by Ruth Tucker
This documented report reveals the extent of the worldwide expansion of contemporary religious cults.
Rarotonga. A tiny island in the South Seas. Hardly a strategic mission center of Christianity, but significant just the same. This tropical paradise had the unique distinction of being served by two great nineteenth-century missionaries who were later martyred in other areas of the Pacific. John Williams, the great "Apostle of the South Seas," served with distinction for some years there. Later, James Chalmers, known better for his pioneering work in New Guinea, also ministered for a decade on Rarotonga. Christianity made an indelible change in that little island. Some of the native Christian leaders left their families and homes to carry the gospel to other islands. Rarotonga — a tiny island — but important enough for the Christian church a century ago to send two of its very best men.
Missionary work continues in Rarotonga today, but unfortunately not always in the same tradition that it began nearly two centuries ago. Recently a new missionary couple was commissioned to that island. The Buchins, like so many nineteenth-century missionaries to the South Sea islanders, are native to the South Seas themselves. A recent article about them in their church magazine tells about their heritage and ministry. "The Buchins and their three children are…committed to the people of the island of Rarotonga …Brother Buchin, a native of Tahiti, and Sister Teina, a native of the Cook islands, met in Tahiti where Sister Teina joined the church. Since then, they both have been devout and active members of the church. They lived in Tahiti until this year when they decided to go to the Cook islands to share the gospel and to live among the people of the islands."
On the surface it sounds great. A native of Tahiti (where Christianity made such a profound impact after the arrival of the missionaries of the London Missionary Society in the late eighteenth century) and his wife and children willing and eager to undertake cross-cultural evangelism — to "share the gospel" with the people of Rarotonga. But what "gospel" are the Buchins sharing? The Buchins, like many other missionaries in the South Seas, are members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints-not the giant LDS church based in Salt Lake City, but the much smaller Mormon church based in Independence, Missouri. Like its much larger cousin, the RLDS has extensive missionary work throughout the world. According to RLDS literature, "sharing the good news of God’s redemption and care for all persons" is "the central purpose of the church."
But if the RLDS with its quarter-million membership in some 30 countries is a threat to our Christian missionary heritage, how much more a threat is the five-million-member LDS church. The Utah Mormons share with the RLDS a strong missionary heritage. In the earliest days of the movement, Joseph Smith was deeply concerned that the Mormon message be carried far and wide. The American Indians were his immediate concern, but missionaries were also sent overseas during those early years. The RLDS and the Utah Mormons both look to Joseph Smith as their founder. They share some of the same extra-biblical scriptures which uphold Smith’s emphasis on missions. A verse from Doctrine and Covenants 154:4 is displayed prominently on the cover of a missions booklet published by the RLDS:". . . Continue to pursue the strategies and methods by which the missionary work may be promoted and my gospel most meaningfully communicated to the world."
The admonition to "pursue strategies and methods by which the missionary work may be promoted and…meaningfully communicated" is taken very seriously by Mormons. In 1982 an average of 627 new members were added daily to the church role. By the year 2000, Mormon leaders project that their membership of five million will have doubled. Maybe the world is only beginning to see the fulfillment of Leo Tolstoy’s prophecy: "If Mormonism is able to endure unmodified until it reaches the third or fourth generation, it is destined to become the greatest power the world has ever known."
Why are Mormons so successful in their missionary endeavors? What strategies do they employ? Although some major changes have been made in recent years, Mormon missionary strategy today is in many ways very similar to what it was 150 years ago. Mormon missionaries enter an area in teams and attempt to saturate it, family-by-family, with the "restored gospel." A common practice then and now is proselytizing-particularly among nominal Christians who are not firmly rooted in their faith.
