Edward E. Dudek
Summary of the Book
This book gives a comprehensive survey of all the major alternative religions in the United States, as well as new ones that came on the scene since the 1960s. The book has appendices, illustrations and photos. It gives a fair and objective treatment of all movements, missionary outreach for each group, biographies and a historical foundation of these movements.
In Chapter 1, Cults, Sects, Denominations, and World Religions are defined. The author identifies three basic approaches in defining a cult: the sensational or popular approach, the sociological one and the theological approach. For practical purposes, a “cult” is defined as a religious group with a “a prophet-founder.” He or she is called of God to give a special message usually not found in the Bible, or taken from the Bible with a twist of their own. The message is usually apocalyptic. Authoritarian style of cult leadership is often found in most cults. There is frequently an exclusivist outlook, supported by a legalistic lifestyle and persecution mentality.
The characterization of cults presented in the book is comprehensive and very insightful. However, we should also point out that in some religions such as Hinduism cults and sects somewhat co-mingle, and cults have an honorable place.
In Christianity, we need to distinguish between denominations and cults. The author offers insightful comments on the characteristics of these two: a major distinction is to what extent the theologies of each of these categories depend on the Bible.
While denominations may have some differences in the interpretation and emphasis of various verses and episodes in the Bible, they normally do not add and go beyond the Bible. On the other hand, a chief characteristic of cults is their tendency to add to the Bible information from other sources. While the author’s emphasis on the institutionalized aspects of denominations is correct, institutionalization is a process that will be acquired also by various cults over a period of time. Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses have already established themselves with institutionalized traditions. And yet their deviation from the Bible is a serious drawback that will not bestow upon them the status of a denomination.
Chapter 2 on Historical Heresy
This chapter lists various unorthodox movements of past centuries, to use the words of the author. History of the Church is replete with heresies, and, in fact, the emergence of Bible-based theology in formal terms was necessitated by these heresies. This chapter lists various heresies in detail, such as Arian heresy, Montanism, the cult of the Virgin Mary, the Church of the New Jerusalem, and so on throughout the history of the Church. One comes to the conclusion that there is really nothing new under the sun! The same old heresies take new avatars from one generation to the other. Most of them die out, and some continue with institutions. And the forces of darkness cannot have victory over the Church built by the Lord Jesus Christ.
In any course or preaching that deals with cults, this aspect of heretic traditions throughout the history must be discussed so that the “new” cults and cultic developments will be revealed as a continuing battle against satanic forces.
Mormonism: The Legacy of Joseph Smith
The author discusses in detail the birth and growth of the Mormon Church in great detail in chapter 3.
The Church of Latter-Day Saints is the largest of the alternative religions that has sprung up in America. On May 15, 1829 Smith and a translation associate, Oliver Cowdery received an alleged message from John the Baptist, who appeared to them in a vision and conferred on them the “Priesthood of Aaron”; he then instructed them to baptize each other. This marked the beginning of the church’s organizational structure.
The Book of Mormon is a narrative of military conflict and political affairs. Many of the stories are borrowed from the Bible.
The most significant event of all–prophesied and then allegedly fulfilled–was the appearance of Jesus Christ in America. It seems likely that the Book of Mormon was based in part on a book by Ethan Smith entitled, View of the Hebrews. Yet, the similarities between these two works do not explain the origin of the Book of Mormon. Two weeks after the book went on sale on April 6, 1830, the church was officially organized as the Church of Christ.
One of the pivotal doctrines of the Mormon religion is the belief in continuing revelation, one of which resulted in the direct membership leaving their homes to move 300 miles to Kirkland, Ohio. Doctrine and Covenants is the official book of his “revelations” and contains 135 of them. The Book of Abraham later became part of the Mormon scriptures.
It was the fear of the Mormons, fanned by rumors of their secret military units, that more than anything else initiated mob violence against the early Mormon immigrants. By 1943 the nearly three thousand “converts” that had emigrated from England was due to the tireless efforts of Brigham Young. He was gaining a host of loyal followers.
Plural marriage engendered controversy among the Mormons themselves; the practice was officially prohibited in 1890.
Most Mormon missionaries proselyte full-time, i.e., 60-70 hours a week. Knocking on doors and leaving printed information is the most common approach.
In chapter 5 we are given a good critique of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The author calls it a Religion of Protest. It might have been a protest, but a misguided protest.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses regard themselves as the only pure religion. Officially known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the movement arose in the late nineteenth century as an offspring of Adventist teachings. Three factors that influenced the emergence of the Jehovah Witnesses were: the much talk about the immanent return of Christ, Populism and its movement against big business and big government, and a widespread aversion to immigrants.
