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J. Gordon Melton

J. Gordon Melton, cult apologist, defender, Institute for the Study of American Religion

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J. Gordon Melton

AcademicPluralistic J. Gordon Melton


J. Gordon Melton co-founded cult apologist organization CESNUR, and sits on its international board.

He also directs the Institute for the Study of American Religion (ISAR).

In 2011 Melton became Distinguished Professor of American Religious History of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion.

This Methodist minister (ordained elder in the United Methodist Church) is seen by many Christian and secular apologists and counter-cult professionals as a cult apologist. Some refer to him as the 'Father of Cult Apologists.'

Though Melton professes to be an Evangelical Christian, many Evangelicals do not consider his views on cults and other religions as representative.

For example, Melton claims that the Jehovah's Witnesses, Unification Church, Jonestown (Jim Jones' People's Temple), Aum Shinrikyo, the Church of Scientology, etcetera, are not cults.

Rather than recognize and acknowledge the sociological and/or theological aspects that make each of these movements cults, Melton prefers the euphemistic term "New Religious Movements."

Controversial Figure

Melton has become a controversial figure for several reasons: For these reasons, while most people acknowledge Melton's expertise at gathering and organizing research data, many religion professionals and secular anti-cult activitists believe he does a poor job at interpreting that data.

Melton's 'Missiological' Approach

In a message forwarded to AR-vent, the companion list to AR-talk, J. Gordon Melton wrote

One of my motivations for getting into "cult" studies was the abysmal state of evangelicals studies on new religions and the amateurish and "hateful" attitude that unfortunately still pervades their approach.

My interest in new religions is ultimately missiological not apologetic. I believe that the emphasis apologetics in the Evangelical community (especially what passes for popular apologetics) is a doing more harm than good.
Source: Msg by J. Gordon Melton, posted Aug. 27, 1999 by Irving Hexham to AR-vent (later renamed to AR-forum)

The publisher of Apologetics Index believes it is Melton's approach that does more harm than good. It certainly appears that Melton's "missiological" interest generally works in favor of the cults, many of which use his works,
  1. in their crusades against the anticult and countercult movements
  2. , and
  3. in their efforts at gaining legitimacy in the form of official governmental recognition

Melton's Point Of View

The following quote is illustrative of Melton's stand:

In labelling the alternative religions as 'cults', anti-cultists assumed that in some measure the alternative religions were essentially all alike, an assumption that has proved completely false. The only characteristic they share is a negative evaluation; they each present an alternative to traditional Christianity. The assumption of similarity has been used to attack the 'cults', by attributing to all of them the faults and excesses of any one of them. This practice, among with the highly polemic motivation underlying most anti-cult literature, makes such materials the least useful in understanding the nature of life in alternative religions, though of immense usefulness in understanding the climate in which NRMs have had to operate.
Source: Modern Alternative Religions in the West, J. Gordon Melton in A New Handbook of Living Religions, edited by John R. Hinnels, Penguin Reference, London, 1997. P. 610.

That is an inaccurate and unfair description of what motivates anticultists and/or Christian apologists and countercultists (Melton fails to make the distinction).

Melton also misses several points.

For one thing, in some measure, cults are all alike. They share certain sociologial and/or theological characteristics. See these articles, and this theological definition of a cult - the latter seen from an orthodox, Evangelical Christian perspective.

For another, cults are not 'attacked' by "attributing to all of them the faults and excesses of any one of them." Rather, they are evaluated on their invidual sociological characteristics and/or theological claims (see, for example, the work of these organizations).

This highlights another distinction Melton often fails to acknowledge. While secular anticultists may focus on "the nature of life in alternative religions" (a sociologial approach), Christian apologists and countercult professionals concern themselves first with the theological claims of alternative religions, and second with their sociological behavior. As Alan Gomes, author of "Unmasking the Cults," says:

Bad doctrine produces bad fruit behaviorally (e.g., Mark 7:7-13; Col. 2:20-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Pet. 2:1; Rev. 2:14-15, 20, 24), which is as true for Christians as it is for cultists. As Van Baalen stated, 'If practice follows from theory, if life is based upon teaching, it follows that the wrong doctrine will issue in the wrong attitude toward God and Christ, and consequently in warped and twisted Christian life.'
Source: Alan Gomes, ''Unmasking The Cults'' Zondervan, 1995, p. 47

Promoting Religious Pluralism

In trying to portray cults merely as "religious alternatives" to Christianity, Melton is not taking a "missiological" approach - at least not on behalf of Christianity. After all, instead of recognizing and acknowledging what is bad about such movements - sociologially and/or theologically - he spends his time and energy crusading on their behalf, mainly highlighting what he deems to be good about those movements.