This method was evident in the early years, especially in Denmark, one of the Mormons’ most productive mission fields. The first mission to that country was begun in 1850 by Apostle Erastus Snow and three other missionaries. Soon after they arrived in Copenhagen, the foursome began attending a local Baptist church. One of the early Mormon converts, who later turned away from the faith, wrote of how the converts were won:
One Sunday we saw…four strangers enter the meeting hall and sit down near the doorway. No one paid any further attention to them or had any slightest inkling as yet regarding their intentions. But the sober, almost deferential piety which they showed, in common with all Americans, at religious services, gave rise to a favorable opinion of them. They came frequently, made the acquaintance of the pastor and many members of the congregation, and gained admission to their houses, and then began little by little to speak about their mission and they preached their new gospel. Their narrations concerning the miraculous call of the new prophet and his revelations naturally awakened great interest and discussion, and so Pastor Monster proceeded to an investigation of the matter. But Apostle Snow handled him so cleverly that he himself, without actually becoming a Mormon, seemed for a time to be altogether drawn in that direction and convinced of the divine calling of the new prophet….
The teachings of the missionaries found a fruitful soil among the Baptists. There was even talk of entire congregations going over to Mormonism, with Pastor Monster as their head. It did not actually go that far, but many did convert to the doctrine of the new apostle, and a new denomination was speedily organized under the name of "The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints."
In 1851, the Book of Mormon was translated into Danish. By 1853 the work in Denmark had grown to the point that it was divided into six branches. The work continued unabated in Denmark. By the mid-1960s there were 180 Mormon missionaries assigned to that one country.
The style of the early Mormon missionaries in Denmark is not so different from the style of Mormon missionaries today, but the overall program of missions in the LDS church has changed considerably, especially in the last few decades. The church has made a concerted effort to bring uniformity to its vast missionary outreach. Uniform methods of evangelism, uniform lesson plans, and uniform "rules of study, prayer, work hours, etc., are followed by all missionaries," writes R. Lanier Britsch, a missiologist from Brigham Young University. Why? "The church has found that young missionaries usually succeed best in a fairly structured situation."
As important as the emphasis on structured uniformity has been, an even greater boost to LDS missions has been the enthusiasm of the church’s current president. According to Britsch, "the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, which began in late December of 1973, has proved to be the most dynamic missionary period in LDS history." During his first term in office in 1974, the church sponsored approximately 17,000 missionaries. By 1981 that figure had peaked at approximately 30,000. The phenomenal church growth that accompanied this upsurge in missionaries was seen all over the world, mostly in Europe, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, and the Philippines.
Mormon work in the Philippines is truly a showpiece of church growth. It began just a couple of decades ago, in 1961, with six male missionaries. Two decades of persistent work resulted in a Filipino church of some 60,000 members. The two years following witnessed an additional 50 percent increase, bringing the total church membership to 90,000 in 1983. During that 22-year period approximately 3,000 Mormon missionaries put in their time in the Philippines, two-thirds of them from the United States.
The Philippines is only one example of rapid church growth demonstrated by the Mormon missionary machine. Even more startling are the statistics for church growth in South America and Mexico. Mormon work began in Mexico over a century ago in 1879. It was started by Moses Thatcher, one of the church’s twelve apostles at that time, but after a decade of setbacks the work was discontinued and did not have a continuous staying power until well into the twentieth century. By 1970, Mormon membership in Mexico had reached 75,000-a healthy but less than phenomenal growth rate. But all that changed during the decade of the 1970s. In 10 years the size had jumped to 257,000, an increase of 243 percent. In acknowledgement of great strides that were being made in Mexico, Mormon President Spencer W. Kimball announced in 1976 plans to build in Mexico city the church’s twenty-third temple.
How can such rapid church growth be explained? Are Mormons simply stealing converts from other religious groups, as apparently was the case in Denmark during the early years? Such strategy may account for some of the growth, but far more important is the commitment to missions by the church at large and by individual missionaries. In the words of Spencer Kimball, "Every boy and many girls and couples should serve missions. Every prospective missionary should prepare morally, spiritually, mentally, and financially all of his life in order to serve faithfully, efficiently and well in the Great Program of Missionary work. … A mission is not only a privilege and an opportunity but a solemn duty and obligation."
