Sects and Cults

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Sects and Cults

Church and sect

Social bases of sectarianism

Allied types of religious protest

Typological study of sects


The term “sect” is used in the sociology of religion to designate a particular kind of religious group. This usage is both more precise and more technical than the use of the word in everyday speech. It is part of a typology of religious groupings which has been found useful in the study of religious movements and bodies. The term “cult” has also been given a special technical meaning as part of this typology, but it has remained less precisely defined, less useful, and less used in empirical research.

Church and sect

In his study of the relationship between Christianity and the world, Ernst Troeltsch (1912) examined the tensions, problems, and dilemmas that confronted the Christian church as it attempted to come to terms with four aspects of classical civilization: family life, economic activity, politics and power, and intellectual endeavor. He found this history characterized by two major tendencies which exhibited themselves in varied forms over a long period of time. The first was the tendency to come to terms with secular society and culture, although often with considerable qualification, and generally to compromise with the world; the second, a highly significant rejection by a minority of the whole spirit of compromise and an opposition to important aspects of the secular culture and its institutions. These tendencies found organized expression in two basic and contrasting sociological types, which Troeltsch called the church and the sect.

The church represents the majority reaction and involves within its structure considerable variation of accommodation and compromise. It defines itself as the established expression of the relation between God and men, the institutional channel of divine grace, whose mission it is to enter the world in order to sanctify it. Thus, the church attempts to dominate the world with its values and is eventually dominated by the world to one extent or another. The church is characterized by what is virtually membership on the basis of birth for the children of believers, although formally all are members through baptism. Thus, the practice of infant baptism is characteristic of churches, and churches become educational agencies. The church is the means for the administration of grace and exhibits the theological and sociological concomitants of this function: dogma and hierarchy. It is universal in its aspirations and addresses itself to the conversion of all. Consequently, its social structure is inclusive and often coincides with geographical or cultural entities or, as in the Middle Ages, with a whole civilization—Christendom.

The sect, as defined in the sociological literature since Troeltsch, represents a contrapuntal ideal type to the church form of social organization. It is a voluntary society of strict believers who live apart from the world in some way. Its foundation upon contracted or upon freely elected membership marks a sharp contrast with the ecclesiastical body of the church, as does its smallness of size and its spirit of austerity and asceticism. The sect expresses defiance of the world or withdrawal from it, a greater or lesser rejection of the legitimacy of the demands of the secular sphere. It emphasizes a conversion experience prior to joining. Sociological theory presents the church as the ideal type of religious body accommodating to the world and the sect as the ideal type of the protest group, protesting both the church’s accommodation to the world and the world itself. The sect’s refusal to compromise with secular values and institutions may find expression in either an active or a passive form. Hence there are two fundamental sect types: the militant oppositionist sect, which is active in its antagonism to the world, and the passive sect, which prefers withdrawal to militant defiance.

Accommodation of sects. H. Richard Niebuhr (1929), Liston Pope (1942), and others have delineated the sequential pattern in the course of which sects themselves are accommodated to the secular society and make their own compromise with the world. The birth of children to the sectaries, the better adjustment to conditions of life, including an increasing prosperity, and the passage of time itself—all contribute to a routinization of the sect into an established sociological entity which has accepted the social world in which it exists. Niebuhr observed that the sect, if defined rigorously in the terms presented here, cannot last beyond the founding generation. Pope’s study would indicate that often considerable accommodation occurs in the lifetime of the founding generation. The routinized sect has been given the name of denomination. Here once again, as in the use of the term sect, a word of common speech is given a more precise and technical designation. The typical picture presented in a number of sociological studies is that of the establishment of sects as protest groups against accommodation to the world and then their gradual acceptance of the world and their routinization as a reconciled part of it. This process is often associated with increasing wealth and respectability for the membership, in part at least the fruit of their ascetic and austere sectarian behavior.

Established sects. However, the work of J. Milton Yinger (1946) and Bryan R. Wilson (1959; 1961) has shown that not all sects, by any means, go through this sequence from sect to denomination and lose their earlier spirit of militancy and segregation. Some sects are successful in maintaining themselves over a long period of time in an established condition of opposition, or at least nonacceptance, with respect to secular society and its values. They become established sects, which, despite changes in their composition and milieu and the passing of the founding generation, retain a sectarian organization and an antagonistic or withdrawn posture in the face of the world. Of these established sects two types may be seen. There are those which secede from the world in a literal geographic sense and live in a territorial isolation in which they attempt to establish total communities after the model of their own values. The Amish, Hutterites, and others offer examples. There are also established sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians which remain within the general urban society and which nevertheless successfully maintain their opposition to it. Although such groups have not separated themselves geographically, they are separate in less palpable but not any less real ways, and they succeed in keeping their membership apart from genuine, intimate nonsectarian social participation.