At the very least, someone who considers himself to be an Evangelical Christian, can be expected to evaluate religious movements from a Biblical perspective - making sure people are aware of how these movements counter the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their theology and/or behavior.

Problem is that Melton, a United Methodist minister and self-proclaimed evangelical, is ill-equipped to evaluate cults on a theological level. After all, he admits:

And I have, not being a theologian -- and I make no claim to be one -- a difficult task in sorting through doctrinal questions to do an adequate theological analysis of most groups' beliefs. I'm a church historian with most of my theological work in historical theology, not systematics. That's part of where I'm coming from. I also have another problem...I have a problem as to where to draw the line -- what's heresy and what's evangelically kosher. What is acceptable doctrinal deviation?
Source: Ron Enroth and J. Gordon Melton, Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails. Brethren Press, 1985, 1, 2 (Regarding this book, see this article). Emphasis, Apologetics Index

If J. Gordon Melton indeed does not know how to tell orthodoxy from heresy, he is unable to determine whether or not a movement is a cult of Christianity. Christians may well wonder on what basis he evaluates the theology of the movements he discusses and defends (see this evaluation of his testimony in the Local Church legal case)

But in light of his admission that he does not know where to draw the line, it is not surprising that Melton's approach has established him as a missionary for religious pluralism.

Indeed, he sees himself on the forefront of religious dialogue:

In 1993, at the centennial of the World's Parliament of Religions, the events which marked the beginning of religious pluralism in the West, the new religions participated as full members is dialogue. In addition, religious and social science scholars, led by the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, California, CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions) in Turin, Italy, and INFORM in London, now draw on three decades of new religious studies. There is every sign that as the twenty-first century approaches the new alternative religions, having become a familiar part of the Western religious landscape, will be fully accepted as members of the religious community.
Source: Modern Alternative Religions in the West, J. Gordon Melton in A New Handbook of Living Religions, edited by John R. Hinnels, Penguin Reference, London, 1997. P. 616.

Not coincidentally, Melton is founder and chairman of ISAR (Institute for the Study of American Religion), and is a CESNUR boardmember (chairman of CESNUR USA). INFORM's Eileen Barker is also a CESNUR board member.

CESNUR, led by Massimo Introvigne, is the world's foremost cult apologist organization.

Melton's Work On Behalf Of Cults

Melton's defense of cults has earned him listings as a "religion expert" by the Scientology-backed "Cult Awarness Network" and The Family (formerly known as the Children of God) (listing), a movement he tirelessly defends. But having cults determine who is or is not a religion expert is like having former President Bill Clinton define what is or is not a lie.

Melton filed an amicus curiae (Explation: Friend of the Court) brief on behalf of the Church of Scientology in the case of "Church of Scientology International v. Steven Fishman and Uwe Geertz." It is referred to in Jeffrey K. Hadden's statement on behalf of the Church of Scientology in the same case. For details, see "When Scholars Know Sin."

Melton also testified on behalf of the Local Church against the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. (See this article on the case) In his testimony, he made it clear he considers apostates to be liars. SCP endured an extended financial crisis as a result of the Local Church's four-year lawsuit, but survived. (Read SCP's critique of Melton's statements during the court case)

After the 1995 gas attacks committed by Aum Shinrikyo, Melton joined a couple of other cult defenders on a trip to Japan to defend the cult's religious freedom.

[Los Angeles lawyer Barry Fisher] was accompanied by two Santa Barbarans - J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions, and James R. Lewis, director of the Association of World Academics for Religious Education--and Thomas Banigan of Anver Bioscience Design Inc. in Sierra Madre.
Source: Alleged Persecution of Cult Investigated, Los Angeles Times

The Americans held a pair of news conferences to suggest that the sect was innocent of criminal charges and was a victim of excessive police pressure.

