J. Gordon Melton
John Gordon Melton
September 19, 1942
|Alma mater||Birmingham Southern College, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Northwestern University|
|Fields||Religion, American religious history, new religious movements|
John Gordon Melton (born September 19, 1942) is an American religious scholar who was the founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and is currently the Distinguished Professor of American Religious History with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he resides. He is also an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.
Melton is the author of more than forty-five books, including several encyclopedias, handbooks, and scholarly textbooks on American religious history, Methodism, world religions, and new religious movements (NRMs). His areas of research include major religious traditions, American Methodism, new and alternative religions, Western Esotericism (popularly called occultism) and parapsychology, New Age, and Dracula and vampire studies. He has been an advocate of religious freedom and was involved in the scholarly debates on the legitimacy of some NRMs and in establishing the field of new religion studies in academia.
Melton was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Burnum Edgar Melton and Inez Parker. During his senior year in high school he came across The Small Sects in America by Elmer T. Clark and became interested in reading as much as possible on alternative religions.
In 1964 he graduated from Birmingham Southern College with the B.A. degree and then proceeded to theological studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, from which he received an M.Div. with a concentration in church history in 1968. He married Dorothea Dudley in 1966, with one daughter, Melanie. The marriage ended in divorce in 1979. His second wife is named Suzie.
In 1968, Melton was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist church, an appointment he retains to this day. He was the pastor of the United Methodist church in Wyanet, Illinois (1974–75), and then at Evanston, Illinois (1975–80). He was also a member of the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship.
Melton pursued further graduate studies at Northwestern University where he received his Ph.D. in 1975 in the History and Literature of Religions with a specialty in American history. His doctoral dissertation surveyed some 800 religious groups known to exist in the United States at the time and led to the development of a classification system that has come to be widely used.
Much of Melton's professional career has involved literary and field research into alternative and minority religious bodies. In taking his cue from the writings of Elmer Clark, Melton has spent much of his career identifying, counting and classifying the many different churches, major religious traditions, and new and alternative religions found in North America. His Encyclopedia of American Religions, which was originally published in 1978 (ninth ed. 2016), has become the standard reference work in the field.
Other noteworthy reference works include his Biographical Dictionary of American Cult and Sect Leaders, Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, New Age Almanac, and Prime-time Religion (co-authored with Phillip Charles Lucas and Jon R. Stone). He has also acted as the series editor for six multi-volume series of reference books: American Religious Creeds, Religions of the World, The Churches Speak, Cults and New Religions, Sects and Cults in America Bibliographical Guides, and Religious Information Systems Series.
He is a contributor to academic journals such as Syzygy, and Nova Religio. He has also contributed chapters to various multi-authored books on new religions, and articles in many other reference works, handbooks and encyclopedias of religion. He has contributed 15 Micropædia articles, generally on religious organizations or movements: Aum Shinrikyo, Branch Davidian, Christian Science, Church Universal, Eckankar, Evangelical Church, The Family, Hare Krishna, Heaven's Gate, Jehovah's Witnesses, New Age Movement, Pentecostalism, People's Temple, Scientology, and Wicca.
Melton's major emphasis has been on collating primary source data on religious groups and movements. His approach to research is shaped by his training both in church and religious history and in the phenomenology of religion. His methodology has followed that of a historian seeking primary source literature, and so he has generally made direct, personal contact with the leaders or official representatives of a church or religious group. The purpose of such contact has been to obtain the group's main religious literature to ascertain their principal teachings and practices. His inquiries also comprise, gathering membership statistics, details of the group's history and so forth. He then incorporates these details profiles that form the basis for reference texts like the Encyclopedia of American Religions.
Melton uses a group's religious texts as the essential mainstay for reporting about a group before then proceeding to scholarly questions and analysis about wider social, religious and historical contexts.
Melton is one of the first scholars to draw a distinction between the Christian countercult and the secular anti-cult movements. In his Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America he articulated the distinction on the grounds that the two movements operate with very different epistemologies, motives and methods. He was urged to make this distinction in the course of a formal dialogue with evangelical sociologist Ronald Enroth and after conversations with Eric Pement of Cornerstone magazine (Chicago). This distinction has been subsequently acknowledged by sociologists such as Douglas E. Cowan and Eileen Barker.
Melton is a prominent critic of both the anti-cult movement and some Christian countercult organizations. Some of Melton's criticisms concerning the secular anti-cult movement revolve around his rejection of the concept of brainwashing as an explanation of religious conversion and indoctrination. During the 1970s and 1980s he was a prominent opponent of the controversial methods of deprogramming. He argued that deprogramming violated civil liberties and the religious freedom principles guaranteed in the US Constitution and that the efficacy of deprogramming or counter-brainwashing stratagems was doubtful.
