What is a New Religious Movement?

A New Religious Movement is the academic term for what some people might call a cult (Sekte in German). Mormonism is typically considered a NRM. For example, the two main academic bodies for disseminating measured information on NRMs — INFORM and CESNUR — include Mormonism on their rosters.

What is a NRM? Eileen Barker classifies NRM’s as:

  • Mostly comprised of first generation converts
  • Having a charismatic, authoritarian leader or founder
  • Being atypical of society

George Chryssides writes of NRM’s:

  • Being recent
  • Outside the mainstream
  • Attracting converts from the indigenous culture

For James Holt, NRM’s:

  • Were founded in the last 200 years
  • Are placed (or place themselves) outside of their parent faith

You may notice a frustrating fuzziness in these classifications. Is a Christian NRM an NRM by virtue of its exclusion from the World Council of Churches (what about the Roman Catholic Church?), its rejection of a key doctrine such as the Trinity (what about the Unitarians?), its being counter-cultural (what about strict Primitive Methodists?), its charismatic leader (Billy Graham?), its conversion rate (campus evangelical ministries?), or simply its age (will the Jehovah’s Witnesses cease being an NRM in 2070?)?

Clearly, academics need some way to classify religions and separate phenomenologically, say, Islam from the Nation of Islam. Is there a better way of doing this? Should there be sub-types of NRMs? (This has been attempted.)

Is Mormonism a New Religious Movement?


Barker, E. (1989) New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction

Chryssides, G. (1994) “New Religious Movements: some problems of definition,” DISKUS 2 (2)

Holt, J (MEd thesis in my possession)


  1. TRM: Transitioning Religious Movement?

  2. Another complication:

    Mormonism is a teeny-tiny religion in Austria and Belgium. In Austria, the CoJCoLDS is an officially recognised religious organisation and therefore, according to the state, not a Sekte. In Belgium, the same church is officially classified as a “harmful sectarian organization” and therefore most certainly a secte. In both countries, academics are likely to consider the church a NRM. In both countries, the Catholic Church is likely to consider the church a cult.

  3. Ronan,

    Can a religious group be a NRM in one country and not in another?

  4. If you look in a dictionary, you see almost every word is defined 4 or 5 ways. I think NRM will come out the same.

  5. Well, if we use all those definitions, then Christianity itself was once an NRM.

  6. I think a whole lot of protestant groups fit some of the criterion. I’m curious where the non-specific-doctrine, huge mega-churchs would fall. The most baffling point to me is being atypical of sociey. Could it be more subjective?

  7. Christopher,
    Yes. Some academics who happily classify Mormonism as a NRM readily admit that it isn’t in Utah and the American west. In many ways there are multiple Mormonisms.

    That’s true. Note that NRM is not meant (necessarily) to be a derogatory term.

  8. cheryl, yeah, pretty much all religions start as NRMs — hence the “new” bit.

    Ronan, note that, according to two of your definitions, Mormonism in the U.S. is currently not an NRM. According to the third definition, we have another 22 years in the category; Sam MB, get your papers published before 2030…

    I think that, outside the U.S., Mormonism will reasonably count as an NRM in most countries for the foreseeable future.

  9. cult is what the big church calls the little church. I think that we are as new in one country as we are old in another. There is no set definition, which means that critics or scholars can lump us as is convenient. We don’t leave the NRM status until we surpass multiple mainstream organizations in size. It’s the nature of the beast in vying for mens souls. Labels are convenient and it’s hard to lose one once you’ve gotten it.

  10. Ronan, thanks. That was what I assumed, and it makes sense. I agree then, with JNS’s statement that “outside the U.S., Mormonism will reasonably count as an NRM in most countries for the foreseeable future.”

  11. re # 8, doesn’t it seem like the 3d definition is drafted in order to force Mormonism into the definition? Why else choose the arbitrary number of 200 years?

  12. Note that Barker’s definition seems to explicitly exclude the Church as a NRM on all three points.

  13. John, maybe. It also gets the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Christian Scientists. Maybe it’s just targeted at 19th-century American prophetic movements more generally.

    I think Barker’s “charismatic, authoritarian founder” criterion fits the church. The other two, not so much.

  14. JNS,
    Charismatic authoritarian founder also fits Mainstream Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and a host of ARM’s (ancient religious movements). It is difficult for me to see the point of defining anything that way.

  15. As a self-confident missionary, when people asked us “Seid Ihr eine Sekte?”, as they always did, I proceeded from a straight translation of Sekte to mean “sect” in English and sometimes shot back with some kind of explanation about how the state Lutheran Church (Evangelische Kirche) was more properly characterized as a sect than our Church because the Lutheran Church had split off from the Catholic Church and was therefore a sect of the Catholic Church whereas our Church hadn’t split off from any other church but was created independent.