The Americans said the sect had invited them to visit after they expressed concern to Aum's New York branch about religious freedom in Japan. They said their airfare, hotel bills and "basic expenses" were paid by the cult.

One of the Americans, James Lewis, told a hostile and evidently incredulous roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office Monday that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both murder cases. He said the Americans had determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum.

Incidentally: Were the cult apologists really invited? Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi writes:

Another claim by the AUM apologists is that the trip to Japan was initiated and financed by AUM 'dissidents,' shocked by the acts of their leaders. The reality is that the trip was initiated by the NRM scholars involved, who contacted AUM to offer their help, and that there are no AUM dissident. As of 1999, AUM Shinrikyo is alive and well, one and indivisible, the members united in their loyaly to Shoko Asahara, and this includes the alleged dissidents who hosted our collegues in 1995.
Source: Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Collaborationism and Research Integrity, Part 1, Chapter 1 of Misunderstanding Cults (University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 36

Melton and Vampires

Like fellow cult apologist Massimo Introvigne, director of CESNUR, Melton has a hobbiest interest in vampirism, a topic on which he has written "The Vampire Book: An Encyclopedia of the Undead" (Visible Ink Press, 1994), and produced a video guide: "Videohound's Vampires On Video" (Visible Ink Press, March, 1997).

Both Melton and Introvigne are members of the The Transylvanian Society of Dracula - an association dedicated to the study of Dracula and vampires. Massimo Introvigne presides over TSD's Italian chapter, and Melton heads the American chapter (which he founded). See also this letter from Introvigne, which includes information about the society.

Gordon Melton also was one of the organizers of "Dracula 97 - The Vampire Event of the Century," at which he appeared dressed as Dracula. See this Los Angeles Times writeup of the event.

• Quotes
Melton on Apostates

Like many other cult apologists, Melton essentially calls ex-cult members liars:

DR. MELTON: When you are investigating groups such as this, you never rely upon the unverified testimony of ex-members.


DR. MELTON: To put it bluntly, hostile ex-members invariably shade the truth. They invariably blow out of proportion minor incidents and turn them into major incidents, and over a period of time their testimony almost always changes because each time they tell it they get the feedback of acceptance or rejection from those to whom they tell it, and hence it will be developed and merged into a different world view that they are adopting.
As stated during expert testimony for the Local Church in its lawsuit against Spiritual Counterfeit Project. Published at this Local Church site    Information about the lawsuit.

The major source of primary data to appear in anti-cult books comes from the reports of ex-members who have broken with the group because of an intense internal dispute or deprogramming. Unfortunately, their testimonies are usually highly distorted by their hostility and desire to hurt the group at all costs.
J. Gordon Melton and Robert Moore, The Cult Experience. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982, 171-172

Melton on Governmental Safety Measures

Note Melton's different approaches:

   A: regarding Israel's actions against what it considers to be cultic movements:

Gordon Melton, another leading authority on apocalyptic sects, said Israelis authorities need to err on the side of caution.

"They are sitting on a powder keg in Israel," said Melton, head of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara.

"Here it would be a gross violation of civil rights. But given the situation there, it is not as mean as it appears. There are Jewish and Muslim groups with long histories of violence, and the Israelis are afraid these (apocalyptic Christian) groups will spark violence."

   B: regarding Japan's actions against a murderous cult:

The reputation of religion scholars was not helped by the intervention of American scholars specializing in new religions (though not, it should he stressed, experts in the Japanese field). In the aftermath Of the gas attack and the government raids on Aum, and before the confessions showing Aum was the guilty party, American scholars Gordon Melton and James Lewis visited Japan, where they spoke of their concern for the rights of religious movements and the fears of government repression of religion. Since it was widely reported that their tickets to Japan had been paid for by Aum, and since the general public and media already believed Aum was guilty and hence ought to be repressed, their visit was not well received in Japan. Melton had earlier made the comment that, when the media reports scandal stories about religious movements the substance of such stories normally proves to be less than the extent of the allegations; in this case, however, the evidence showed the actions of the movement to be even greater than had originally been rumored. As a result of all this, not only has the reputation and image of religion in general been damaged, but so has that of its scholars--at precisely the moment when it is important for the voices of religion scholars to be heard who are concerned at the government's rhetoric about altering the nation's religious freedom laws.
Ian Reader, "Aum Affair Intensifies Japan's Religious Crisis; An Analysis." Religion Watch, Vol. 10, No. 9, July/August, 1995, 1-2

