Cult Characteristics according to Hugo Stamm

Swiss journalist Hugo Stamm
The Mormon church is sometimes called a cult. This article examines, from a psychological perspective, the extent to which this characterisation is appropriate. This examination is based on a questionnaire from Swiss journalist Hugo Stamm (1996, pp. 125-128). This questionnaire was selected because Mormonism is not mentioned in Stamm’s book and does not appear to have been a part of his research. Hence, it may be assumed that Stamm’s list is neutral towards Mormonism.

Stamm's questionnaire is divided into 13 categories, each with a number of more specific questions. Click on a category name to expand (or collapse) the underlying questions and their detailed answers. The references can be found on the Sources page of this website.

> Guru / Messiah / Prophet / Founder (3/3)

1. Is the leader dominant and is he the absolute religious and spiritual authority?

Yes. Eldon Tanner, a counselor to former church president Spencer Kimball, made this quite clear: “When the prophet speaks the debate is over” (Tanner 1979). Ezra Taft Benson, who would succeed Kimball as church president, also left little room for doubt as to the absolute authority and infallibility of the head of the church, who he claimed was qualified to speak “on any subject” and would “never lead the church astray” (Benson 1981; see also Costa 2010 and Duncan 2010).

2. Do his followers attribute paranormal or “divine” powers to the leader?

Yes. Mormons believe their prophet is in direct contact with Jesus Christ. Many Mormons believe this contact is face to face and that Jesus regularly appears to the prophet in the Holy of Holies of the temple in Salt Lake City (Packer 1980, p. 4). This illusion is maintained by avoiding direct questions about it and insisting that such experiences are too personal and too holy to talk about (Quinn 1997, pp. 1-6).

3. Is the founder the subject of special devotion or seen as messenger of salvation?

Yes. “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord,” it says about the founder of Mormonism in one of the church’s holy Scriptures, “has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it (Doctrine and Covenants 2013, p. 281). Faith in Joseph Smith is an important condition for church membership and the Mormons believe that nobody who has ever lived after Jesus’ earthly ministry “will ever enter into the celestial kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith” (Millet 1994).
> Absolute Doctrine of Salvation / Redeeming Principle (2/2)

4. Are the members promised absolute spiritual or religious salvation?

Yes. Mormons not only believe they can go to heaven, like in many religions, but also that they can become gods themselves. “Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them” (Doctrine and Covenants 2013, pp. 268-269).

5. Do the adherents believe their doctrine of salvation is the only “truth”?

Yes. The first chapter of the Doctrine and Covenants, which the Mormons consider Jesus’ own preface to that book, states that the Mormon church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 2013, p. 3)

More recently, this notion was confirmed in 2008 by Henry Eyring, then second-in-command to church president Thomas Monson. Upon quoting the scripture above, he elaborated on the reasons why the Mormon church is the only true church on earth: “This is the true Church, the only true Church, because in it are the keys of the priesthood. Only in this Church has the Lord lodged the power to seal on earth and to seal in heaven as He did in the time of the Apostle Peter” (Eyring 2008; see also Oaks 2011; Hinckley 2004; Kimball 1982, p. 421 and McConkie 1966, pp. 80-81 for similar statements).
> Elitism (2/2)

6. Are the adherents convinced they belong to a chosen elite that can save humanity?

Yes. Mormons believe most of them belong to the Biblical tribe of Ephraim (see Genesis 46: 20). “In the last days, Ephraim's descendants have the privilege and responsibility to bear the message of the restoration of the gospel to the world and to gather scattered Israel” (Ludlow 1992, p. 461; see also Ludlow 1991 where it is explained that this Biblical ancestry concerns actual blood lines, not just a symbolic tribal identification).