When they reach 19, Mormon men are strongly encouraged to enter missionary service. Young women are permitted to begin such service at the age of 21. In recent years they have been volunteering in greater and greater numbers. All missionaries are expected to be self-supporting, and many Mormon families begin saving for this expenditure when children are young. The typical term of service extends 18 months, though 12- and six-month terms are also permitted.
After the candidate has been accepted for service (determined worthy and "morally clean" after an extensive interview), he attends language school at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. This intensive two-month training period not only includes basic language study for cross-cultural communication, but also learning and memorizing the lessons in the missionary handbook, which includes more than 200 pages of instruction and sample dialogue.
Once on the field, the trainee is obviously not prepared to jump into cross-cultural evangelistic work, but he quickly learns through on-the-job training. According to missiologist R. Lanier Britsch, "Most Mormon missionaries proselyte full-time, i.e., 60 to 70 hours a week. Proselyting missionaries use several methods or combinations of methods in establishing contacts or teaching situations. House-to-house tracting, that is, knocking on doors and leaving printed information, is the most common approach. Street meetings are still used occasionally in some missions. Referrals by members who introduce the contact to the missionaries is the most successful teaching method.
Other variations of approach abound." After following a regulated schedule for a week, the missionary and his trainee "should have spent at least 25 hours in ‘tracting’ sold 12 copies of the Book of Mormon, conducted six discussion sessions, and contacted 300 people." It is this kind of energy, then, that makes the Mormon missionary program what it is.
Yet, despite the appearance of flawless precision, the Mormon mission is not without problems. Even though the length of the missionary term has been shortened in recent years, there are still drop-outs-young men and women who simply cannot endure the rigor required for such an intensive evangelistic effort. There is tremendous pressure for each missionary to win at least six converts each year. And what about the "converts"? Are they truly committed to the Mormon faith? In many instances they are not. As imposing as Mormon missions may seem to be, and as rapid a growth rate as the church claims, underneath the facade, there are some real problems.
In 1981 Kenneth Woodward wrote an article in Newsweek on Mormon missions, in which he maintained that "the number and duration of conversions are highly ephemeral." He interviewed a former zone leader in Bolivia who admitted that dozens of Indian families were baptized by a Mormon missionary and later rebaptized by the next missionary on the circuit. "Another Mormon problem," writes Woodward, "is ‘Dolly baptisms’-teen-age girls who are more attracted by the missionaries than by the Holy Spirit and hope to come to the United States as wives."
Woodward also noted that Mormons find that "The best candidates for conversion are the poor, the uprooted, and those in any culture who are discontented with their social status."" Perhaps because of the rebaptisms, "Dolly baptisms," and the concentration among the poor and uprooted, it is difficult for the Mormon church to arrive at accurate church growth statistics. For whatever reason, there have been gross discrepancies in published figures. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the Mormons are increasing at a rapid rate in Latin America and elsewhere throughout the world.
David Barrett, in his massive World Christian Encyclopedia, makes note of the Mormon outreach in the Pacific Islands, and particularly in Western Samoa: "Their growth has been extraordinarily rapid," with an increase from 4.2 percent of the population in 1945 to 7.8 percent of the population in 1971. "However, the church itself claimed much larger numbers (15 percent in 1970), reflecting the large number of Congregationalists attending Mormon activities and becoming Mormons."
The Mormons are certainly not alone among the cults in their rapid growth rate. During the decade of the 1970s, the Jehovah’s Witnesses surpassed them with a worldwide growth rate of 45 percent, as compared to a healthy 35 percent growth rate among Mormons. The 1984 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, like the yearbooks from previous years, shows significant increases all over the world. Missionaries serving on more than 200 mission fields were responsible for more than 161,896 baptisms in 1983. A total of 436,720,991 hours were spent by Jehovah’s Witnesses in their outreach ministries. In some countries the growth was very slow-most notably the Arab countries of Syria and Jordon, where there was recorded one and three baptisms, respectively, despite a total of some 12,000 hours logged. In Morocco there was one baptism for 19,124 hours tallied.
