Cultic Characteristics in Mormonism

Roger E. Olson. George W. Truett Theological Seminary - Faculty Environmental Portraits

Roger E. Olson. George W. Truett Theological Seminary – Faculty Environmental Portraits

Though the word “cult” has fallen far out of favor, cults and religious sects still exist. Christian author and theologian Roger E. Olson recently addressed the history of the word and its evolving definition in an article titled, “Criteria for Recognizing a Religious Sect as a ‘Cult.’” Because of the fact that there are difficulties in assigning a universal definition to the word, Dr. Olson explains,

“My preference has become to not speak of ‘cults’ but of ‘cultic characteristics.’ In other words, religious groups are, in my taxonomy, ‘more or less cultic.’ I reserve the word ‘cult’ as a label (especially in public) for those few groups that are clearly a threat to their adherents’ and/or public physical safety. In other words, given the evolution of the term ‘cult’ in public discourse, I only label a religious group a cult publicly insofar as I am convinced it poses a danger to people—beyond their spiritual well-being from my own religious-spiritual-theological perspective…

“On the other hand, at least privately and in classroom settings (whether in the university or the church) I still use the label ‘cult’ for religious groups that display a critical mass of ‘cultic characteristics.’”

Dr. Olson provides his readers with a list of 10 behaviors he considers key “cultic characteristics” to watch for when evaluating “alternate religious groups.” I found it interesting that most (if not all) of these “cultic characteristics” are found in Mormonism. I’ve listed Dr. Olson’s criteria below, along with representative quotes from or about the Mormon Church, that demonstrate how Mormonism fits each characteristic.

  1. Belief that only members of the group are true Christians to the exclusion of all others, or (in the case of non-Christian religious groups) that their spiritual technology (whatever that may be) is the singular path to spiritual fulfillment to the exclusion of all others.

“…for I contend that the Latter-day Saints are the only good and true Christians, that I know anything about in the world. There are a good many people who profess to be Christians, but they are not founded on the foundation that Jesus Christ himself has laid.” (Joseph F. Smith, November 2, 1891, [Stake conference message], Collected Discourses, 2:305. Ellipses mine)

  1. Aggressive proselytizing of people from other religious traditions and groups implying that those other traditions and groups are totally false if not evil.

“I was answered that I must join none of them for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’” (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith—History 1:19)

  1. Joseph Smith with SwordTeaching as core “truths” necessary for salvation (however defined) doctrines radically contrary to their host religion’s (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) orthodoxy broadly defined.

“From the day that the priesthood was taken from the earth to the winding up things of all things, every man and woman must have the certificate of Joseph Smith, junior, as a passport to their entrance into the mansion where God and Christ are — I with you and you with me. I cannot go there without his consent.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 7:238. See also Search These Commandments, 133)

  1. Use of conscious, intentional deception toward adherents and/or outsiders about the group’s history, doctrines, leadership, etc.

Q: … about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?

A: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.” (Gordon B. Hinckley interview with journalist Don Van Biema. See also “Kingdom Come,” Time, August 4, 1997)

  1. Authoritarian, controlling leadership above question or challenge to the degree that adherents who question or challenge are subjected to harsh discipline if not expulsion.

“He [Lucifer] wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against the leaders and do ‘their own thinking.’ He specializes in suggesting that our leaders are in error while he plays the blinding rays of apostasy in the eyes of those whom he beguiles. What cunning! And to think that some of our members are deceived by this trickery…When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan – it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy.” (Ward Teachers’ Message, Improvement Era, June 1945, 354. Ellipses and brackets mine)

  1. Esoteric beliefs known only to core members; levels of initiation and membership with new members required to go through initiations in order to know the higher-order beliefs.

“Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the House of the Lord, which are necessary for you, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the Holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation.” (Second Lecturer, Post-1990 LDS Endowment Ceremony, Evolution of the Mormon Temple Ceremony 1842-1990, p. 110)

  1. Extreme boundaries between the group and the “outside world” to the extent that adherents are required to sever ties with non-adherent family members and stay within the group most of the time.

“Many of Rosen’s patients fear losing their jobs at Mormon-owned companies, where water cooler chatter revolves around bishops, youth groups and callings. ‘[Ex-Mormons] have to find new peers and new families, so to speak, and sometimes, new places of employment,’ she says. ‘Leaving the church is almost like going into the witness protection program.’” (Newsweek, When the Saints Go Marching Out,” 1/30/2014. Please note: These “severed ties” as described here are cultural, not “required” by the Mormon Church.)

