Skip to main content

New Religious Movements: New Religious Movements in the United States


Shortly after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, the new nation ratified a Bill of Rights whose first order of business was freedom of religion. The First Amendment laid down what was then a bold precept: the United States would have no established, or officially endorsed, religion, and it would permit the free exercise of religion. More than two centuries later more religions are being freely exercised than the nation's founders could possibly have anticipated. Every substantial religion in the world has an American manifestation, and many homegrown startups have appeared in the United States. It is safe to say that no place in the world has greater religious diversity than the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century.


One small but vital part of that diversity consists of what are variously known by dozens of labelssects, cults, new religious movements, alternative religions, marginal religions, and many more. Among scholars specializing in the study of such groups, the prevailing label is new religious movements (NRMs), although not all are happy with this term. It has one notable flaw: most of the groups included in the category are not new. Some, in fact, are thousands of years old. But new religious movements has been used more widely than any other nonpejorative term, and it does a good job of conveying the subject to most people.

Sect and cult are terms that were once used with a fair degree of academic precision. Classically a sect is a splinter group, a movement that has split from an existing religious body for some reason. Often such groups see themselves as revitalization movements that seek to return to a pristine purity from which, it is believed, the parent group has departed. The Holiness movement, for example, began when some Methodists came to believe that their church had undergone a degree of liberalization that took it unacceptably far from its Wesleyan roots, and the dissenters set up new churches that they saw as restoring pure Methodist doctrine. A cult, on the other hand, is classically a more distinct groupone that does not have clear roots in an existing, well-established tradition. A cult may be a newly created religion, usually one formulated by a founding prophet of some kind, or it may be a religion that is simply unfamiliar (and in that sense "new") in the American context. Some Hindu movements that have come to the United States, for example, have been widely regarded as cults because they are not familiar to Americans, even though they would be part of the religious mainstream in India.

These once-precise terms, however, became pejoratives in the last decades of the twentieth century. The word cult, especially in popular usage, is decidedly negative in tone. A cult is regarded as somehow evil or at least misguided. At all costs one should avoid cults, which are popularly understood to be grasping and deceiving, trying to catch newcomers in their webs. The neutral descriptive term of earlier times has changed, just as the word gay has evolved, for the most part, from meaning "happy" to meaning "homosexual." The case is less severe with the word sect, at least in the United States, but it too tends to have a pejorative edge. In Europe sect is the equivalent of the American culta term that carries strong derogatory implications.

Academic scholars of new religions therefore generally shy away from using both sect and cult. Lacking consensus support for any other term, they generally speak of new religious movements. Alternative religions is also used by some, and other terms, such as the adjective nonmainstream, have their advocates as well. Although those terms have the advantage of not containing the word new, new religious movements is the generally accepted nonpejorative term.

What constitutes a new religious movement? Matters of definition are exceedingly thorny, but this entry seeks to survey a wide range of nonmainstream religions and will cast its net broadly. This entry will presume that there is an American religious mainstream that consists of the major, culturally well-established branches of Christianity and Judaism, including Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, mainline Protestantism, most evangelical Protestantism, and the three major branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform). New religious movements are groups outside that mainstream. Admittedly there are many shades of gray in such a definition, but living with ambiguity is essential to any study of religion.

One might argue that groups derived from great world religions, all of which are present in the United States, should not be regarded as NRMs. The point of their inclusion in that category is simply that in the United States they do not have the long histories, cultural dominance, and (usually) large numbers of adherents that the mainstream groups do. These NRMs may be growing substantially and may be in the process of moving into the mainstream, but in the eyes of most Americans they are not yet fully mainstream.

NRMs in American History

NRMs have always been a part of the American religious scene, and controversy has always surrounded them. Some of the earliest European settlers came to what is now the United States precisely because their dissenting forms of religion were not well accepted in their home cultures. These settlers may not have been devoted to religious freedom, however; in many cases they tried to make their own forms of Christianity dominant in their new provinces (the Puritans of New England are a dramatic example). Nevertheless religious dissent cropped up almost as soon as the pioneering settlers stepped off their ships. As early as 1627, when Thomas Morton (c. 15751647) erected a maypole for a May Day celebration, he was deported to England for recognizing a pagan holiday. A few years later the Puritan authorities of Boston attacked Samuel Gorton (c. 15921677) for "all manner of blasphemies," eventually forcing him from the colony. By the 1650s a new threat confronted the orthodox rulers of Massachusetts with the arrival of the Quakers. Adopting a series of ever more stringent laws, Massachusetts in 1658 made Quakerism a capital crime. Four Quakers were subsequently executed for their faith. The first Mennonites arrived later in the century; they were refugees from Europe, where they were persecuted for such distinctive beliefs as adult baptism, pacifism, and separation of church and state. Throughout the Mennonites' long history in the United States they have attracted controversy; in wartime especially they have been derided, and in some cases assaulted, for their refusal to perform military service.

By the eighteenth century adherents of dissenting religions were arriving on American shores with some regularity, and just as regularly they experienced persecution in a country whose devotion to religious liberty was less than perfect. In 1774 a small group of Shakers arrived under the leadership of Ann Lee (17361784), and eventually they opened a communal settlement in upstate New York. A 1780 convert, Valentine Rathbun, soon dropped out of the movement and accused the Shakers of deception and even, perhaps, what some would now call brainwashing. The Shakers received visitors joyfully, Rathbun wrote, feeding and lodging them readily. But after his departure from the group, he claimed it was all a ruse designed to create "absolute dependence" among members. Some years later the Shakers found themselves challenged by an even more formidable opponent, Mary Marshall Dyer (17801867), whose opposition to the group she had joined and then left became her life's work. Dyer's anti-Shaker polemics sounded like many anticult diatribes of the late twentieth century; among other things, she accused the movement of using mind control of a sort that amounted to hypnotism. In the twenty-first century the Shakers are best known for their classic furniture and exquisite villages, and the few surviving Shakers in Maine enjoy great admiration and support. Only with timeand perhaps with their steep decline in numbershas their unusual religion become acceptable.

