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Encyclopedia > J. Gordon Melton

Dr. John Gordon Melton is the founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and is a research specialist with the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His specialization is religion and New Religious Movements and he is the author of more than twenty-five books, including several encyclopedias, handbooks, and almanacs on American religion and new religious movements. He lives in Santa Barbara, California. Religious studies is the multi-disciplinary, secular study of religion. ... University of California, Santa Barbara The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) is a coeducational public university located on the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara County, California. ... A new religious movement or NRM is a religious, ethical, or spiritual grouping of fairly recent origin which is not part of an established religion and has not yet become recognised as a standard denomination, church, or religious body. ... Mission Santa Barbara, known as the queen of the missions. Santa Barbara is a city in California, United States. ...


Early Life and Education

Melton was born on September 19, 1942 in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Burnum Edgar Melton and Inez Parker. In 1964 he graduated from Birmingham Southern College with the B.A. degree and then proceeded to theological studies at Garrett Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1968). He married Dorothea Dudley in 1966, with one daughter born, however the marriage ended in divorce in 1979. Garrett Theological Seminary, whose official name is Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, is a graduate school of theology located in Evanston, Illinois. ...

In 1968 Melton was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist church and remains under bishop's appointment to this day. He was the pastor of the United Methodist church in Wyanet, Illinois (1974-75), and then at Evanston, Illinois (1975-80). He was also a member of the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship. The United Methodist Church is the largest Methodist denomination, and the second-largest Protestant one, in the United States. ... Wyanet is a village located in Bureau County, Illinois. ... Official language(s) English Capital Springfield Largest city Chicago Area  - Total  - Width  - Length  - % water  - Latitude  - Longitude Ranked 25th 149,998 km² 340 km 629 km 4. ... Evanston is the name of several places in the United States of America: Evanston, Illinois Evanston, Indiana Evanston, Ohio Evanston, Wyoming This is a disambiguation page — a navigational aid which lists pages that might otherwise share the same title. ...

Melton pursued graduate studies at Northwestern University where he received his Ph.D. in the History and Literature of Religions in 1975. His doctoral dissertation surveyed some 800 religious groups known to exist in the United States at the time and led to the development of a classification system that has come to be widely used. Northwestern University is a private, coeducational, non-sectarian university, located in Evanston, Illinois and Chicago, Illinois. ...

Melton recounts that "vocationally, the most influential force in my life was the writings of a man I never met but who became my hero, Elmer T. Clark ... while my contemporaries became enthused with UFOs, Elvis Presley, or Alabama football, during my last year in high school one of Clarke's books, The Small Sects in America, captured my imagination. After reading it I wanted to consume everything written on American alternative religions." (Finding Enlightenment, p. 163).

He is a member of various professional organizations including the American Academy of Religion, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the American Society of Church History. The American Academy of Religion is the worlds largest association of scholars in the field of religion and related topics. ...

Writings and Methodology

Much of Melton's professional career has involved literary and field-research into alternative and minority religious bodies. In taking his cue from the writings of Elmer Clark, Melton has spent almost four decades in identifying, counting and classifying the many different churches, major religious traditions, new religions and alternative religions found in North America. His Encyclopedia of American Religions, which was originally published in 1978, has become a standard work of reference that outstrips the number of groups that Clark was able to identify and classify in the 1940s.

Other noteworthy reference works include his Biographical Dictionary of American Cult and Sect Leaders, Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, New Age Almanac, and Prime-time Religion. He has also acted as the series editor for four different multi-volume series of reference books: The Churches Speak (published by Garland), Cults and New Religions (published by Garland), Sects and Cults in America Bibliographical Guides (published by Garland), and Religious Information Systems Series (published by Garland).

He is a contributor to academic journals such as Syzygy, and Nova Religio. He has also contributed chapters to various multi-authored books on new religions, and articles in many other reference works, handbooks and encyclopedias of religion.