7. Do they believe they have to save mankind in the name of a higher power or an ideology?

Yes. This conviction is the basis if the Mormon missionary programme. The Mormon urge to save people is so strong, they even feel compelled to save the spirits of the deceased by performing proxy baptisms for the dead and other rituals in their temples.
> Group Pressure / Control of the Membership (3/3)

8. Does the group exert strong pressure on the members

Yes. However, not everybody handles pressure the same way. Pressure can be high but be perceived as low, or vice versa. Nevertheless, a study from 2007 may serve as a clue that some Mormons do experience a lot of pressure. It was found that depression and suicide in the US most frequently occur in states with a relatively high proportion of Mormons (sometimes called the “Mormon Corridor”): Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada and Utah (Mark et al. 2007). A previous study by a pharmaceutical company showed that antidepressant use is highest in Utah (Cart 2002).

Although Mormon culture is presented here as a relevant factor to Mormon Corridor depression and suicide, alternative explanations such as elevation, genetics and pollution have been offered as well (Haws et al. 2009; Coon et al. 2013; Bakian et al. 2015; note that all these articles were published by roughly the same group of authors, advancing all three alternative explanations).

Mormon women in particular sometimes feel enormous pressure to comply with the traditional role model of the perfect mother and wife (Beck 2007). Apparently, many of them only manage this with the help of Prozac and plastic surgery (Ruiz 2007). Dr. Curtis Canning, former president of the Utah Psychiatric Association, called this “the mother in Zion Syndrome”.

9. Are the members controlled with moral pressure or overburdening?

Yes. Mormonism is a religion that lays heavy burdens on its members’ shoulders. The Sunday services alone, for instance, take up three hours. Mormons are also expected to prepare for these services by studying lesson materials in advance and sometimes preparing lay sermons. On top of that, there are leadership meetings (easily two to three hours a week) and social activities (several different activities per week for different subgroups like women, youth or singles, also on Saturdays) to attend. Mormons are also expected to clean and maintain their church buildings and temples.

Then there is the institutional “home teaching” programme, which requires male members to visit with a handful of Mormon families once a month – which also costs family time for those receiving the “home teachers”. An additional programme, called “visiting teaching” exists where women visit each other monthly.

These activities are more or less mandatory for all members, as are various religious tasks to be regularly performed on a more personal level, like studying the Mormon scriptures and praying multiple times a day, individually and as a family.

Anyone who still has time to spare after all this, is not supposed to relax but is encouraged to engage in myriads of other activities designed to “build up the kingdom of God”, such as performing temple rituals, doing genealogical research and recruiting new members.

Mormons are expected to unquestioningly accept every task they are assigned, regardless of their personal abilities, preferences or circumstances. “It is not in the proper spirit for us to decide where we will serve or where we will not. We serve where we are called” (Packer 1997). Giving up when it all becomes too much is not an option either. “You have no right to resign any more than you have to call yourself to the work” (Kimball 1982, p. 479).

10. Is behaviour monitored?

Yes. The home teaching and visiting teaching programmes of the previous question are an example of this: every visit is reported to the leadership. The Mormons’ behaviour is also regularly reviewed during interviews with church leaders who determine a member’s “worthiness” to receive certain assignments and privileges (such as access to the temple).

During such interviews, church leaders verify what members believe, who they have contact with, whether they are loyal to the leadership, whether they make enough financial contributions, whether they attend church meetings and what kind of underwear they wear.

Worthiness interviews are also conducted by male church leaders in a one-on-one setting with children and youth, often focusing on proper dress and sexual purity. Although most local church leaders will not object to having parents present during such interviews, it is not standard operating procedure.
> Isolation from the Outside World (5/5)

11. Do group members change their lifestyle?
12. Do they give up dear habits?
13. Is contact with family, friends and acquaintances reduced?
14. Do they neglect hobbies or leave clubs?
15. Is there hardly any time left besides work for the group?

Yes. Church president Gordon Hinckley once answered all of the above questions in one fell swoop: “It is not an easy thing to become a member of this Church. In most cases it involves setting aside old habits, leaving old friends and associations, and stepping into a new society which is different and somewhat demanding” (Hinckley 1997)

Questions 11-12: Changing one’s lifestyle is “an essential part” of becoming a member of the Mormon church, it says in chapter 11 of the Mormon guide to missionary service Preach My Gospel (2004, p. 195). This entire chapter is devoted to techniques for eliciting commitments from people which lead to drastic lifestyle changes such as: asking only direct yes-or-no questions, promising rewards, excessive complimenting, stalking people to ensure they make good on their commitments, and inducing feelings of guilt if they don’t.

