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Religious Movements in the United States:
An Informal Introduction

Timothy Miller
University of Kansas

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It may be that no country in the world has a religious diversity as extensive as that found in the United States. All of the world’s major religions, and most of the smaller ones as well, are found throughout the land. Even small cities usually have dozens of religious organizations of remarkably diverse complexions.

This religious diversity has been around for a long time, thanks in significant part to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees that no religion will have governmental endorsement and that all Americans are free to practice the religions of their choice. But diversity increased sharply in the last third of the twentieth century as a result of changes in the immigration laws and in the culture at large (about which more presently).

The “new” religions that began to appear in America after 1965 were exciting and tantalizing to some, and ominous to others. For some they slaked a desperate spiritual thirst; for others they represented a new hazard in American life. Controversy has always accompanied the arrival of new religious ideas and practices in America, and the post-1965 era was no exception. Critics denounced many new religions, sometimes sweepingly and indiscriminately, as “cults” that should be eradicated.

The terms “sect” and “cult” once had clear meanings for social scientists, but the opponents of the new religiosity managed to turn “cult,” especially, into a term of opprobrium. Classically, a “sect” was a splinter group, one that split off from a well-established parent tradition, often in the name of returning to a pristine purity from which the parent tradition, in its organizational evolution, was held to have departed. A “cult” (the word, related to “cultivation,” originally had to do with farming) was a religious movement not rooted in an existing mainstream religion; it might be a form of a world religion present in the United States mainly in ethnic communities (such as Hinduism or Buddhism), or it might be the creation of a recent, even living, prophet.

In the controversies over the new post-1965 religious movements, however, “cult” came to mean something sinister. It came to be generally used to describe a movement that was at least potentially destructive to its members or to society at large, one that in effect abused (or took advantage of) its members and engaged in unethical practices of various sorts. But in fact no one yet has been able to define “cult” in a way that enables the term to identify only problem groups. “Cults” are usually defined by anticultists by lists of attributes they possess: they have charismatic leaders, they want your money, they demand high levels of involvement, they expect members to conform to certain behavioral patterns, and so forth. But such attributes are perfectly capable of belonging to groups that few would consider “cultic”—Catholic religious orders, for example, or many evangelical Protestant churches. If the term does not enable us to distinguish between a pathological group and a legitimate one, then it has no real value. It is the religious equivalent of “nigger”—it conveys disdain and prejudice without having any valuable content.

Thus academic students of nonmainstream religions generally quit using “cult” as a descriptive term. They adopted a variety of other monickers—“alternative religions” and “emergent religions” both have had some usage—but for various reasons finally converged on “new religious movements” as the accepted term for the study of marginal groups.

The term “new religious movements” (hereafter NRMs) is a bit misleading, because some, even most, of the religions thus categorized are not terribly new. Many of them are in fact more ancient by far than the mainstream American religions. Hinduism is thousands of years old, and its component groups and movements thus have a claim to an ancient heritage. Other NRMs are rooted in Christianity or Judaism, but are out of the mainstream of those venerable traditions by virtue of beliefs or practices deemed unconventional by the majority. Nevertheless, “NRM” has achieved general acceptance and thus is used here. The presumption here will be that there is a religious mainstream that consists of the long-established and culturally dominant forms of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as well as Judaism. The groups outside that mainstream—usually relegated to nonmainstream status by the dominant religions that disapprove of them—we will deem NRMs. Between the two categories is a gray area—Christian groups with beliefs or practices not accepted by the Christian majority, for example. Clear boundaries between categories are impossible to draw, and in any event the study of religion is filled with ambiguity.


How Many Groups? How Many Members?

Counting NRMs and their members precisely is flatly impossible. Groups come and go steadily, as do their members. One’s definition of NRM can have a powerful effect on one’s counting. Size also becomes an issue: do we count every little local group with a handful of members? There are, for example, thousands of independently-organized local pagan/wiccan groups with anywhere from three or four to a few dozen members each; counting all of them would give us tens of thousands of movements, at least, and several hundreds of thousands of members. If we assume that a movement has to have some kind of critical mass—some level of national recognition and more than handful of members—then numbers drop sharply. Recent editions of J. Gordon Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions lists some 2,300 religious groups active in the United States; most of them either have at least 2,000 members or operate in multiple, widely separated geographic locations to qualify for inclusion. A majority of Melton’s religious organizations are mainstream groups, so those qualifying as NRMs would number well below 1,000. Their members likely number well below a million, although firm statistics here do not exist; many reports of NRM membership use figures reported by the groups themselves, and many groups exaggerate their numbers, sometimes wildly.