Melton's major emphasis has been on collating primary source data on religious groups and movements. His approach to research is shaped, in part, by his training in church history, but also in the phenomenology of religion. His methodology has followed that of a historian seeking primary source literature, and so he has generally made direct, personal contact with the leaders or official representatives of a church or religious group. The purpose of such contact has been to obtain the group's main religious literature to ascertain their principal teachings and practices. His inquiries also comprise, gathering membership statistics, details of the group's history and so forth. These details then take shape in the profiles Melton drafts up in reference texts like the Encyclopedia of American Religions. Look up Phenomenology in Wiktionary, the free dictionary Phenomenology is a current in philosophy that takes the intuitive experience of phenomena (what presents itself to us in conscious experience) as its starting point and tries to extract the essential features of experiences and the essence of what we experience. ...

Melton uses a group's religious texts as the essential mainstay for reporting about a group before then proceeding to scholarly questions and analysis about the wider social, religious and historical contexts.

Christian Countercult

In his book Mystics and Messiahs, Philip Jenkins has observed how there have been many religious conflicts throughout American history. Jenkins points out that since colonial times many US Christian theologians, pastors, missionaries and apologists have questioned the legitimacy of different religious groups and teachings. This same point has been reiterated in several essays that Melton has written concerning the role of the Christian countercult movement(see his Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, pp. 221-227; and his essay "The Counter-cult Monitoring Movement in Historical Perspective"). The Christian countercult movement, also known as discernment ministries is the collective designation for many mostly unrelated ministries and individual Christians who oppose non-mainstream Christian and non-Christian religious groups, which they often call cults. ...

The Christian countercult movement is noted for its theological or doctrinal objections to non-orthodox religious bodies. Christian apologists who write from within this movement argue that a religious body may be defined as a cult if its doctrines involve a denial of central Christian teachings about God, the person and work of Christ, salvation and so on. Countercult literature is generally characterized by a strong emphasis on doctrinal discernment, identifying the theological problems with a given group's teachings and practices, and then presenting an apologetic rebuttal. In their books countercult apologists also emphasize the need for the evangelisation of followers of cults, and often present advice and strategies on how Christians may evangelize.

Melton is one of the more prominent critics of the anti-cult movement and some of the countercult organizations. In his Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America he drew an academic distinction between the Christian countercult movement and the secular anti-cult movement. He made the distinction on the grounds that the two movements operate with very different epistemologies, motives and methods. He was also urged to make this distinction in the course of his dialogue with Enroth, and also after conversations with Eric Pement of Cornerstone Community (Chicago). This distinction has been subsequently acknowledged by sociologists such as Douglas Cowan, Eileen Barker and Massimo Introvigne. Book published by the International Cultic Studies Association (a. ... The Christian countercult movement, also known as discernment ministries is the collective designation for many mostly unrelated ministries and individual Christians who oppose non-mainstream Christian and non-Christian religious groups, which they often call cults. ... The Christian countercult movement, also known as discernment ministries is the collective designation for many mostly unrelated ministries and individual Christians who oppose non-mainstream Christian and non-Christian religious groups, which they often call cults. ... Book published by the International Cultic Studies Association (a. ...

Melton expressly states that he is "a United Methodist minister with a deep commitment to conservative Evangelical Protestantism" (Finding Enlightenment, p. 160). However, his own writings lack the distinctive critical emphases that are found in Christian countercult literature. As Melton has concentrated on the phenomenology and not the theology of new religions, his lack of explicit doctrinal criticisms of cults has elicited considerable critical comment from countercult apologists. Some countercult apologists cannot reconcile his statements of professed evangelicalism with the content of his books. Countercult apologists appear to assume that an evangelical writing on cults would necessarily present direct doctrinal objections. Anton Hein has been emphasized this latter point in his criticisms of Melton. (See also below Criticism and Assessment).