A similar situation obtained with the arrival of groups of radical German Pietists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Pietists' dissent was founded in their critique of the state churches in their homeland, which they considered formal and cold. The dissenters became entangled in disputes with various German authorities and in several cases decided to depart for the New World, where, they thought, they could pursue their chosen way of life in peace. Levels of controversy surrounding them varied. Some Pietists, such as the group that became known as the Amana Society in Iowa, managed to live in relative isolation and to avoid endlessly antagonistic relationships with their neighbors. But others were not so lucky. The Harmony Society, for example, was caught up in the same kinds of disputes that had afflicted the Shakers. Arriving in the United States in 1804, the Harmonists founded communal villages in Pennsylvania and Indiana, where they experienced conflict repeatedly. Their practices of celibacy and community ownership of goods were suspect to the American majority. When a large group of members defected in 1832, they accused the Harmonist leader George Rapp (17571847) of being power mad and voraciously greedy. The lawsuits that dogged the Harmonists throughout their history typically made the kinds of charges that "cult" opponents have made more recentlymind control, coercive leadership, and misuse of funds. Although the Harmonist movement withstood the conflicts, it gradually declined after Rapp's death and died quietly in the early twentieth century, leaving behind, as did the Shakers, several charming museum villages.

Another religious movement that arose while the Shakers and Harmonists were flourishing had the dubious distinction of being arguably the most controversial religious group in American history. Founded in 1830, the Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, based their distinctive version of Christianity, which featured an unorthodox account of American history before Christopher Columbus, on revelations that the founder Joseph Smith Jr. (18051844) claimed to have received. No religious group in American history has suffered more persecution than the Mormons; for nearly a century they were widely derided as devious outlaws and sexual miscreants. Conflicts with neighbors drove the early Mormons from New York State to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and finally to Utah after the lynching of the founder Smith in 1844. Ex-Mormons fanned the flames with stories of dictatorial theocracy, violence, and corruption among the Latter-day Saints. Although their practice of polygamy was not announced publicly until after the migration to Utah, it had been practiced for years. Such early Mormon leaders as Smith and his successor Brigham Young (18011877) each had dozens of plural wives. Word about the practice that leaked out provided sensational fuel for the anti-Mormon flames. Only with the passage of time did anti-Mormon agitation diminish. The Mormons, for their part, helped deprive their opponents of rhetorical ammunition by retreating from their most controversial ideas and practices. Polygamy was phased out in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and a teaching that suggested that African Americans were inferior to whites was abandoned in 1978.

The Mormons were not the only religious believers to be attacked for their unconventional marital and sexual practices. The nineteenth century saw a proliferation of movements addressing all kinds of social reforms, and some of the more radical reformers promoted decidedly unconventional sexual arrangements. No group was more famous for its unorthodox marital philosophy than the Oneida Community, a body of Christian Perfectionists who created a long-lasting group marriage involving hundreds of men and women. Prosperous from businesses producing such commodities as animal traps and silverware, the Oneidans flourished from the early 1850s through the 1870s. Although internal tensions contributed to their eventual dissolution, it was vehement persecution by a variety of opponents that finally proved overwhelming. Perhaps the most striking part of the story is that a community publicly engaging in such wildly unconventional sexual arrangements managed to survive as long as it did in the Victorian-era United States.

In the 1830s and 1840s millennial excitement swept the country, especially with the rise of the Adventist movement of William Miller (17821849), who predicted that the world would come to an end soon, finally settling on October 22, 1844, as the apocalyptic date. Miller's movement was controversial, and in the wake of the failure of the world-ending events to happen on schedule (October 22, 1844, has ever since been known to the faithful as the "Great Disappointment"), several subsequent millennial groups coalesced. The Seventh-day Adventists began to take shape in the 1850s under Ellen White (18271915), who was regarded as a prophet and who had thousands of visionary experiences in her lifetime. The Adventists were distinctive not only for their ongoing anticipation of an imminent millennium but for observing the Jewish Sabbath and for a strong focus on diet and health.

In the 1870s another millennial group, eventually known as Jehovah's Witnesses, developed under the leadership of Charles Taze Russell (18521916), who, like Miller, undertook an extensive analysis of the Bible and concluded that he could predict the year of the final culmination1914. Although Russell's chronology was obviously imprecise, his movement continued to grow long after the appointed date, eventually embracing millions worldwide. Controversy grew apace. The Witnesses' tireless door-to-door evangelism always had its detractors, and their refusal to salute the American flag (on the grounds that the flag salute was tantamount to idolatry) spawned legal cases that twice reached the U.S. Supreme Court (where their right not to salute the flag was upheld). Jehovah's Witnesses have consistently refused military service on grounds that their service must be to God, not to any earthly government. And much controversy has surrounded their refusal to accept blood transfusions, which they regard as a violation of the biblical injunction not to consume blood.

In 1848 two sisters, Kate Fox (c. 18391892) and Margaret Fox (c. 18331893), began hearing rapping noises that they said conveyed intelligible messages from a mysterious spirit being. Their apparent ability to exchange messages with an otherworldly being quickly attracted a wide following, and soon Spiritualism, as the movement became known, was a nationwide phenomenon with such manifestations as automatic writing, clairvoyance, and trance speaking. Eventually it became clear that many of the spiritual phenomena associated with devotees of the movement were fraudulent, and Spiritualism declined. It has remained a small but steady part of the alternative religious world, however, and new versions of it have emerged and found followings from time to time, as in the case of the Urantia Book, a huge tome purportedly dictated by spirit beings to an anonymous scribe in the 1930s. Many forms of Spiritualism are active at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and they remain as controversial as ever.

