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Why does the United States Produce So Many New Religions?
The Land of (Spiritual) Opportunity
In the early 1800s, a large number of new religious movements were born in the United States. As often happens, some of these movements came and went fairly quickly, dying out when a charismatic founder passed on to the next life. Others have endured to this day, with the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists probably the most successful and well known. Those religions that stood the test of time eventually went up in status from "cults" to mainstream religions. The main difference, after all, between a cult and a religion is that a religion has been around longer. If people believe something long enough, these beliefs seem increasingly plausible and become part of the religious mainstream.
It makes sense that the United States would be the birthplace of new religious movements. This has always been an individualistic society filled with people convinced that they could create new lives and identities in this “land of opportunity.” If an individual could go from being a person with nothing but a dream into a great economic or political success, then why couldn’t they also get some special insight from the divine? Also, given what a great and special society these Americans were creating, why wouldn’t God choose an American as His prophet? A new land built on noble, democratic principles was the perfect place for new truths to be revealed.
The early 1800s, however, were particularly ripe for the birth of new religious movements. Americans had recently gained their independence, reinforcing that previously mentioned mindset of being special. More importantly, this was also a time of major social and economic change. The United States was going through the first phases of industrialization, with a growing number of Americans shifting from being farmers living in rural areas to factory workers, businesspeople, and urban dwellers. These changes had some clear benefits for some, but they also created new problems and sources of stress. With fewer people being landowners, you had less people feeling like they could meet their basic needs on their own. With people leaving small communities and moving to larger towns and cities, they began losing the feeling that they were part of any community. The large urban areas, with their huge faceless populations and daunting problems such as crowding, poor sanitation, poverty, homelessness, and crime, were particularly lonely and scary places to live for people accustomed to a different kind of world. This technological transformation has continued to this day, and with our society currently in the dawn of the digital age, the pace of change only accelerates as time passes.
At the same time that many Americans were shifting to a more industrial style of life, others were heading off to the western frontier as their pioneer ancestors had done. The new frontier states filled with pioneers could also be particularly fertile ground for new religions to be born. Ever since the first colonists had arrived, the west seemed to be the ultimate place where a person could create a new identity or type of society. The belief in America as a “land of opportunity” largely originated because there was so much unsettled western territory during our nation’s early years. And since life was rough out on the frontier, people might be more inclined to look to God. We humans tend to be more religious, after all, during times of trouble.
New religious movements – groups that are generally referred to as religious cults today – could help people, whether in cities or out on the frontier, to deal with some of their newfound problems. These groups started off as small tight-knit communities, usually rooted in the teachings of some charismatic individual, that offered a simple solution to those who felt displaced, lonely, or afraid in this rapidly changing world. These groups also tended to promise that the end was near because a divine being would be returning soon to judge the wicked and bring a new world order free from all of these frightening changes and complex problems. This promise of an impending judgment day and paradise for the special, chosen few has always been one of the biggest appeals of these “cult-like” religious movements. It is the ultimate bailout plan, and the fact that these cult leaders are always wrong never seems to take away the appeal of the message that the end is near. Some people just want this screwed up world to end, and it is nice to think that you will be one of the saved when the end comes. You are not just another factory worker or struggling western farmer. You are one of the few people who has the key to paradise, and those who mock you, persecute you, or who seem to enjoy their lives of sin will pay the price in the end.