Questions 13-15: This follows directly from president Hinckley’s statement quoted above. It also follows from the answer to question 9 that active participation in church programmes leaves little time for other activities or leisure time.
> Missionary Zeal / Expansion (3/4)

16. Are the group members involved in missionary work?

Yes. The Center for the Global Study of Christianity calculated that “in 2010, Christians from all traditions sent out approximately 400,000 international missionaries” (Christianity in its Global Context 2013). This includes Mormon missionaries (pers. comm. Gina Zurlow, Assistant Director, March 5, 2015) who, in 2010, numbered 52,225 (Hales 2011) or 13% of all Christian missionaries worldwide.

Considering that the official membership number of the Mormon church in 2010 constituted less than one percent of the total number of Christians in that year, the Mormon missionary effort appears excessive. It is 20 times larger than expected based on the official membership numbers and 70 times larger based on the actual, much lower, attendance rates.

At this moment (May 2015), the number of missionaries has risen to 84,000 and is expected by church leaders to reach 100,000 in 2019 (Stack 2015). On top of that, a well-known Mormon motto is that "every member is a missionary". “Our greatest and most important duty is to preach the Gospel,“ church leader Russell Ballard told his followers (Ballard 2003).

17. Do they distribute brochures or sell books about the movement?

Yes, though it must be noted that today, all missionary materials, including the Book of Mormon, are distributed for free.

18. Do they invite family and friends to lectures or missionary activities organized by the group?

Yes, this is very much encouraged. “As we invite our friends to join us for these activities, they will also feel the Spirit (…) From every indicator we have, there is nothing more effective that any of us can do for our friends than to say 'come and see' by joining with us” (Ballard 2006).

19. Do they only visit friends to tell them about their “wonderful” experiences in the movement to try and arouse their interest?

No. Many Mormons are happy to share such experiences, which are called “spiritual experiences”, with friends and family but this would not be the only reason to visit them.
> Presumptions of Power (3/3)

20. Can a clear presumption of power which goes beyond religious purposes be derived from the ideology or the doctrine of salvation?

Yes. During the 19th century, the Mormons tried to bring their presumptions of secular power into practice but these aspirations have faded to the background somewhat in the course of the 20th. That doesn’t mean, however, that they have disappeared from Mormon theology. The Mormons still believe that Jesus Christ will return to earth soon, destroy the wicked and rule for one thousand years from the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri – Mormon headquarters at the time Joseph Smith introduced this (Pearl of Great Price 2013, p. 61). “During the Millennium, members of the Church of Jesus Christ from any era of time will help in the government of the earth under Christ's direction” (Ludlow 1992, p. 907).

21. Does the group claim a leading role?

Yes, see the answer to question 20.

22. Is the religious purpose indirectly linked to secular claims?

Yes. In Mormonism, this link is forged through the constitution of the United States. Mormons believe the constitution to have been inspired by God (Doctrine and Covenants 2013, p. 200) and they perceive themselves as playing a crucial role in its "defense" (Benson 1988, p. 594). This partly explains the Mormon involvement in decade-long political and legal battles against explicit constitutional protections for gays (1980s till the present, see Oaks 1984; Dunn 1997), women (1970s-1980s, see Quinn 1997, pp. 373-406) and before that, blacks.
> Wealth / Economic Power (3/5)

23. Is the group rich?

Yes. In 1999, the total assets of the Mormon church were estimated at $ 25-30 billion, its annual income from donations at $ 5 to 6 billion (Ostling & Ostling 2007, pp. 116-132; 403-408). By 2012, estimates had risen to $ 40 billion in assets and $ 8 billion in annual donations (Winter 2012), although currently estimates the annual income from tithing donations to have dropped to $ 3.5 billion.