One form of Spiritualism went on to become a separate cluster of NRMs. Founded in 1875 and based on the teachings of Helena P. Blavatsky (18311891), Theosophy combined a belief in psychic communications from "masters" (spiritual adepts living in remote places) with what it called "ancient wisdom," teachings from various alternative Western traditions (such as Neoplatonism) as well as from Asian religions. Like its precursor Spiritualism, Theosophy had its detractors; especially heated were assertions that Blavatsky fabricated her supposed communications from the "masters of the wisdom," notably those that took the form of letters written on paper and appeared mysteriously in certain places. Although the movement splintered after the death of Blavatsky, many branches have survived, and Theosophy has become a well-established fixture in the firmament of NRMs.

At the end of the nineteenth century Hinduism and Buddhism got a boost in public visibility when both were represented by delegates to the World's Parliament of Religions at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Vivekananda (18631902), a bright young swami from the Ramakrishna order of India, stole the show at the parliament, demolishing stereotypes about Hinduism and offering a religion that was peaceful, tolerant, and charitable. He stayed in the United States for a time after the parliament and laid the groundwork for Vedanta Societies in major cities. It was the first Asian religious movement to have a substantial appeal to a non-Asian constituency in the United States. A few years later another swami, Yogananda (18931952), arrived with similarly expansive teachings and started the Self-Realization Fellowship, which became one of the largest Asian-based religions in the country. Several Buddhist teachers, like their Hindu counterparts, also began to attract non-Asian followers. The Asian teachers were decidedly out of the American mainstream, and for that, if nothing else, they had their critics, but their work formed a base for an ongoing Asian religious presence in the United States.

This list of NRMs in American history could be extended almost indefinitely. Inescapably new religions have been a part of the American landscape for hundreds of years. These groups have never been large, but they have constituted a steady minority presence within the realm of American religion, and they have always attracted critics.

After 1965

Changes in the immigration laws that allowed spiritual teachers to enter the United States in much greater numbers than previously are frequently credited with the great surge in NRMs that erupted after 1965. Still the cultural upheaval that shook Western society during the same period had as much to do with the expansion of alternative religiosity as did the arrival of spiritual teachers from abroad. The cultural ferment of the 1960s era (actually the late 1960s and early 1970s) brought to prominence certain NRMs that had previously operated in relative obscurity, and the decade saw many more NRMs start up. New religions since 1965 have been enormously diverse, consisting of groups based in Asian religious traditions, new and unconventional versions of Christianity, movements claiming to restore ancient but forgotten traditions, and a few groups that seem largely unrelated to anything that has come before.

Scientology was on the scene as early as the 1950s, but its main growth took place in the last years of the twentieth century. Founded by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard (19111986), Scientology promoted a kind of psychological therapy program in an unconventional religious context. The psychological analysis of practitioners was facilitated using a device known as the e-meter, a type of lie detector. The promises made to practitioners were nothing short of spectacular: one could, with enough work, become an optimal and enormously powerful human being. Whatever the truth of those claims, Scientology has received a great deal of criticism. It has operated largely on a fee-for-services basis (rather than by free-will offerings), and critics have accused the leaders of raking in enormous amounts of money. The authoritarian leadership style of Scientology and its overly vigorous response to its critics have also come under attack. Nevertheless the movement has attracted large numbers of followers, including entertainment and sports celebrities, and Scientology represents a major force among contemporary NRMs.

Another movement active in the United States before 1965, but only coming into prominence after that date, is the Unification Church. Sun Myung Moon (1920) of Korea started this new religion, which blended elements of Christianity with various Asian religions, including traditional Korean shamanism, in 1954; five years later Moon's followers began to spread the Unification message in the United States. Central to Unification teachings is the precept of the restoration of the true church and of fallen humanity to their proper godliness. Moon himself is understood to play a messianic role in the process of restoration. The early American growth of the Unification Church was slow, but it reached prominence with a series of speaking tours that Moon undertook in the 1970s. As his visibility grew, so did controversy about his movement, which was accused of deceptive recruiting practices and exploitation of its young members. Deprogramming, the practice of forcibly removing an NRM member to a remote location and putting him or her through a deconversion process, was perhaps aimed at "Moonies" more than adherents of any other religious group. Controversy has lingered, although it has become muted as Moon has established ties to American political conservatives and has focused his work increasingly on other parts of the world, especially South America.

A quintessential new religion of the late 1960s counterculture was the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly referred to as the Hare Krishna movement after its mantra (devotional chant). ISKCON's founder, Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta (18961977), known to his followers as Prabhupada, undertook a mission to spread his form of Hinduism in the West and to that end arrived in the United States in 1965. Setting up headquarters in New York, Bhaktivedanta began to draw a variety of spiritual seekers to his work. Soon there were ISKCON temples in several American cities as well as farm communes and businesses supporting the movement and its members. To the public the ISKCON devotees were best known for sankirtan (public chanting and dancing in praise of Ka) and for selling books in public places, especially airports. Like Unificationists, they inspired spirited criticism, and some ISKCON members were subjected to deprogramming. After the death of Bhaktivedanta, the movement experienced tumultuous internal upheavals and scandals over problems ranging from venal leadership to child abuse. In the early twenty-first century small numbers of devotees continue to live the disciplined spiritual life that has long been the ISKCON hallmark.

