History and usage of the term ‘cult’

With so much discussion about cults, it would seem that everyone knows what a cult is. Yet classifying a group as a cult is not as simple as it sounds.

After stepping past the entry, I was asked to give the “guardian of the gate” the secret handshake along with the accompanying password. I then donned my robe, draping the hood over my newly shaven head, before slowly making my way down the corridor to the darkened chamber where the rest of the group had already gathered.

No sooner had I stepped into the room when I was greeted by a gush of icy cold breeze. Candles, numbering about two hundred, provided the only source of illumination within the sanctuary. Swirling smoke emanating from the incense burners filled the dimply dimly lit chamber as fifty shadowy-garbed figures, still and silent as statues, faced the marble altar.

There was no need to ask anyone how they felt. They swell of excitement brewing couldn’t be contained — not by the seeming austerity of the scene nor by the dark and heavy robes that masked our individual identities.

Tonight was special; someone was to be initiated into our ranks.

All too often images like this come to mind when we hear the term “cult.” Secret meetings, bizarre teachings and doctrines, strange rituals and practices, deviant and sometimes illegal activities, weird characters — this is what people typically associate with cults.

Is this an accurate picture?

So far, we’ve traced the rise and fall of the Branch Davidians cult headed by David Koresh. We’ve looked at other religious groups who focus their time and energy specifically on doomsday prophecies and the coming endtimes — groups that have been labeled as cults. And, of course, the media occassionally provides a story of some dangerous cult.

With so much discussion about cults, it would seem that everyone knows what a cult is. Yet classifying a group as a cult is not as simple as it sounds. In fact, it can get very confusing.

The Social Factor

Sociologists have, for a long time, used the terms “sect” and “church or denomination” to classify various religious groups. Churches make up the largest individual bodies of organized religion (in terms of membership) and express the spiritual beliefs of the majority of society. They are part of the religious mainstream. The Roman Catholic Church, the American Baptist Church, the Christian Reformed Church, and the United Methodist Church are among the more recognizable churches or denominations today.

Sects, on the other hand, refer to groups that have come from one of the many established churches. While continuing to acknowledge and draw from the teachings and traditions of their respective denominations, sects have distanced themselves from churches, and to some degree the predominant culture they represent in order to emphasize one or more beliefs or practices they feel have been lost to “worldliness.”

The Quakers and Mennonites, who protested against acts of warfare, were classified as sects. So were various “holiness” congregations that took part in the movement stressing the importance of personal piety along with a strict code of morality (including dressing properly).

In the early part of this century sociologists tried to figure out how they could classify groups that didn’t fit neatly into the prevailing categories. Where, for example, could Christian Science or the Self-Realization Fellowship or the Theosophical Society be placed? It was then that the term “cult” was developed. Any religious group that didn’t qualify as a church or sect was labeled a cult. It was, in a sense, a “leftover” category.

Social scientists have since set out to refine their definition of “cult” into something more descriptive and precise. Yet no matter what they came up with, they invariably saw cults as religious groups that stood over against the prevailing belief systems of the culture — which, of course, were reflected and identified with the Judeo-Christian religious institutions.

Sects were recognized as offshoots that, for the most part, still held to the religious and cultural traditions from which they emerged. Cults, meanwhile, had a religious structure wholly alien to the prevalent religious communities. In a 1978 article written for the Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion, sociologist James T. Richardson explained that a cult is usually defined as a small informal group lacking a definite authority structure, somewhat spontaneous in its development (although often possessing a somewhat charismatic leader or group of leaders), transitory, somewhat mystical and individualistically oriented, and deriving its inspiration and ideology from outside the predominant religious culture.

The exotic beliefs and practices of a group may be due to its originating from a foreign land and culture, as in the case of various Hindu-based and Buddhist-based groups. In other cases, the personal innovation of the founder (or founders) of the group whose ideas derive from a variety of sources could be credited. It’s also possible that elements of both factors combined to give rise to the group’s peculiarities.

In their handling of the issue, social scientists have tried to maintain a relatively value-free definition of the term “cult.” Cults are groups that stand out against the mainstream; they’re organized differently from the more common churches and sects; and they have practices and beliefs that run counter to the prevailing majority. They’re not necessarily good or bad, just different.

Because the term “cults” has acquired a negative connotation sociologists have adopted others, such as “new religions,” “new religious movements,” “alternative religions,” “alternative groups,” “alternative faiths,” and “emergent religions.”

The Canon of Orthodox

All disciplines have a fixed point, a foundation with guidelines that allow for the study of a given subject. Sociologists describe and assess religious movements in terms of the prevailing social circumstance, using the predominantly religious groups as their point of reference. Christian theologians, on the other hand, used the Bible as their anchor.

While social scientists in the early twentieth century were busy formulating their definition of a “cult,” theologians and apologists from conservative Protestant denominations (evangelicals) also set their sights on the growing number of non-Christian religious groups.