Centuries of Religious Movements

Those who worry about a large and increasing presence of NRMs in contemporary society would do well to take a look at the past, because NRMs have been with us from the beginning. Indeed, NRMs predate mainstream religions altogether, because many NRMs are, among other things, religions in their formative stages.

Many of the early Euro-American settlers were religious dissenters and could easily be considered adherents of NRMs. The Massachusetts Puritans were Anglicans who took issue with certain practices of their church and departed for what was then considered a howling wilderness in order to practice their religion freely. Their burning desire for freedom of religion did not, however, extend to others. Very early in their American experience other dissenters began to emerge in their midst—Anne Hutchinson, who claimed to receive special revelations and whose semi-ministerial role in her meetings violated patriarchal ecclesiology, for example, and Roger Williams, who argued that New England Puritanism did not go far enough in reforming church and society. Both of them were cast out of New England and made their way to Rhode Island, which Williams founded as a religiously tolerant colony. But religious dissent in Massachusetts had not been eradicated permanently. In the 1650s Quakers began to show up in Massachusetts, and the Puritans were so affronted by the thought and actions of these new dissenters that for a time it was a capital crime in Massachusetts simply to be a Quaker. Before the law was repealed, four of them were executed for their faith.

Despite such early religious persecution, freedom and toleration slowly but surely gained a foothold in the American colonies. When William Penn, a Quaker and therefore one well informed about the plight of religious minorities, founded his colony of Pennsylvania in 1681 he emulated Williams and offered freedom of religion to all believers. A wide variety of religious dissenters responded and began to settle there—Mennonites, Moravians, and the Amish, to name just a few. The road map for American religious diversity was being published.

In 1774 the Shakers, yet another group of religious dissidents from England, arrived in New York under the leadership of the visionary Ann Lee, who in the early 1780s began to organize the communal villages for which the movement became famous. Today the Shakers are remembered as the peaceful creators of wonderful architecture and craftworks, but their early days were rocky. They demanded celibacy of their members, something that seemed decidedly unnatural and anti-family to the average American. Their economy was communal, which led opponents to charge that the leaders were profiting from the work of the rank and file members. In their early years, at least, they were aggressively evangelistic, and they were accused of being warm and friendly to newcomers only to try to recruit them. In short, they were, in their heyday, a classic “cult.” Like more recent groups they had opponents, many of them former members. The most formidable of them was Mary Dyer, who, after a brief try at membership, spent the rest of her life denouncing the movement most vehemently. One who visits a Shaker village museum today would hardly know that in the movement’s early decades it was widely regarded as odd at best and dangerous or cruel at worst.

After the establishment of the American republic the country turned toward expanding its westward borders, and settlers for the new territories were welcomed warmly. Of the many who responded, significant numbers came from dissenting religious groups, often ones that had been so much at odds with their neighbors and with the public authorities in Europe that they saw the United States as an ideal sanctuary—a paradise of cheap land and isolation where they could finally live out their faith in peace. Full peace was never to come, however; controversy followed the nineteenth-century movements just as it had the earlier ones.

Among those who joined the westward migration were several distinctive groups of German Pietists. Their movement was based in a critique of what they regarded as the cold, empty forms of their state churches; they sought to return to a religion of the heart, a religion of piety and discipline and community. They were not well received by the public authorities in the German localities where they flourished, and early in their history they began to seek new horizons. Some Pietists arrived in Pennsylvania as early as 1683, and then larger numbers came in several later migrations. The Harmony Society, arriving in 1804, was one of the most prominent of the Pietist groups, a fellowship of fervent believers led by the charismatic George Rapp, who considered himself a latter-day prophet. The Harmonists founded, successively, three communal villages in Pennsylvania and Indiana, and experienced a good deal of conflict in every case. Controversy surrounded their practices of community of goods and celibacy, just as it had the similar Shaker practices, and when a substantial group of members left the community in 1832, they accused Rapp of personal greed and lust for power. Nevertheless, hundreds of Harmonists persevered, and the movement lasted for a century.