One important component of the 1960s countercultural search for spiritual fulfillment was the rise of the Jesus Movement. The Jesus freaks, as the movement's adherents were popularly known, were young people who espoused evangelical Protestantism but retained the outer trappings (clothing and hairstyles, for example) of hippies. Although some of them were eventually absorbed into relatively conventional churches, others came together in new movements that reflected their cultural style and values. One of the most visible of the new groups, and certainly the most controversial, was the Children of God. Founded in 1967 as a coffeehouse ministry in Los Angeles by David Berg (19191994), a former Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor, the Children of God soon developed a distinctive evangelistic style that included wearing biblical robes and carrying signs warning of impending doom. By about 1970 members of the Children of God began to withdraw from contact with the outside world; most left the United States. The group's evangelization continued, however, and one new development was especially controversial"flirty fishing," or the use of sex to attract new (usually male) converts. In the late 1980s members began to return to the United States and to reestablish a public presence there. Although accusations of misbehavior, including child abuse and sexual misconduct, have continued to be aimed at the Children of God (now known as the Family), over time they have dropped some of their most controversial practices and have moved closer to orthodox evangelical Protestantism. Their relatively liberal sexual attitudes, however, continue to be a major point of controversy.

Another NRM with roots in the Jesus Movement is the federation of Christian communities known as the Twelve Tribes. From enthusiastic beginnings in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1972 under the leadership of Elbert Eugene Spriggs (1937), the movement in the early twenty-first century consisted of nearly three dozen communities, including several in South America, Europe, and Australia. Although spawned in the freewheeling environment of the American 1960s era, the Twelve Tribes has become a strongly disciplined movement with patriarchal leadership and strict child-rearing practices. Twelve Tribes communities are controversial in some locations, but they are becoming well established on the American religious scene.

Another spiritual path that has garnered wide appeal during and since the 1970s is earth-centered religiosity, most frequently known as Neopaganism or simply paganism. Much of the contemporary pagan movementif it can be called a movement, given its diversity and lack of dominating organizationsees itself as re-creating the pre-Christian religions of Europe, especially northern Europe. Wiccans, or Witches, the best-known of the Neopagans, fall into that category. Other Neopagans look to ancient Egyptian or classical Roman and Greek religions for models. Whatever their specific orientations, most Neopagans incorporate into their beliefs and rituals a strong connection to the earth, fertility, and nature; not incidentally many Neopagans are also environmental activists. In addition they typically emphasize a recovery of feminine power and authority, which they believe was suppressed as male-dominated Christianity spread over most of the Western world. Leadership in Neopagan groups is to a large degree female, and the deities invoked are as likely to be feminine as masculine. Because of popular prejudices against witchcraft and paganism, many practitioners keep their allegiances hidden, but persons who consider themselves at least to some degree pagan are found throughout the United States in greater numbers than many would expect.

Although the 1960s era was a time of great ferment for American religion, other new religions emerged (and became subject to controversy) after that period. One controversial religious movement that rose to prominence is the International Church of Christ, also known as the Boston Movement. The Boston Movement arose from the Churches of Christ, a branch of the Restoration movement of nineteenth-century America whose most prominent descendant in the twenty-first century is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Kip McKean (1954) became pastor of the local Church of Christ in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1979 and soon moved it into Boston, renaming it the Boston Church of Christ. By the early 1980s satellite churches were being founded in other American cities, and the movement experienced great growth, all of it accompanied by increasing controversy. The heaviest criticism was aimed at "discipling," a practice in which each member is assigned a spiritual supervisor who oversees much of the member's day-to-day life. Although the strictness of life in the Boston Movement has contributed to a high attrition rate, a steady stream of new converts has assured continued growth.

Controversy and Criticism

Unconventional religions have always been socially controversial, and the last decades of the twentieth century witnessed seemingly endless contention over what some saw as a growing and threatening presence of dangerous religions in the United States. Those conflicts became particularly prominent in the wake of several spectacular and, in some cases, fatal events. In the United States three such events stand out.

In November 1978 more than nine hundred mostly American members of the Peoples Temple died in a mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana. The Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones (19311978), was a California-based local congregation of the mainstream Disciples of Christ denomination. The Peoples Temple first received wide attention for its high level of racial integration and extensive social service programs. In 1974 the church established a communal "agricultural mission" in Guyana, South America, and eventually many church members migrated there, in part to escape the increasing conflicts, both internal and external, that plagued the church in California. The murder-suicide took place in the context of a visit by a U.S. congressman seeking to investigate conditions at the colony.

In April 1993 approximately eighty members of the Branch Davidian movement died in a federal raid and subsequent fire that swept their communal center outside Waco, Texas. The original Davidian movement emerged as a Seventh-day Adventist splinter group in 1929; it divided into factions after the death of the founder Victor Houteff (18851955). One of the factions, headed by Benjamin Roden, came to be known as the Branch, or Branch Davidians. Vernon Howell (19591993) joined that group in 1981 and a few years later became its leader, changing his name to David Koresh. In February 1993 agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms conducted a raid on the Branch Davidian headquarters in Waco. The raid led to a fifty-one-day siege by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and ended with a fire that killed most of the Branch Davidians present, including Koresh.

In March 1997 thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate movement committed suicide at Rancho Santa Fe, California. Heaven's Gate took shape in the 1970s as the founders Marshall Herff Applewhite (19311997) and Bonnie Lu Nettles (19241985) began to develop an evolutionary theology in which a few selected humans would advance to a level above human; a spacecraft would be the vehicle that would take them to the next realm. The appearance of the comet Hale-Bopp was taken as the signal that it was time for believers to abandon their human bodieshence the suicides.

The Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven's Gate were dissimilar movements, and the circumstances of their dramatic and fatal ends differed enormously. Nevertheless the massive media coverage that followed the demise of each group tended to cause the three to merge in the public mind, and activism against NRMs was stimulated as a result.