Melton has argued that countercult apologists frequently misrepresent the teachings of those they critique:
My encounter with many Evangelical Christians who write about other religions has, to some extent, helped shape my life's work. However, over the years I have been mostly disappointed with the Christian writing in this area. Instead of attempting to understand the teachings of a group, too frequently writers only compared quotes from the group's literature with biblical passages, both often out of context. Then, as I began to visit the groups, I often encountered the anger at the church many members had because of Christian writers who had written supposedly authoritative books but who had distorted members' positions and had condemned them for believing things they had never taught ... I have always thought the church deserved better, and many years ago I committed myself to providing it with the information it needed both to live at peace with its new neighbors and to carry on its missional life with a high level of integrity.
Melton challenges the validity of many anti-NRM sources and testimonies of former members (which he refers to as apostates) critical of their previous groups. While testifying as an expert witness in a lawsuit, Melton asserted that when investigating groups, one should not rely solely upon the unverified testimony of ex-members, and that hostile ex-members would invariably shade the truth and blow out of proportion minor incidents turning them into major incidents. Melton also follows the argumentation of Lewis Carter and David Bromley and claims that as a result of their study, the treatment (coerced or voluntary) of former members as people in need of psychological assistance largely ceased and that an (alleged) lack of widespread need for psychological help by former members of new religions would in itself be the strongest evidence refuting early sweeping condemnations of new religions as causes of psychological trauma. This view is shared by several religious scholars, and contested by others (see also "Criticism").
In a paper presented at the conference on "New Age in the Old World" held at the Institut Oecumenique de Bossey, Céligny, Switzerland, Melton presented his views on the New Age movement, stating that it led to a dramatic growth of the older occult/metaphysical community, and created a much more positive image for occultism in Western culture. He stated that the New Age movement itself had died after its promises of a new age of enlightenment failed to materialize but that the community of people it brought together has grown to be "one of the most important minority faith communities in the West."
From his college days, Melton developed an interest in the subject of vampires, which he has since pursued in his leisure time. Melton has researched the history of vampires, as well as the study of contemporary vampiric groups and rites. In 1983 he served as editor for Vampires Unearthed by Martin Riccardo, the first comprehensive bibliography of English-language vampire literature. In 1994 he completed The Vampire Book: An Encyclopedia of the Undead. He has also written The Vampire Gallery: A Who's Who of the Undead and most recently The Vampire in Folklore, History, Literature, Film and Television: A Comprehensive Bibliography (2016).
In 1997, Melton, Massimo Introvigne and Elizabeth Miller organized an event at the Westin Hotel in Los Angeles where 1,500 attendees (some dressed as vampires) came for a "creative writing contest, Gothic rock music and theatrical performances." In the TSD annual colloquium, "Therapy and Magic in Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' and beyond" held in Romania in 2004, it was announced that Melton and Introvigne would be participating in the TSD conference "Buffy, the vampire slayer", in Nashville, TN in 2004. Melton was identified as the "Count Dracula Ambassador to the U.S". Melton was the president of the American chapter (now defunct) The Transylvanian Society of Dracula (TSD), an international organization of Dracula and vampire studies scholars and researchers, (which disbanded in 2016).
Melton, together with a group of scholars and the American Psychological Association, submitted on February 10, 1987 an amicus curiæ brief in a pending case before the California Supreme Court related to the Unification Church. The brief stated that hypotheses of brainwashing and coercive persuasion were uninformed speculations based on skewed data. The brief characterized the theory of brainwashing as not scientifically proven and advanced the position that "commitment to advancing the appropriate use of psychological testimony in the courts carries with it the concomitant duty to be vigilant against those who would use purportedly expert testimony lacking scientific and methodological rigor."
In May 1995, in the early stages of investigations into the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, Melton, fellow scholar James R. Lewis and religious freedom lawyer Barry Fisher flew to Japan to voice concern that police behaviour, including mass detentions without charge and the removal of practitioners' children from the group, might be infringing the civil rights of Aum Shinrikyo members. They had travelled to Japan at the invitation and expense of Aum Shinrikyo after they had contacted the group to express concern over developments, and met with officials over a period of three days. While not having been given access to the group's chemical laboratories, they held press conferences in Japan stating their belief, based on the documentation they had been given by the group, that the group did not have the ability to produce sarin and was being scapegoated. Melton revised his judgment shortly after, concluding that the group had in fact been responsible for the attack and other crimes. Some felt that the scholars' defense of Aum Shinrikyo led to a crisis of confidence in religious scholarship when the group's culpability was proven.
Melton's scholarly works concentrate on the phenomenology and not the theology of NRMs. Some Christian countercultists criticize Melton for not critiquing the groups he reports on from an evangelical perspective, arguing that his failure to do so is incompatible with his statements of professed evangelicalism. Some secular anti-cultists who feel that new religious movements are dangerous and that scholars should actively work against them have likewise criticized him. Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs, for example, characterized Gordon Melton, James R. Lewis, and Anson Shupe as biased towards the groups they study. In non-scholarly writings, Melton has recommended that Christian churches should examine new religions in terms of evangelization, and he sees his work as a means to facilitate that end.
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