From the ferment of the Second Great Awakening revivals that powerfully affected American religion in the first few decades of the nineteenth century came a wide variety of new religious movements. None has had greater influence or staying power than the Latter Day Saints movement—the Mormons and other related churches. Mormonism was founded in upstate New York on the basis of a series of revelations that founder Joseph Smith, Jr., claimed to have received in the 1820s. It was revealed to him, he said, that he would refound the true church (which had been lost through centuries of institutionalized, decadent Christianity) and publish newly found scriptures. The Book of Mormon, the central text, purports to present a history of precolumbian America populated by biblical peoples. The Mormons were controversial from their earliest days and soon were bitterly attacked, often violently, so much so that they were forced to move from New York state to Kirtland, Ohio, then to Independence and other places in Missouri, then to Nauvoo, Illinois, and finally (most of them) to Utah. In Illinois, the penultimate stop, Smith was lynched by a mob angered by a long series of alleged Mormon abuses, not the least of which was the institution of polygamy. In remote Utah the Mormons had fewer neighbors than they had had back East, but they continued to be dogged by federal forces trying to eradicate illegal polygamy. Only with the abandonment of polygamy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did the controversies abate; the abandonment in 1978 of a doctrine that seemed to make African Americans inferior to other races also defused controversy about the Saints. Today the Mormons have millions of members and considerable influence, but the controversies are not entirely dead. Anticult activists continue to track alleged Mormon misdeeds, and Christian countercultists continue to see the Mormon version of Christianity as heretical and therefore in need of refutation.

Another product of the religious excitement of the Second Great Awakening was the Adventist movement, several of whose descendant groups are still very much alive today. Dedicated Bible student William Miller became fascinated with the possibility of predicting the time of the second coming of Christ, and applying a combination of mathematical calculations and interpretations of scattered biblical texts concluded that the end of the world would come about 1843. Eventually he refined that date to October 22, 1844, which is still known among Adventists as the “Great Disappointment.” Undaunted, various groups of believers regrouped and continued to believe that the end was coming very soon. In the 1850s the Seventh-Day Adventists began to take shape under the leadership of a new prophet, Ellen White (who added the nominal stipulation of a Saturday sabbath), and in the 1870s another group, now known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was formed under the leadership of Charles Russell. Russell, like Miller, thought he could predict the year of the Second Coming: 1914. The movement has grown impressively despite the problematic nature of its end date (which has been reinterpreted, necessarily), and with it has gone ongoing controversy. The Witnesses are widely unpopular for their refusal to salute the flag (they regard that as veneration of a false god) and for refusing to receive blood transfusions (they regard them as violations of the biblical injunction not to eat blood), among other things. Despite much criticism, however, they have developed a strong presence in most of the world.

One new religious product of the mid-nineteenth century was Spiritualism, a variety of Christianity that believed in direct human communication with other realms—particularly with the spirits of the dead. The movement’s beginning is usually traced to Kate and Margaret Fox, who heard rapping noises in their home in Hydesville, New York, and claimed to develop a system of communication with the disembodied source of the noises. For a time Spiritualism boomed, with practitioners claiming a wide variety of paranormal experiences, but eventually a decline set in amid ongoing allegations of fraud in the production of Spiritualistic phenomena. Nevertheless, Spiritualism has endured. Recently a new generation of Spiritualist adepts has emerged; now they usually call their work “channeling.” J. Z. Knight, who claimed direct contact with a prehistoric warrior named Ramtha, is perhaps the most prominent working Spiritualist medium today. Controversy about her and her contemporaries is as prevalent as it was about their predecessors a century and a half ago.

Spiritualism gave rise to a number of other alternative religious currents, among them Theosophy. Helena P. Blavatsky, the chief founder of Theosophy, combined Spiritualism’s belief in communications with beings on other planes of reality with a body of teachings that she called Ancient Wisdom, lore from various Asian religions and from esoteric Western traditions (notably Neoplatonism). The same charges that Spiritualism endured, especially that of fraudulent claims of messages from the “other side,” afflicted Theosophy as well. Some Theosophists have given up the idea of active communication with the spiritual entities; others have not. After Blavatsky’s death in 1891 the movement began a splintering process that continues to this day. Today Theosophy, broadly construed, encompasses dozens of movements old and new and is found in dozens of countries around the world. Some branches have become reasonably well accepted in the larger culture, but other branches, such as the Church Universal and Triumphant, which received a blizzard of adverse publicity in the 1980s and 90s over its survivalist projects at its headquarters ranch in Montana, definitely have not.