Opposition to new religious movements tends to be of two types, commonly referred to as anticult and countercult. Anticult activists believe that "cults" pose a threat to their members and to society and thus need to be denounced, perhaps abolished, in the interest of the common welfare. Countercult activism, on the other hand, is based in relatively orthodox (usually evangelical Protestant) churches and opposes NRMs as heresies, or false religions, that must be challenged theologically and socially. The two strands have combined to produce wide agreement in American culture that "cults" do exist and the public needs to be aware of their danger. The general image that has developed is that dangerous "cults" are widespread and growing, that they are led by evil or at least power-hungry leaders, that they are highly skilled at accumulating money, and that they pose a threat not only to the individuals who join them but to the larger society as well. Moreover because "cults" tend to appeal to young adults who are sometimes still living with their parents and siblings, such religious groups are destructive of traditional family life.

Perhaps the most contentious debate about the influence of NRMs involves the allegation that they engage in what is often called brainwashing or mind control. Opponents of new and unconventional religiosity contend that "cult" leaders use mental, and sometimes physical, coercion to induce members to do things they would not normally do. Sometimes, it is argued, members operate in trance-like states or behave in previously unthinkable ways. Most scholars who study NRMs hold the opinion that nothing that merits the label of brainwashing or mind control has been shown to have occurred by critics of NRMs. These scholars argue that some people can be influenced to join and become devoted to a particular movement, but the social phenomena of religious conversion and commitment found in NRMs are not essentially different from those seen in mainstream religions.

A related charge is that of totalism, the allegation that movements demand not merely casual participation, such as Sunday churchgoing, but absolute and total involvement on the part of an adherent. However, although some NRMs do ask for high levels of commitment and involvement, no one has shown that such commitment is involuntary or otherwise contrary to the standards of a society that generally allows its members to make their own decisions concerning their lives.

During the 1970s and 1980s, when promoters of the brainwashing and mind control hypothesis enjoyed their highest visibility, some opponents of NRMs (often the parents of young adults who had joined various movements) concluded that coercion had to be met with coercion, and they began to engage in what became known as deprogramming. In the typical scenario an NRM member was abducted forcibly, taken to isolated surroundings, and subjected to intensive argumentation and psychological pressure (and occasionally physical abuse) in an effort to convince the adherent to leave the group in question. Professional deprogrammers charged steep fees for their services, which were not always successful. Eventually the practice fell out of fashion, especially after some deprogrammers were convicted of kidnapping and illegal restraint. Thereafter a less-coercive strategy known as exit counseling was developed by those who sought to convince adherents to leave NRMs.

Closely related to the controversy over brainwashing, mind control, and deprogramming is the issue of leadership in NRMs. Opponents of NRMs often charge that movements are dominated by powerful, charismatic leaders who typically manipulate members for their own ends. Although most religions are indeed founded and led by strong personalities (religions are rarely created by committees), most NRM founders have not proved to be deviant or pathological. It is inevitably true that some leaders of religious movements are greedy and amass substantial assets. Some have also engaged in physical, psychological, or sexual abuse of their followers, and a few (probably very few) have been outright charlatans, fleecing the unwary. However, those patterns clearly do not typify NRM leaders any more than they typify religious or social leaders generally. There is no evidence, for example, that NRM leaders have abused their followers in proportionately larger numbers than some Catholic priests have abused young church members. As for greed, one could argue that the abuses of a small number of NRM leaders pale beside the excesses of some corporate executives. It seems to be inescapable in all areas of life that a few persons will behave unethically, and no one has demonstrated that NRM leadership has a greater propensity for such behavior than leadership in any other phase of human endeavor.

Similarly most religious movements do not end up amassing great wealth. If anything the opposite is true; religions of all kinds typically struggle to make ends meet. The financial circumstances of American religions are difficult to investigate, however, because the U.S. government does not require religious organizations to provide financial disclosure; even when such information is voluntarily provided, it is not usually audited and thus may not accurately reflect the true financial situation of the organization and its leaders. A few NRMs, in particular the Church of Scientology, do appear to have substantial resources. However, it is likely that NRMs in general do not possess greater per capita wealth than do other religious organizations.

Critics of NRMs often say that they are destructive of families. New members are presumed to be typically young adults just setting out in life and moving away from their parents. NRMs, as the conventional picture has it, provide members with highly controlled environments and isolate them from social influences that might undermine their newfound commitments. NRM leaders thus regard contact with parents and siblings as especially dangerous and therefore to be avoided.

This stereotype, like others, has some truth to it, but it can hardly be accurate in every case. Religious conversion does sometimes entail a changing of one's personal frame of reference, and more than a few religions think of themselves as familiesspiritual families that may displace members' birth families, partially or entirely. Cutting oneself off from old friends and family members is one long-accepted way to promote one's chosen new spiritual path. Jesus is reported in the Gospels to have demanded that his disciples renounce their parents and siblings (Lk. 14:26), and historically persons who have joined monastic orders have sharply reduced their family contacts. Many Shakers broke relations with their families, and some of their movement's spiritual songs denounce family ties, as does one called "Gospel Relation."

Of all the relation that ever I see
My old Fleshly kindred are furthest from me,
So bad and so ugly, so hateful they feel
To see them and hate them increases my zeal.
O how ugly they look! How ugly they look! How nasty they feel!

Nevertheless it is not the case that complete separation from one's family is a necessary adjunct of religious conversion. Most religious movements permit members to have as much contact with their families as they like. Various movements have tried to shield members from their families when members are threatened with deprogramming or other overtly hostile activity, and some NRM members have chosen to minimize contact with their families, especially when they perceive family members as hostile to their new faith. However, in most cases contact with one's birth family is per-mitted.

Women in New Religions

New religious movements, like other religions, have tended to be defined and dominated by males, but that pattern is not universal. Some movements, especially those rooted in religious traditions that mandate specific gender roles, have restricted the participation of women in various ways. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, for example, which is rooted in traditional Indian Hindu culture, has always maintained a male-only top leadership and has carefully circumscribed male-female interaction. Many Christian-based NRMs, like the majority of Christian churches historically, have barred women from playing leading roles, especially participation in the clergy. Other movements offer gender equality in theory but not in practice, a tendency that reflects the pattern of many mainstream contemporary religious and social institutions.

