Using Personality Cults and Being Used

I am willing to abstain from casting too harsh a light on the lives of the founders of the Church … Continued

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.”

  • Greg Cook

    Mr. Stevens-Arroyo is wrong about how mormons view Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. He is wrong about how we view money and material success. In general I find the tone of the entire argument to be wrong.

  • Greg Cook

    Mr. Stevens-Arroyo is wrong about how mormons view Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. He is wrong about how we view money and material success. In general I find the tone of the entire argument to be wrong.

  • LDS 101

    Dear Mr. Stevens-Arroyo,I am wondering what it might take to persaude you to do some genuine research and reading about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Your discussion of Francis of Assisi and your current position as director of research indicates you indeed do have the skills to do so and yet this post as well as your post on Mormons some months ago continues to earn you the award for the most illinformed on the topic IMHO. I recall many posters gave you similar feedback previously as well. Why not do some homework before you write so publicly? Aren’t you harming your credibility as a researcher as much as those you misrepresent? You wrote “As I understand it, Mr. Smith is an unlikely candidate for canonization – even by Latter-day Saints, many of whom prefer Brigham Young’s leadership.”Mr. Arroyo, Joseph Smith’s revelations are canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants — one of four books of Scripture that Latter-day Saints study and revere as the word of God which includes the Bible and the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, only 1 revelation by Brigham Young has been canonized. Casual perusing of LDS scripture easily reveals this.Your emphasis on LDS financial wealth and success and offering eachother assistance or some of the same among the JWs for that matter, seems to me reminiscant of how Jews have also been so weakly accused. That you subsequently label both of these groups as engaged in “Religious entrepreneurship” as opposed to following the biblical edict to take the gospel to the world seems to me as little more than a bias of your own personal preference. Perhaps next time instead of abstaining “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” which you have again failed to do in my opinion, I hope you will abstain from imparting misinformation and an imbalanced character analysis. If this is really something you are unwilling to do, perhaps you would instead do well to abstain from posting altogether on things you for whatever reason still haven’t taken the time to understand…

  • Rex Purcell

    all religions, regardless of size,exist on belief. Belief is “an emotional identification with a concept. A concept is a thought concieved in the mind. Therefore, all religions from catholic and mormon to David Korish (correct spelling,Korish,unknown)is a cult. Take a good look at thier history.

  • Mike

    Also, your JW history is pretty inaccurate. There was no “warring” between Rutherford and Russell. Russell died in 1916. Rutherford saved the then fledging church from oblivion. It is really Rutherford, not Russell, who created the Jehovah’s Witnesses and made them into who they are today. You are giving far too much credit to Russell — a man whose theology is unrecognizable to a modern JW.

  • Brian Westley

    How unsurprising that Stevens-Arroyo still builds up the importance of his particular religion in his own mind by denegrating others.

  • Danny Haszard

    All you need to know about the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they say “Jesus had his return to power” aka his second coming in the year 1914.

  • stephen morley

    Let me guess Steven-Arroyo is catholic and supposedly he wants us all to believe he doesn’t view both the Jehovah Witnesses and the Mormons founders in a harsh light. I find that hard to believe considering he continued to back handedly comment about how each group does this or that while Francis of Assisi is a saint. Oh yeah the Catholic Church already made him a saint. I suppose the founders of the Jehovah Witnesses and the Mormons both don’t care that they won’t be canonized by him or his church. I doubt his opinion as biased as they are, aren’t truly worth the paper he writes them on. I think most people can rightly prove that the Catholic Church along with Francis of Assisi were as much a cult as any other organization. They have the inquisition the crusades the now debunked principle of purgatory, and the most impressive resume of denouncing heretics of every race color or creed. I personally love how Francis of Assisi showed to the world how humble his was with his abstinence of worldly possession, of authority in his own church, and self mutilation, but let us not forget what the lord said in the bible of showing your works to the world. I suppose this is the true test of why Francis of Assisi didn’t become a founder of a new religion he was too busy getting praise from the church he already belonged too. Isn’t it great that when he died the same praise that he sought in life was given to him in death with the title of saint?

  • Maima E.Owuor

    Three basics are:1.Embrace & follow the word of God which instils life in every believer in God.2.Having the power of God by enabling Holy Spirit that indwells &seals us forever to keep following Jesus Christ.3.To know &realize our Heavenly Abba as the Real Source of all of us !

  • Jim

    The criticism and misreprestntation I hear put forth by many evangelists and catholics which criticizes the LDS church for its claim to possess the fullness of restored gospel of Jesus Christ is not much different than that which came forth from the mouths of the Pharisees and Sadducees 2000 years ago. Think of what is at stake here. If it is true, that God has restored His church, than this is a HUGE deal and every Christian should make an earnest effort to discover for themselves through the power of the Holy Ghost if it is true. If not, then no harm no foul. Those skeptics of the LDS church ought to hedge their bets though and at least offer Mormons a little respect, just in case they happen to be right.

  • rafael

    “The sociological explanation of cults includes the notion that it is “organized around a personality.” Religion is a much wider category.”Christianity is called _Christ_ianity, for Pete’s sake. Wake up and smell the hypocrisy.

  • Bill

    And Judaism is called _Jud_iasm, for Pete’s sake. Clearly, they worship Jud. (Nevermind those Hin-performing Hindus.) All cults and religions are equally about personality; I couldn’t imagine that one religion might be different in that regard, and therefore more liable to an exploitative relationship with its adherents.

  • almaden

    Didn’t Jesus say no one gets into the Kingdom of Heaven except by HIm? Didn’t he frame his proselyting in purely personal terms, saying it was He who came with the sword of His gospel to separate Jewish parents from Jewish children and brothers from sisters? Isn’t that organizing a disruptive cult “around a personality”? Didn’t His Mediterranean contemporaries look upon His followers as a minor personality-driven sect among many that flourished at the time, within or outside of Judaism? As Christopher Hitchens says, either Jesus was nuts or he actually WAS the Son of God, the claim is so extravagantly personal. Or else he was misquoted by those who preserved his teachings. Ockham’s Razor favors the latter, of course.The great paradox of Mormonism is that something founded by a pathetic con-artist fake like Joseph Smith (vz. Angel Moroni and those lost Golden Plates) has grown into a huge formal religion that actually does a lot of good for its members and communities. Maybe people are constantly looking for father figures in which to place their trust, give their alms, sacrifice their young and order their lives? This they find in most established religions as well as spontaneously occurring cults that spring up and eventually, in Darwinian style, aspire to the status or religion. Happens over and over. Are humans biologically hardwired for this sort of hokum? Or does it have tangible Darwinian-fitness survival value for individuals and communities to think this way?

  • Norrie Hoyt

    “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.”And wasn’t the Watergate Complex in Washington built with Vatican money?

  • matt

    The author is not as aware of JW’s literature or culture as he feels he is because if he was, he never would have said that JW’s “adhere to many of the same emphasis on material possessions as a sign of divine favor that some call ‘the Gospel of Prosperity.'” JW’s are consistenetly encouraged by internal literature to live ‘simple’ lives and focus on ‘kingdom pursuits’ mainly preaching, and practicing what they preach.