No pastors or full-time ministers serve as leaders of the local congregations. All view themselves as ministers. The leaders of the kingdom halls are laymen, referred to as elders, who are chosen on the basis of their faithfulness to the work and their ability to defend the doctrine.
The attribute for which Jehovah Witnesses are most universally associated is their persistent door-to-door evangelism. Women, “though a lowly creature whom God created for man as man’s helper,” are the backbone of the movement in regards to actual witnessing.
Three areas to remember when evangelizing Jehovah’s Witnesses: they do give up their religion; they do not know the Bible well having been only trained in proof-texting; and today they are not antagonistic or argumentative in their door-to-door approaches.
Scientology: Mind-Altering Pseudo-Psychology
In chapter 14 Scientology as a Mind-Altering Pseudo-Psychology is dealt with. This cult attracts many to its fold through the publicity it receives when popular Hollywood stars, leaders of big corporations, et al., join this cult.
One can get a free personality analysis that involves an applied religious philosophy that offers clear insight to help one reach the mind’s full potential. Dianetics, in fact, promises to reveal the single source of all humankind’s insanities, phychosomatic illnesses and neuroses. This is part of the recruiting program of the Church of Scientology. It attempts to give the appearance of both science and religion.
Ronald Hubbard, a one-time science fiction writer is the founder of the Church of Scientology. It was the popularity of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health that launched him into his profession as a cult leader. The book was originally intended to be his psychotherapeutic answer to the techniques of modern psychiatry.
Scientology presents itself as a religion that views humankind as inherently good (contra Rom.3:23) and having vast potential. The emphasis is on self-improvement or self-actualization, not on worship. Hubbard taught that humankind is descended from a race of uncreated, omnipotent gods calls thetans, who gave up their powers to enter the Material-Energy-Space-Time (MEST) world of earth. For Scientologists the ultimate goal of religion is to become an operating thetan. Scientologists are encouraged to awaken their dormant thetan potential by removing all mental blocks called engrams. Engrams are best described as emotional hang-ups, comparable to repressed memories stored in the subconscious. By removing these, persons can realize their true personhood, achieving total power and control over MEST.
All this involves a complex procedure having many levels preceding that state of consciousness and even higher levels to achieve once that state is attained. A person can arrive at a state of perfection.
The failure to work on the practical level has been a persistent complaint against Scientology over the years. In addition, it is also noticed that Scientology makes a lot of money through various testing processes.
More than any other cult in modern times, Scientology has been the target of police investigations and litigation.
The world-wide organization has missionaries reaching into countries on virtually every continent. The vast majority of its converts come from the middle class; they are under 30 years of age and have abandoned a Protestant or Roman Catholic heritage. The movement has effectively established centers in most of the major European cities, in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Comparisons/Contrasts between the Theology and Practices of these Cults and Evangelical Christian Beliefs
Almost from its inception the Mormon Church has claimed what no other church today claims to possess, namely, the priesthoods of Aaron and Melchizedek. [Heb.7:12, 17, 22-28 refutes this idea of the perpetuity of the Aaronic priesthood and their concept of the Melchizedek priesthood]. It’s through the authority of their priesthood alone, they maintain, that men speak and act in the name of the Lord for the salvation of humanity.
The Mormon concept of priesthood holds that God has placed in that church presidents, apostles, high priests, seventies, elders; and that the various offices all share specific authorities. All authority in the Mormon Church comes directly from the prophet who expects (and generally gets) obedience to his edicts. There is a sense, however, of congregationalism at the local level.
Mormons are not permitted to drink wine, strong drink, hot drinks, soft drinks, hot chocolate or smoke. They are expected to keep a two year supply on nonperishable food items. They are expected to contribute to the church welfare program, and are expected to tithe and send children on missions.
Mormon temple ceremonies are secretive rituals that have been copied to a large extent from the Masonry. Only though a temple marriage can a Mormon receive the highest exaltation in the after life.
The doctrine of baptism for the dead is performed vicariously in this world. This is one major reason why Mormons diligently seek out the genealogies of their ancestors.
Deceased spirits are then free either to accept or reject the work done in their behalf, and thus be either saved or damned. This is not a Christian doctrine whereby baptism is done as a testimony of one’s salvatory relationship with Christ.