Melton explains his perceived and apparent reluctance to pursue apologetic concerns:

"My encounter with many Evangelical Christians who write about other religions has, to some extent, helped shape my life's work. However, over the years I have been mostly disappointed with the Christian writing in this area. Instead of attempting to understand the teachings of a group, too frequently writers only compared quotes from the group's literature with biblical passages, both often out of context. Then, as I began to visit the groups, I often encountered the anger at the church many members had because of Christian writers who had written supposedly authoritative books but who had distorted members' positions and had condemned them for believing things they had never taught ... I have always thought the church deserved better, and many years ago I committed myself to providing it with the information it needed both to live at peace with its new neighbors and to carry on its missional life with a high level of integrity." (Finding Enlightenment, p. 162)

Finally, while much of his writings have focussed on the phenomenology of new religions, he has indicated that Christian churches should examine new religions missiologically (see his essay "Emerging Religious Movements in North America: Some Missiological Reflections," Missiology 28/1 January 2000 pp 85-98). He did discuss issues of methodology in the research of new religions and Christian missions in various articles he contributed to Christianity Today magazine in the early 1980s. In the mid-1980s he also dialogued with evangelical sociologist Ronald Enroth about differences between their respective approaches to the analysis and evangelization of new religions (see Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails).

Personal Outlook

In an interview on new religions with Speak Magazine in the summer of 2000, Melton said:

In the West, Christianity has had a corner on the market, religiously speaking, so the number of alternatives available to people has been limited. In essence, one has to get outside the culture to find a different authority. There was no more despised group in the colonial period than the Quakers. Now we think most highly of Quakers. I think that in this century many of the despised religious groups of the past will be rehabilitated and come into their own. As a Christian and an evangelical who wants to convert people to what I believe to be the truth, I want to do so in a setting where I can be assured the choices people make to come to Christianity are free choices. In so far as we coerce society to support us, we lessen our assurance of that freedom.

His interviewer, John Lardas, wrote that:

[Gordon Melton] is a staunch advocate of First Amendment rights and has defended the right of new religions to express themselves, filed legal briefs on their behalf, and taken much heat from his critics who see him as an apologist of nonconformity.

Criticism and Assessment

In general, religious studies scholars and sociologists of religion have praised Melton's reference works such as the various encyclopedias and bibliographical texts. However, his work and stance on some issues has led to debates about integrity in research when receiving sponsorship from the leaders of cults (see, for example, the exchange between Stephen Kent and Melton in Skeptic magazine).

Melton is criticized by the anti-cult movement and former members of cults and NRMs for what they consider his uncritical writings about cults and NRMs. Countercult activist Anton Hein has criticized him because of what he considers excessive skepticism of the testimonies of ex-members of new religious movements. [1]. Anti-cult activists label him a cult apologist. Book published by the International Cultic Studies Association (a. ... A cult apologist is a term (which some find pejorative) used by anti-cult activists to describe a scholar of cults and/or new religious movements perceived as responding to the movements they study with advocacy instead of with neutral scholarship. ...

According to the financial books of the Children of God, his institute received money from the Children of God. This happened after he wrote about them. Critics also forward criticism that Melton, in contrast to popular opinion, said about the Peoples Temple, "This wasn't a cult. This was a respectable, mainline Christian group." [2] The Children of God (COG), later known as the Family of Love, the Family, and now The Family International is a new religious movement that started in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, USA. It was part of the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s, with many of its early converts... Brochure of the Peoples Temple portraying cult leader Jim Jones as the loving father of the Rainbow Family. The Peoples Temple was a cult that is best known for a mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978. ...

In 1995, Melton was part of an American delegation, funded by Aum Shinrikyo, that travelled to Japan to investigate Aum's activities and claims of persecution. Numerous leaders of the terrorist cult were later sentenced to death by Japanese courts. 1995 (MCMXCV) was a common year starting on Sunday of the Gregorian calendar. ... Aum Shinrikyo (also spelled Om Shin Rikyo) was a religious group which mixed Buddhist and Hindu beliefs and was based in Japan. ...

Dr. David C. Lane praises his encyclopedic works but considers him not critical enough about gurus. David Christopher Lane (born April 29, 1956 in Burbank, California) is a professor of philosophy and sociology at Mount San Antonio College, USA and lecturer in religious studies at California State University, Long Beach, California. ... References ^ Tirha, B. B. A Taste of Trascendence, (2002) p. ...

