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Cults and New Religions in American History

by Philip Jenkins

Pub Date: March 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-19-512744-7
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

A fascinating look at the importance of the religious fringe in American life.

Jenkins (History & Religious Studies/Penn State Univ.; Pedophiles and Priests, not reviewed) argues convincingly that cults

and new religions are significant social and cultural contributors to the healthy development of society. Present-day groups should

be seen in historical perspective because they have their core beliefs rooted in 19th- or early-20th-century movements. Other

generally accepted practices (such as female clergy and charismatic worship) or those still considered unorthodox (such as

polygamy), have their origins in earlier Christian sects or non-Christian fringe religions. These new beliefs develop because the

needs of people are not being satisfied by the established churches. The religious mainstream reject the new groups because of

their own fears of the new, of the other, and of competition. It is no trite observation for Jenkins to point to the astounding growth

in size and respectability of such sects as the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Baptists, and Pentecostals—all of whom

were considered invidious in their early years but are now mainstream religions. Without denying that many new religious groups

have engaged in morally suspect or legally questionable activities, Jenkins maintains that these have been a small minority.

Governmental organizations and established clergy have usually combined with a fervent muckraking press to misrepresent new

sects as dangerous. They also frequently mislabel them as "cults," a once respectable term that is now pejorative. The rights of

individuals to believe and take part in what are characterized as cults is now legally guaranteed because once marginalized groups

(such as the Jehovah's Witnesses) won in court the constitutional right to their way of worship. But as recent events (such as the

Waco killings) demonstrate, ignorance and the quick stereotyping of cults according to the worst examples (e.g., Jonestown) by

religious and secular authorities may have disastrous results.

A fresh and thoughtful analysis that sheds much-needed light on an often overheated phenomenon.