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New Religious Movements: New Religious Movements in the United States

At the age of 18 I took the habit and entered the novitiate for a year of prayer, meditation and silence. At the age of 19 in I took my first, temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. From to I studied philosophy and the liberal arts. In I took final, solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, after which I began my formal study of theology, including the Christian scriptures, systematic theology, ethics, canon law, church history and archeology, etc. The vow of poverty meant that I owned absolutely nothing, not even the clothes on my back.

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I resided at three different monasteries in Illinois and Ohio and visited many others throughout the Midwest. In I decided to leave the monastery. I followed all the canonical procedures for a lawful departure and received a dispensation from my vows directly from Pope Paul VI in I remain a practicing Roman Catholic. As a friar, I experienced a type of religious life setting very similar to what members of the Sea Organization have in terms of study, discipline, and commitment. Prior to my current position at Washington University, I taught at St.

Louis University, St. I have lectured frequently on the subject of new religions at colleges, universities, and professional conferences in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and the Republic of China. I have also given testimony before the United States Congress, the New York Assembly, and the Ohio, Illinois, and Kansas Legislatures regarding various aspects of those traditional religions and presen t-d ay new religions of which I have lon g-t erm, firsthand knowledge.

I have studied the Church of Scientology in depth since , including its vast body of scriptures. Louis; Portland, Oregon; Toronto; and Paris, I have familiarized myself with the da y-to-d ay workings of the religion. I have conducted numerous interviews with individual members of the Church of Scientology and have observed Scientologists engaging in the core religious practices of the denomination.

I am also familiar with most of the extant literature on Scientology, ranging from works of objective scholarship to journalistic accounts to partisan commentary, both favorable and unfavorable. On the basis of this comprehensive study, and in the light of my academic background and my continuing professional experience, I have formed the opinions expressed below.

Toggle navigation. Toggle menu. Frank K. Flinn, Ph. 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 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 , when Thomas Morton c. A few years later the Puritan authorities of Boston attacked Samuel Gorton c. By the s 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 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 a small group of Shakers arrived under the leadership of Ann Lee — , and eventually they opened a communal settlement in upstate New York. A 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 — , whose opposition to the group she had joined and then left became her life's work.

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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 time — and perhaps with their steep decline in numbers — has 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 , 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 , they accused the Harmonist leader George Rapp — of being power mad and voraciously greedy.

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The lawsuits that dogged the Harmonists throughout their history typically made the kinds of charges that "cult" opponents have made more recently — mind 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 , 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. 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.

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 — 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.

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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 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 s through the s. 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 s and s millennial excitement swept the country, especially with the rise of the Adventist movement of William Miller — , who predicted that the world would come to an end soon, finally settling on October 22, , 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, , 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 s under Ellen White — , 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 s another millennial group, eventually known as Jehovah's Witnesses, developed under the leadership of Charles Taze Russell — , who, like Miller, undertook an extensive analysis of the Bible and concluded that he could predict the year of the final culmination — 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. 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 two sisters, Kate Fox c. 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 s. 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 and based on the teachings of Helena P. Blavatsky — , 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 Vivekananda — , 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.