Biographical Source

  • Contemporary Authors, Vol. 110, pp. 351-352.


  • A Directory of Religious Bodies in the United States (New York: Garland, 1977).
  • An Old Catholic Sourcebook (co-authored with Karl Pruter), (New York/London: Garland, 1982).
  • Magic, witchcraft, and paganism in America: A bibliography, compiled from the files of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, (New York: Garland Publishing,1982), ISBN 0-824093-77-1. Revised edition co-authored with Isotta Poggi, Garland, 1992.
  • The Cult Experience: Responding to the New Religious Pluralism (co-authored with Robert L. Moore), (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982).
  • Why Cults Succeed Where The Church Fails (co-authored with Ronald M. Enroth), (Elgin: Brethren Press, 1985).
  • Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (New York/London: Garland, 1986; revised edition, Garland, 1992).
  • Biographical Dictionary of American Cult and Sect Leaders (New York/London: Garland, 1986).
  • American Religious Creeds (Detroit: Gale, 1988; republished in three volumes, New York: Triumph Books, 1991).
  • New Age Almanac, (co-edited with Jerome Clark and Aidan Kelly) (Detroit: Visible Ink, 1991).
  • Perspectives on the New Age (co-edited with James R. Lewis), (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).
  • Islam in North America: A Sourcebook (co-edited with Michael A. Koszegi), (New York/London: Garland, 1992).
  • Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating The Family/Children of God (co-edited with James R. Lewis), (Stanford: Center for Academic Publication, 1994).
  • *Finding Enlightenment: Ramtha's School of Ancient Wisdom', Beyond Words Publishing, Inc. Hillsboro Oregon, ISBN 1-885223-61-7 (1998).
  • American Religions: An Illustrated History (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000).
  • The Church of Scientology (Studies in Contemporary Religions, 1), Signature Books (August 1, 2000), ISBN 1-560851-39-2, 80pp.
  • The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead, ISBN 0-810322-95-1
  • Prime-Time Religion: An Encyclopedia of Religious Broadcasting (co-authored with Phillip Charles Lucas & Jon R. Stone). Oryx, 1997.
  • * Encyclopedia of American Religions, Thomson Gale; 7th edition (December 1, 2002), 1250pp, ISBN 0-787663-84-0
  • Cults, Religion, and Violence, David Bromley and Gordon Melton, Eds., Cambridge University Press (May 13, 2002), 272pp, ISBN 0-521668-98-0
  • Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, ABC-Clio (September, 2002), 1200pp, ISBN 1-576072-23-1
  • J. Gordon Melton, ‘The counter-cult monitoring movement in historical perspective’ in Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker, James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, eds. (London: Routledge, 2003), 102-113.
  • Encyclopedia Of Protestantism, Facts on File Publishing (May 30, 2005), 628pp, ISBN 0-816054-56-8

David G. Bromley, is a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. His primary area of teaching and research is sociology of religion, with a specialization in religious movements. ...

Scholarly Assessments

  • Derek Davis, Review of The Church of Scientology, Journal of Church and State, 42/4 (Autumn 2000): 851-852.
  • P. G. Davis, Review of Biographical Dictionary of American Cult and Sect Leaders, Religious Studies and Theology, 9 (1989): 101-103.
  • James L. Garrett, Review of Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, Southwestern Journal of Theology, 33 (1990): 69.
  • Jeffrey Hadden, Review of Prime-time Religion, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36 (1997): 634.
  • Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs, "When Scholars Know Sin: Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters," Skeptic, 6/3 (1988): 36-44. Also see J. Gordon Melton, Anson D. Shupe and James R. Lewis, "When Scholars Know Sin" Forum Reply to Kent and Krebs, Skeptic, 7/1 (1999): 14-21.
  • Philip Jenkins, Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

External links

Related sites

University of California, Santa Barbara The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) is a coeducational public university located on the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara County, California. ...

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