Sect ideology. All sects display a considerable degree of totalism in dominating the lives of their membership. Ideological domination is usually supplemented and supported on the social level by measures which set the group apart, such as endogamy, limitations on the forms of participation with outsiders, refusal to take part in significant common societal activities (military service, saluting the flag, or medical practice), peculiar habits of eating and abstinence, and with some groups, even peculiarities of dress. Related to these social forms of segregation is the notion of the sect members as comprising the “elect,” some kind of religious elite.

Social bases of sectarianism

Sects are opposition groups, and they arise in opposition to the accommodation of churches or developing denominations, in rejection of some other aspects of their milieu, or in some combination of the two. Troeltsch has shown that the sect form asserted itself early in the Middle Ages. It is to be seen in the period of the Gregorian agitation (c. 1080) when the sectarianism of the Albigensians spread in Italy and France. This movement had complex social and religious sources. It was greatly affected by the reform efforts and struggles of Pope Gregory VII; it expressed the opposition of the devout laity to what they considered immorality and simony in the church; and it also represented the aggressive reaction of new urban classes against the established order in both church and city. This correspondence and interpenetration of religious and social interests has often been found associated with the origin and formation of sects. It has often been observed in the sociological literature that the sect is a lower-class protest phenomenon.

The conditions of life of different social strata influence the psychological make-up and need dispositions of their members. Consequently, social classes and strata develop different religious needs and sensibilities. Niebuhr stated that the religion of the disinherited may be observed in the rise of many sects and that Christianity was at first the religion of those who had little stake in the civilization of their time. Troeltsch concluded that all really creative religious movements are the work of lower strata. Niebuhr stressed the importance of economic success in the transformation of protesting sects into denominations and pointed to the fact that the churches of the poor sooner or later become churches of the middle class.

Functions of the sect

The sect exhibits complex functions in society. It often offers an outlet for strains and frustrations incumbent upon lower-class status and for the condition of being socially and economically disinherited. In allowing catharsis, it at the same time provides a meaningful community, together with a set of values that promotes a personal reorganization of the members.’ lives and often their eventual reincorporation into the general society. Not only may the sect reconcile the disinherited to their situation through the various compensations of this-worldly community and other-worldly expectations, but it may also bring new meaning to them in its reinterpretation of their life experience. In doing this it may socialize its members in virtues which lead to economic and worldly success. Moreover, the sect, with its close community of human beings and its new values which give meaning to life, offers a way out of anomie to many who have been disorganized in the impersonal milieu of the modern city. When the founding generation passes away, the established sect continues to perform similar functions for individuals who are attracted to it and provides for its born members the setting for acting out their established values. Sects may take on a number of new functions when their social composition and their specific social situation change over time.

When established organizational conditions offer insufficient expression to the religious needs of people or when established institutions fail to meet needs of particular strata and groups at all, it is easy for charismatic leaders to arise and organize a following. Such developments issue in movements of protest of a marked sectarian character. The charismatic leader as a rallying focus and an active initiator plays a strategic role in the origin of sects and often impresses his own self-interpretation upon the group as the model for its behavior and beliefs. The accommodation and routinization of churches and the development of sects into denominations is often the occasion for schism, which is an important source of sectarian movements. Moreover, conditions and social change within the general society, altered economic status for particular groups, urbanization, increased mobility— geographic and psychological—and other phenomena associated with industrialization all contribute to the rise of sects.

The sect as a sociological ideal type is therefore to be understood as the embodiment and expression of rejection of some significant aspect of secular life. It represents a protest against compromise with the society and its values and the institutional development of the church itself as an aspect of this accommodation. It is charismatic, lay, egalitarian, and voluntaristic religion in contrast to the established, professional, hierarchical, and ascribed religion of the church. In this typology the sect represents an ideal type: empirical reality and specific historical development present a greater variety than does the typology itself.

Allied types of religious protest

Many protest movements display sectarian characteristics but to different degrees and often in somewhat different respects. Most of the important protest movements in Christianity, while highly influenced by sectlike elements, endeavored to achieve organizational forms which also involved many of the characteristics of the church. Thus the Reformed churches of the Protestant Reformation vary along a complex continuum from Anglicanism with its episcopate and quite ecclesiastical structure, at one end, to the sectlike organizations of the Baptists, at the other, with interesting combinations of church and sect attributes characterizing the in-between groups, for example, the Churches of the Standing Order in colonial Massachusetts. Joachim Wach (1944) has called a number of them independent groups and has pointed out that they vary in form from churchlike hierarchical structures to egalitarian covenants of laymen.