However, although NRMs have not as a whole been bastions of egalitarianism, they have offered women opportunities for leadership and participation that have rarely been available in more traditional religions. Many founders and leaders of American new religions have been female. Ann Lee led the early Shakers to the United States, and she presided over their formation as one of America's longest-lived communal religious groups. Mary Baker Eddy (18211910) founded and led Christian Science, one of the most influential of America's new religions. Emma Curtis Hopkins (18491925) was the most influential of the founders of New Thought, a nineteenth-century movement that espoused human health and happiness, and Myrtle Fillmore (18451931) was the visionary leader of Unity, the largest of the many New Thought organizations. Helena P. Blavatsky created and led the Theosophical Society. Spiritualism was the creation of the Fox sisters of upstate New York. The list is a long one; clearly NRMs have provided an opening for the exercise of spiritual and organizational gifts that some extraordinary women have manifestedgifts that might have been stifled in more traditional religions.

Most women and men are not founders or leaders of religions; they are day-to-day adherents. Here the pattern in NRMs is mixed; in some cases women cook, clean, and raise children, whereas men have a wider range of options available to them, but in other NRMs women are freed from limited and subservient roles. In the Oneida Community, the nineteenth-century Perfectionist commune in upstate New York, women worked alongside men in construction and other traditionally male work. Oneida women also modified their clothing and hair for practical reasons, wearing pants (with short skirts over them) and cutting their hair short. Both women and men were allowed, indeed encouraged, to have multiple sexual partners in the Oneida Community's system of "complex marriage." In the Holy Order of MANS, an esoteric Christian group founded in 1968 that emphasized monasticism and human services, women could become priests (until the movement merged into Eastern Orthodoxy in 1988).

Ethnicity and NRMs

The ethnic makeup of NRMs varies widely from group to group. Some movements with roots in Asia have appealed heavily to Americans of Asian extraction and thus have ethnic Asian majorities. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, for example, originally made converts among non-Asian Americans but later found more and more ethnic Indians participating, and in the early twenty-first century the active members of many temples are overwhelmingly Indian. Most NRMs, however, have constituencies that are not ethnically related to the movement's foreign land of origin. Most American ūfīs, for example, are not from the Islamic lands that gave birth to Sufism.

It is a fair guess that African American membership in NRMs is low, but some movements, usually those with black leadership, have developed strong African American followings. One of the most prominent of the predominantly black NRMs was the Peace Mission Movement of Father Divine (18791965), which reached its peak in the 1930s. Father Divine was regarded as God in the flesh by his followers, and he addressed his members' material as well as spiritual needs, providing food, housing, and jobs to a predominantly poor membership. Other African American religious movements, such as the United House of Prayer for All People, led by Charles "Sweet Daddy" Grace (18811960), followed similar patterns.

Some African American religious leaders have rejected Christianity as a slave religion and have sought freedom in other traditions, notably Judaism and Islam. The first black Jews appeared in the 1890s with the founding of the improbably named Church of God and Saints of Christ by William S. Crowdy (18471908). Other similar organizations appeared over the next several decades, drawing on growing currents of black nationalism in the northern cities of the United States. In 1913 the religious focus of such groups began to shift from Judaism to Islam with the founding of the Moorish Science Temple of America by Timothy Drew, known as Noble Drew Ali (18861929). Then in 1930 a mysterious peddler commonly referred to as W. D. Fard began to preach a new racialistic version of Islam that grew into the Nation of Islam. Fard disappeared in 1934, but under his successor, Elijah Muhammad (18971975), the movement spread nationwide. Muhammad's son and successor, Wallace Muhammad, later known as W. Deen Mohammed (1933), steered the movement away from black supremacy toward conventional Islam. Traditionalists led by Louis Farrakhan (1933) subsequently built a reconstituted version of the former Nation of Islam. In the meantime several other African American Muslim groups appeared in the United States.

Millennialism and Violence in NRMs

Many new religions are characterized by an urgency that is driven by millennial expectationsa sense that the world is headed toward apocalyptic upheaval, or at least a major transformation, in the near future. In addition many NRMs are associated in the public mind with violence, or the potential for violence, although historically NRM members have more frequently been victims than perpetrators of violence.

Some NRMs have optimistic expectations for the millennial future; others are profoundly pessimistic. The expected changes may be violent or peaceful; the world may be destroyed or it may be transformed into something far better than humans have ever seen. Supernatural intervention may cause the dramatic events to happen, or good faith and works by devoted humans may suffice. NRMs embrace the wide range of millennialism found in the religions of the world.

The two principal categories of millennialism may be labeled progressive and catastrophic. The catastrophic variety, which is associated with conservative Protestantism as well as with some NRMs, is the more vivid of the two; it sees the world becoming increasingly degraded, increasingly distant from the divine will and purpose, and headed inevitably toward such events as an ultimate war between the forces of good and the forces of evil, rule of the world by unspeakably evil agents, and a final judgment in which the vast legions of the unfaithful will be cast into eternal torment. Many Christian-based NRMs espouse this kind of scenario. Progressive millennialism, on the other hand, sees the coming transformations in a positive light. Through the efforts of dedicated souls the world will become a better and better place; long-standing evils such as poverty, war, and injustice will gradually disappear, and a perfect human society will be established at last. Some Theosophical and New Thought groups, as well as many mainline Christian denominations, see millennialism in such a fashion.

