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Sects and Cults

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Religious historians sometimes call the United States the most sectarian country in the world. Hundreds of independent religious groups have developed and flourished in the nation. While some have been distinctly Protestant in character, many other small sects and cults have been so divorced from the mainstream of Protestantism that they have been called the “third force in Christendom.”

Certain clues to understanding the nature of these groups are contained in the definitions of “sect” and “cult.” These terms have a general and historical meaning that goes back to pre-Christian times, but in a more specific sense they also refer to certain developments within the Protestant religion. The words are not uncomplimentary but, unfortunately, they are often considered to have an unfavorable connotation.

The Terms Defined

Meaning of Sect. The word sect comes from the Latin secta, which means a mode of life, party, or school of philosophy. In religion it may be used to designate any party dissenting from an established or parent church. In this sense, Catholic writers for centuries have spoken of groups who break with Roman unity as “sects.” St. Robert Bellarmine (1542—1621) regularly and without hostile intention referred to all Protestants as sectarians, and canon law (Canon 1065) uses “non-Catholic sect” as a general term for any religious body not in communion with the Holy See.

Those who do not believe in organized religion give the word another meaning when they describe all churches, including the Catholic, as sectarian. Their definition is similar to legal terminology in which “sectarian” is applied to the beliefs or practices of any organized religious body. Thus, the laws of most states forbid sectarian teaching in public schools.

In this article, sect is used to designate a type of religious group that came into existence either because new religious revelations were claimed by the founder or because some peculiar emphasis in faith, worship, or practice separated its members from the more conventional denominations. The group may have a Protestant ancestry and even call itself Protestant, but it represents a departure from Protestant religious traditions.

Meaning of Cult. The word cult is derived from the Latin colere (“to cultivate”). In its general meaning it refers to a system of worship, religious rites, or devotion to some person, idea, or thing. In this article it is applied to groups that are more unconventional and further removed from ordinary churches than even the type of sect defined above. Like a sect, it may have arisen in response to supposedly divine communications, but its religious ancestry is less clear. Cults may be so far distant from Protestantism as to resemble Buddhism, Hinduism, or Mohammedanism more than Christianity. They tend to be extravagant in belief but simple in organization, and while some have achieved a certain permanency, many have come and gone as fads without becoming established as religious bodies.

Among the groups with an essentially cultic nature, a few have become so firmly established that their unconventionality is overlooked. The borderline between such “respectable” groups as the Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and such “eccentric” groups as Psychiana (a mail-order moral uplift society) is often very thin.

Even staid denominations in the Methodist and Baptist families sometimes resort to unconventional methods to satisfy certain members of their communion. Not infrequently, these members break away because they want a more exuberant form of religion than is offered by the parent body. In this way the Swedenborgians are an offshoot from the Lutherans, the Mormons from the Presbyterians, the Adventists and Witnesses from the Baptists, and the Holiness and Pentecostal sects from the Methodist denomination.

Typical Beliefs

There is no hard and fast rule to distinguish between sects and cults. Many cultic movements become established as sects, and most sectarian groups have attitudes and beliefs that are characteristic of cults. Thus, whatever is said of the one is generally valid for the other. Some of the characteristics of their belief are described below.

Spirit Communications and Revelations. One of the features that many sects and cults have in common is a claimed communication from the spiritual world. Usually, it was the founder of the group who received the communication which served as a basis for beliefs. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, reportedly had about 100 revelations, ranging from 1 to 35 a year, and claimed contact with a variety of celestial representatives, including Christ and John the Baptist. A statue of Moroni, the angel who is said to have led Smith to the golden plaques on which was inscribed the Mormon Bible; decorates the peak of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mrs. Ellen White, prophetess of the Adventist movement, claimed to have visions of Christ and angels, who assured her that a Saturday observance of the Sabbath would preserve the world from idolatry. The Saturday Sabbath and other practices of some Adventist sects are based largely on her visions. See Adventists; Mormons.

One of the most recent cults based on spirit communications is the “Great I Am Movement.” Its founder was Guy W. Ballard of Los Angeles, who claimed to be in touch with certain “ascended masters,” chief of whom was St. Germain. Ballard was supposed to have received the revelations on which his cult was based from these spirits, and at one of the contacts St. Germain and Christ Himself reportedly appeared and allowed an artist to paint their portraits from life. Reproductions of these pictures and copies of the revelations were sold to the believers, numbering more than 100,000. Ballard’s wife, Edna, and his son, Donald, succeeded him in the movement and were convicted by the federal government of using the mails to defraud. They appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 1946 reversed the decision of the lower courts on the following grounds: “Heresy trials are foreign to our Constitution. Men may believe what they cannot prove. They may not be put to the proof of their religious doctrines or beliefs.”

