Question: Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a "cult"?

Table of Contents

Question: Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a "cult"?

The word "cult" as it is applied to Mormonism is simply a label that implies "religion I don't like" or "religion that I disagree with"

An anti-Mormon protester at Temple Square during the April 2003 LDS General Conference.

Some claim that the Church is "a cult."

Simply put, "cult" is simply a label that implies "religion I don't like" or "religion that I disagree with." When the early Christians were unpopular, uncommon, and powerless, they were labeled a "cult." When they reached prominence and power, they began applying the label in turn to religions with whom they disagreed.

A book-length treatment of these issues has been written, and no cogent response to its arguments has been forthcoming. [1] "Cult" is not a useful term, since it merely expresses the speaker's prejudices, but tells us nothing useful about the religion being considered. It is likely impossible for sectarian critics of the Church to formulate a definition for "cult" that would include the present-day Church of Jesus Christ but not include the first century Christian Church. The usefulness of the label "cult," is therefore questionable—except as a short-hand for bigotry or prejudice.


An anti-Mormon protester at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
This claim is a good example of anti-Mormon attempts to use loaded language and emotionally charged words to attack.

Webster's Dictionary defines cult as a “great devotion to a person, idea, or thing”

So, because the Jews revere Moses, Lutherans revere Martin Luther, Seventh-day Adventists are devoted to the teachings of Ellen G. White, and Christians reverence Jesus Christ, all these groups could be considered "cults" by this definition.

Alan Gomes, who teaches at BIOLA University’s Talbot school of Theology and applies the label to Mormons, among others, admits that “our English word cult comes from the Latin word cultus, which is a form of the verb colere, meaning ‘to worship or give reverence to a deity.” [2]

Yet, this is not simply what sectarian critics of the Church mean when they call it a "cult." Gomes writes that his "preferred definition" of cult is "a group that deviates doctrinally from a parent or host religion; that is, cults grow out of and deviate from a previously established religion." [3]

But, if Gomes wishes to adopt this definition, would he be content to call Christianity "a Jewish cult"? Christianity certainly grew out of Judaism, and it certainly deviates doctrinally from Judaism. Is Gomes content to label his own faith "a cult"? One suspects not.

The advantage of the term "cult," for critics, is that it has a negative connotation. When the public hears the term "cult," they do not simply think, "religious group devoted to some person or ideal." Nor, usually, do they think, "religion that has deviated from the beliefs of a parent religion." A "cult" implies a fanatical, probably dangerous, religious group—and it is this image which critics seek to exploit. Hence Gomes' desire, for example, to "unmask" cults (who must have something to hide) and the necessity of a chapter on "Keeping People Out of Cults."

If the "cult" is a Jewish cult (i.e. Christianity) then presumably Gomes would not want to keep them out. Thus, "cult" is clearly intended to communicate something additional.

Gomes also insists there are other criteria for being "a cult," such as "den[ying] (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith." [4] Gomes considers these to include "the Trinity," yet this creates problems for his definition, since the first century Christians clearly had no doctrine of creedal Trinitarianism as Gomes' present denomination does. By Gomes' definition, he would then be part of a Christian cult, since he's altered the doctrines of the "parent" religion, early Christianity.

Clearly, such linguistic games become rather pointless

It should not surprise us that the Church is so labeled—new religious groups, when considered 'strange' or 'heretical', and still in the minority, have often been labeled as "cults" to keep people away from them, or to justify poor treatment of them. Unsurprisingly, the early Christians had the same experience:

This new Jewish-Christian party in the eyes of the religious leaders of the time was, at the worst, simply regarded as guilty of minuth (cultism), namely, a variety of Jewish heresy, or rather, Jewish sectarianism...early passages in the Talmud still contain hostile references to the minim (cults), among whom were numbered the Jewish Christians... [5]

Pliny, an early Roman leader also said that Christians were a “superstition, a foreign cult,” and this characterization was re-iterated by two more Roman writers, Tacitus, and Suetonius. Tacitus explained the attacks on Christians as being due to their 'cult' status, and also because “of their hatred toward mankind”. Tacitus also said that they were “an enemy to mankind”, and a “deadly superstition”. Suetonius called the Christians a “mischievous superstition” or, in other words, a cult. [6]

Families sometimes worry when a family member shows an interest in the Church. They can be reassured that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts a high value on maintaining and strengthening family relationships. The Church will not baptize children or youth under the age of eighteen without their parents' permission.

Notes

  1. Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Provo, Utah: FARMS (reprint edition), 1992), 1. ISBN 0934893357. off-site
  2. Alan W. Gomes, Unmasking the Cults (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995), 7. (italics added)
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 10.
  5. Herbert Danbys, "The Jew and Christianity," p. 8.
  6. Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale University Press; 2nd edition, 2003), 22, 49–50, 66. ISBN 0300098391.