Although violence is linked to NRMs in the public mind, NRMs have only rarely been notable perpetrators of violence. Perhaps the most vivid image of NRMrelated violence is the deadly conflagration that ended the siege of the Branch Davidians at Waco. That siege, however, was initiated by an agency of the federal government, and the FBI's subsequent tank and CS gas assault culminated in a fire, although the actual cause of the fire that killed the group's members remains disputed.

Some NRMs have used violent rhetoric, but their words have rarely led to deeds. The Nation of Islam as it developed under Elijah Muhammad envisioned a millennial race war in which the dominant white race would finally be overthrown. In practice, however, Muhammad's followers were remarkably restrained. A number of groups associated with the Christian Identity movement have been involved in militaristic activities that have sometimes threatened violence against African Americans as well as Jews and other non-Christians, but as with the Black Muslims, Christian Identity rhetoric has been much stronger than the actions of members. The few acts of racial violence that have occurred, including some attacks on Jews and on mixed-race couples, have been perpetrated by loners not acting as sanctioned representatives of any organized Christian Identity group. Satanic groups have been portrayed as purveyors of violence (they have been accused, for example, of the ritual killing of infants), but actual Satanists are few in number, and evidence of murders for ritual purposes has been virtually impossible to locate. Some members of NRMs do own weapons, but no research has shown that NRM members are more likely to own or use them than are other Americans.

Some Christian-based (and occasionally other) movements have espoused strict discipline and corporal punishment of children, and physical abuse of children has taken place in a number of instances. In addition some would regard the withholding of medical treatment, which is practiced by certain NRMs, as child abuse. Most cases of NRMrelated violence, however, are perpetrated by individuals who may invoke religious precepts (such as holy war or divine retribution) to justify their aberrant acts. Moreover American NRMs operate in a broader culture that encourages ownership of deadly weapons and generally tolerates a high level of violence. Specific incidents of NRMrelated violence tend to arise from the convergence of specific expectations and characteristics of a given group and some kind of external situational trigger, perhaps the response the group has evoked from its neighbors and antagonists or from public authorities. There is nothing inherent to NRMs that makes them more violent than other social institutions, nor is there any reason to suspect that NRMs attract unusually violent persons as members.

Maturation and Development of NRMs

As recently as the 1960s scholars generally assumed that religions of the "cult" type were heavily centered on strong founder-leaders and that such a group would not long survive the leader's departure. Additional decades of observation of NRMs, however, demonstrate clearly that most do not vanish soon after the deaths of their founders. Although charismatic leadership is frequently key to the early development and spread of an NRM, over time many groups develop more enduring and institutionalized types of management that enable them to survive the deaths of their founders. Such movements as Spiritualism, Theosophy, New Thought, and Mormonism are prospering in their second centuries of existence, long after the passing of their founders.

When a charismatic founder lives a long and full life, he or she typically begins to look toward the future and to set up structures that will carry the movement forward under second-generation leadership. Normally the transition involves a movement toward increased bureaucratization; leadership becomes less concentrated in one person, and the organization comes to be administered through regulations and committees. For example, the leadership of Christian Science became vested in committees operating under rules that Mary Baker Eddy laid down before her death.

In other cases, especially when the founding leader dies or is deposed unexpectedly, a new authoritative figure may step forward to lead a movement that otherwise would suffer from lack of firm guidance. That happened with the Mormons after the founder Joseph Smith Jr. was murdered when he was only thirty-eight years old. Several potential new leaders claimed Smith's mantle, and some of them started their own Mormon-based movements, but the largest group of Mormons fell into line behind Brigham Young, who provided another three decades of charismatic leadership in his own style. Young also oversaw the development of bureaucratic structures that have enabled the church to function effectively ever since.

It is probably impossible for strongly charismatic leadership to continue indefinitely, generation after generation. Charismatic leadership involves a unique interaction between a given leader and his or her followers that has the "chemistry" to sustain deep commitment. No matter how great the ability or attractiveness of a next-generation leader, he or she will differ from the predecessor leader, and the former chemistry will not be present. Although commitment to a common cause may enable the new leader and group members to push ahead for a time, the development of a more-bureaucratic and less-spontaneous leadership style seems inevitable. A later-generation charismatic leader may develop his or her own chemistry with a group of believers; in that case a splinter group typically develops, whereas the main movement continues under bureaucratic leadership.

The move from charismatic leadership to collective administration engenders the development of a leadership cohort whose expertise is certified by appropriate training rather than force of personality. In the United States expertise is typically certified by the completion of academic courses of study. Thus the development of an intelligentsia is a typical step in the maturation of a religious movement. That pattern tends to take shape even in movements that originally disavow formal leadership training in favor of charismatically based qualifications. The Unification Church offers an excellent example of the process: less than two decades after its arrival in the United States, the movement opened a theological seminary that began to train church leaders and ministers, and it sent its best intellectuals to some of the nation's leading graduate schools for advanced study. Ranking Unificationists now have doctorates from such institutions as Harvard, Yale, and Vanderbilt.

Furthermore the spreading of an NRM's message is often conducted through mass media, and expertise in writing and speaking, video production, and Web site development has become a critical tool for the propagation of a group's message. Here again the growth of a class of specialized professionals is essential to a religious movement's growth and prosperity.

The Academic Study of New Religions

Scholarly study of NRMs has expanded and changed with the increased visibility of movements after 1965. Before 1900 scholars paid little attention to dissenting religious movements except in judgmental terms: they were considered heresies, departures from the true faith. After 1900 a few pioneers began to take a less-jaundiced view of new religions. The German sociologist Max Weber (18641920) remains influential, especially for his observations about the pivotal role of charismatic leadership in the development of new religions. The theologian Ernst Troeltsch (18651923), also a German, wrote at length about the differences between church-type and sect-type religions, showing that sectarianism was a social phenomenon that deserved study in and of itself and not merely in terms of its deviation from received truth. H. Richard Niebuhr (18941962) provided a distinctly American focus for the scholarly conversation in his examination of sectarian social dynamics.