In the twentieth century Asian religions have become more and more visible in the United States. An important turning point was 1893, when the young Swami Vivekananda, an emissary of the Ramakrishna Mission in India, was a huge hit at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Subsequently Vivekananda and his associates founded and led the Vedanta Society, the first Indian religious movement to have a significant appeal to nonindian Americans. Other Asian teachers followed over the ensuing years and decades, gradually building a constituency for religions that, while utterly in the religious mainstreams of their homelands, were exotic and unconventional in the United States. By midcentury dozens of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and other groups previously relatively unfamiliar populated quiet corners of the religious landscape. Their main growth years were lying just ahead.

Although the foregoing synopses provide by no means a complete list of NRMs in American history, the point should be clear: the presence of religious movements is not at all new, and neither is controversy about them. Innovations in religion are as pervasive as religion itself in the human race, and they invariably face resistance when they appear.


The Watershed of 1965

Although NRMs have appeared fairly steadily through American history, the last third of the twentieth century deserves special mention as a time of high NRM activity—and controversy. In 1965 Congress passed a new Immigration Act that abolished quotas based on national origin (that favored Europeans) and placed immigration on a more egalitarian foundation. Immediately increased numbers of Asians began to move to the United States, and among them were spiritual teachers who brought new religious paths to a land previously dominated by certain mainstream forms of Christianity and Judaism. Serendipitously, immigration reform coincided with the great cultural upheaval that western society experienced in the late 1960s, one result of which was a new openness to religious exploration and experimentation, especially among young people, that provided fertile ground for the new and (by American standards) unusual teachings.

What Westerners call “Hinduism” is an extremely diverse group of beliefs and practices who main common characteristic is their presence in India. A rather ecumenical type of Hinduism had entered the U. S. with Vivekananda and Yogananda, but after 1965 many other versions of Indian tradition became established as well. Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta was one of the first of the new-generation teachers, arriving in 1965. Soon he established one of the best-known and most controversial of the NRMs, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, popularly called the Hare Krishnas after the mantra devotees chant. Another early Indian movement that became tremendously popular—estimates of participating meditators run as high as a million—was Transcendental Meditation, led by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In 1966 Swami Satchidananda began teaching his Integral Yoga to American seekers; his movement got a huge boost from his appearance onstage at the Woodstock rock festival in 1969. In the early 1970s Swami Muktananda began visiting the U.S. to teach the followers who had sought him out in India, and soon his Siddha Yoga was a thriving American movement. Dozens of other teachers followed similar paths.

Buddhism first reached the United States with Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the nineteenth century, and, like Hinduism, attracted a relatively small number of western followers in the early twentieth century. Adherents of Japanese Zen Buddhism began establishing American centers in the 1920s; in the 1940s and 50s several Beat writers (among them Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whelan, and Allen Ginsberg) became interested in this novel (to them) spiritual path, providing it with widespread exposure. Other forms of Buddhism joined Zen, especially after 1965; today all of the major schools are well established in America. Soka Gakkai, a dynamic form of Japanese Buddhism, gained a substantial American following, as have several lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Vipassana Buddhism, in the Theravadan tradition of Southeast Asia, is perhaps less prominent than the various Japanese- and Tibetan-based groups, but it too has developed a nationwide following. Buddhism in a wide variety of forms has become firmly situated in the American religious landscape.

The American relationship with Islam has taken a different trajectory than that with Hinduism and Buddhism. Islam also first arrived with immigrants, but its spread among persons not Muslim by birth has been most notably among African Americans, some of whom saw it as a religion of liberation (in contrast to Christianity, which was imposed on slaves by their masters). Meanwhile, various Muslim spinoffs and subgroups have attracted American followings. The Baha’i faith, an offshoot movement that emerged in Persia in the mid-nineteenth century, now claims over 100,000 American members. Several Sufi orders, the fellowships of the longstanding mystical and ascetic branch of Islam known as Sufism, have developed American followings.

Other religions from Asia have taken root as well. Sikhism has remained primarily a religion of immigrants from its homeland in the Punjab region of India, but offshoot forms of it, such as the Healthy-Happy-Holy Organization, or 3HO, founded by Yogi Bhajan in 1969, attracted Americans not of Sikh backgrounds. Here and there are Taoist, Shinto, Confucian, and many other groups that reflect the immense religious diversity of Asia.