  1. Teaching that adherents who leave the group automatically thereby become outcasts with all fraternal ties with members of the group severed and enter a state of spiritual destruction.

“Brethren who have been on missions, can you see any difference in this people from the time you went away until your return? [Voices: ‘Yes.’] You can see men and women who are sixty or seventy years of age looking young and handsome; but let them apostatize, and they will become gray-haired, wrinkled, and black, just like the Devil.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 5:332. Brackets in original)

  1. latter-day-saint-volunteeringHigh demand on adherents’ time and resources such that they have little or no “free time” for self-enrichment (to say nothing of entertainment), relaxation or amusement.

“Of course, much of Latter-day Saint volunteerism is religious in nature; for example, congregants volunteer time to teach youth scripture classes or help prepare the chapel for Sunday worship, among other things. Yet, as the study points out, active Church members also dedicate 151.9 hours annually to serving in the Church’s social and community initiatives, such as Boy Scouts of America or the Church’s worldwide welfare and humanitarian aid programs. Aside from these efforts, the study found that individual members give an additional 34 hours annually to other social causes unrelated to the Church.” (“Mormon Volunteerism Highlighted in New Study,” Mormon Newsroom website)

[A Mormon Infographic on Latter-day Saint Volunteering breaks down the 472.9 volunteer hours per member per year as: 34 hours for non-Church affiliate charitable causes; 55.7 hours for Church sponsored community social care efforts; 96.2 hours for Church sponsored congregational care efforts; 242 hours for religious duties for the Church.]

  1. Details of life controlled by the group’s leaders in order to demonstrate the leaders’ authority.

“Endowed members should wear the temple garment both day and night. They should not remove it, either entirely or partially, to work in the yard or for other activities that can reasonably be done with the garment worn properly beneath the clothing. Nor should they remove it to lounge around the home in swimwear or immodest clothing. When they must remove the garment, such as for swimming, they should put it back on as soon as possible. Members should not adjust the garment or wear it contrary to instructions in order to accommodate different styles of clothing. When two-piece garments are used, both pieces should always be worn. The garment is sacred and should be treated with respect at all times. Members should keep their garments clean and mended. They should not alter the garment from its authorized design. Nor should they display it or expose it to the view of those who do not understand its significance.” (Church Handbook of Instructions, 1998, 68)

In his article, Dr. Olson notes that all sorts of religious organizations may exhibit some “cultic characteristics” some of the time, but he makes distinctions between those that are “more or less cultic.” Dr. Olson has advice for people in religious groups that fall on the more cultic side of the spectrum; that is, those that “display a critical mass of ‘cultic characteristics’”:

“My recommendation to people caught in such abusive religious environments is to leave as quickly as possible.”

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
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14 Responses to Cultic Characteristics in Mormonism

  1. falcon says:

    Well isn’t this timely.
    I’ve been reading some information and watching videos by Steven Hassan. He was a Moonie for years, got out and became an expert on mind control and the cults. He has a new book out, which I intend to buy called “Freedom of Mind”. I’ll link to his website below and give a few examples of what he says.
    Information Control
    1. Deception:
    a. Deliberately withhold information
    b. Distort information to make it more acceptable
    c. Systematically lie to the cult member
    2. Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
    a. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, other media
    b.Critical information
    c. Former members
    d. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
    e. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
    3. Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
    a. Ensure that information is not freely accessible
    b.Control information at different levels and missions within group
    c. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
    4. Encourage spying on other members
    a. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
    b.Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
    c. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
    5. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
    a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
    b.Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
    6. Unethical use of confession
    a. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
    b. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
    c. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories

  2. MistakenTestimony says:

    That’s why I say theological cult so there’s less confusion. And just so you know I liked the white background with blue links, just thought I would share. Also, I’m not a robot in case there was any question regarding that.

  3. Jim Stiles says:

    Looking at the list of characteristics, it would appear that the LDS Church is more of a cult than the Westboro Baptist Church.

  4. falcon says:

    Westboro Baptist Church is neither Baptist or a church. They are a bunch of nuts. They don’t have enough on the ball to even be a cult. If they were a cult it would be a step-up from what they are now.