Though maintaining that they are Trinitarians, polytheism is at the very core of Mormon teaching. They maintain that the planets in the universe are each ruled by a different god. Elohim is the god of this planet, and he had a wife who bore his offspring as the Eternal Mother. The greatest of Elohim’s offspring was Jesus through sexual relations with Virgin Mary, who for a time was Elohim’s lawful wife.
For a Mormon, salvation is exaltation which comes through the gate of celestial marriage and is eternal life, the kind of life that God lives. Those who attain exaltation are gods.
Mormons believe that all human beings preexisted as spirits (offspring of celestial parentage) prior to their birth in physical bodies.
At the beginning of the eschatological millennium, the wicked will be burned as stubble and at the end will be raised and given a second chance, yet the Scriptures say in Hebrews that there is only one judgment.
Exalted Mormon men are promised that they will reign as gods on their own planets. God will be on his own planet, Kolob.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the concept of the Trinity and the deity of Christ (contra Jon.1:18; 5:22-23; 10:30), using Jn.1:1 and insisting on their translation, “and the Word was a god.” So Jesus is a perfect man and not God incarnate. They also deny the bodily resurrection of Christ. Besides that, their New World Translation has introduced “Jehovah” into the Greek Scriptures for the sole purpose of wiping out any vestige of Jesus Christ’s identity with Jehovah.
The most controversial and widely publicized aspect of Watch Tower eschatology has been their date-setting. Rather than admitting their error regarding Christ’s “second presence” in 1914, the Watch Tower officials simply reinterpret the events. The year 1918, for example became the year when Christ came to the spiritual temple as Jehovah’s Messenger.
At the end of World War II the Jehovah’s Witnesses took a stand against blood transfusions, using Lev.17:10 and Acts 15:20,29.
Living in light of the end times is the entire thrust of the movement even though only a very limited number (144,000) will be part of the “first resurrection”–a heavenly and spiritual resurrection that began in 1918. The remainder of faithful Witnesses will be resurrected to an earthly life. The “goats,” who have not accepted the Witnesses’ message of Jehovah, will be destroyed.
No one suffers everlasting conscious punishment in hell, but is rather annihilated; everlasting punishment is satanic, according to them.
For the “elect” 144,000 in the remnant class, salvation is granted by the sovereign will of Jehovah. For the “other sheep,” there is less security.
Scientology, as it evolved from the initial Dianetics stage, developed a theology of sorts that forms the central core of beliefs. These can be summed up in three tenets: (1) every human being is a thetan, an immortal spirit with potentially limitless powers, being omniscient and omnipotent; (2) every individual has a Reactive Mind Bank containing engrams, which suppresses these limitless power over MEST (Matter, Energy, Space and Time); (3) through auditing, the engrams are erased and the Bank emptied, and then thetans can be restored to their original powerful state.
Reminiscent of the soul in the Hindu religion, a thetan transmigrates from one life to another, taking on many millions of MEST bodies during the trillions of years of its existence. The purpose of Scientology is for the discovery and refinement of methods whereby the thetan can be persuaded to relinquish his self-imposed limitations. Once they’re entirely relinquished, the individual becomes an OT (operating thetan).
Reincarnation and other Eastern religious concepts became a significant aspect of the therapy. The engrams are believed to have been inherited from previous lives and stored in the Reactive Mind. It’s only by erasing these engrams that a person can come to full potential as a god, or thetan. Human beings are actually gods, but because they are unaware of this alleged fact, they don’t act the part. But when the person becomes an OT, he or she can also enjoy soul travel and explore previous lives.
Scientology says that there are gods above all other gods, and gods beyond the gods of the universe; but besides the true God, there is no other (Isa.43:10-11; 44:6). Christ is a legend, according to Scientologists (contra Christianity, II Pe.1:16; Jn.20:19-20). Repentance is evil and personal salvation is freedom from reincarnation (contra Mk.2:17; Jn.14:6). Hell is a myth (contra Mt.25:41,46)
Comparisons/Contrasts between These Groups and Jesus Christ and His Teachings
Joseph Smith’s early life was influenced by dreams and visions of his parents, a climate of superstitious beliefs that permeated the region and his grandfather’s rejection of institutionalized church and its creeds. Smith told of visions during his youth that led to his digging up gold plates on the Hill Cumorah-plates when translated contained the Book of Mormon, an “accurate historical record.” The personage who addressed him said that all the Christian creeds were wrong and an abomination.
