===========================================
    What is considered strange is relative to what is considered normal.
    The fact that non-Catholics do not know that Catholic belief is normal does not justify Catholic belief as strange. It is the non-Catholic viewpoint that is strange because of its distance from the Catholic viewpoint which is the standard in view of the Creator of the universe. Unless of course one puts Christ centered Catholic belief on the same par as anti-Christ belief.
    ===========================================

    3. A great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work.
    Now, while one can argue, as I certainly do, that Joseph Smith was a false prophet and therefore undeserving of great devotion, that’s not how the Dictionary defines cult. It isn’t interested in the person’s credibility, just whether the group has great devotion to him.
    If Mormonism can be labeled a cult based on this definition then so can Catholicism. Let’s look at each category. Person: St. Jude. Idea: God loves us and sent his son to die for us so that we can have the possibility of spending eternity with him in Heaven. Object: Ah, this medal around my neck. Movement or work: the proclamation of the Gospel? The Legion of Mary, Opus Dei, Catholic radio.
    ==========================
    St. Jude was a holy person living the life of Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith as you admit was a false prophet and therefore a precursor of the anti-Christ.
    The idea of great devotion to a person only indicates a cult when that person is not Jesus Christ or one of his true followers. Unless of course one puts Jesus Christ and His followers who are centered in Catholic belief on the same par as anti-Christ believers.
    ===========================
    4. Controlled by threats of isolation
    I often hear Christians telling horror stories of Mormons who left Mormonism only to have their family and friends shun them. Okay, perhaps this happens in some circumstances, but—and unless you can prove me wrong on this—it’s not an official teaching of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If some Mormons are acting in this way then they’re not acting consistently with what their religion teaches.
    Any justification a person might think he has from dictionary definitions for labeling Mormonism a cult, I think, can be turned around to make any religion seem cult-like. It’s all relative.
    Evangelizing Mormons
    Does all of this mean that we should not be evangelizing Mormons? Of course not. I just think that telling them that they’re apart of a cult is neither helpful nor accurate. Instead of quibbling over terms that have no objective agreed upon definition we should discuss the substance of what they believe, help them see why they’re in error and teach them the truth with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15)
    ==============================
    The fact that Mormonism is recognized as a cult does not mean that one needs to use the word cult or the judgemental attitude that some may have when sharing the soul-saving Gospel with Mormons.
    ==============================

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