Philip Jenkins


Scholars produce many reasons why new religions should attract particular groups, and offer similar messages, eg the promise of healing. Often these reasons are drawn from psychology or sociology. But the groups themselves explain their message and their appeal according to particular religious narratives. We can see this especially from the wave of new movements that arose in the mid-nineteenth century, groups like the Mormons, Shakers, Adventists, Spiritualists and Communal groups, but similar ideas actually occur throughout the history of Christianity, and indeed through other world religions. IŐll look at this chiefly through the lens of Christianity and post-Christian groups.


Much of what follows draws from the Mormon framework, but it also applies widely to the other groups mentioned – and to many groups both earlier and later. It is of course an ideal statement, a general model, and certainly not every group fills every criterion.


The underlying idea: The Bible holds out promises of a glorious world under GodŐs rule, although that picture differs radically from any kind of present reality. Something has gone terribly wrong, and almost certainly the existing churches and faiths are to blame. However, God has not abandoned the world, and offers the means to set it right. He promises a restoration of the primitive faith and its scriptures. This might take many forms, which include:


1. A new prophetic dispensation. God selects a particular individual to proclaim the restored gospel to the world. Inspiration is now widely available, especially to those excluded by the present religious order. Prophets and apostles wander the earth once more.


2. Prophets and teachers are likely to be drawn from those groups despised by the old order – from the young, the uneducated, but especially ands above all, from women. The old world is turned upside down.


3. In the new age, the lines dividing this world and the next become thin, as prophets have access to divine wisdom through heavenly messengers or angels.


4. A restored gospel, a new scripture, might teach the new faith. In these special times, the canon of scripture is no longer closed, but is open to inspired teaching. These scriptures might be new, or they might be lost ancient scriptures now rediscovered and properly interpreted for the first time. Perhaps the established churches have concealed or distorted these scriptures up to the present time.


5. This new age is a prelude to the end of the worldly era, and marks the end of times. It precedes the end of the world as we have known it, and the destruction of old social and religious structures. We might be living before the end of times, or perhaps those times have already ended, and only GodŐ chosen ones recognize the fact.


6. The world of the scriptures is restored. In the new world coming into being, life as portrayed in the original scriptures once again becomes possible. People will use the Bible as a literal guide for living, even if these standards violate the accepted codes of society. The more mainstream churches and society condemn the new way of life, the more proof believers have that theirs is the correct path. Persecution is a warrant of faith.


7. The quest for perfection. Heaven is once again available on earth. Perhaps this just applies to believers, who accept perfection, and must flee from a sinful world; or perhaps believers have a duty to lead the wider world into that new godly order.


8. All is transformed in the new world order. The transformation particularly affects personal and social relationships. With the end of old ideas of property and individualism, believers come together into communal settlements, to share in a common pursuit of perfection.


9. The emerging society must abandon any traditional distinctions and prejudices that prevent achieving social and human equality, crossing lines of race and gender.


10. The new order teaches a new sexual ethic, new attitudes to sexual purity and liberation. This might mean abstaining from sex, or new forms of marriage and family structure – polygamy, selective breeding, free loveÉ New attitudes to gender also affect theology, and might mean a more feminine or androgynous view of God.


11. The quest for perfection extends into every aspect of daily life. It demands new attitudes to the body and its improvement, new attitudes to food and drink. This often means encouraging or promoting special foods while forbidding others that are felt to be harmful or sinful. These dietary rules help create a sense of common belonging among members of the movement, and set them apart from the rest of society.


12. Central to the new age is the promise of healing in mind and body. This follows the promises offered in the scriptures, which are once again fully available to believers.


13. In the restored world, the end times, believes have access to a full and proper understanding of the laws of nature, which often means accepting ideas rejected by mainstream science. These ideas might affect notions of healing, the powers of the mind, or various supernatural manifestations. Believers are now granted special powers and abilities not previously available, and still not available to non-believers.


14. Beyond restoring the world of the Bible, believers now have access to the ancient wisdom and powers of other great civilizations, the wisdom of Babylon and Egypt. They share a common revelation that actually predates the Christian era.