The most fruitful areas of the world for Jehovah’s Witnesses were Mexico and South America. Mexico produced some 13,000 baptisms, with an average of 1,729 hours expended per baptism. Brazil had even better statistics, with 11,649 baptisms and only 1,584 hours per baptism. Japan, too, saw a tremendous increase, with nearly 9,000 baptisms, but they took nearly 4,000 hours.
The rapid growth of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a direct result of calculated number of hours spent in "publishing," the term the organization uses for its evangelistic outreach. An average of 2,000 to 3,000 hours of work is expended for each baptism. Most of the "publishers" (individuals who spend 90 hours a month or more witnessing) are not in full-time church service. Indeed, the vast majority work full-time in addition to their outreach activities. This is true on the foreign mission field as well as in the United States. Nationals are expected quickly to further the work in their respective countries.
There are full-time missionaries, however, and they are indispensable to the foreign missionary outreach. According to the 1982 Yearbook of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the training for full-time missionaries began in 1943 at the Gilead Training School, located in Lansing, N.Y. To date, some 7,000 have graduated and a high percentage of those have served or are presently serving in more than 100 countries throughout the world. In 1980 an extension school was established in Mexico, and in 1981, after just one year of classes, the enrollment nearly equalled that of the New York school.
As important as the personal witness is in promoting Watchtower theology worldwide, it is the printed word that is given the greatest priority. Hundreds of millions of pieces of literature are distributed each year. Literature is printed in more than 100 languages from branch printing establishments located all over the world.
Wherever they have gone, Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced intense opposition. This has been particularly true in some African countries, where both nationals and foreign missionaries have been severely persecuted. Nationals face particular hostility because of their refusal to take part in independence movements, join political parties, or salute the national flag. In the early 1970s the African country of Malawi encouraged open and official persecution of the "devil’s witnesses," as they were described by president Banda. According to a Newsweek article in 1976, "Jehovah’s Witnesses have reportedly been hacked to death, gang-raped and forced to walk with nails through their feet. Thousands of Witnesses have fled to neighboring Zambia and Mozambique, only to be deported back to Malawi."
The bloody persecution that Witnesses faced in Malawi has not been the norm, but opposition in one form or another has been commonplace. In the South Seas, JW missionaries entered under the pretense of secular workers. Donald Clare, a graduate of Gilead, was assigned missionary work in Fiji with three other Gilead graduates. He later told of the "surprise we received when we were asked to take up secular work in order to get into the colony of Fiji." The four missionaries were instructed to "enter as tourists and then endeavor to obtain secular work….They were instructed not to attend meetings for some months and to witness only out of town to avoid drawing attention to themselves."
In Tonga, "because of the strong influence of the Methodist and Roman Catholic religions, no Witness missionaries were allowed to enter the country, and no brothers from other places could get into the country to help the local publishers. "So," according to the editors of the 1984 Yearbook, "the Witnesses in Tonga have had to develop largely on their own."
As with other missionaries to the South Seas, the Witnesses confronted problems in dealing with the native lifestyle. "A large number of brothers and sisters had to be disfellowshipped for sexual immorality. In Western Samoa such immorality is freely practiced, and a number of special pioneers and servants had to be removed for such misconduct."
In Tahiti there were similar problems. "Big changes had to be made in the lives of these lovable island folk for them to conform to the Bible’s requirements for Christians. Consider, for example, a 42-year-old woman who had given birth to 14 children out of wedlock before finding the truth. She was living with a man to whom she was not married. She decided to straighten out her life….She and one of her daughters were baptized. Now her other children and grandchildren are also proclaiming the good news."
So, the JW mission program moves forward in the South Seas and elsewhere, despite the knotty problems inherent in cross-cultural evangelism. The strong stand against moral improprieties has seemingly only served to strengthen the movement worldwide.
Unlike the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science does not have an extensive missionary program. The church has expanded worldwide, but has fewer than 1,000 congregations outside the United States. The church sponsors no full-time missionaries, though church members are expected to share their faith with others through personal contacts. It has been through this means that Christian Science has developed worldwide. If a member of the Church of Christ Scientist is living abroad, he or she may initiate a local study group, and then start a church.
