Often, people who want to keep others from researching The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do so by telling others it is a cult. They use the nickname of its members—Mormons—to suggest the members follow a moral named Mormon or perhaps the first president of the Church, Joseph Smith, instead of Jesus Christ.
Labels like cult or non-Christian are common techniques designed to play on the emotions. Those who encourage name-calling don’t want their own followers to think. An emotionally loaded term like Mormon cult helps many people to simply feel something and stops them from taking the time to research or even think it through. Some who were taught this admitted they didn’t know why they used the term or even what it really meant.
If you’ve never looked up the word in a real dictionary, take a moment to do so. A quick visit to the Oxford Dictionary shows us what a cult is. In real dictionaries, the most common usage for a word is the first one. The further down the list the term is, the less common the definition is.
The first definition—the most common usage—is: “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” Does this describe Mormonism? Mormons do not worship objects. They worship God and Jesus Christ. If those people are accepted as particular figures, then they are part of a cult, but so is every other Christian religion. Contrary to popular gossip, Mormons do not worship either Mormon or Joseph Smith. Both these men were prophets, just as were Moses and Noah in the Old Testament. They are treated the same way we treat Biblical prophets—we honor and respect them, but do not worship them, anymore than members of other Christian and Jewish religions worship Noah.
The most common definition of a cult, then, either does not apply to Mormons or it applies to all Christian religions, depending on what you accept as the figure a cult worships. Mormon cult” is an inaccurate term according to this definition.
The second definition of cult is, “a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” With more than 14 million people worldwide, the religion of the Mormon people is hardly small. There are approximately as many Mormons in the United States as there are Jewish people. The first part of this definition also makes the term “Mormon cult” invalid. The second part of this is that the cult must have beliefs that others consider strange or sinister. This, of course, is a subjective statement that can be applied to any religion—or any person. What seems very normal to one person seems weird or sinister to another. Every religion has aspects others see as weird or sinister—communion, tithing, angels, even belief in a Savior. Many religions have martyrs who chose to die rather than to deny their faith. Non-religious people often find it sinister that religious people are taught this is a worthwhile decision, while religious people find it inspirational. Many social issues accepted as natural to some religions seem weird or sinister to others—issues related to abortion, immigration, or the definition of marriage for instance. This definition is generally useless in terms of defining a cult.
The final and least common definition of a cult in this dictionary is: “A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” Mormons don’t worship things, so this definition does not apply. As for the misplaced or excessive admiration, this again is a generic statement and subject to personal opinion. This statement would only create a Mormon cult if the person referred to is Jesus Christ, but of course Mormons—and other Christians—don’t consider their belief in Jesus Christ excessive or misplaced.
In an article on the CNN website, Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, addressed this subject. Fuller is an evangelical Christian seminary. He explained that he has studied cults extensively and also meets regularly with a closed-door group of Mormons, including Mormon apostles and an equal number of evangelical leaders. While Mormons and evangelicals have many theological differences, he has found the differences aren’t as large as he once thought.
Mouw does not believe there is a Mormon cult. As one example, he says cults do not participate in respectful discussions of religious issues and feel only they benefit from God’s favor. His participation in the religious group is, he says, one sign Mormons are not a cult. They enjoy learning about other religions and discussing the issues. They also quote and study religious leaders of other faiths. (If you read through speeches by Mormon leaders, you’ll see quotes from rabbis, Mother Theresa, and leaders from many religious faiths.)
He says cults do not promote scholarship or have universities and law schools that allow them to participate in the world’s discovery of information. He reminds his readers that Brigham Young University, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a world-class university. In addition, many of the church’s top leaders have advanced degrees from ivy league universities. They are not afraid of knowledge and education.
Mouw showed some of his students a video of a Mormon apostle speaking on the last week of Jesus Christ’s life and on the atonement. (The video can be viewed at the end of this article.) The students admitted that they would have thought he was an evangelical minister had they not known he was a Mormon. There was nothing uncomfortable, strange, or referring to a “different Jesus” in his speech.
When researching a religion, it is important to follow Jesus’ counsel to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Mouw said he has been asked if evangelicalism is a cult. No one wants his or her religion referred to that way, especially if it’s not true. We need to treat the religions of others the way we want others to treat our own religion.
One step to doing this is to do accurate research. Learn how to validate sources and recognize bias. If you read an article that says Mormons worship Joseph Smith, for instance, and then you discover that isn’t true (it isn’t true!), then you know the author is not a knowledgeable or trustworthy source. If someone were going to learn about you, would you ask them to go only to your enemies and those who want to destroy you for their information? Of course not. You’d want them to talk to you. When researching any religion, go to the religion’s own sources, ones its members would consider valid. This is, presumably, how you research your own religion, so it should be how you research other religions.
Visit Mormon.org or LDS.org for official information. Mormon.org is designed for people who are not Mormon and want to learn the basics. LDS.org is for Mormons, although nearly everything is accessible, including the student and teacher manuals for the actual classes taught at church and the official magazine. Only congregational websites are excluded, to protect the privacy of the members, and sections for people who hold a specific church job—but even Mormons can’t get into those unless they currently hold those positions.
Another step is to use inclusive language. Using insulting nicknames or terms is un-Christ-like. Speak using respectful terminology and show the kind of respect to others about their beliefs you want others to show for yours. Accept the way others describe themselves. Deciding who is and is not a Christian is God’s prerogative and so our job is to simply accept the self-definition of each group. We don’t have to agree with each doctrine, but we do need to respect how they see themselves.
“Mormon cult” is an inaccurate term, as a review of dictionary definitions shows. It is nothing more than a way to manipulate emotions and prevent listeners from doing what God has told us to do in order to find out which church is God’s church: Pray (James 1:5, New Testament.)
Watch the video that looked like an evangelical sermon to some evangelical theology students.
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.