  5. Mike R says:

    The word “cult” is used today in a variety of ways — certain movies are said to have a ” cult following ” or are called a ” cult classic” etc , so given that type of usage people hear practically every day the word does’nt have the negative impact it used to have . Today the public will only think a group is a cult is when that group is small , isolated, and is physically or emotionally lethal to belong to . It’s the David Koresh , Jim Jones types . So to call Mormons cultists or the Mormon church a cult is not going to get any Christian very far in talking with non Mormons who ask them about the Mormon church or in witnessing one on one to LDS . That’s my opinion .

    It’s interesting that though they both have the same type authoritative type structure ( God’s sole mouthpiece for today , His a “modern day ” prophet etc ) Mormons and Jw’s have been viewed in the last few decades in different ways by the general public . Mormons are now considered to be just another Christian denomination while Jw’s are really disliked , seen as clannish religious zealots who are not very friendly unless you join their organization .

    The reason for this divide between Mormons and Jw’s is because Mormons have gotten out into the public and worked hard at presenting an friendly image . Mormon Bishops join Ministerial associations , Mormons are into sports , community activities , are patriotic , fight for their country,
    are in public office . All of this type behavior is normal and what non Mormons see as important .
    Not Jw’s . They want nothing to do with running for public office , joining with other churches in community social causes , and won’t salute the flag , and more . Consequently the public has held them to be a strange , clannish religious people , and have had little hesitation viewing them as cult,
    and while Jw leaders have conveniently softened some of their unique teachings/ policies in the last 10 years or so in order to curry public favor , nevertheless they are still not a well received group like Mormons have become .

    I believe in order to gain a listening ear from Mormons we must show respect for them as people and show them our hearts , hearts that hurt for them to be free from following the kind of prophets Jesus warned would come in the latter days — Matt 24:11 . To tell a Mormon they belong to cult is a good way to loose their attention and miss an opportunity to share with them the true gospel of salvation.

  6. MistakenTestimony says:

    Mike’s right. We have to use terms as they are understood by the people we are talking to. It’s human nature to de-humanize people, but it’s also human nature to humanize people as well. This humanization happens the more we rub shoulders with people. Our family members are the most human to us, followed by our friends, and then the people we work with daily. Mormons outnumber JWs in the US statistically 2-to-1, so a person is twice as likely to interact with a Mormon than a Jdub. Not to mention that LDS effectively own a big chunk of land in the US while Jdubs don’t represent a majority anywhere, even around their headquarters in NY. And as Mike mentioned they are politically active and represented nationally by their landholding in the West, while the Jdubs are opposed to anything political. So the typical person who rubs shoulders with and observes Mormons on a daily basis and knows they are Mormon tend to have a very positive perception of that person and therefore Mormons in general. The same is true to theological Jews and a host of other religions. The better you know someone the more human they are to you. All of that to say that the word “cult” is understood to mean Jim Jones, like Mike mentioned. If Christians apply that label to Mormons publicly—even if well intentioned and not meaning Jamestown—it can not only offset conversation with Mormons, but can even offset conversation with non-believers too. Not that we need to walk on eggshells around non-believers or heretics so as not to offend them, but let’s not strive to have as many bad labels and perceptions applied to us as we can possibly muster. We already have to do damage control because of the really loud “Christians” out there who make us look bigoted and stupid and preachers of a good news of hate, so I think we should avoid throwing around “cult” only to be misunderstood on what we mean by that as well. It would be better to say that Mormons are not Christians and explain why. 50 years ago “cult” would have meant something different than it does today, so I think we should use terms as they would be perceived by those we’re speaking to. And yes, in it’s traditional understanding Mormonism exhibits all the signs of a cult, but the language has changed.

  7. MistakenTestimony says:

    I’m in mod jail

  8. falcon says:

    I seriously doubt if people in cults know they are in one. It seems “normal” to them. It’s their experience and therefore their “normal”. There aren’t many Mormons in my part of the country, but the few I do know think they have the real deal. In fact most Mormons probably feel sorry for us that we aren’t part of their group.
    They believe the promise that if they do everything according to the prescription, they will have a forever family and not only that, be gods. They will have their own planetary system to rule and spirit off-spring that will love and adore them and who they will help successfully make it to the top of the LDS pyramid.
    It’s good that we know the characteristics of cults so we know how to speak to those who are in one. But telling someone they’re in a cult is probably not a real effective evangelism technique. Probably up there with carrying a sign around that says, “Repent! The end is near.”