A somewhat different type of spirit communication than any of the above examples is claimed by the Spiritualists, who seek contact with the dead as a regular part of their program. In the case of the Spiritualists specifically, there have been some reported experiences that have not yet been explained on the basis of natural causes. However, if it were possible, as the Spiritualists claim, to establish contact with departed spirits, Catholic teaching would still condemn the practice on moral grounds. See Spiritualist Churches.

Attitudes toward Christ. Departure from traditional Protestant beliefs is also typical of sects. Their attitudes toward the person of Christ may serve to indicate how far they have departed. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christ was the first-born among creatures and was changed into man at birth into the world. In the Mormon view, He was a preexistent, created spirit who took on a body at the Incarnation. In Christian Science, a distinction is made between Christ, who is spiritual and divine, and Jesus, who was corporeal and human. According to their teachings, this dual personality, the eternal Christ and the temporal Jesus, remained only until the Ascension. On that occasion the human element (Jesus) disappeared, but the spiritual self (Christ) continues to exist in the eternal order of divine science.

Spiritualists, who do not recognize the divinity of Jesus, regard Him as a medium, that is, as a person who is susceptible to invisible, superhuman agencies and who receives aid or knowledge from them. New Thought, like Christian Science, divides the Savior into two parts: Christ, who is an ethical and mythical ideal, and Jesus, who was a man.

Millenarianism. A large number of sects are preoccupied with the millennium, or reign of Christ on earth for 1,000 years. Although concern for this doctrine goes back to the Anabaptist movement in Reformation times, it is quite alien to traditional Protestantism.

There are two types of millenarianism, premillenarianism and postmillenarianism, and bitter controversy rages among the groups favoring one or the other form. According to the first, there will be a Second Coming of Christ, followed by a thousand-year period of blessed existence on earth and climaxed by the end of the world. The second says the Second Coming will take place after the millennium or thousand years. Both sides appeal to the text in St. John’s Apocalypse (20:4-8) which speaks of the just men and women who “came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” and of the time “when the thousand years are finished [and] Satan will be released from his prison. See Millenarianism.

There is also a division of belief among the sects regarding the fate of mankind after the millennium. Adventists talk of a millennium of final probation, after which the bad are annihilated and the good enter into eternal life. Mormons teach that the premillennial reign will be somewhere in the United States and offer the prospect of final salvation for everyone.

Non-Christian Beliefs. A growing number of cults have developed systems of belief that link elements of Christianity with ideas from non-Christian sources. Theosophy defines itself as “the body of truths which forms the basis of all religions and which cannot be claimed as the exclusive possession of any.” Accordingly, it rejects Christianity’s title to superiority, using methods of “higher criticism” to reduce the Gospels to a set of contradictions. Drawing heavily on Hindu and Buddhist lore, theosophy is a mixture of pantheism, magic, and rationalism. It teaches the transmigration of souls, denies both a personal God and personal immortality, and advocates toleration of all religions as well as atheism. See Theosophy.

In the same spirit, the Bahai sect teaches the universal brotherhood of man, the unity of all religions, and world peace. The Bahai faith originated in Persia near the middle of the nineteenth century as an offshoot of Islam. Its doctrines are based on the writings of a man known as Bahaullah, who maintained that God spoke through Zoroaster, Mohammed, Buddha, Moses, and Christ, and who regarded himself as the messias who was to combine and reveal their messages. Bahaullah’s son and successor, called Abdul Baha, established the sect in the United States in the early 1900s and broke ground for the first occidental Bahai temple at Wilmette, Ill. This temple, with its nine sides and doors, all leading into one common center under a magnificent dome, symbolizes the Bahai belief in the unity of all religions. See Bahaism.

Probably the most daring attempt to merge Christianity with other religions is represented by the Liberal Catholic Church. The sect was brought to the United States in 1917 by Bishop James Wedgewood, who for years had been a prominent figure in the Theosophical movement. Although Christian in name and in certain of its beliefs, the Liberal Catholic Church is receptive to all religious persuasions, with special affection for Hinduism. It also draws upon modern scientific theory, explaining the Trinity in terms of atomic structure. God as the Father is “the central nucleus of every atom and keeps them in their orbit, or formation. The electrons themselves are God, the Holy Spirit, in manifestation. From this basic unit we can compound every material element or substance. Thus we have God in everything.” To them, “God is not and cannot be a person.” He is the cosmic energy which holds together the universe.

Unusual Practices

Sects and cults arise from unconventional beliefs and ideas, and some appeal specifically to a human taste for the bizarre. Thus, it is not surprising that members of many of them should have adopted some customs and modes of living that are different from the usual patterns of life in American society.

