Looking at the Category of New Religious Movements



3 comments
John L. Crow

As the year 2013 comes to a close, I am already thinking about the New Year, and the next semester. In a week I’ll begin teaching a New Religious Movements class. This winter break has given me the time to think about the subdomain of New Religious Movements, and I must admit that after creating a syllabus and looking at the topic from a variety of viewpoints, I am ambivalent about the sub-discipline.

In his 2007 essay, “New New Religions: Revisiting a Concept,” J. Gordon Melton asked again, “What are we studying?” After looking at the changing field and the subject of investigation, he asserted that new religions are mostly, “new representatives of some of the older religious traditions that exist as minorities in the West.” He goes on to claim that “the production of new religions is a normal, ongoing process in a free society.” I read this essay a few years ago, but in rereading it for the class, I began to wonder if his conclusion ultimately announced the end of the subdomain of new religious movements? As these minority traditions become less of a minority, do they cease being New Religious Movements?

One question I often ask my colleagues when discussing the category of New Religious Movements is why do traditions such as Spiritualism and Theosophy remain categorized as “new religions,” even though they are 130 to 160 years old, while more recent traditions, such as Pentecostalism, are not considered New Religious Movements, but new iterations or formations of previous, older traditions? It is because they are derivations of majority traditions. Clearly the “newness” of the tradition is not really the issue, despite the name of the sub-discipline. Instead the traditions that fall into New Religious Movements signal a kind of distance or deviance from an imagined norm. Thus the invocation of the variegated scale leading from church to cult.


In looking at the traditions on my syllabus and the issues that they raise, I must be honest, I did not really find any point that made them particularly different from other more commonly studied religious traditions. Issues of leadership, violence, children, gender, and so much more that arises in the context of New Religious Movements can be found in so many other traditions that are outside the context of NRMs. Even the issue of mass suicide, the much pointed to episodes of Jonestown, the Branch Dravidians, Heaven’s Gate, etc. can, perhaps, be compared to the ongoing mass suicides found in other traditions, such as forms of Islam where practitioners use explosives instead of Flavor Aid in their so-called revolutionary acts.

I am well aware of the previous need and history of the category and sub-discipline. The study of New Religious Movements served an important purpose, brought many aspects of ignored religious traditions to light, and helped change perceptions inside and outside the academy about minority traditions. That said, I wonder if its usefulness has diminished. There are already enormous vested interests for the sub-discipline to continue, and even grow. There are specialists in the category; programs, book series, and whole careers based on its existence and perpetuation. I am well aware of this, as I am within the system that perpetuates the sub-discipline. After all, I am teaching a NRM class next semester. But I think it is useful to occasionally stop and take a larger view of our academic investments and academic domains and ask larger questions. Has NRM served its usefulness? Is it time to just absorb the traditions and methodology into the larger purview of religious studies and/or sociology of religion, opening up opportunities for investigation that has generally been ignored? Or does the field of NRM studies serve a very important, and vital role to the domain of religious studies and the sociology of religion? Do NRMs point to new and important aspects of the phenomenon of religion that other domains and methodologies miss?

I am curious as to what others think. What do you think the role of NRM studies is or should be? How does it compliment other disciplines? Should it be continued and expanded? How do NRMs fit into your classes, if at all, and how do they relate to ARH? I am very interested to hear your thoughts.

3 comments:

Dr Ley at: January 1, 2014 at 5:28 PM said...

The American Lyceum Movement

The American Lyceum Movement originated with Josiah Holbrook, a teacher and amateur scientist who became a passionate advocate for volunteer educational institutions in towns and villages. The name lyceum came from the Greek word for the public meeting space where Aristotle lectured.

Holbrook began a lyceum in Millbury, Massachusetts in 1826. The organization would host educational lectures and programs, and with Holbrook’s encouragement the movement spread to other towns in New England. Within two years approximately 100 lyceums had been started in New England and in the Middle Atlantic states.

In 1829, Holbrook published a book, American Lyceum, which described his vision of a lyceum and gave practical advice for organizing and maintaining one.

The opening of Holbrook's book stated: “A Town Lyceum is a voluntary association of individuals disposed to improve each other in useful knowledge, and to advance the interests of their schools. To gain the first object, they hold weekly or other stated meetings, for reading, conversation, discussion, illustrating the sciences, or other exercises designed for their mutual benefit; and, as it is found convenient, they collect a cabinet, consisting of apparatus for illustrating the sciences, books, minerals, plants, or other natural or artificial productions.”

Holbrook listed some of the “advantages which have already arisen from the Lyceums,” which included:

The improvement of conversation. Holbrook wrote: “Subjects of science, or other topics of useful knowledge, take the place of frivolous conversation, or petty scandal, frequently indulged, and uniformly deplored, in our country villages.”
Directing amusements for children. In other words, providing activities that would be useful or educational.
Calling into use neglected libraries. Holbrook noted that libraries in small communities often fell into disuse, and he believed the educational activity of a lyceum would encourage people to patronize libraries.
Increasing the advantages, and raising the character of, district schools. At a time when public education was often haphazard and disorganized, Holbrook believed that community members involved in a lyceum would be a useful adjunct to local classrooms.
In his book, Holbrook also advocated for a “National Society for the improvement of popular education.” In 1831 a National Lyceum organization was started and it specified a constitution for lyceums to follow.

The Lyceum Movement Spread Widely in 19th Century America

Holbrook’s book and his ideas proved to be extremely popular. By the mid-1830s the Lyceum Movement had developed, and more than 3,000 lyceums were operating in the United States.
The Lyceum Movement peaked in the years before the Civil War, though it did have a revival in the decades after the war. Later Lyceum speakers included the author Mark Twain, and the great showman Phineas T. Barnum, who would give lectures on temperance.