  9. falcon says:

    The LDS church would contend that they don’t “hide” information. They would say that the information is out there if people want to access it. If this is true, why have they found it necessary to come out with the “essay” project? This project tackles some of the more sticky issues in Mormonism and it’s an attempt by the church to get out in front of the more controversial aspects of the religion. Well if they weren’t hiding/controlling information, why would it be necessary to issue these essays. Earth to the LDS church, you’re several years behind the curve. You’re running to try and catch up but I’d contend that your attempts at damage control won’t work.
    People are reading these essays and then critiquing them for honesty and forthrightness and I think the essays may be just more of the same from the LDS church.
    If the LDS church doesn’t withhold information, then why is that one of the primary reasons that members lose faith in the organization? The essays may have some effect in keeping the chapel Mormons satisfied but these folks weren’t going any where anyway.

  10. Mike R says:

    The 10 points that Dr Olson listed are food for thought that those persons who may be thinking about joining the Mormon church should take note of . There are enough of them that rightly serve as red flags which people should not ignore .

    It’s interesting that some Mormon leaders and influential Mormons have themselves called others cultists . This was’nt that long ago , and interestingly their ” Mormon brothers ” of the Reorganized Church of Latter days Saints ( now known as the Community of Christ ) were the recipients of this label [ Mormon Doctrine , 1966 p. 629 ] .
    So at the same time that Mormon leaders were crying foul when christians called Mormonism a cult , Mormon leaders had no problem calling other churches whose members claimed to follow Christ a
    cult as well !

    Today instead of using the term “cult” as widely as they once did Mormon leaders simply are more hesitant in their usage , they can’t afford to be publically accused of hating others .

    Ironically , they still believe and teach that all other churches are part of what constitutes the Church of the Devil for the latter days , but this is something they are not fast at admitting in a wide spread manner in clear terms in public venues .

  11. falcon says:

    I would venture to guess that the LDS church is going to be heading backwards in terms of membership. Mormonism is a tough sell when you get down to the doctrines, rituals and time commitment to say nothing about the sect’s history. There’s a limited set of people who would be interested in a religion like Mormonism. They’re even having trouble holding on to their members who were “born under the covenant”.
    So we speculate, what changes would the LDS church be willing to make to recruit new members and retain the old? I don’t think they can get too far out there in an attempt to placate the internet Mormons at the expense of the chapel Mormons.
    I offer the Swedish Rescue as exhibit number one.

  12. falcon says:

    It’s sort of interesting when we look at the characteristics of a cult and pronounce a group a “cult”. Would certain sects of Judaism be considered a cult? Would the Amish or even sects of Mennonite be considered a cult. Cults don’t necessarily need to be religious in origin. Various self-help or even multi-level marketing groups have some cult like characteristics.
    Maybe identifying a group as a cult is sort of like identifying pornography. You know the old definition? I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. I’d be reluctant to call the Amish a cult but they certainly have many of the characteristics. Most notably is the practice of “shunning” the group practices when someone leaves. It’s very severe. They also have very strict rules that need to be complied with. My understanding, however, is that the Amish don’t hound a member who leaves like some groups do.
    I think how these “checklist” of characteristics are helpful is to bring clarity to someone who is in a group and wants to evaluate (the group). As I mentioned above. Some people are very happy and content in groups that I’d consider a cult or cult-like. These groups do provide a certain amount of security and certainty to members. However for others it’s just to smothering and controlling.
    I wouldn’t be welcome in any such groups. I’m way too independent and ask too many questions.

  13. Mike R says:

    If I use just a sentence to describe the Mormon church to a fellow Christian it would be :
    The Mormon church is a false prophet led religious organization .

    To most non Christians I would simply tell them :
    The Mormon church claims that all other churches are part of the church of the Devil , that Mormon leaders believe that they can become Almighty Gods in heaven one day , and that things such as giving 10% of your income , refraining from drinking coffee , and more are requirements to become such Gods.

    I always try to mention that I separate rank and file Mormons from their leaders . Mormons are sincere people who have been fooled into embracing a counterfeit gospel by the clever salesmanship of Mormon missionaries and their leaders .

  14. Brian says:

    This is an excellent article, Sharon.

    As I read #5 & #8, I was reminded of a friend of mine, who after a careful study of the Bible, announced to his leaders that he would be leaving the LDS religion. He was brought before a sort of court, charged with apostasy. He would go on to lose his family and his friends. He noted in his book that after this trauma, only one of his friends contacted him to express concern for how he was doing. He had become an outcast. And yet, he gained something worth more than friends, worth more than family.

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