A Historical Introduction to the Study of New Religious Movements: 1st Edition (e-Book) book cover

A Historical Introduction to the Study of New Religious Movements

1st Edition

By W. Michael Ashcraft


252 pages

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The American public’s perception of New Religious Movements (NRMs) as fundamentally harmful cults stems from the "anticult" movement of the 1970s, which gave a sometimes hysterical and often distorted image of NRMs to the media. At the same time, academics pioneered a new field, studying these same NRMs from sociological and historical perspectives. They offered an interpretation that ran counter to that of the anticult movement. For these scholars in the new field of NRM studies, NRMs were legitimate religions deserving of those freedoms granted to established religions.

Those scholars in NRM studies continued to evolve methods and theories to study NRMs. This book tells their story. Each chapter begins with a biography of a key person involved in studying NRMs. The narrative unfolds chronologically, beginning with late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century perceptions of religions alternative to the mainstream. Then the focus shifts to those early efforts, in the 1960s and 1970s, to comprehend the growing phenomena of cults or NRMs using the tools of academic disciplines. The book’s midpoint is a chapter that looks closely at the scholarship of the anticult movement, and from there moves forward in time to the present, highlighting themes in the study of NRMs like violence, gender, and reflexive ethnography.

No other book has used the scholars of NRMs as the focus for a study in this way. The material in this volume is, therefore, a fascinating viewpoint from which to explore the origins of this vibrant academic community, as well as analyse the practice of Religious Studies more generally.


"It is an absolute must-read for any graduate student preparing for a field exam in NRMs, or sociology of religion more generally, as well as for anyone preparing to teach a course on NRMs. Individual chapters could be productively assigned in an undergraduate classroom."

- Elijah Siegler, College of Charleston

"this book is fun, and even a bit nostalgic, for those of us who came of age academically during the 1980s and 1990s […] Ashcraft’s book will also give solid historical grounding to the generations of scholars studying new religions in the future."

- Jon R. Stone, California State University–Long Beach

"This charming and well-crafted historical account is wholeheartedly recommended to everyone in the field."

- Lukas Pokorny, University of Vienna, Religious Studies Review

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Early Scholarship

3 NRM Studies: From 1965 to 1979

4 Bringing People Together

5 Cultic Studies

6 NRM Studies in the 1980s and early 1990s: Responding to Cultic Studies

7 Violence and NRM Studies

8 Gender: Past and Present

9 Fieldwork and NRM Studies

10 Conclusion: The Present and Future in NRM Studies

About the Author

W. Michael Ashcraft is Professor of Religion in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Truman State University, USA. He has published a monograph entitled The Dawn of the New Cycle (2002) and serves as an Editorial Consultant for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. He has also been part of the New Religious Movements Group of the American Academy of Religion for many years, spending six of those years as the chair.

About the Series

Routledge New Religions

The popularity and significance of New Religious Movements is reflected in the explosion of related articles and books now being published. This series offers an invaluable resource and lasting contribution to the field.

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
REFERENCE / Research
RELIGION / General
RELIGION / Comparative Religion
RELIGION / Sexuality & Gender Studies
RELIGION / Paganism & Neo-Paganism
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology of Religion