The attitudes and practices of the various groups differ widely, and only a few can be mentioned here for purposes of illustration. One group that has frequently made news because of its distinctive stand is the Jehovah’s Witnesses movement. Its adherents have refused to salute the flag, vote, or to perform in any other political role on the ground that their first duty is to God. They also refuse blood transfusions because they believe this would violate the Old Testament injunction against “eating blood.” See Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Amish have become known for their resistance to technological progress. They refuse to use automobiles, electricity, radios, tractors, or telephones. Mormons baptize the dead, believing the soul cannot be saved without this rite. Adventists abstain from such “poisonous” articles as tobacco, tea, and coffee, and, in general, are strict vegetarians. Members of such communal sects as the Amana Society and the Shakers not only pool all their property, but strongly encourage celibacy for all their members. Although practiced in the more conventional churches, pacifism and vegetarianism are more typically sectarian. See Amish Churches; Shakers.

Peace Mission. Perhaps the most unique of all the cults is the Peace Mission movement. It is centered around devotion to a Negro religious leader, Father Divine, to whom the following creed of loyalty has been addressed: “Father Divine, God Almighty, we pledge our heart to love you, our strength to serve you…that we may be with you throughout all eternity, lost and absorbed, once and forever, in your holy will.”

While indicating that his followers called him “God,” Father Divine, when he was questioned in court, would never claim to be divine and was equally vague about the source of his funds. Also, he never admitted a human ancestry, although it is reasonably certain that he was born in Georgia in 1878 and that he was named George Baker. There were reports of his death several years ago, but they were denied by his followers. If he is still alive he is a very old man.

His movement was centered in New York and Philadelphia, but spread across the United States. Very loosely organized, it limits its rituals mainly to elaborate sermon banquets or love feasts and to Communion ceremonies.

Unity School. The organization of some sects and cults differ greatly from that of the more conventional denominations. As a rule they have no hierarchies, and many of the people who take part in their programs do not participate in the ritualistic aspect of the group. One sect that is notable for its wide and informal following is the Unity School of Christianity.

Unity does most of its work by mail, but it also operates centers throughout the United States. From its headquarters in Kansas City, it carries on an extensive correspondence with people from all parts of America, Europe, Asia and Africa. One department alone, Silent Unity, receives an average of 10,000 letters or telegrams each week. The organization also publishes a half dozen magazines, including Unity, Daily Word, and Progress, as well as a great number of sectarian books and pamphlets.

Unity was founded by two former Christian Scientists, Myrtle and Charles Fillmore. The Fillmores broke with the parent denomination in 1889 because they disagreed with the Christian Science belief that sin, sickness, and death are illusions. These are not illusions, they said, but painful realities that can be overcome by the mind. Unity encourages its followers to follow a vegetarian diet, limit sex functions to procreation, and, above all, to think good thoughts and dismiss the delusion that illness and death have any power over them. Daily prayers and periodic self-examination are recommended and short affirmations are suggested to bolster personal confidence. For example, when a person is on his way to an appointment, he is to say, “I go to meet my good”; when not feeling well, “I am Spirit and the Spirit cannot be sick”; when afraid, “Peace.” Unity supplies small motto cards, essays, and success stories designed to promote the individual’s sense of security.

While Christian Science practitioners charge fees for their healing efforts, Unity directors and ministers are willing to give assistance without pay. Silent Unity is a round-the-clock prayer service for all who phone, wire, or write for help, and a corps of employees at the national office is always on duty to answer appeals and accept voluntary donations or “love offerings.”

The future ministers of Unity receive a kind of seminary training that is later supplemented by correspondence. Local congregations, called Unity Centers, sponsor worship programs, healing ceremonies, and Sunday schools. In addition, convert baptisms and marriages are regularly performed by the clergy. Whatever theology the sect professes is closer to Hinduism and Oriental pantheism than Christianity.


It is impossible to estimate the number or classify the types of sectarian movements currently active in the United States. In California alone, every exotic species of religion known to ancient and modern man has seemed to flourish for a time at least. But not all the movements are temporary. Some have become national and world religions, and all have exerted a profound influence on the religious atmosphere of America.

There is also no way of estimating accurately the total number of people involved in these sectarian movements in the United States. Most of the followers are drawn from the 60 to 70 million Americans who have no affiliation with the ordinary churches in the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish traditions. Assuming that the religious instinct is one of man’s deepest cravings and that over a million persons annually are born into families with no formal church connections, it is not surprising that the nation has supported a large number and variety of sects and cults,

Since most of the followers are from Protestant traditions, the conventional Protestant churches have had cause to be concerned that these people chose new rather than traditional affiliations. They are aware that they have often failed to appeal to new generations. Many blame this failure on Protestantism’s lack of ritual, its preoccupation with sin and the depraved state of human nature, and its lack of a definite philosophical structure.

To combat the drift away from their churches, Protestants are now developing a greater interest in liturgy. Representatives of the major denominations speak of the need to “recover elements in the Christian heritage which were discarded at the time of the Reformation.” More stress is being placed on positive values in the faith, on holiness, and on the prospects of closer union with God. It is not unusual today for Protestants to include such saints as John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Francis de Sales among recommended writers on the interior life. Above all, the ecumenical movement is seeking to bring together the forces of historic Protestantism to meet the sectarian challenge.

For further information read Protestantism in the United States.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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