Social and religious experimentation flourished in the United States after ratification of the Constitution’s First Amendment. New sects and cults multiplied after 1830 and continue to do so. This article explains the origin and beliefs of three major cults: Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientology.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints originated with Joseph Smith Jr. Smith claimed to have found golden plates buried on a hill outside Palmyra, New York that explained the origin of New World civilizations. Using “seer stones,” Smith translated the plates into The Book of Mormon, the foundation of Mormonism. Smith launched the LDS church as the “Church of Christ” in Palmyra in 1830.
Most know bits and pieces of Mormon history and belief. Included are Smith’s martyrdom in 1844, the Mormon trek to the Great Salt Lake Valley, the doctrine of polygamy, and its practice of baptism for the dead.
Few know Mormonism’s hidden doctrines. Mormons believe the universe is eternal and man is an eternal being destined for godhood. Man becomes a god by obeying church defined gospel rules and principles leading to exaltation and entrance into a celestial realm where he becomes god of a world in a multitude of universes. Mormons believe Jehovah, earth’s god, is an exalted man. Lorenzo Snow, a president of the Mormon church said, “As man now is, God once was: as God now is, man may be.”
All Mormon doctrine circles this belief of male exaltation. Jesus, the son of Jehovah, is a spirit child and brother to Lucifer. Unlike all other of Jehovah’s spirit children, Jesus inherited powers and godhood and died a substitutionary death for sin. However, his sacrifice was insufficient and obedience to church doctrine completes his work.
Because some Mormon doctrines have been presented in ways that appear more biblical today, some theologians and historians have been led to accept Mormonism as a sect rather than a cult. Even though Mormons understand Jesus to be Jehovah’s first spirit child, he is viewed as savior. Their view of Jesus’ atoning death sounds biblical. Salvation comes through faith, repentance, and immersion plus the laying on of hands. All this sounds “close enough” so that some consider Mormonism another Christian denomination.
In the mid 1800s, William Miller preached Christ’s imminent return setting dates in 1844 and 1845. Charles Taze Russell was among the disillusioned when Christ did not appear. Russell’s biblical study led him to conclude Jesus would return secretly in 1874 and his visible presence would establish an earthly kingdom in 1914. Even though the expected kingdom never came, Russell’s teaching took root and he formed the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in Pittsburgh in 1884.
Continuing his study, Russell could not reconcile concepts of an eternal hell with a merciful God. He reasoned unbelievers ceased to exist at death rather than face judgment and hell. He questioned historic Christian doctrines and became convinced that existing churches betrayed true Christianity. He rejected Trinitarian teaching, adopting the concepts of Arius, a deacon in the third century Alexandrian church. He contended Christ was inferior to God, a created being, and certainly not coequal with God. Russell denied Jesus’ deity claiming that he existed as the angel Michael prior to his earthly birth. While accepting a form of the atonement, he affirmed Jesus rose spiritually rather than physically. He also denied the Holy Spirit’s existence maintaining the Spirit was only God’s active power on earth.
Russell claimed to be a biblical scholar despite ignorance of biblical Hebrew and Greek. He interpreted and misinterpreted Scripture claiming to be a Christian restoring New Testament teaching. Russell became popular with followers largely in Northern and Eastern states when thousands of newspapers printed his sermons. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society became a substantial publishing venture with millions of books and pamphlets in print. Joseph Franklin (Judge) Rutherford succeeded Russell upon his death in 1917. Rutherford changed the organization’s name to Jehovah’s Witnesses and the rest is history.
Jehovah’s Witness doctrine divides humanity into three categories. The anointed class is made up of only 144,000. The Jonadabs, or “great cloud,” are promised an eternal physical existence on planet earth. Because Jesus cannot guarantee existence on planet earth, four requirements are required for hope of paradise earth. First, true knowledge of God as defined by JW doctrine. Second, obedience of God’s laws which include rules of morality, separation from the world’s kingdoms, and extend Jehovah’s outreach. Third, membership in a JW organization. Fourth, demonstration of loyalty in promoting their cult by selling their material. The last category is made up of the annihilated.
Scientology gained world attention because of the involvement of numerous celebrities: Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Kirstie Alley, to name a few. More than a cult, it is a business empire of massive proportions. Scientology’s aim is to make “every life extraordinary.”
L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific writer of pulp and science fiction, grew Scientology from Dianetics, a best-selling book in the 1950s. In truth, Dianetics was neither science nor about true mental health. The psychological community refused to recognize Dianetics as legitimate psychology.
In Dianetics, Hubbard said the way to mental health was to discover traumatic events and eliminate them. He said the human brain has two sides: the analytic and the reactive. The former is a computer storing everything it receives without error. The latter is where neuroses, anxieties, and fears arise in the form of engrams, a kind of memory. To detect and measure the mass of memories, Hubbard invented an “E-Machine.” Traumatic memories can be eliminated by revealing them through “auditing,” a form of counseling consisting of a series of questions. Revealing and dealing with engrams leads to a “state of clear.” Once individuals reach “clear,” the unconscious mind is alert and totally capable of nearly anything.
When Dianetics ran out of steam, Hubbard repackaged it as Scientology. He devised auditing levels and study guides setting fees for every step leading to “clear.” Hubbard and the church reaped the profit. At minimum, it takes $250,000 to reach “clear.”
Scientology eventually became more fiction than science. Hubbard said humans were spiritual beings trapped in material bodies. These spirits were actually alien beings (Thetans) brought to earth in the ancient past. It is the Thetan, Hubbard said, which is the source of all neuroses, fears, and anxieties. Once accepted, this idea meant auditing not only took an individual through this life, but through but pre-existing lives as well.
David Miscavige assumed Scientology leadership when Hubbard “put off his body” in 1986. Under Miscavige’s leadership Scientology became intensely authoritarian and abusive. Through abuse and mind-control Scientology controls its members physically, socially, and economically.
For Further Study
No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie,
Christianity & Mormonism by Dr. Charles Crane (Covenant Publishing),
“Dr. James White—Presentation on Mormonism,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gpi3bOfxMe8
The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin and Ravi Zacharias
“Jehovah’s Witnesses: beliefs, practices and ERRORS” by Mike Winger, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lE5KQHf8fX0
Going Clear by Lawrence Wright,
“Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath” (An A & E Channel series, first year available for purchase on YouTube).
Michael Hines is a retired minister and Bible college professor living in Arizona. He currently teaches online for Manhattan Christian College and has authored several books on Christian and Restoration History.