Critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed the Mormon Church) sometimes refer to it as a "cult." The term is meant to be both derogatory and accusatory. This article will openly address the spirit and content of those claims in light of the truth about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is a cult?Merriam-Webster dictionary online presents five definitions for the word cult:
- formal religious veneration
- a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents
- a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious
- a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator (as in "health cults")
- a great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work
These definitions provide denotations of the word "cult"—literal meanings devoid of emotional content. The connotations, or emotional definitions of the word "cult" may include the following:
- any group which deviates from orthodox or historical Christianity
- a group which claims to be in conformity with biblical truth, but which deviates from it
- a group with an authoritarian, charismatic leader who has an exceptional hold upon his or her followers
- a group which claims to be the only way to God
- a group which uses intimidation or manipulation to gain and keep members
- a group which lays claim to the financial resources of its members
- a group which monopolizes the time and thoughts of its members, leading them to avoid other contacts and activities
- a group which compromises the individual's ability to make free choices without the approval or advice of the leader(s)
- a religion or sect considered by the general society to be extremist, dangerous, or unorthodox
Often, new religious movements are branded by society as cults. These new religions either fade away into obscurity, or gain members and become more accepted, thereby shedding the stigma assigned to them at their origin. For instance, the first followers of Jesus were viewed as apostate Jews, or Jews trying to establish a cult around Jesus, a charismatic leader. As Christianity spread to the Gentiles, it was viewed as a cult by the pagan societies into which it was introduced. It took hundreds of years to establish a Christian orthodoxy. Cultism (as far as Christians are concerned) is now defined in relationship to that orthodoxy.
—It should be noted that in British English, the definitions for the words cult and sect are opposite those of American English. Americans generally view a sect as a branch or division of a larger religious group, and a cult as an extreme or unorthodox group. The British define a cult as a branch or division of a larger religious group, and a sect as an extreme or unorthodox group.
Is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ a cult by literal definition?
The first literal definition for the word cult—"a formal religious veneration"—defines every religious group on earth. The restored gospel of Jesus Christ is a religion and a church. It is also a system of religious beliefs and ritual, conforming to the second definition, as do all churches. (With this definition, there could be such a thing as a Latter-day Saint or Mormon Cult.)
- Is the restore gospel of Jesus Christ unorthodox? The answer to this question depends on one's point of view. Christian orthodoxy dates back to councils making decisions on doctrine after the death of the Apostles. Protestant orthodoxy dates back to the Protestant Reformation, which began with Martin Luther in 1517. If one measures Church doctrine against these orthodoxies, then restored gospel of Jesus Christ is unorthodox. However, Latter-day Saints believe that the Lord taught true doctrine to Adam and to every prophet after Adam, and that orthodoxy itself is an apostasy from true doctrine established with Adam and all the prophets. The restored gospel of Jesus Christ, then, is a restoration of the Lord's established doctrines, and all other sects of Christianity could be viewed as unorthodox. (If the Latter-day Saint way of looking at religious history is true, then there is no Latter-day Saint or Mormon Cult.)
- Is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ spurious? Latter-day Saints believe that God alone can answer that question, and that He is willing to answer that question for anyone who asks Him in sincerity: "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." (Moroni 10:4–5) The Holy Ghost can verify the truthfulness of the gospel as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ, and prove that there is no Mormon Cult. God is the highest authority one can go to for such answers.
- Is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ a health cult? No. Nor is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ a substitute for health care. Latter-day Saints routinely seek medical assistance when they are sick or injured, as well as divine help through prayer or Priesthood Blessings. Latter-day Saints follow a health code given by the Lord, called the "Word of Wisdom," found in section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Latter-day Saints are counseled by their leaders not to go off on a tangent, reading into this health code things that are not there: "If we turn a health law or any other principle into a form of religious fanaticism, we are looking beyond the mark."1
- Do Latter-day Saints show great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work? Members of the Church of Jesus Christ are devoted to Christ. One definition of a cult is that the members are in the thrall of a powerful and charismatic personality. Thus, some critics of the Church claim that members worship Joseph Smith. This is untrue. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ worship God in the name of Christ, and the atonement of Christ is at the center of Church doctrine. Thus, there is no such thing as a Latter-day Saint or Mormon Cult.