For the most part, the works they produced focused on showing how divergent groups differed from historical Protestantism and its attendant views concerning the key doctrines in the Bible — including the divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Bible, the Trinity, humanity in relation to God, the identity and work of Jesus Christ, and the way to salvation.

One of the earliest books to come out on the subject was William C. Irvine’s Timely Warnings, released in 1917 was later retitled Heresies Exposed. In the book, Irvine and others discussed groups that promoted heresy, which he defined as “Some theory tenaciously held but not in subjection to the authority of Scripture.” Included in the wide-ranging list were Mormonism, Spiritism, Atheism, Unitarianism, and Christian Science.

Another significant book, The Chaos of The Cults, was released in 1938. In it, Jan Karel Van Baalen classified all religions into one of two categories: those that teach only God can save, and those that claim humans are capable of saving themselves. Groups belonging to the first category are Christians, Van Baalen argued, while those belonging to the latter are not (wether or not they claimed to be Christian).

Seventeen years later Walter Martin’s book, The Rise of the Cults, was introduced to the public. A leading evangelical authority on the subject and a staunch defender of orthodoxy, Martin laid out his definition of cultism as follows:

By cultism we mean the adherence to doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity and which claim the distinction of either tracing their origin to orthodoxy sources or of being in essential harmony with those sources. Cultism, in short, is any major deviation from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian Faith.

The most prominent among the cults are those that have been termed “the big five.” These are “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” “Christian Science,” “Mormonism,” “Unity,” and “Spiritualism.” All the aforementioned deny both the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ.

Evangelical countercult ministries or organizations, which specialize in the study and analysis of contemporary religions, generally classify as cults those modern-day groups that claim to be Christian while denying the fundamental tenets of historic Christianity. Martin’s procedure, as outlined in his book, The Kingdom of the Cults, exemplifies the approach taken by most evangelical countercult organizations today:

My approach to the subject then is threefold: (1) historical analysis of the salient facts connected with the rise of the cult systems; (2) the theological evaluation of the major teachings of those systems, and (3) an apologetic contrasts from the viewpoint of Biblical theology, with an emphasis upon exegesis (interpretation of Bible passages) and doctrines.

Not all Christian cult specialists take such a strongly theological approach. Some tackle the issue from sociological, anthropological, and psychological angles — relating and commenting on individuals who are or were formerly involved in groups labeled as cults.

Moreover, evangelical Protestants aren’t the only religious groups actively addressing the issues. Roman Catholics and Jews have also become involved in the matter, though for the most part they’ve done so within the secular anticult community.

Family Affair

The 1960s witnessed the dawning of the “Age of Aquarius” in what seemed to be a sudden and unexpected boom in Asian religion — most notably Hindu-based an Buddhist-based groups. Many of the new members, usually in their late teens and early twenties, came from middle-class urban families.

Their parents’ puzzlement quickly turned to concern and then fear. They had lost their children to alien religious groups. Strange new people had broken apart their families and taken from them their beloved offspring. What could be worse?

Why, they asked, would their son or daughter do something so drastic as to leave school, abandon work, and move away from home? It seemed extremely odd and unnatural that their children should undergo such a quick change in outlook, attitude, behavior, and attire. They weren’t acting their normal selves. What could have possibly made them that way?

The answer they arrived at was plain and simple: their rational faculties had been subverted; they were brainwashed. The Moonies, the Hare Krishnas, the Children of God, the Scientologists — these and other “destructive cults” manipulated and tricked the youth into giving up their lives and surrendering themselves wholly to the groups and their leaders.

Something had to be done. Outraged and stricken with grief, the parents consoled one another and organized themselves to counter the cause of their pain. These “destructive cults” posed a serious threat to society and had to be stopped.

Thus was born in the 1970s what has come to be known as the secular anticult movement (though its ranks include ministers, rabbis, and lay members of various Jewish and Christian denominations).

At first, members of the movement drew from the works of evangelicals to familiarize themselves with the “field of battle.” They were determined to learn everything they could about their adversaries. But some adjustments had to be made. Religion scholar J. Gordon Melton explains in his “Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America” that

[w]hile drawing upon Christian counter-cult literature in the beginning, the secular anti-cultists gradually discarded any overtly religious language as a means of designating cults in order to appeal to government authorities and avoid any seeming attack upon religious liberties. Thus, “cults” have come to be seen as groups that share a variety of generally destructive characteristics.

Several violent incidents involving relatively small and obscure groups only served to heighten the perceived threat: the Tate-La Bianca murders committed by the Manson family; the Symbionese Lebanese Army’s abduction and transformation of heiress Patricia Hearst into a terrorist; the tragedy in Jonestown, Guyana, involving the mass suicide of over nine hundred adults and children and the shooting of congressman Leo J. Ryan and members of his party.