Yet, Christian Science does make a concerted effort to reach out beyond the borders of the United States. Mary Baker Eddy herself laid the groundwork for this. According to Irving Tomlinson, in his Twelve Years with Mary Baker Eddy, "She had a breadth of vision that was worldwide. Her love was broad and expanding, encircling all mankind."
Christian Science mission endeavors do not use the conventional methods most commonly used by evangelicals. According to one of their own publications, "The religious periodicals help to fulfill this missionary function; so do the Reading Rooms, and the literature distribution committees of branch churches….But there are other means, too. While the Mother Church does not maintain missionaries, it does maintain a board of about 28 lecturers who travel all over the world wherever Christian Science groups are located." These lecturers "deliver an aggregate of about 4,000 public lectures" annually. "The groups they address cover a tremendous range-from a cultivated audience in a lecture hall at Oxford or Cambridge to a group of barefoot natives clustered around an outdoor platform on an island off southeast Asia."
Despite its effort to expand through traveling lecturers and literature, Christian Science has actually declined over the past decades in certain areas of the world. In New Zealand, for example, David Barrett notes that it has decreased in actual size and in percentage of the total population since 1951.
The Way International
Like the other cults, most of those that developed during the twentieth century have worldwide missionary programs. Some of the most recent ones, such as the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, are disorganized in their foreign ministries, and accurate statistics are difficult to find. Most of the newer cults do not send missionaries out in the traditional sense, as "lifers" supported by congregations on the home field. Short-term teams are frequently used with varying degrees of success.
This is true of The Way International, founded by Victor Paul Wierwille in the late 1950s. Recent correspondence from The Way College of Biblical Research in Rome City, Indiana, outlines that cult’s concept of foreign missions.
We do not believe in missionary programs. We feel that the Word clearly states that every believer is responsible to speak God’s Word and bring people to Christ. We are an international ministry, not because we have a mission program, but because our people so love God that they speak of Him wherever they go.
Most of the outreach in our sister countries has come in one of three ways. First, it comes from winning a foreign student in college in this country who goes home and takes the Word with him. Secondly, it comes from U.S. servicemen stationed overseas, speaking the Word in the course of their daily activities. Lastly, it comes from students who go and study abroad.
But while The Way International would seek to play down its missionary activity, its missionary emphasis is very strong. Writes Walter Martin, "the missionary zeal of the cults is tremendous, and the missionary activities of The Way are no exception." The Way sends out some 2,000 "missionaries" (known as WOW-"The Word Over the World"-ambassadors) each year and has adherents in more than 70 countries.
What is the basis for this strong emphasis on personal evangelism? It comes right out of the writings of the cult’s charismatic founder, Victor Wierwille, and he cites the Bible as his source:
In two years and three months all Asia Minor heard the Word of God. In our day and time, with our multi-million dollars spent for foreign missions, publications, newspapers, radios, televisions and all other media, this event has never been repeated. We have never reached all Asia Minor with the Word of God in one generation. But the Apostle Paul and a handful of believers accomplished the feat in two years and three months.
All Asia Minor was revived by the ministry of one man. When The Word again becomes real, revival will break out again. People will be saved without newspapers, without radio, without television, without the cooperation of all the churches of a community.
Like The Way International, the Hare Krishnas have a worldwide emphasis in their name-the official name of the group being the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. According to William Peterson, author of Those Curious New Cults in the 80s, "Krishna followers have invaded Africa," and "on the busy street corners of almost every major city in … Europe, you could see them chanting, dancing, swaying to the drumbeat of their mantra."
The cult has its origins in India, but was not founded as a distinct organization until 1965 when Prabhupada, a Hindu swami, emigrated to America and set up shop in Greenwich Village. Once the group was established in New York City, it gained a following in San Francisco and other major American cities. Chanting and dancing in the streets and airport "evangelism" combined to get the message out. "Soon Krishna Consciousness spread across the Atlantic to Europe. Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Copenhagen and other major cities became very much aware of the strange new American missionaries with their strange new religion."