Is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ a Cult by Emotional Definition?
- Does the restored gospel of Jesus Christ deviate from orthodox or historical Christianity? Yes, but not from original Christianity as it was given to Adam and all the prophets since Adam.
- Does the restored gospel of Jesus Christ claim to conform to biblical truth but deviate from it? The restored gospel of Jesus Christ conforms to biblical truth exactly. Some examples:
- The Bible says Christ was resurrected. Latter-day Saints believe He is still a resurrected being.
- The apostle Paul talks about baptism for the dead, an ordinance now found only in the Church of Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:29)
- Christ prayed to God the Father. Latter-day Saints still believe they are two separate beings. (John 14:16)
- Christ was baptized by immersion. It is the only acceptable form of baptism for members of the Church of Jesus Christ.
- Does the restored gospel of Jesus Christ have a charismatic, authoritarian leader who has a remarkable hold over the Church's constituents? Those who accuse the Church of being a cult feel that Joseph Smith fills this role. Joseph Smith is honored for being the first prophet of the latter-days and for standing for his testimony with unwavering courage. He was indeed charismatic, in that he saw visions, communed with God and angels, and exercised spiritual gifts, such as prophecy and healing (as do all prophets). However, it is Christ whom Latter-day Saints truly venerate, and Christ governs with a gentle hand, always guaranteeing agency to His followers.
- Does the restored gospel of Jesus Christ claim to be the only way to God? Latter-day Saints believe that the only way to God is through Christ. There is, however, no condemnation of those without knowledge. God looks upon the heart when He judges mankind.
- Does the Church of Jesus Christ use intimidation or manipulation to gain and keep members? No. When missionaries teach investigators, they very quickly ask them to pray in order to find out the truth for themselves. Agency and inspiration from above are central to the workings of the Church. It is true that only worthy members may enter the temple. A critic could say that the withholding of temple blessings is a form of intimidation. Simply, the temple is the House of God and no unclean thing may enter it.
- Does the Church lay claim to the financial resources of its members? The Church of Jesus Christ has no paid clergy. The Church condemns "priestcraft," that is, the practice of religion for profit, and it has no ministers who preach in order to make money. Dedicated Church members pay tithing—ten percent of one's income. Once each month, Latter-day Saints fast for two meals and donate the monetary value of the meals to the poor. There is also the opportunity to donate to missionary work and humanitarian aid. All donations are voluntary and are made in confidentiality.
- Does the Church of Jesus Christ monopolize the time and thoughts of its members, leading them to avoid other contacts and activities? Members are free to donate as much time as they like to Church service. Latter-day Saints are counseled to refuse invitations to serve when such service encroaches on family time. Programs are so organized so as not to encroach on family time. Sometimes, when a person first converts to the Church, family members and friends revile and abandon him or her. The Church counsels patience and loving communication. As time goes by, friends and family usually soften and find that familial relationships can still be carried on as they were before.
- Does the Church of Jesus Christ compromise the individual's ability to make free choices without the approval or advice of the leader(s)? Leaders serve in organizational, teaching, and advising capacities. In the process of repentance, members of the Church may seek counsel from a Bishop or Stake President. Everything in the Church is done on a voluntary basis. Choices are personal and members are counseled to seek inspiration from the Holy Ghost on personal matters.
- Is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ considered by the general society to be extremist, dangerous, or unorthodox? Yes. That is, until the society gets to know the members. Latter-day Saints earn the respect of their families, neighbors, communities, and countries through their responsible behavior, honesty, and general good conduct. The twelfth and thirteenth Articles of Faith summarize the orientation of Latter-day Saint behavior:
12. We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
13. We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
How Latter-day Saints Respond
Latter-day Saints invite those who incite controversy to preach the truth rather than falsehoods about the Church. Latter-day Saints invite uninformed people to gain knowledge about members of the Church and the gospel. Though criticisms, misrepresentations, and falsehoods about the Church and its members are a constant challenge, Church leadership has counseled members not to react to or debate but keep their responses "in the form of a positive explanation of the doctrines and practices of the Church" (Church News, Dec. 18, 1983, p. 2).
- Answers to challenging questions about the Church of Jesus Christ
- U.S. News and World Report:Apology to the Church
- The Cult of Intolerance