However, not all protest is secessionist in intention, nor does protest necessarily issue in separate organization outside the established bodies. Monasticism and the later religious orders offer an outstanding example of protest groups which remain within the older ecclesiastical body. Monasticism exhibits a number of sectarian qualities: it establishes a separate community, practices austerity and asceticism, and employs segregating rules and peculiarities of dress. Like the geographically isolated sects, it creates its own distinct community but remains dependent upon the larger body for replacement of personnel. In its origin Christian monasticism was both a protest against the accommodation of the church and a rejection of the world. Its relationship to the sacramental church was ambiguous, and it could have become a secessionist movement. But in the rule of Basil in the East and of Benedict in the West, it was reintegrated formally and solidly into the structure of the church. Here it continued to play a role of witness and to advocate reform. Moreover, it placed its enormous energy at the disposal of the church for missionary and other activity. In the High Middle Ages, the Franciscan movement represented a similar tendency. It was contained within the church at first by the personal character of its founder. Later on, its integration into the church was the cause of a great struggle in which both schism and heresy as well as reintegration of the order into the church resulted. Moreover, the routinization process from sect to denomination is also found in the history of religious orders. Such routinization is often the cause of schism and divisions and the rise of reforming leaders of the charismatic type.

The Mormons. A religious body of a marked sectlike character which seeks geographical isolation may, when circumstances are propitious, develop into an entity resembling an ethnic group or even a nation. The Mormons, a sectlike group choosing to imitate the Biblical model of Israel, found themselves in circumstances where such recapitulation took on realistic significance. Persecuted and driven from their settlements, achieving victories and suffering defeats, the Mormons built up in a decade and a half a folk tradition and mentality of their own. In moving to the West they found a vast unoccupied expanse of land upon which they could expand their vision of an earthly kingdom of God to imperial dimensions. As a result the semiecclesiastical organization which developed was at the same time the organized core of a Mormon people held together by kinship ties, common beliefs and values, a common history of achievement and suffering, and a common homeland. The Mormon “Zionism” of the nineteenth century had led to a development from near sect to near nation. When the Mormons applied for admission of their state of Deseret to the federal union, they attempted to find a political form for their achievement which stopped just short of nationhood; and in times of stress and conflict, frankly separationist sentiment was widespread (O’Dea 1954). Churches have also become the core of ethnic groups, as under the Turkish millet system in the Middle East, which granted a degree of political autonomy to religious communities.

Typological study of sects

Wilson has shown that it is possible to distinguish types of sects on the basis of their ideological orientations. He does this within the context of Protestantism on the basis of the sect’s self-definition, specifically its conception of its calling and mission. He distinguishes first the conversionist sect, which seeks to convert others and thereby to change the world; second, the adventist sect, which expects drastic divine intervention and awaits a new dispensation; third, the introversionist sect, which is pietistic in its orientation, withdrawing from the world to cultivate its inner spirituality; and the gnostic sect, which offers some special esoteric religious knowledge. Such sects will experience the effects of routinization differently and will also exhibit different structural tendencies to some degree (Wilson 1959; 1961).

Moreover, since the terms church and sect are ideal-typical constructions, what is observed in real life situations only approximates the specifications of the theoretical definitions. Such ideal-typical concepts have an analogical character and are most useful for observation, analysis, and interpretation when utilized with flexibility. This analogical character of the Troeltschian concepts is best seen in the behavior of churches when placed in circumstances which elicit sectlike behavior from them. The Roman Catholic church in the United States in the nineteenth century found itself a minority religion, largely lower class in character, constituted in its vast majority by ethnic groups of recent immigrant origin, and therefore of lower prestige in the general American society. Moreover, the value system of American society was largely derived from Protestantism, and the various forms of Protestantism constituted something like an unofficially established national religion. The Roman Catholic church responded by separating itself from the surrounding Protestant world in a wide range of activities and by constructing its own institutional contexts for education from the primary grades through the university, for social welfare work, for hospitals and other institutions for aid, and for sports and entertainment. Moreover, the mentality of American Catholics took on a number of sectlike attributes, such as apartness and defensiveness, rigorism in morality, and militancy in religious identification. While this situation was in part conditioned by the defensive character of post-Tridentine Catholicism in Europe and by the Irish background of so many American Catholics, there is no question of the importance of American conditions in bringing about a sectlike result. It is significant in this connection that the first heresy conflict in many decades to be seen in American Catholicism concerned a student center at Harvard University which displayed a militant sectarian response to secularism in the intellectual sphere and against the church’s accommodation to the secular world. This group ended in heresy and excommunication (O’Dea 1961).

What has evolved from the time of Troeltsch is a typology of religious groups which has proven its utility in description and analysis in the sociological study of religion. It may be summarized briefly as follows: The church is the embodiment of institutional religion and accommodation to the world. It gives rise to protest groups and movements. These may vary from reformed churches to independent groups to sects, or they may give rise to groups which remain within the older body, affecting and reforming it in various ways. Sects may be either actively in opposition or passive and withdrawing with respect to the world. They may be geographically isolated, or they may exist within the general society, practicing forms of social separatism. Sects may go through a process of social mobility and routinization and develop into denominations, accepting in one way or another the secular society and its values. The sect may also institutionalize its oppositionist character and become an established sect. Under propitious circumstances a sect or near sect can develop into anew ethnic or quasi-ethnic entity; it can become a people.