Later in life Smith had repeated sexual relationships with women other than his wife, Emma. In 1831 he told Mary Rollins, who was then twelve, that she was the first woman God commanded him to take as a plural wife. She eventually did but wasn’t his first. By 1842 rumors were rife about rampant illicit sexual practices. It was the issue of polygamy that eventually caused Smith’s demise. Brigham Young then officially rose to power, yet not without opposition, especially from Smith’s widow, Emma. The group eventually left for Utah. Young wielded powerful leadership; he simply told people what to do and expected them to obey. When he died in 1877, he left behind a highly structured social order. To appease the government, in 1890 President Wilford Woodruff issued his Manifesto that banned polygamy, yet the practice continued in the years that followed.
Born in 1852 in Pittsburgh to a strict Presbyterian family, Charles Taze Russell founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Russell’s “discovery” in 1875 that Christ had returned invisibly the previous year had a powerful impact on him. From a faulty interpretation of Daniel 4, Christ’s active rulership began in 1914; it was also at this time that Christ allegedly selected the Watch Tower organization as his official channel and giving ultimate authority to its ruling body. Rutherford downplayed the year 1874, in favor of 1914; he then focused on 1925 for the completion of all things which caused many to quit their jobs and sell their homes. He reinterpreted the battle of Armageddon, describing it as a universal war during which time all people outside the Watch Tower organization would be destroyed. Only a remnant of 144,000 would then go to heaven and the remainder would spend eternity on earth.
By the 1890s Russell was strongly urging his followers to study only his teachings, and eventually claiming that his Studies in the Scriptures were practically the Bible topically arranged.
His marriage to Maria Frances Ackley in 1879 eventually led to legal separation and court trials around 25 years later and became known as the “Jellyfish Pastor” due to alleged sexual escapades.
Russell died in 1916 and was buried beneath a massive pyramid grave marker. Within months of his death, Judge Joseph Rutherford, with cleaver maneuvering, had effectively assumed control of the Watch Tower organization despite intense opposition. His personal life was characterized by alcoholism, vulgar language and opulent living.
Following Rutherford’s death in 1942, Nathan H. Knorr assumed the presidency of the Watch Tower Society. He imposed a strict moral code on the membership-a code which became more and more complicated. He also masterminded an Orwellian plan using informants to insure uniformity among the membership.
The personal background of Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, was a sham in the sense that when he had claimed to be traveling through Asia and the South Pacific from 1925 to 1929 studying what he called the “secrets of life,” from religious men, he was actually a mediocre high school student. Also, instead of earning doctorates, he flunked out of George Washington University’s engineering school after two years. He also continued to collect disability pay from the Navy for bursitis, arthritis and conjunctivitis long after he claimed to have discovered the secret of how to cure such ailments.
His son later revealed that Hubbard’s writings were off the top of his head and not due to decades of research as claimed. The writings came while in a state of virtual incoherence due to his drug dependency. At other times his writings were taken directly from Aleister Crowly on the subject of black magic and Satanism.
Hubbard had long history of venereal disease, sexual perversion and mental illness, as well as involvement in bizarre occult practices. He was a powerful authority figure and forcefully wielded absolute control over his vast organization. Any member who was determined to be disloyal to Scientology was deemed an enemy and categorized as a suppressive person. He or she would be threatened verbally and sometimes physically.
Because Hubbard believed that his enemies were real and that his very life was threatened, he went into seclusion during his later years. Other factors contributing to his reclusiveness may have been mental derangement and a chemical dependency. He was not seen for six years before he died in 1986 at the age of 74.
Evaluation of the Book
This book does give a fairly good comprehensive survey of all the major alternative religions in the United States. Though the historical foundation of Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses is one of the book’s emphases, I found its thoroughness distracting when I thought that more could have been written on the movements’ doctrines and comparing those doctrines with the truths of Scripture.
As relativism and syncrertism penetrate modern schooling and thinking, it becomes necessary that we continuously educate ourselves, our families and friends, and others about the dangers of cultic trends in various walks of life. Missionary training must focus on the challenge of cults and develop methods and messages to counteract their influence. This book has been a great tool in our spiritual battle against cults and cultic trends. We owe a debt of gratitude to Ruth Tucker.
1989. Larson’s New Book of Cults, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers.
1985. Kingdom of the Cults, Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.
Ruth A. Tucker
1989. Another Gospel: Cults, Alternative Religions, and the New Age Movement, Grand Rapids, MI: Academic Books.
Bethany International and
Bethany International University, Singapore