Melton on Two-By-Twos

"We compiled a list of 47 different cult characteristics," says lawyer Arends. "The Two-by-twos meet all the points. They are extremely secretive, have no written doctrine or records, you can't get a straight answer from them, and yet they claim to be the only path to salvation. Their 'friends' must give unconditional obedience to the workers, or they're guilty of backsliding. And if they backslide, they're damned." Mr. Arends says his case is bolstered by California academic Ronald Enroth's work Churches That Abuse, Port Coquitlam author Lloyd Fortt's In Search of 'the Truth', and the testimony of a dozen former members in Alberta.

However, Gordon Melton, the California-based editor of the Encyclopedia of American Religions, argues the Two-by-twos are simply an "old-line, 19th-century Christadelphian sect," an isolated subculture of non-Trinitarian Christians. They are not a cult because "there's no real threats or violence," he says. "A good comparison is the Amish. They keep to themselves, with a minimal creed; they stress community, and their faith is passed from generation to generation. The big difference is that the Two-by-twos blend into the community, own houses and work normal jobs."
Doubts about a mystery church, Alberta Report, Sep. 15, 1997


Secular "'Apologist' vs. 'Alarmist,' TIME, magazine article on J. Gordon Melton and Ronald Enroth:
They are both experts in religious studies; they live in the same city in California; each is an evangelical Protestant. They once co-authored a book, and even share the academic look of beard and glasses. But Dr. Ronald Enroth and Dr. Gordon Melton have one big difference: each thinks the other is dead wrong about cults.

Melton, raised a Methodist in Alabama, is a religious studies researcher at the University of California, at the opposite end of Santa Barbara. He thinks new religious groups deserve every protection under rights to freedom of belief and argues they are not only harmless but beneficial for spiritual pluralism and moral teaching.
"'Apologist' vs. 'Alarmist,' TIME, Jan. 27, 1997 Vol. 149 No. 4 "

Secular Book Review: Finding Enlightenment: Ramtha's School of Ancient Wisdom This scathing review provides some insight into Melton's views and research tactics. Enlightening indeed.
Secular Cult Apologists FAQ Produced by Tilman Hausherr
Secular Evidence of Expert Witness Attacked J. Gordon Melton's characterization of Jim Jones' People's Temple: "This wasn't a cult. This was a respectable, mainline Christian group." Same article shows Gordon stating the Jehovah's Witnesses is not a cult.
Non-Christian The Farce Revealed : Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective A critical look at the AWARE study, ''Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective,'' which was edited by cult apologists James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton
Secular Giving Cults A Good Name How a secular magazine views Melton.
Non-Christian Integrity and Suspicion in New Religious Movement Research Overview of a paper by Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. Identifies J. Gordon Melton as one of four American scholars who...
...traveled to Japan "to defend Aum...against charges of mass terrorism" and urge Japanese authorities not to "crush a religion and deny freedom."

Secular Tokyo Cult Finds An Unlikely Supporter Washington Post article on Melton's defense of Aum Shinrikyo.
Secular When Scholars Know Sin: Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters By Steven A. Kent and Theresa Krebs



Secular Freedom of Mind Mailing list associated with Steve Hassan's organization


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Grey Zone, Unsure, or OffkeyAcademic Institute for the Study of American Religion (ISAR) Melton's own organization. The site is intended to provide "factual data on the many new and more controversial religious movements, which are popularly labeled as cults." However, it provides little information, deals with only a handful of groups (among those absent are the movements Melton doesn't consider to be cults), and the site has not been updated since June '97.

About this page:
J. Gordon Melton
First posted: Mar. 1, 1997
Last Updated: Jun. 1, 2004
Editor: Anton Hein
Copyright: Apologetics Index
Link to: http://www.apologeticsindex.org/m06.html
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