While this typology has been useful and represents the contributions and insights of a number of sociologists and scholars, it remains unsatisfactory. Like all ideal type concepts, it is unwieldly to use in analysis and possesses severe limitations with respect to refinement or adaptation to mathematical use. What is necessary is to analyze these ideal-typical constructs and to state their components in terms of factors or variables. This would mean replacing the global concept with a number of dilemmas or choice points which give rise to one kind of organizational tendency rather than another or, in a like manner, breaking up the ideal types into tendencies which vary from group to group along a series of continua. A similar kind of analysis was made by Talcott Parsons with respect to the ideal type conceptions of Tönnies (Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft}, which he broke down into five pattern variables. Such factors or variables would make it possible to compare groups with respect to a number of characteristics instead of the present, more cumbersome process of using ideal types as an analytical model.

The cult. To this already complex typology, von Wiese and Howard Becker (1932) have added the cult. While this term has been less clearly defined, it has been most generally used in the scholarly literature to designate a more loosely organized and more individualistic group than those already discussed (this usage must be distinguished from the scholarly use of the world cult to refer to the ritual act of worship). Based on individual concerns and experiences, the cult is often transient, its membership often highly fluctuating. Belonging to the cult often does not involve an acceptance of common discipline and need not necessarily preclude membership in other kinds of religious groups. Both theosophy and New Thought have been labeled as cults. Wilson (1961) considers the cult a gnostic sect and, in his study of Christian Science in Great Britain, shows a group that combines aspects of bureaucratized organization with characteristics of both sect and cult.

What is involved in this type of group may be best understood by returning to Troeltsch’s original treatment, with which this article began. American sociologists have tended to make only a partial use of the paradigm of analysis introduced by Troeltsch and to develop only the implications of the church-sect dichotomy.

Troeltsch, however, emphasized another kind of religious reaction to accommodation to the world and routinization in the development of religious forms of expression. He speaks of mysticism, which is found particularly when the formalization of worship and doctrine makes individual religious experience difficult and unfruitful within the established forms. Just as the sect tends to be a lower-class phenomenon (the religious form of those without a stake in the social system), so mysticism is characteristic of the educated classes. It has been an element enriching the life of the established religious bodies, as it has also been an expression of protest against them. It is of great significance in the development of the religious life of the Catholic church and was a tremendously important element in the Reformation and in post-Reformation Protestantism. When it does affect the lower classes and when found in religious movements of the poor, it often involves emotional excesses and a taste for heterodox novelties. The religious experience of worship and a relationship to the Deity, the gnostic experience involving secret knowledge and skill not available to all, and the mystical effort to achieve a personal relationship with God outside the established forms of worship and even of language are all obviously related. Consequently, some element of mysticism may be found in varied versions of the religious experience, although religious traditions placing their emphasis upon law often discourage mysticism, evidently fearing its antinomian possibilities.

Sects in non-Christian cultures

Most of the work on sects in the sociological literature concerns Christian groups. It is obvious, however, that the typology refers to aspects and characteristics of religious groups and movements to be found outside the Christian tradition. Wach has pointed out that Zoroastrianism and Mahāyāna Buddhism have produced ecclesiastical bodies which fit the Troeltschian definition of the church in its main outlines and that groups in Islam and Confucianism have evolved semiecclesiastical bodies. Monasticism has been developed in a number of quite different religious and cultural traditions. Sects which fit many of the characteristics we have presented above may also be found in the other world religions. For example, in Islam the rise of Wahhabism represents an active oppositionist sect, while Bahai arose as a sect of the passive withdrawing character.

Sectarianism in politics

Finally, it should be noted that the typology given here is to some extent applicable to organizations other than those of a religious character. Groups with situationally transcendent ideals seem to display similar organizational types. This may be seen in political parties with some degree of utopianism in their programmatic aspirations. For example, social democratic parties in Europe were formed upon situationally transcendent ideals and in opposition to existing conditions. A degree of success both for membership and officialdom led to a process of routinization and accommodation analogous to that experienced by a church in the religious sphere (Michels 1911). As a consequence, protest movements developed, such as the Spartacus group in Germany, or even the Third International. Thus, the basic variables involved in this typology would appear to be found whenever organized expression of interests based upon situationally transcendent aspirations occurs.

Thomas F. O’dea

[Directly related are the entriesMillenarism; Religious Organization. Other relevant material may be found inCollective Behavior; Mass Phenomena; Social Movements; and in the biographies ofMannheim; Troeltsch; Weber, Max.]


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