A "cult" needs to be defined in order to be classified and understood, but it may be more easily described than defined. Indeed, there are differences of opinion among scholars as to the proper definition of a "cult" and which religious groups should be so classified. Though not all the following characterizations may be applicable to every religious group labeled a "cult," together they form a general picture of one.
(1) A cult differs radically from what are conceived to be the fundamental beliefs of the mainstream of religious thought.
(2) A cult is centered around a specific authority figure and his teachings or interpretations.
(3) A cult looks to some extra-Biblical source of authority, perhaps a set of writings it regards as equally authoritative and inspired as the Bible, for guidance.
(4) A cult conceives of itself as being the one true faith and the exclusive possessor of the truth.
(5) A cult is close-minded to the extent that it is uninterested in hearing what outsiders have to say or even unwilling to admit the possibility of being instructed by them.
(6) A cult is possessed with a missionary zeal to propagate its message.
(7) A cult enforces a radical alteration in lifestyle which may involve subordination of every aspect of the individual's life to the control of the cult.
(8) A cult possesses a personal antagonism toward outsiders.
(9) A cult has a goal that is physical or earthly in nature, relating to things that are near, visible, and tangible.
The Mormon Church (Latter Day Saints) was formed in 1830 under the leadership of Joseph Smith, a self-proclaimed prophet who claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates to which he had been directed by an angel named Moroni. The Book of Mormon is supposedly a historical account of two ancient American civilizations established by emigrants from the Middle East about 2,250 and 600 BC. The earlier group, and the righteous wing of the later group, were totally destroyed, but not before the latter deposited the golden plates which Joseph Smith later discovered in a hill near Palmyra, New York. The evil wing of the later group are the predecessors of the American Indians. The Book of Mormon claims that the Bible has been severely corrupted (I Nephi 13:23-29) and ridicules the idea that nothing more than the Bible is needed (II Nephi 29). Hence, Mormons regard the Book of Mormon and two other works by Joseph Smith, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, to be equally as inspired and authoritative as the Bible, if not more so. These Mormon works not only contradict the Bible, but also one another, in many instances. Furthermore, there is much weighty evidence of an archaeological and historical nature which proves the Mormon story to be untrue.
Yet, despite this, persecution, and division within their own ranks, Mormons have not only survived, but they have grown. In 1979 the main branch of the Mormon Church, centered in Salt Lake City, Utah, numbered 3,300,000. Mormon theology teaches polytheism - that the gods in heaven have wives through whom they procreate spirit-children who are sent to earth as men for a probationary period. Mormons believe that God was once a man, and men may progress to eventually become gods.
III. Seventh Day Adventism
Seventh-Day Adventists grew out of the work of William Miller who twice predicted that Christ would return in 1842-44 but, of course, was disappointed. Despite their failures, Seventh-Day Adventists continued to cling to one another and the hope that Christ would soon return. When Miller died in 1849, the reins of leadership fell into the hands of a visionary by the name of Ellen G. White. She not only reinterpreted some of Miller's teachings, but she also added some of her own. Her writings are virtually acknowledged as inspired and authoritative by Seventh-Day Adventists. This group is characterized by a belief in the imminent return of Christ, observance of the Sabbath, and adherence to dietary restrictions. A peculiar belief among Seventh-Day Adventists is that Christ's death upon the cross did not complete atonement for sin, which will be completed when Christ comes out of His sanctuary and lays the sins of His people upon Satan. In the United States Adventists number about half a million.
IV. Christian Science
Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) is recognized as the founder of Christian Science. Her writings, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, are also recognized as inspired and authoritative by Christian Scientists. The first Church of Christ, Scientist was organized in Boston in 1879. Mrs. Eddy claimed to have rediscovered and revealed the secret of Jesus' healing powers. Christian Scientists believe that matter, sin, disease, and death are unreal - illusions. Heaven and hell are states of mind. Jesus is not divine. Mrs. Eddy's bylaws prohibit publishing of membership statistics.
V. Jehovah's Witnesses
The beginning of the Jehovah's Witnesses (a name adopted by them in 1931) may be traced to the work of Charles T. Russell, whose followers were first formally organized in 1872. When Russell died in 1916, he was succeeded as president by Joseph F. Rutherford. Both men wrote voluminously and left an indelible imprint upon the thinking of their followers. Though Jehovah's Witnesses are avid students of the Bible and claim it as their only inspired authority, they must, for all practical purposes, submit to the publications of their leaders and even have a "translation" of the Bible (New World Translation) which reflects their peculiar beliefs. Jehovah's Witnesses deny the divinity of Jesus Christ and the personality of the Holy Spirit. They believe in the imminent battle of Armageddon in which the forces of Christ will inflict severe carnage upon the forces of evil. The righteous will live on earth forever, except for 144,000 who will reign with Christ in heaven.
VI. Exercises(Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) What are the general characteristics of a "cult."
(2) What characteristics of a cult do each of these four groups have in common, and what is unscriptural about each characteristic?
(3) What is an outstanding and peculiar trait of each group, and what is unscriptural about it?