Dr Ley at: January 1, 2014 at 5:29 PM said...

The American Lyceum Movement

The American Lyceum Movement originated with Josiah Holbrook, a teacher and amateur scientist who became a passionate advocate for volunteer educational institutions in towns and villages. The name lyceum came from the Greek word for the public meeting space where Aristotle lectured.

Holbrook began a lyceum in Millbury, Massachusetts in 1826. The organization would host educational lectures and programs, and with Holbrook’s encouragement the movement spread to other towns in New England. Within two years approximately 100 lyceums had been started in New England and in the Middle Atlantic states.

In 1829, Holbrook published a book, American Lyceum, which described his vision of a lyceum and gave practical advice for organizing and maintaining one.

The opening of Holbrook's book stated: “A Town Lyceum is a voluntary association of individuals disposed to improve each other in useful knowledge, and to advance the interests of their schools. To gain the first object, they hold weekly or other stated meetings, for reading, conversation, discussion, illustrating the sciences, or other exercises designed for their mutual benefit; and, as it is found convenient, they collect a cabinet, consisting of apparatus for illustrating the sciences, books, minerals, plants, or other natural or artificial productions.”

Holbrook listed some of the “advantages which have already arisen from the Lyceums,” which included:

The improvement of conversation. Holbrook wrote: “Subjects of science, or other topics of useful knowledge, take the place of frivolous conversation, or petty scandal, frequently indulged, and uniformly deplored, in our country villages.”
Directing amusements for children. In other words, providing activities that would be useful or educational.
Calling into use neglected libraries. Holbrook noted that libraries in small communities often fell into disuse, and he believed the educational activity of a lyceum would encourage people to patronize libraries.
Increasing the advantages, and raising the character of, district schools. At a time when public education was often haphazard and disorganized, Holbrook believed that community members involved in a lyceum would be a useful adjunct to local classrooms.
In his book, Holbrook also advocated for a “National Society for the improvement of popular education.” In 1831 a National Lyceum organization was started and it specified a constitution for lyceums to follow.

The Lyceum Movement Spread Widely in 19th Century America

Holbrook’s book and his ideas proved to be extremely popular. By the mid-1830s the Lyceum Movement had developed, and more than 3,000 lyceums were operating in the United States.
The Lyceum Movement peaked in the years before the Civil War, though it did have a revival in the decades after the war. Later Lyceum speakers included the author Mark Twain, and the great showman Phineas T. Barnum, who would give lectures on temperance.

Dr Ley at: January 1, 2014 at 5:31 PM said...

The American Lyceum Movement

The American Lyceum Movement originated with Josiah Holbrook, a teacher and amateur scientist who became a passionate advocate for volunteer educational institutions in towns and villages. The name lyceum came from the Greek word for the public meeting space where Aristotle lectured.

Holbrook began a lyceum in Millbury, Massachusetts in 1826. The organization would host educational lectures and programs, and with Holbrook’s encouragement the movement spread to other towns in New England. Within two years approximately 100 lyceums had been started in New England and in the Middle Atlantic states.

In 1829, Holbrook published a book, American Lyceum, which described his vision of a lyceum and gave practical advice for organizing and maintaining one.

The opening of Holbrook's book stated: “A Town Lyceum is a voluntary association of individuals disposed to improve each other in useful knowledge, and to advance the interests of their schools. To gain the first object, they hold weekly or other stated meetings, for reading, conversation, discussion, illustrating the sciences, or other exercises designed for their mutual benefit; and, as it is found convenient, they collect a cabinet, consisting of apparatus for illustrating the sciences, books, minerals, plants, or other natural or artificial productions.”

Holbrook listed some of the “advantages which have already arisen from the Lyceums,” which included:

The improvement of conversation. Holbrook wrote: “Subjects of science, or other topics of useful knowledge, take the place of frivolous conversation, or petty scandal, frequently indulged, and uniformly deplored, in our country villages.”
Directing amusements for children. In other words, providing activities that would be useful or educational.
Calling into use neglected libraries. Holbrook noted that libraries in small communities often fell into disuse, and he believed the educational activity of a lyceum would encourage people to patronize libraries.
Increasing the advantages, and raising the character of, district schools. At a time when public education was often haphazard and disorganized, Holbrook believed that community members involved in a lyceum would be a useful adjunct to local classrooms.
In his book, Holbrook also advocated for a “National Society for the improvement of popular education.” In 1831 a National Lyceum organization was started and it specified a constitution for lyceums to follow.

The Lyceum Movement Spread Widely in 19th Century America

Holbrook’s book and his ideas proved to be extremely popular. By the mid-1830s the Lyceum Movement had developed, and more than 3,000 lyceums were operating in the United States, a remarkable number considering the small size of the young nation.

The most prominent lyceum was one organized in Boston, which was led by Daniel Webster, renowned lawyer, orator, and political figure.

A particularly memorable lyceum was the one at Concord, Massachusetts, as it was regularly attended by authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Both men were known to deliver addresses at the lyceum that would later be published as essays. For instance, the Thoreau essay later titled “Civil Disobedience” was presented in its earliest form as a lecture at the Concord Lyceum in January 1848.

Visiting speakers included the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, the minister Henry Ward Beecher, and the abolitionist Wendell Phillips. Ralph Waldo Emerson was in demand as a lyceum speaker, and made a living traveling and giving lectures at lyceums.

The Lyceum Movement peaked in the years before the Civil War, though it did have a revival in the decades after the war. Later Lyceum speakers included the author Mark Twain, and the great showman Phineas T. Barnum, who would give lectures on temperance.

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