Several propositions that emerged from early-twentieth-century scholarship have proved less than reliable. Troeltsch and Niebuhr were convinced that sectarianism was a phenomenon that emerged from the lower social classes. Another generally accepted analysis maintained that a group founded by a charismatic leader could not long survive the death of that leader. What is now clear is that generalizations about NRMs can be hazardous. It is now known that people from all levels of society can be attracted to NRMs and that many movements have had their greatest success long after the lifetime of the founder, without, as Niebuhr posited, evolving into completely conventional denominations.

Other scholars studied new religions later in the twentieth century. J. Milton Yinger wrote important sociological analyses of NRMs in the 1950s. During the 1940s and 1950s such observers as Marcus Bach, Elmer T. Clark, and Charles S. Braden surveyed the nonmainstream religious scene and discovered many previously little-noticed religious movements, describing them in terms that did not dismiss them as heretical or diabolical.

The greatly increased visibility of NRMs in American culture after 1965 spawned a new generation of scholarly NRM researchers. One drawing card for many of them was the opportunity to study a religion in its formative stages, as it develops its beliefs and practices, rather than as a fully evolved social institution. In the 1970s and 1980s several major academic organizations, including the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the American Academy of Religion, began to provide venues for research in the field, and publishers disseminated new findings.

By and large the new research on NRMs looked at the movements descriptively, tracking their social evolution, their beliefs, and the processes through which new converts joined. Most researchers found that NRMs were not more virtuous or more pathological than other American religions. Many also argued that hostility toward NRMs manifested a fear of the different and a belief that the different is dangerous, a pair of pervasive themes in American society. The scholars' conclusion of benignity, however, ran sharply counter to the public's perception that "evil cults" were proliferating in the land, brainwashing impressionable young people and turning them into subservient lackeys, amassing huge assets (sometimes through deceptive means), and threatening American peace and tranquility. That public perception was fueled by a number of organizations founded specifically to combat what they saw as the menace of "cults" (the Cult Awareness Network became the best-known of them), supported by a minority of scholars. For several years the fulcrum of the dispute was the hotly debated phenomenon of deprogramming, regarded by its advocates as a radical strategy necessitated by the enormity of the misconduct of the "cults" but seen by its opponents as nothing more than kidnapping, assault, and battery. Deprogramming eventually faded as a popular anticult strategy, but the deep division between scholarly consensus and prevailing public perception endures.

A majority of scholars eventually coalesced around what might be called a "freedom of religion" position, an agreement that there was no basis for sweeping condemnation of "cults" as a category but rather that a principle of innocent until proven guilty should apply to NRMs. A minority of scholars demurred, contending that something that could be called brainwashing or mind control did in fact occur and that many NRMs posed real threats to society. These scholars, aligned with the larger anticult and countercult movement, criticized the scholarly majority as naive about the groups they studied and as unwitting accomplices to aberrant "cult" activities. Relations between the two schools of thought continue to be troubled.

Despite the controversies, stereotypes, and allegations of misbehavior directed at NRMs, these new religious groups do, like other religions, reflect the society from which they arise. Their members are not unlike other people who search for meaning and value in ways that suit them best.

See Also

Anticult Movements; Blavatsky, H. P.; Brainwashing (Debate); Branch Davidians; Christian Identity Movement; Christian Science; Cults and Sects; Daddy Grace; Deprogramming; Disciples of Christ; Eddy, Mary Baker; Elijah Muhammad; Family, The; Father Divine; Fillmore, Charles and Myrtle; Heaven's Gate; Holiness Movement; Holy Order of MANS; Hopkins, Emma Curtis; Hubbard, L. Ron; International Society for Krishna Consciousness; Jehovah's Witnesses; Jesus Movement; Jones, Jim; Jonestown and Peoples Temple; Koresh, David; Law and Religion; Lee, Ann; Mennonites; Mormonism; Nation of Islam; Neopaganism; New Thought Movement; Pietism; Prabhupada, A. C. Bhaktivedanta; Puritanism; Quakers; Satanism; Scientology; Seventh-day Adventism; Shakers; Smith, Joseph; Spiritualism; Sufism; Theosophical Society; Twelve Tribes; Unification Church; Unity; White, Ellen Gould; Wicca; Witchcraft, article on Concepts of Witchcraft; World's Parliament of Religions; Yogananda; Young, Brigham.


Bach, Marcus. Strange Sects and Curious Cults. New York, 1961.

Braden, Charles S. These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements. New York, 1949.

Clark, Elmer T. The Small Sects in America. Nashville, Tenn., 1937; rev. ed., New York, 1949.

Melton, J. Gordon. The Encyclopedia of American Religions. Detroit, Mich., 2003.

Miller, Timothy, ed. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. Albany, N.Y., 1991.

Miller, Timothy, ed. America's Alternative Religions. Albany, N.Y., 1995.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. New York, 1929.

Palmer, Susan Jean. Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women's Roles in New Religions. Syracuse, N.Y., 1994.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1911). Translated by Olive Wyon. New York, 1931.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (19041905). Translated by Talcott Parsons. New York, 1930.

Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate. New York, 2000.

Wessinger, Catherine, ed. Women's Leadership in Marginal Religions: Explorations outside the Mainstream. Urbana, Ill., 1993.

Yinger, J. Milton. Religion, Society, and the Individual: An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion. New York, 1957.

Zablocki, Benjamin, and Thomas Robbins, eds. Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field. Toronto, 2001.

Timothy Miller (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"New Religious Movements: New Religious Movements in the United States." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 21 Sep. 2018 <>.

"New Religious Movements: New Religious Movements in the United States." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (September 21, 2018).

"New Religious Movements: New Religious Movements in the United States." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved September 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.