Thursday, September 9, 2010

Is the Mormon Church a sect or a cult?

Lately, I have had some conversations about whether the Mormon Church should be considered a cult or a church / sect. I have always been uncomfortable with calling the Mormon Church a cult. It just feels weird to me. Yes, the church does have some strange views and expectations of its members, but there are other churches that are similar. Every church a cult, every cult a church?

I had the opportunity to look at a brand new Sociology book by John J. Macionis. It is simply titled Sociology 13th Edition. I found this book very interesting with the various topics that it covers and of course, it covers religion. I appreciated the fact that it covered all religions in a very non-biased way. I found a section that defines sects / cults and I am going to reproduce that section here.


. . . The sect, a type of religious organization that stands apart from the larger society. Sect members have rigid religious convictions and deny the beliefs of others. Compared to churches, which try to appeal to everyone (the term catholic also means "universal"), a sect forms an exclusive group. To members of a sect, religion is not just one aspect of life but a firm plan for living. In extreme cases, members of a sect withdraw completely from society in order to practice their religion without interference. The Amish community is one example of a North American sect that isolates itself. Because our culture generally considers religious tolerance a virtue, members of sects are sometimes accused of being narrow-minded in insisting that they alone follow the true religion (Kraybill, 1994; P.W. Williams, 2002).

. . . To sustain their membership, many sects actively recruit, or proselytize, new members. Sects highly value the experience of conversion, a personal transformation or religious rebirth. For example, members of Jehovah's Witnesses go door to door to share their faith with others in the hope of attracting new members.


A cult is a religious organization that is largely outside a society's cultural traditions. Most sects spin off from conventional religious organizations. However, a cult typically forms around a highly charismatic leader who offers a compelling message about a new and very different way of life. As many as 5000 cults exist in the United States (Marquand & Wood, 1997).

Because some cult principles or practices are unconventional, the popular view is that they are deviant or even evil. The suicides of thirty-nine members of California's Heaven Gate cult in 1997 - people who claimed that dying was a doorway to a higher existence, perhaps in the company of aliens from outer space - confirmed the negative image the public holds of most cults. In short, calling any religious community a "cult" amounts to dismissing its members as crazy (Shupe, 1995; Gleick, 1997).

This charge is unfair because there is nothing basically wrong with this kind of religious organization. Many longstanding religions - Christianity, Islam, and Judaism included - began as cults. Of course, few cults exist for very long. One reason is that they are even more at odds with the larger society than sects. Many cults demand that members not only accept their doctrine but also adopt a radically new lifestyle. This is why people sometimes accuse cults of brainwashing their members, although research suggests that most people who join cults experience no psychological harm (Kilbourne, 1983; P.W. Williams, 2002).
Macionis, John J. 2010. Sociology 13th Edition. Publisher: Pearson.

So, what do you think? Is the Mormon Church a sect or a cult? I tend to lean more toward a sect. The church has many strict expectations and views itself as "the one and only true church on the face of the earth," but categorizing the church as a cult seems a bit extreme to me. Is Joseph Smith charismatic enough to be considered a cult leader? Should members of the Mormon Church be considered crazy? If the Jehovah's Witnesses are not considered a cult, then certainly the Mormon Church is not a cult either.


  1. This post poses an important question. This is something that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. When I look at those online check-lists the church often comes off looking like a cult though I myself don't like calling it a cult. I think some people are drawn to calling it a cult because it sounds a bit sexy to say that you were a member of a cult... In reality if the church leaders asked people to do anything truly harmful or truly crazy I really don't believe that members would do it. I think most member exercise enough common sense to not say kill themselves or others.

    The church in the early days sure looks cultish though when you think of the blood atonement. Maybe the church shifted from cult to sect with the death of Joseph Smith.

  2. Based on these definitions I would say that I see Mormonism in Joseph Smith's day as a cult. He was very charismatic (and IMO a liar), the practice of polygamy certainly took them outside of mainstream culture. Mormons were hated and persecuted.

    Today Mormons can blend in to mainstream society. A Mormon could choose to go about their everyday life without anyone guessing that they are a Mormon. Lot's of people choose not to drink or smoke and are not Mormon. Basically, being a Mormon today can be quite harmonious with the Western world's idea of living, still 'peculiar' but it fits in.

    Oh, and I certainly wouldn't call any of the leaders of late charismatic!

    I'd be happy to say that the Mormons of the early 1800s were a cult and the LDS Church today has transformed itself into a cult by becoming more mainstream and by actually believing Joseph Smith rather than outright lying themselves. The lying has already been done. Now the members, all the way to the top, believe that it is god's truth!

  3. oops, the LDS Church has transformed itself into a SECT I meant to say!

  4. It's an incredibly successful business that alters its product -- religious doctrine -- in response to scientific evidence at odds with its teachings as well as prevailing views about political correctness. Otherwise, it would be virtually indistinguishable from the FLDS organization.

  5. Cult and successful business! nice. Now, if only I could get people to listen to me and give me ten percent...

  6. "I know of a guy that goes around telling people to love each other and get this, they have to be "born of water and of the spirit" otherwise you cant get into a heaven kingdom! Oh and then you have to do this thing were you drink and eat his body Sounds insane right! " and thats what the Jews said when they heard about Jesus and his disciples (who were jews by the way). I think people try to call LDS a cult because it is a negative connotation. A Sociological look into the LDS church would call it a sect. @ Maureen: did you go back in time and meet Joseph Smith? No? then keep your opinions to yourself. Especially when they are so logically beef headed. Everything else you wrote thats not a jackass opinion though is pretty accurate( the part were you reluctantly state its a sect)

  7. Lou, are you for real? You come to my blog and then tell me and my friends to keep our opinions to ourselves? I am curious how you came across my blog. Do you want to have a conversation or did you just want to leave a smart ass remark?

  8. Oh Lou. I think 30+ years of active LDS membership gives someone the right to formulate and voice their own OPINIONS in a forum such as this. If I were to walk into an LDS testimony mtg and spout my opinions that would be different but here and just about anywhere online is the perfect place to throw these kinds of ideas around. You however, chose to indulge in bottom level trolling i.e. telling someone you disagree with to shut the hell up. How does that work for you in your face to face dealings with people? Not so great huh. Online commenters are people too (pffffft! lmao).