The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements

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George D. Chryssides, Benjamin E. Zeller
Bloomsbury Companions
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     456 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“Companion” provides an apt description of this well-written, accessible, consistently interesting, and provocative reference work. Drawing on the work of both established and early-career scholars, the editors aim to provide “a map of where the scholarship has been and where we hope to see the field go” (xxiiii). To that end, they offer thirty-one essays, ranging from four to around fifteen pages and divided into three sections: “Research Methods and Problems”; “Current Research and Issues”; and “New Directions in the Study of New Religious Movements.” Even the shorter essays will be useful for researchers and especially students who seek an orientation to the topic. But several go well beyond summarizing the current state of research. George D. Chryssides’s essay on “The Insider/Outsider Problem,” for example, constitutes a nuanced contribution not only to the study of new religions, but also to the general study of religion. In fact, many of the essays in this volume show how the study of new religious movements—a field still in its earlier stages—can contribute to the general study of religion, not least on topics like religious leadership, millennialism, and religious violence. Rebecca Moore, James T. Richardson, and David G. Bromley sum up the scholarship on Jonestown and Peoples Temple, conversion and brainwashing, and charisma and leadership, respectively, and provide intriguing reformulations of the issues at stake. In two separate contributions, Megan Goodwin points out how the under-used perspectives of sexuality studies and gender studies can inspire a broad and richly rewarding research agenda in the study of new religions.

Some readers might quibble that topics like children, race and ethnicity, and healing in new religions may not really constitute new directions in the study of new religions, but the essays on those topics (by E. Burke Rochford, Jr., Marie Dallam, and Holly Folk, respectively) indicate that there is plenty of opportunity for further original research in those areas and a real need for comparative work. Essays on “Science” (Benjamin E. Zeller), “Invented Religions” (Carole Cusack), and “Travel” (Alex Norman) sketch out intriguing areas of investigation where much more research can be done. Although the essays generally attend carefully to the global manifestations of new religious movements, in a few cases the focus on a narrow geographical region limits their cross-cultural usefulness. The essay on “Legal Issues,” for example, sticks closely to evidence from the United Kingdom and does not venture into the landmark cases on deprogramming that took place in the United States, or into legal issues in any other countries, which are always shaped by particular local conditions. Some other essays tilt more towards mapping what has already been done rather than towards pointing out new directions for investigation. Nevertheless, the essays in the first three parts of the book will reward and inform virtually any reader who is not a specialist on the specific topic addressed.

In a few more than thirty pages, the fourth part of the book provides what the editors call brief comments on topics that did not receive substantial coverage in the previous parts (319). In many ways those twenty-eight mini-essays on topics such as the anti-cult movement, the term “cult,” food, fundamentalism, institutionalization, meditation, mysticism, prayer, politics, schism, scripture, and syncretism among others, might be the most helpful part of the book for students and general readers. The essays—which are unattributed—are generally crisp, clear, and get directly to the point with a minimum of scholarly apparatus. Many of them are small gems of informed explanation.

The fifth and final section starts with a nine-page chronology that begins with Emanuel Swedenborg receiving his first vision in 1744, and concludes in 2012 with the so-called Mayan 2012 prophecy and the death of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unificationist movement. This section then moves to a list of associations and centers dedicated to the study of new religions or cognate subjects, and lists of websites of “cult awareness” or anti-cult groups, and various new religions themselves. It also provides a brief list of relevant encyclopedias and sourcebooks, and a list of primary source collections and anthologies. All of this material will be especially helpful to students embarking on the study of new religions. Finally, the Companion provides nearly forty-five pages of bibliography, a boon to both beginning students and more advanced researchers.

This volume, then, deserves to be the companion of anyone who studies new religious movements. Though it would not function well as a textbook because of both its selective focus on certain topics and its focus on scholarly issues in the larger essays, it should definitely be in all undergraduate and graduate libraries that support the study of new religious movements.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eugene V. Gallagher is Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies at Connecticut College.

Date of Review: 
August 11, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George D. Chryssides is a Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at York St John University, UK.

Benjamin E. Zeller is Assistant Professor of Religion at Lake Forest College, Chicago, USA.


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