A popular method for attacking Mormonism is to call it a cult. In this article, we will look at whether or not there is a Mormon cult by scholarly definition and also why people choose to use a term like Mormon cult. Then we will evaluate whether or not this is a useful technique for trying to convert Mormons—or for keeping others from investigating Mormonism.
Let’s start with the dictionary. Since we’re talking about word definitions, that is the place to begin. I make my living as a writer, so I have a print dictionary on my shelves—the Concise Oxford American Dictionary created by Oxford University. They offer four definitions for the word cult. If you’re not familiar with dictionaries, you’ll need to know that multiple definitions for a word show the different possible meanings. They are listed in order based on how common or authoritive they are.
This means the most common and appropriate definition of a cult is the first one. In my dictionary, the first definition is: “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” Right away, you’ll see this definition fits all religions, including Christianity as a whole. This is the scholarly definition, not the propaganda definition. Christianity is a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward Jesus Christ. This means that by scholarly definition, Christianity is a cult. As a writer, I understand the importance of words. We must never use a word without really knowing what it means. The word cult is not an insult or a terrible thing. It is simply the definition of a religious sect, which means that yes, Mormonism is a cult—but if you are a Christian of any denomination, you also belong to a cult. That is not an insult—just a fact.
Let’s move on to definition number two. The second possible meaning of the word “cult” is: “a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” Early Christianity had this connotation to Jewish people and to pagan groups. They were a small group and their beliefs were definitely thought of as weird because they were very different from the prevailing beliefs. Now, does this mean there is a Mormon cult? The first part of this statement is that it must be a relatively small group. While Mormonism is small compared to many other religions, it is not a small religion. There are more than 14 million Mormons world-wide and they are one of the fastest growing religions. A recent report by the Council of Churches showed Mormonism is one of the few religions still growing. Most Christian religions are losing membership. 14 million people and growing does not count as small by any definition.
The second part of that definition is that the beliefs must seem strange or sinister to others. This is a very relative definition. After all, as mentioned earlier, Christian beliefs were very odd to the Jewish and pagan groups who encountered early Christianity. Today, atheists consider Christianity—or any belief system—as weird or sinister. They find a belief in angels, in a God who tells us what to do, and in an afterlife, weird, and they see the desire to live by the teachings of someone they don’t believe in to be sinister. By this definition, every religion is a cult to the people who don’t practice it. As a result, this makes the term cult relative and therefore meaningless as a definition.
The third definition is this: “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” Again, this is a relative definition. It can be applied to Christianity as a whole by people who do not believe in Jesus Christ. They see our faith in Jesus to be misplaced and our desire to live according to His teachings as excessive devotion, because we put Him before ourselves.
This is often the definition—even though it’s pretty far down the priority list—that causes people to think there is a Mormon cult. Often, this belief is based on misunderstanding of how Mormonism works. Many people mistakenly believe Mormons worship Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was God’s instrument for restoring the gospel and he served as its first prophet and president. However, respecting and honoring someone is not the same as worshipping him. Most Christians respect and honor John the Baptist, Noah, and other Biblical leaders. They also probably have more modern religious figures they honor and respect, such as the early founders of the Protestant faith, including Martin Luther and William Tyndale (who is considered the father of the English Bible). They may have a favorite television pastor they follow, honor, and respect. However, they don’t worship these people or pray to them. This is how Mormons view Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders. Throughout Biblical history, there were prophets and God said those who lived in their time must listen to them and respect them. Jesus quoted many of these early prophets and treated them with respect because they were His Father’s prophets. He didn’t worship them and Mormons don’t worship either ancient or modern prophets. Joseph Smith was a man with all the challenges of mortality. Jesus Christ is our Savior and perfected. He and God receive our worship.
There is a fourth definition, but it is not religious in nature, applying to modern fads instead, so we won’t worry about that one.
We’ve seen that the official definition of a cult fits mainstream Christianity as well as it does Mormon Christianity. That means that calling Mormonism a cult is not a scholarly definition. Then why do people use the term, other than perhaps not having taken the time to learn what a cult really is?
As a professional author, I understand that words have power. Words matter. They can change lives and they can change beliefs. The right words can bring someone to Christ—or they can chase someone away from Christ. With great power comes great responsibility. God gave us the gift of language and He expects us to use it wisely and responsibly. In the New Testament, we often see Jesus’ enemies trying to play word games in order to trap Him. They use words as weapons, not gifts. As followers of Christ, we do not want to emulate Christ’s enemies. For that reason, we must never use words as weapons. They must always be used to do what Christ taught us to do. Christ preached a gospel of love and so that is what we must do as well. As is often said, our mouth is used to testify of Christ—it must, therefore, never be polluted by using it in ways that are not loving and Christ-like. We invite you, then to drop the words Mormon cult from your references and vocabulary. Mormons follow Jesus Christ.
Using the word cult as a weapon is called verbal manipulation. It is propaganda, meant to cause people to feel instead of to think. Rather than giving people facts and asking them to pray to know whether or not they are true, the user’s goal is to get the listener to stop thinking and simply feel an emotion—fear, hatred, or whatever. When they do this, they stop thinking. They are no longer willing to measure the teachings of that religion against the Bible or even to seek God’s advice. James, believed to be the half-brother of Jesus, said that if we lack wisdom—want to know if something is true—we can ask God and He will tell us what we need to know. However, he warns us we must ask with nothing wavering. This means we must ask in faith and be prepared to act on the answer. If you ask, but don’t act on the answer because it wasn’t what you hoped for, then your faith is wavering. (See James 1:5 in the Bible.)
The goal of emotionally loaded words is to stop you from doing what James asked you to do. Satan doesn’t want us to think and he most certainly does not want us to pray. If he can get us to react emotionally to propaganda, he can prevent us from doing what God asked us to do. In addition, he can get others, whose goals are more noble than the ones who came up with the idea of using the word, to spread it around to others, also preventing them from praying.
Here’s what you need to keep in mind: If you are trying to witness to a Mormon, calling him or his religion names will not get you where you want to be. Would you be kindly inclined toward me if I started right off by calling you and your faith names? Of course not. That’s not how Jesus operated, so it’s not how His followers should operate. As soon as someone starts using emotionally loaded propaganda words like cult, Mormon cult, I stop listening. Mormons know that missionary work is most effective when it is done in a loving way that respects the faith traditions of others. You won’t find a good Mormon calling your religion names or making fun of it.
Here is what Gordon B. Hinckley, a previous Mormon prophet, taught about sharing faith with others. It shapes how Mormons share Christianity and if you want to talk to a Mormon and get him to listen, you’ll have to take the same approach. Using terms like Mormon cult simply won’t do what you want it to do:
“We recognize the good in all people. We recognize the good in all churches, in their efforts to improve mankind and to teach principles that lead to good, stable, productive living. To people everywhere we simply say, ‘You bring with you all the good that you have, and let us add to it. That is the principle on which we work’” (interview with Philippines Television, 30 April 1996, quoted in Gordon B. Hinckley, “Words of the Living Prophet,” Ensign, June 1997).
Does your denomination have good in it? Does it make your life better? Tell me how—don’t tell me about my religion because I know about my religion. Instead, just tell me about your and how it affects you. That invites the Holy Spirit into the conversation and creates a Christ-like dialogue.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.