But not all of the religious movements that populated the United States after 1965 were Asian imports. Some were solidly grounded in Christianity, America’s longstanding dominant faith, albeit with some twists that separated them from the Christian mainstream, in a fashion not unlike that of earlier NRMs such as Mormonism and Christian Science. One notable post-1965 religious phenomenon was the rise of the Jesus Movement, whose adherents looked like hippies (usually with hip dress and hair) but subscribed to fairly conventional evangelical Protestantism. Probably the most controversial of the Jesus-Movement groups was the Children of God, founded by the former Christian and Missionary Alliance minister David Berg in 1967. The Children dressed in biblical sackcloth and preached doom to the people of America. Soon their movement took up communal living, and during the 1970s most members left the United States. It was during that period that the movement practiced “flirty fishing,” the use of sex to attract new converts. In the late 1980s the Children abandoned flirty fishing and began to return to relatively conventional conservative Protestant ways. Many returned to the United States, where the movement now has an ongoing presence as The Family. Many other Jesus-Movement organizations have come and gone in the meantime; Shiloh, for example, a communal movement with headquarters in Oregon, at one point had thousands of members, but eventually went into bankruptcy. Others endured; Jesus People USA still operates a large communal center on the north side of Chicago, supports itself with several businesses, and operates a large annual Christian rock festival. Initially many local churches were not eager to accept the Jesus hippies, whose appearance was off-putting to staid church members, but over time the movement has to a fair degree been absorbed by various evangelical churches and denominations.

Other movements came from sources loosely, if at all, related to established world religions. One distinctive startup religion was Scientology, based on the writings of science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. Initially known as “Dianetics,” after Hubbard’s first book on the subject, Scientology grew from modest origins in the 1950s to substantial proportions in the 1970s and 1980s. It amounts to a kind of psychological self-improvement system with a technological twist: adherents probing the hidden recesses of their minds do so by using an “e-meter,” a type of lie detector that measures physiological responses to questions asked by a counselor known as an “auditor.” Scientology has long had vociferous critics who accuse its leaders of taking huge amounts of money from followers and of repressive reactions to criticism, but the movement continues to prosper and has attracted many adherents among entertainment and sports celebrities, among them John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Isaac Hayes.

Another movement, or network of movements, that has expanded greatly during the last few decades has been the earth-centered spirituality known as Neo-paganism, or simply Paganism. Although Neo-pagan groups and practices are so diverse as virtually to defy description, the largest numbers of them claim to be preserving, or re-establishing, the prechristian religions of ancient Europe. They generally contend that the religions that were suppressed by the spread of Christianity celebrated nature and natural forces, and had a stronger feminine component that most historical religions. Thus two defining pillars of the Pagan movement are environmentalism and feminism. Although males and females participate more or less equally, leadership is fully as likely (perhaps more likely) to be female as male, and the multiple deities invoked are similarly very frequently female. Wiccans, or witches, are probably the best-known of the Neo-pagans, and the longstanding Christian opposition to witchery has fueled polemics against the modern practitioners. Pagans, for their part, vehemently deny that there is anything evil in their religion, or that they have any connection to Satanism. Their rituals and magic are for good, not evil, purposes, they aver. Nevertheless, most of them tend to keep low profiles, and they remain targets of intolerance on the part of much of the larger population.

The Jesus Movement, Scientology, and Neo-paganism are the merest tip of the post-1965 NRM iceberg. A list of the NRMs that have risen to prominence since 1965 would be extensive indeed. This website seeks to provide resources on as many of them as possible. They are tremendously diverse, and each needs to be understood as a distinct expression of the human search for meaning. Their common denominator is their marginal social status, not any particular doctrine, organizational pattern, leadership style, or ritual practice.


The Cult Wars

As we have seen, new religions have long been lightning rods for public controversy, and the anticult movement that has accompanied the rise of movements in the last third of the twentieth century has accused its target groups—always called “cults”—of a wide variety of misbehaviors. Typically, NRMs are accused of such wayward activities as brainwashing and mind control of their members, accumulation of great amounts of money (and sometimes property), and destruction of family life.

Opposition to NRMs tends to fall into two categories, known to scholars as anticult and countercult. The latter usually applies to Christian organizations and schools of thought that see NRMs as heresies. Certain types of Christianity (especially evangelical Protestantism) are held to represent the one true faith, and religions that fall very far beyond that pale need to be countered simply because as nonchristian, or incorrectly Christian, faiths they are erroneous. They may have legitimate rights in a society that separates church and state, but potential adherents need to be warned about the wrong beliefs and practices such groups promote. Anticultists are rather more diverse in their approach; generally, they hold that “cults” are pathological organizations run by pathological leaders who prey on and manipulate their often-innocent, misguided followers. Some anticultists have religious convictions of their own; others simply see a need to fight what they perceive to be a social evil.

