A souvenir sweat shirt from the 1977 Pan Pagan Festival hangs from one wall of the Rev. J. Gordon Melton’s library in Evanston, Ill. A portrait of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy glowers from another. Stacked about the orange-and-purple rectory garret (“Two teenagers lived here before me,” Melton apologizes) are some 20,000 volumes of religious history and esoterica. To these offbeat quarters, home of Melton’s Institute for the Study of American Religion, come scholars, churchmen, anxious parents whose children have joined cults, even inquiries from a curious Pentagon.
Patiently, the soft-spoken Methodist fields all of their questions. Yes, there has been a wave of cattle mutilations in the West and Midwest, but none have been definitely connected to cults. No, there is nothing in the credo of witches and Satanists that would prevent them from serving in the U.S. armed forces. As author and principal researcher of the two-volume Encyclopedia of American Religions, Melton, 37, has traveled almost everywhere in the U.S. and witnessed the rituals of practically every religion. He worshiped with the late Jim Jones long before Jonestown and with the Church of All Worlds, nature lovers who revere boa constrictors and crocodiles. “At one meeting,” Melton recalls with a smile, “my wife and I were the only two people there who had clothes on.”
Because of such experiences, Melton is not easily shocked. “There are some strange things going on in some of these sects,” he concedes, “but the weirdness is largely exaggerated. For example, there is absolutely no evidence that kids in Hare Krishna temples are deprived of sleep or food. It’s like any dormitory group—the kids stay up late talking. About the worst thing you can say about the majority of these religions is that they are shallow, ineffective and won’t be around very long.”
Most new religions contain the seeds of their own obsolescence, says Melton; youthful enthusiasm fades when the adherents are faced with the responsibilities of raising families. Ironically, he adds, some sects are kept alive by the ferocity of society’s opposition to them. “Deprogramming,” Melton complains, “is the only time in the whole cult issue when people are actually locked up and coerced into a new belief system. It widens the gap between generations. It assumes the deprogrammer knows what’s good for a kid better than the kid does himself, and it hits some deep levels of the human psyche. Most of the deprogrammed kids I’ve talked with have required extensive psychotherapy.”
Melton’s 1978 encyclopedia lists some 1,200 religions but already needs extensive updating. “Since we finished it, 70 fringe groups have disappeared but I’ve learned about more than 120 new groups,” he says. “We’ve just come through one of our cyclical revivals, and now the system is shaking itself down again.” Though many new religions are of urban origin (“In a big city you can stand on any street corner and find someone who’ll follow you”), fewer than might be expected come from California. “A number of groups started in the Midwest,” says Melton. “Scientology in Wichita, Jim Jones in Indianapolis. Right now we’re in a real revival of witchcraft and magick [spelled thus to distinguish it from show-business trickery], a significant tradition dating back to the colonies. Witches,” he adds, “are the most misunderstood group in the country today. They are much more into sex and the outdoors than Satan.”
Melton’s fascination with offbeat religions dates back to his childhood in Birmingham, Ala., where many of his relatives were Jehovah’s Witnesses or belonged to various Pentecostal groups. Later, while studying geology at little Birmingham Southern College, he began writing to obscure sects all over the U.S. asking for information. By the time he arrived at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, he was an impassioned collector. “I was odd,” he admits, “no doubt about it. My room was nothing but a bed and bookshelves.”
Divorced last year, Melton is living alone once again. Tolerant and without condescension, he regards the groups that he studies with unselfconscious affection. “I have no trouble worshiping anywhere, even on a hillside with yogis,” he says quietly. “I’m a conservative Wesleyan and happy to be that. But the lure is very strong. Everyone has moments in life when he wants to shuck it all and start again. Sometimes when I see someone passing out tracts in an airport, I think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ”