Is the Mormon Church a cult?

By: Brad Masters //

Whenever possible, I try to avoid hostile religious discussions. They usually don’t end well for anyone involved. But sometimes, these discussions are unavoidable, like selfies on Instagram or heartbreak in Downton Abbey (I’ve got a serious love/hate relationship with those writers . . .). Anyway. A few years ago, I was forced into a discussion like this when a friend demanded that I “stop lying and just admit it: Mormonism is a cult!” Well, I didn’t admit anything of the sort cause I’m not a liar.

Google SearchApparently, this question has been asked before.

“Dude, if I walk into a Christian bookstore, you know where I’d find the books about Mormonism? In the cult section. That’s right. The CULT SECTION!” Dun-Dun-Dun! As far as he was concerned, he had boxed me into Ivan Drago’s losing corner; his logic was impenetrable. Much to his surprise, I was hesitant to embrace a definition of “cult” that correlated with how Christian bookstores stack their shelves.

So are Mormons part of a cult? Well, no. But I guess it technically depends on how we define “cult.”

You see, when most people hear the word “cult,” they picture a bunch of fanatical, crazy, irrational zealots. In fact, the word often conjures up images of the Jonestown group and the 909 people who, at the command of their leader Jim Jones, committed suicide by drinking cyanide-filled Kool-Aid (some say this was where the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” came from). No wonder cults are normally shunned and written off as illegitimate.

At the same time, many religious leaders insist that their definition of “cult” (what they call a “theological cult,” as opposed to a sociological one) is not pejorative at all. They say it’s just a technical word they use to describe religious groups that worship God differently than they do. Essentially, their definition of “cult” comes down to a set of criteria that includes relatively small membership, weird beliefs (and what’s considered “weird” is, of course, up to them) and strict rules. It’s worth noting that even my friend’s nondenominational church could be labeled a cult under these vague criteria. This technical definition seems to pretend that the other, scarier one doesn’t exist. (Here’s Pastor Robert Jeffress making this exact distinction between theological and sociological cults – even he won’t say Mormons are the latter.)

All of this raises the question: if these religious leaders are just trying to label different religious groups, why use the label “cult,” a term packed with negativity? Wouldn’t a term like “unorthodox” or “nontraditional” be simultaneously more accurate and less judgmental?

I won’t attempt to answer this question for them. But using the theological definition doesn’t change the fact that when most people hear “cult”, visions of Kool-Aid-drinking, religious zealots dance in their heads. Imagine if I took the word Anti-Semite, defined it as any “non-Jewish based religious tradition,” and then said, “Buddhists are Anti-Semites!” I guess I’d be technically correct, but I’m likely to anger plenty of Jews and Buddhists along the way.

To put it another way, it’s like calling immigrants “aliens”—sure, our legal systems have used the term since before we can remember, but just because we technically define “alien” a certain way doesn’t stop us from imagining a bunch of little green men moving into our neighborhoods.


Aliens You must be the new neighbors. Welcome to Earth.

So why do people think Mormonism is a cult? It really boils down to the fact that while Mormons worship Christ, we worship a little differently than some of our evangelical friends. But you already knew that. Heck, this site is called “Normons” because we readily admit that there’s a need to explain some of our “weird”-ness! But while some of our beliefs and methods of worship differ from those of other Christians, one thing is for sure: we love and revere Jesus Christ as the head of our Church, and we earnestly strive to incorporate his teachings of mercy, love, and salvation into our daily lives. Here’s what some other regular Mormons have to say about the “cult” label.

During the 2012 election, the Reverend Billy Graham’s Evangelical Association (BGEA) removed Mormonism from its list of cults. (WOOHOO!) Later, Rev. Franklin Graham said, “If I want to win a person to Christ, how can I call that person a name? That’s what shocked me, that we were calling people names.” I appreciate that. Makes me think . . . if I take my friend to a BGEA bookstore, I might just win our debate once and for all!

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but calling Mormonism a cult gets us nowhere . . . fast.

Still think Mormonism is a cult? Tell us why and we’d be happy to explain.


Add yours
  1. 1

    I do find Mormonism to share some very cult-like attributes but, in recent times, they have worked very diligently to distant themselves from their history and their core doctrines. “Most” mormons do not know the dark side of mormonism because they are brainwashed into staying away from any “anti-mormon” literature regardless if it is true. Nonetheless, in the last 20 years, I believe that the church has made a push to penetrate into mainstream christianity or at least to appear to be christian.
    It is difficult to listen to General Conference or read a church publication these days without some reference given to the LDS church’s growth, their influence, and the respect it receives from the world. Even other religions and the media are coming to its defense for perhaps the first time in history. Yet, as much we seem to enjoy basking in our new found popularity, it should be recognized that the early leaders of this church both PREDICTED and CONDEMNED this state of affairs. The following quotes reflect President Young’s concern about the day when the saints would become popular. Notice the direct, almost prophetic tone which he takes as he expresses his concerns and the consequences he associates with popularity.
    “And when the spirit of persecution, the spirit of hatred, of wrath, and malice ceases in the world against this people, it will be the time that this people have apostatized and joined hands with the wicked, and never until then; which I pray may never come.” (JD 4:326 327)
    “There is nothing that would so soon weaken my hope and discourage me as to see this people in full fellowship with the world, and receive no more persecution from them because they are one with them. In such an event, we might bid farewell to the Holy Priesthood with all its blessings, privileges and aids to exaltations, principalities and powers in the eternities of the Gods.” (JD 10:32)
    “When we see the time that we can willingly strike hands and have full fellowship with those who despise the Kingdom of God, know ye then that the Priesthood of the Son of God is out of your possession. Let us be careful how we make friends with and fellowship unrighteousness, lest the curse of God descends heavily upon us.” (JD 10:273)
    I realize that not everyone is a Bringham Young fan BUT in a 1990 meeting with Regional Representatives, Elder Boyd K. Packer expressed his concern about the state of the church today. He said,
    “In recent years I have felt, and I think I am not alone, that we are losing the ability to correct the course of the church. You cannot appreciate how deeply I feel about the importance of this present opportunity unless you know the regard, the reverence, I have for the Book of Mormon and how seriously I have taken the warnings of the prophets, particularly Alma and Helaman.”
    Both Alma and Helaman warned the church in their day about the desire to be accepted by the world, to be popular. Each time these conditions existed in combination, the church has drifted off course. According to Boyd K. Packer, these conditions are present in the church today.
    Notice how Elder Packer says “we are losing the ability to correct the course of the church.” This implies two very important points. First, that the church is, indeed, off course. Otherwise there would be no need to correct its course. Second, that we are so far off course that Elder Packer is worried that we are “losing the ability” to correct it. These are bold statements from one of the Twelve Apostles of the church.
    Even though I do not believe that mormons are christian (in the biblical sense) I think it is shameful that they would not be true to the faith of their fathers while wearing their garments as an outward sign of their religions. Such hypocrites! May the Lord have mercy on their souls and help them to find the real truth of who he is and what he offers to all who believe on his name.

    • 2

      Hi Linda,

      Brad, here. Hope all is well! I noticed that, despite your condemnation of Mormons, you use the word “we” when referring to the LDS Church membership. I am guessing you have been affiliated with the Church at some point, and I just want to tell you that we are sorry to see you part ways but happy that you have found some peace.

      First, and quickly, you stated that the Church shares cult-like attributes. Since you did not substantiate this claim, I won’t really address it. I would go so far as to say that any label of Mormonism as a sociological cult (which I think is how you intended to use the word “cult”) cannot be grounded in actual fact.

      Second, and more importantly, you apparently find it hypocritical that the LDS Church has gained favor with the broader religious community despite some comments from Brigham Young. I think some historical context would help us understand why that argument is wrong.

      Throughout the 1830’s, the newly baptized Brigham Young watched as Mormons were ruthlessly persecuted, imprisoned, murdered, raped, etc. throughout the country. Missouri passed an extermination law, legalizing the murder of Mormons in the state. Later, in 1844, his Prophet was murdered in cold blood, a man he loved. Brigham Young once said, ““I feel like shouting hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith.” (JD 3:51). Then, his people were driven out of Nauvoo by hateful religious persecutors. Even after they arrived in Deseret (Utah), they lived under constant threat of federal prosecution until the day he died.

      Its no wonder Brigham Young said what he said. These were intolerant, evil people. In his mind, if we wanted to appease those people, we’d have to forsake much of our sacred doctrines and practices. But Brigham Young’s statements apparently fail to consider that the intolerant and the evil might repent, might become tolerant and merciful over time.

      It is not possible to say that the environment is the same. The extermination has been lifted (although only since 1976). Not a single Mormon prophet has been murdered since Joseph. Those who disagree with central tenets of Mormon doctrine no longer resort to tar and feather as a means for communicating the disagreement.

      MUCH more could be said. All this is to say, Linda, that I think your accusations are a little unfair. The fact that the world started liking us instead of hating us does not mean that we are hypocritical. It just means that we’re totally cool and hip. ☺

      – Brad

    • 3

      I don’t really think the church is striving to be “popular” as much as we are striving to “not be considered freakishly weird”. Part of our church is about spreading the good news about Jesus Christ to every corner of the Earth, and it would help our goal if those we are trying to teach didn’t dismiss us immediately for “being a cult”.