Since the 1970s the gulf between countercult and anticult activists, on the one hand, and the majority of scholars who study NRMs, on the other, has been broad. “Cult” opponents generally charge the movements they oppose with a variety of typical misbehaviors. Perhaps the most frequent charge is that NRMs engage in brainwashing, or mind control—a deliberate effort to reshape the minds of adherents in order to ensure that they behave in the ways that the “cult” wants them to. Most scholars, on the other hand, tend to doubt that anything that deserves to be called “brainwashing” exists. Many people, they point out, experience religious conversion and develop deep commitment to their newfound faiths, and the implications of the term “brainwashing” (which was popularized to describe psychological manipulation of prisoners of war by Communists during the Korean War) make it inappropriate for describing the conversion process. In any event, the scholars who have probed such matters have generally found, human brains are actually rather hard to wash.

A related term central to the “cult wars” is “totalism,” the concept that a given religious movement is total in its demand on its followers, absorbing their lives and energies day and night. Members of a totalistic movement typically live communally, work at movement-dictated jobs, and have their social lives directed by the leaders of the “cult.” The majority of those who study NRMs, however, have concluded that while there is little doubt that some movements make substantial demands on their members, it appears in most cases that members voluntarily assent to the strict directives that guide their everyday lives.

Anticult activists frequently charge that “cults” are led by persons who are power-hungry, seeking to control the lives of followers and to accumulate large amounts of money. It is true, naturally, that religious founders, like other successful entrepreneurs, tend to have strong and dominating personalities, but most of them are not pathological individuals. While it is undoubtedly true that some religious leaders have abused followers psychologically, sexually, or physically, there is no reason to believe that such behavior happens more frequently in religious settings than in secular environments, or in NRMs more than in mainstream religions. The most widespread scandal of sexual abuse in recent memory involved Catholic priests, not “cult” leaders, and in any event the vast majority of Catholic priests are innocent of any wayward activity. The largest financial swindles take place in the business world, not in religious organizations. People who behave unethically can be found in any part of life.

Some movements do amass substantial resources, and the leaders of large and successful organizations sometimes live quite comfortably. On the whole, however, religions of all kinds are not vastly wealthy. Indeed, they typically struggle for financial survival, and the assets they accumulate tend to be relatively modest. A few years ago a rather breathless television documentary assailed a communal religious group in the American Southwest, claiming, among other things, that the organization had accumulated over a million dollars in assets. But the group in question had about 100 members who lived communally in movement-owned property; the value of their housing, as well as the other facilities the movement used, thus came to approximately $10,000 per member–less, probably, than the typical American family has in assets.

“Cults” are often accused of destroying family ties, of cutting off communication between young adult members and their birth families. It is certainly the case that some converts to NRMs, zealous in their newfound convictions, choose to emphasize their relations with their new compatriots and not to spend a lot of time with their birth families. Casting off old relationships has a long history among most religious traditions; men and women who join monastic communities in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, for example, often limit their contact with all outsiders, including their birth families. That said, however, the cutting of family ties is not usually a requisite for a new member of an NRM. Unless the birth family is perceived as unusually hostile to the NRM in question, communication is usually maintained if the birth family wants to maintain it.

Several years ago, upon learning that a young adult child had joined a dreaded “cult,” some families responded by engaging deprogrammers to secure the individual’s departure from the NRM. Deprogramming typically involved the forcible abduction of the NRM member, who was taken to a distant facility and subjected to intense psychological and sometimes physical pressure in an effort to “save” the errant family member. In a fair percentage of cases the process did work, in that the NRM member did leave the group in question. In other cases, however, the process failed, and some victims of the process sued their abductors. Several kidnaping convictions put a substantial damper on the deprogramming movement, although cases do continue to occur from time to time.


NRMs Today

NRMs continue to appear on the American scene steadily, and they continue to be controversial. Particular movements tend gradually to achieve general public acceptance; such movements as the Quakers and the Amish today experience little of the frontal opposition they once inspired, and what was once the most despised NRM of its day, Mormonism, has now achieved not only general acceptance but a good deal of influence in contemporary life as it has grown from a handful of dissenters to its current status as one of America’s ten largest religions. NRMs will always be with us, and at least for a time they will be controversial.

Religions of all kinds reflect the culture in which they are situated. Their members are people who for the most part are sincere seekers of spiritual fulfillment. The spiritual search is not a one-size-fits-all entity; people making it will continue to take a myriad of paths, just as they have done since the dawn of history.


Timothy Miller