I am willing to abstain from casting too harsh a light on the lives of the founders of the Church of Latter-day Saints (Joseph Smith) or either of the two warring leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell and Joseph Franklin Rutherford. But I will state categorically that Francis of Assisi had more potential to be a cult leader than any of them, yet he refused that path.
The sociological explanation of cults includes the notion that it is “organized around a personality.” Religion is a much wider category. It includes some cults, but is more focused on communitarian practices and faith. While it is easy for an academic to pretend that just stating such categories settles all issues, the reality of human experience makes few such clear distinctions about the differences between a cult and religion.
For the sake of argument, let us concede that all these men had some strong religious experience that motivated them. In the case of Joseph Smith, his leadership included getting his followers to invest in banks he directed and to accept the risky speculation in quick profits that led the church into bankruptcy.
In contrast, Francis of Assisi renounced all and any possessions, requiring his immediate followers to hold nothing material, but live completely in poverty. Francis refused ordination as a priest, risked his life to preach the Gospel in Muslim lands and resigned the administration of the Friars in order to pray in fasting and solitude. The marking of his hands, feet and side with the stigmata was widely regarded in his lifetime as a divine testimony to his holiness. Not only skeptical doctors but also humbled monarchs of the time were witnesses of these remarkable wounds that made Francis so like Jesus Christ. (Freudians and atheists are among those who invent novel categories to escape the obvious testimony of eye witnesses of Francis’ stigmata). An honest evaluation of the effect of Francis of Assisi suggests he did more to rescue medieval Christianity than Hus, Luther or Calvin – or all three of them together.
As I understand it, Mr. Smith is an unlikely candidate for canonization – even by Latter-lay Saints, many of whom prefer Brigham Young’s leadership. Mormons today should be respected as sincerely religious folk, but one ought not fail to notice the heavy emphasis upon material success that has made the LDS church a major corporation involved in a host of multi-million dollar businesses. In a similar way, Joseph Franklin Rutherford objected to the blind discipleship of the Witnesses Charles Taze Russell: his solution to the cult of Russell? substitute himself as predictor of the end of the world. Even if they no longer proudly announce the date and hour of Judgment, the Witnesses today maintain a close-knit sense of Us-and-They, similar to the Mormons. They also adhere to many of the same emphasis on material possessions as a sign of divine favor that some call “the Gospel of Prosperity.”
I would not call the LDS Church today a “cult” and neither the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Truly, the excesses in the personality of their founders has been eclipsed by other sorts of commitments. Not the least of these legacies is the practice of knocking on doors and handing out literature informing non-members that they need to convert to either the Mormons of the Witnesses. They also have organized wealth very well by focusing on enriching their membership with material advantages. Religious entrepreneurship is perhaps the most salient characteristic of these churches and not their cult-like origins. I suspect, however, that the former are a result of the latter.
I have no intention of judging these religions negatively, or any others for that matter. But in relation to cult, I arrive at a simple conclusion. It is not the presence of strong leaders that matters, but rather how that gift is used. Francis of Assisi had a much potential as these others to create a religious movement around his own personality, but he refused to do so. Instead, he left a legacy – admired by all and followed by some – to “preach the Gospel at all times, and – when necessary – to use words. That for me is “real religion.”