    This really made Germans mad.

    By the end of my mission, I realized that when they asked that question, they were calling us cultists because Sekte more closely approximates the English “cult” than its cognate “sect”. Missionaries who learn a foreign language are warned from the beginning to watch out for false cognates but this one slipped past for me.

    The German government, to their credit, in issuing the report (click for links) of their parliamentary investigation of “so-called cults and psycho-groups” a few years back, which includes the Church, devoted a couple of pages at the beginning of the report to an explanation of why it probably wasn’t the best practice to label these religious groups Sekten because the term had a certain amount of stigma associated with it. So rather than using a different word uniformly throughout the document, they switch between “so-called cults” (sogenannte Sekten) and NRMS throughout the document.

  16. Doc, you think Jesus was authoritarian? The Gospels don’t really make him look that way to me. That depiction of Him shows relatively little institutional leadership or authoritarianness, unlike in the case of Joseph Smith — or, say, John Calvin.

  17. The bishoprics of the early Church might fit the bill.

  18. John, I guess James or even Paul might also sometimes fit the bill, if we want New Testament figures.

  19. No, Christ as we see him in the New Testament was not authoritarian, unless you believe he happened to establish a Church through Peter. However, as you say, the propagators of the New Testament are.

    The bottom line is that every major world religion today became that way through the sword, so at some point they were all authoritarian. It is what caused them to thrive. Mormonism and the like 19th century American movements are different in this regard, as their rise depended on freedom of speech, religion, and the exchange of ideas.

  20. I used to hear the Afrikaans word “Sekt” or plural “Sekte” (Not sure about the spelling anymore) from members of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. Usually that would be the end of the conversation. Similar to the Belgium example.

  21. Doc, sure, Mormonism didn’t convert people militarily. But I think you probably underestimate the degree to which the Mormon community was internally highly authoritarian during the 19th century. This kind of internal authoritarianism is almost certainly what Barker has in mind, since few NRMs at present are recruiting new members through military coercion.

    Note also that establishing a church through Peter probably wouldn’t count as authoritarian, just as passing on authority. One may have authority without being authoritarian. “Authoritarian” might correspond more closely with leaders who order their followers to change their family structures, settle in borderline uninhabitable regions, and give the church title to all their possessions, on pain of expulsion from the community and ostracism from family and friends.

  22. But don’t the latter elements of that correspond to what little is known about early Christianity? Heavens, one of the “edifying” stories told in Acts is of two folks killed for not paying their offerings. And there’s tons of stuff about changing family structure even by Jesus.

  23. (whoops – missed your comment 18)

  24. Just to be clear, I absolutely agree — as, I might note, do most scholars of NRMs that I’ve read — that early Christianity met the definition of a New Religious Movement. I’m just taking issue with what I take to be Doc’s initial characterization of Jesus as an authoritarian leader. I think the gospels show Jesus as charismatic, subversive, and authoritative, but not authoritarian. But, yeah, lots of other authoritarians did indeed show up in early Christianity. We could make an argument from the D&C’s definitions of proper priesthood leadership that perhaps that was an aspect of apostasy?

  25. Personally, I would define a NRM as a “new religious movemnet” – which means the 200 year delineation would be the best one. If a religion lasts longer than 200 years, then it can “graduate” from kindergarten and enter the established elementary schools.

  26. Premature submission: All the other definitions are meant strictly to exclude subjectively.

  27. I think this classification scheme is simply an excercise in institutionalizing bigotry and religious discrimination.

  28. E, as a matter of intellectual history, the “New Religious Movement” label was introduced as a way of steering people away from the very problematic term and concept of a “cult.” The NRM term is intended to point toward the shared dynamics of early religious development without implying, e.g., that everyone in the church is going to commit suicide in order to ride a comet.

  29. Ray, why 200 years? Why not draw that circle a little bigger, say 500 years (that way it would encompass all of Protestantism, or at least everything after 1508, which gets pretty much everything)? I’m sure the Catholic Church would be amenable to that emendation of the criteria. Who can argue that compared to Catholicism or Judaism, even the most staid Protestant sects, with their stone cathedrals in Europe, is not an NRM?

  30. John, sure, although I think it might make more sense to go in the opposite direction and say 100 years. After 100 years, the entire first generation is gone and the religion is older than anyone in it. A major change, to say the least.

  31. I would tend to accept 100 years over 500 years, but I also think that a religion should last past 3-4 generations before it is accepted as “established”. 200 years seems about right to me, but I really don’t care enough to draw a line in the sand.