Today there are ISKCON centers all over the world, and in very recent years there has been a strong emphasis on Latin America. In 1982 "His Divine Grace Pancadravida Swami" was named spiritual master and was assigned to oversee the affairs of the Hare Krishna movement in Mexico, Central and South America. His previous experience had included missionary work in Argentina, Thailand, and India.
Hare Krishnas have penetrated harsh environments in their effort to spread their message. Since 1977 they have been active in Iran, first with only a vegetarian restaurant in downtown Tehran, and later expanding the ministry to include a five-acre farm outside the city. After that they opened a temple and a publishing branch in the city. How do they manage to remain in such a hostile Islamic environment? "Through the months of political turmoil, the devotees continued their distribution of sanctified food (prasadam) and their work of propagating love of God according to the teachings of the Bhagavadgita."
Hong Kong, like Tehran, has a branch of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Recently that branch announced the completion of a significant project-the publication of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is (the Hare Krishna bible) in Chinese. It was a five-year translation project by a Krishna devotee based in Hong Kong. The significance? Says the translator, "Although China and India are neighbors, very little of the rich spiritual tradition of India has penetrated China, largely because of the language barrier. Now that impediment has been removed-and the significance for the spiritual development of China cannot be overestimated."
The message of Hare Krishna is spread through many means, most notably through the temples, vegetarian restaurants, and through publishing. But there are also some rather unique individual efforts to foster the missionary endeavor, and one of those is being conducted in the Hawaiian Islands. Some years ago, Narahari, the president of the Krishna temple in Honolulu, placed an advertisement in a sailing magazine that read, "ISKCON, a nonprofit, charitable organization, needs a boat to reach needy people in remote parts of the world." The man who answered the ad had no idea of what ISKCON stood for, but he had "a beautiful 53-foot teakwood ketch that he wanted to donate to a worthy charitable organization." After two meetings and lengthy explanations of what the movement was all about, the man agreed to transfer the title to ISKCON.
But why did the Hare Krishnas need a boat? Narahari had a ready answer: "The founders of this movement wanted to distribute love of God to every town and village in the world. In other areas our members go by foot, car, train, bus, and in India by bullock cart. But in the Hawaiian Islands the most practical way to travel is by boat. Not by motorboat, since fuel is short, but by sailboat. We can dock at remote ports, conduct seminars, hold festivals, present educational programs, and in that way introduce this very ancient science of God consciousness to people who would otherwise never hear of it."
The Hare Krishna Hawaiian work began in 1970, and it grew steadily after that. After the sailboat project was underway, the development of a 100-acre farm was the next project to be undertaken. Of the work there one devotee wrote: "These three dynamic preaching programs — the boat, the temple, and the new farm — make us confident that Krishna consciousness will continue to blossom in Hawaii."
Worldwide Church of God
Another cult with an international emphasis in its title is the Worldwide Church of God. Founded in 1934 by Herbert W. Armstrong, this cult has been sending missionaries out from its American-based colleges for decades. More important than actual missionaries, however, are the media appeals through radio, television, and literature, that reach an estimated 150 million people.
The evangelistic style is not a hard-sell approach. The appeal is rather for moral and family values. According to a church publication, "millions have experienced changes in their marital lives through our broadcasts and through reading the instructional booklets and magazine articles they have received. From New Zealand to Africa, and from the Swiss Alps to Puget Sound, tens of thousands write of the deep and far-reaching changes effected in their homes and families through a better understanding of God-revealed ways of right, clean, wholesome living."
In African countries and elsewhere throughout the world, radio broadcasts are frequently coordinated with literature campaigns, and issues such as crime and violence are used to stir up interest. Then an ever-so-subtle pitch for the religion itself is thrust on the unwary seeker.
Another very effective method of gaining converts is through the lure of an education in America. Isaiah Issong, a young Nigerian, tells of this strategy and how he himself was nearly sucked into the trap. "Ambassador College has been an arm of Armstrong’s dragnet….Most of our Nigerian students who obtain their scholarships into the Ambassador College do not . . . realize that the Worldwide Church of God is never a true chu