The parents were joined in their cause by mental health professionals, lawyers, and former members who had dedicated themselves to combatting the further growth of groups they once joined. Many respected psychologists and psychiatrists helped give the movement credibility in the eyes of the media and the larger public. One such individual, Michael Langone of the American Family Foundation 1, set forth the movements’s understanding of destructive cults in a 1982 booklet titled “Destructive Cultism: Questions and Answers:”

A destructive cult is a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits.

A destructive cult: a) dictates — sometimes in great detail — how members should think, feel, and act; b) claims a special, exalted status (e.g. occult powers; a mission to save humanity) — for itself and/or its leader(s) — that usually sets it in opposition to the mainline society and/or family; c) exploits its members, psychologically, financially, and/or physically; d) utilizes manipulative, or “mind control” techniques, especially the denigration of independent critical thinking, to recruit prospects and make members loyal, obedient, and subservient; and e) causes considerable psychological harm to many of its members and to members’ families.

Although some people deem a group destructive merely because it is deviant or “heretical,” the point of view advanced here reserves the label for groups that tend to be exploitative, manipulative, psychologically damaging, exclusive, and totalist. According to this perspective, a group may be deviant and “heretical” without being destructive.

In 1988 Langone co-wrote a book titled Cults: What Every Parent Should Know, defining destructive cults as “those which tend to use extreme and unethical techniques of manipulation to recruit and assimilate members and to control members’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior as a means of furthering the leader’s goals.”

What’s particularly significant is the final sentence of that paragraph, which reads, “Although most cults [that] have aroused concern are religious, they can also be political, commercial, or pseudotherapeutic.” Thus, it seems that within the secular anticult community a group doesn’t necessarily have to be religiously oriented to qualify as a cult.

Clearing the Confusion

So far we’ve seen the various definitions that the term “cult” has been given. In the first instance, sociologists apply the classification in a purely descriptive sense without indicating whether particular cults are good or bad. Then, there are evangelical countercult organizations who label as cults groups that deviate from the fundamental doctrines revealed in the Bible and embraced by historic Protestantism; the negative slant they give the term “cult” is in reference to theology.

Whereas the two definitions above employ the term “cult” in a religious context, the final definition, coming from secular anticultists, does not view the term as necessarily having a religious character. Rather, the distinguishing feature of a cult is its unethical and manipulative treatment of unawary members. The negative connotation of this last definition is far more reaching than the second definition, whose negative pronouncement may only be regarded as such by evangelicals.

By and large, whenever the media report on a “cult,” chances are that it usually concerns a group that is a combination of definitions two and three above — that is, some unorthodox group (by evangelical standards) that has or continues to engage in unethical and/or manipulative practices. The complication isn’t helped by the fact that the terms “denominations,” “sects,” and “cults” are sometimes used interchangeably.

Richardson, along with a number of other sociologists, laments the term “cult” has been used “as a ‘rug’ under which were swept the troublesome and idiosyncratic religious experiences of mystics and other religious deviants.”

So far, at least one attempt has been made by sociologists to redefine the term “cult” to accommodate the more popular usage while at the same time retaining it as a relatively value-free description that’s still useful in the area of social science. But as we’ve noted above, there seems to be a growing consensus among sociologists to discard the term altogether in place of something else that’s not so negatively loaded.

Yet even those terms referring to “new religious movements” or “alternative religions” have been met with stiff opposition by the secular anticult groups. “Although ‘new religions’ lend more (sometimes deserved) respectability to many groups,” comments Langone, “it may, on the other hand, lend a false respectability to dubious groups.”

How strongly do secular anticultists feel about their stance? In one instance they wrote that “[a]lthough we have placed the adjective ‘destructive’ in front of ‘cult’ in order to emphasize that some cults are benign, we, like most writers in this field, will use the word ‘cult’ with the pejorative connotations of ‘destructive’ implied.”

In some cases secular anticultists label a particular group as a cult that sociologists and evangelical countercultists will not, such as a group galvanized around a particular political persuasion. In other cases, evangelicals may classify a group as a cult that the other two may not, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons.

Given the fact that there’s currently no universal definition of a cult, it seems best to ask one simple question whenever someone talks about cults: “Just what do you mean by the term ‘cult’?” You may not agree with the way the person uses the term, but at least you’ll know where he or she is coming from.

You may also want to ask yourself the same question before referring to any group as a cult. It may not be such as bad idea to begin by explaining what you mean by the term “cult” in order to avoid any potential misunderstanding. You never know. All the while you’re talking about cults, the person listening may have a different concept altogether.

About this article

religious cults
This article is Chapter 10 in the book, “Prophets of the Apocalypse: David Koresh and Other American Messiahs”, by Kenneth Samples, Erwin de Castro, Richard Abanes, and Robert Lyle (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994).

Used by permission of Baker Book House Company, © 1994. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other
media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company.

Note: Though “Prophets of the Apocalypse” is currently out of print, you may be able to find a copy via Amazon.com

See Also


  1. Later renamed, International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) – Apologetics Index
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