      As for Boyd K. Packer’s comments, he originally said them within the context of excessive church programs. The talk is about the decision that was made to fund the church only from the tithes and offerings of its members. He quotes Gordon B. Hinckley, saying: “Perhaps we have gone to far… in providing for some beyond what is needed or what is best in terms of the individuals and their families. It should be recognized that this Church is not a social club. … Perhaps we should be less concerned with fun and more with faith.”

      When he later speaks of his worry for the church as a whole, it is within the context of the fact that the members needed to be more serious about their worship. The fact that every human problem spawned a church program was distressing, since it was fostering dependence instead of independence. Those church programs were just like putting a band-aid on a broken bone. The members didn’t need another church program, they needed a more personal relationship with God, or a better rapport with their family members, etc. This talk was a warning to stay informed and aware so that we may not stumble into the pitfalls that the church did in the days of Alma and Helaman. In other words, we should not get complacent.

      When he speaks about how “we are losing the ability to correct the course of the church”, I think that “we” is referring more to the leadership of the church. His talk was entitled “Let Them Govern Themselves” because he knew that the individual members which made up the body of the church would ultimately be the ones to change, or not change, the course of its progression.

      The body of his talk was largely about the fact that there were too many programs for too many things, and we needed to cut down and allow ourselves the time to think and act for ourselves, to spend time with our families, since that would be a truer test of faith. The talk had very little to do with seeking worldly popularity.

      Of course there are probably some hypocritical people in our church, as they can be found almost everywhere, but I don’t think it’s a fair assessment to say we are all hypocrites simply because our leaders are reminding us where the correct path is. Following the teachings of Christ is not always easy, but we do our best, and our leaders speak to the church as a whole every six months to warn us if our good intentions end up causing us to stray from the correct path.

  2. 4

    Looking at religious groups from a sociological standpoint:

    Church: its norms resemble the norms of the general public. They believe they teach the only correct way to salvation.
    Sect: its norms differ from those of the general public. They also believe they teach the only correct way to salvation. (here is where the Mormon Church resides)
    Denomination: its norms resemble the norms of the general public. They believe there are multiple ways to gain salvation. (in other words, they believe they are not the only church that can teach this)
    Cult: its norms differ from those of the general public and they believe there are multiple ways to gain salvation.

    The meaning of words shifts so easily over such short periods of time, that we often forget what they actually mean.

  3. 5

    I don’t think the church is a “cult” in the sense that most people think of it. While it does have characteristics of a cult, it is possible(albeit difficult) to engage with mormonism in a way that would not be cultish.

    A common method to determine if a group is a cult is the BITE method.

    Behavior Control
    “No coffee, no tea, no alchohol oh but all the soda you want ! By the way, I know that masturbation is a natural part of puberty but you’re actually committing a grave sin. Be sure and tell your family this is why you aren’t blessing the sacrament anymore”

    Information Control
    “Don’t read those bad books!”

    Fawn Brodie gets exed, decades later, bushman writes the same book, quotes from brodie exhaustively and everything is kosher ?
    “but still, only read church-approved literature”
    The church hires Michael Quinn to publish church history, then exes him when they don’t like what he writes.

    Thought Control
    “push those doubts back” “we did not doubt our mothers knew it”

    Emotional Control

    “You better get married in the temple and stay true or you won’t be a forever family.”

    “What you dont believe in Jesus Christ, sorry luman, you can’t attend your sibling’s wedding. ”

    It’s not jonestown but the boot kinda fits in some ways.

    • 6


      Thanks for the comment. I think, viewed in a particular lens, what you said is reasonable – one could certainly see cult-like attributes in how the Church has handled its members in the past.

      However, that is just one lens. In fact, there are a dozen other glosses that could be put on those actions that would tell a different story. I find those other lenses to be quite persuasive as well, and considering how much joy and utility I find in membership, I prefer to dwell on those more.

      That said, I am an advocate for pushing back on any use of “BITE” tactics. I read everything – from Fawn Brodie, to Michael Quinn, to Grant Palmer…heck even Denver Snuffer. Additionally, I find that faith cannot properly be defined without doubt.

      (A little quibble with your Fawn Brodie-Richard Bushman point: its a bit unfair to say he wrote the same book, even though he quoted extensively from her. Bushman’s overall thesis was that, despite Joseph’s many controversial statements and actions, one can still reasonably see why millions believe he experienced the divine. Brodie’s book was much less willing to communicate that, treating him as a brilliant, but deceived, religious founder.)

      Point is, as you said, there are ways “to engage with Mormonism in a way that would not be cultish.” That’s what we’re trying to do here at Normons, and that is what I am trying to do in my own personal life. To tell you the truth, the more I live like that, the more I see this is how Mormonism is meant to be lived.

      Thanks for stopping by – please engage more with us in the future!


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