24. Are the adherents urged to make donations?

Yes. Mormons are supposed to pay 10% of their income to their church (Doctrine & Covenants 2013, pp. 238-239). They are also asked to skip two meals once a month and donate the money saved on food to the church. These two donations, tithing and fast offerings, are more or less compulsory; religious privileges, such as being being baptized and gaining access to temple rituals, are conditional upon compliance.

The church also has numerous “funds” to which the members can donate more money: a missionary fund, a temple fund, a Book of Mormon fund, a humanitarian fund, an education fund, etc. Sometimes, the Mormon church asks its members to donate time and money to a political cause such as Proposition 8 in California, when tax-exemption laws prevent the church from getting institutionally involved.

Tithing slips granting Mormon church leaders full discretion in dispensing donations. 

It is not known whether these donations are actually used for their intended purposes. The Mormon church does not provide any financial transparency, not even to its members. Donation receipts contain a disclaimer that “though reasonable efforts will be made globally to use donations as designated, all donations become the Church’s property and will be used at the Church’s sole discretion to further the Church’s overall mission”.

25. Does salvation cost money?

Yes. As noted in the answer to the previous question, paying tithing is a requirement for baptism and access to the temple. In Mormon theology, baptism and temple ordinances are necessary for salvation. Only those who are married in the temple will be able to reach the highest degree of salvation (Benson 1988, p. 257).

26. Are members expected to beg or raise funds?


27. Are they required to donate their property upon becoming a member?

No, not anymore. On February 9, 1831 Joseph Smith claimed to have received a revelation in which members were asked to transfer all their assets to the church, whose leaders would then redistribute them so that everyone would receive “as much as is sufficient for himself and family” (Doctrine and Covenants 2013, p. 72).

As was the case with most other communal experiments of 19th-century America, this attempt was short-lived. However, the “law of consecration”, as the 1831 revelation is called, is still a part of the covenants which the Mormons make in their temples today and is considered a divine law, not an economic experiment (Benson 1988, p. 121).
> Cult Language / Jargon (2/3)

28. Do the adherents use a distinct cult language?

No. The Mormons obviously have their own religious jargon but not to the extent that they speak such a distinct cult language that it impedes communication with outsiders (which is what Stamm means here).

29. Do they use unknown terms to explain their doctrine of salvation?

Yes. Mormon theology is full of made-up and redefined terms like “spirit prison”, “telestial kingdom” and  “fellowshipping”.

30. Can the “secret knowledge” only be explained using artificial words which the founders invented?

Yes. “Secret knowledge” can be obtained in Mormon temples by participating in an extensive set of esoteric initiation rituals. During these rituals, covenants are made which have secret passwords, tokens and hand signs attached to them which may not be divulged. These passwords give access to the Mormon version of heaven (Packer 1980, p. 153).

Label of beer brand Pe Le Ale, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a "secret" Mormon temple password.

The nature of these rituals has become somewhat less occult over the years, and in 1990 the last artificial words – allegedly derived from the lost language of Adam and Eve – were removed.
> Sensitivity to Criticism / Litigiousness (5/5)

31. Do the group or its members react to criticism with unexpected vehemence?

Yes. Mormons are told criticism is always wrong, even if it is justified (Oaks 1985, 1987). People with a critical attitude are depicted as “mean and vicious” (Hinckley 2001) and members of the church are conditioned to believe that “publicly disparaging the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, or his successors, or any of the fundamental, settled doctrines of the Church” places them in “spiritual peril” (Faust 2000). From this basic stance, every criticism is perceived as a threat, which explains why Mormons as a group can’t handle criticism.

32. Do they campaign against self-help groups or media which seek to educate the public?

Yes. Church leaders are concerned “regarding Church members’ involvement in groups [which are often very expensive] that purport to increase self-awareness, raise self-esteem, and enhance individual agency. Church leaders and members should not become involved in such groups” (Ballard 1994). Programmes to enhance individual agency or improve family relationships are also warned against. Members with social or emotional problems must ask their local - untrained and unqualified – lay leaders for resources that are approved by the church (Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops 2010, p. 163).

33. Does the cult stigmatize its critics by slander and defamation?

Yes. The church prefers to use front organizations for this purpose, like the pseudo-scientific Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. In a book review of Abanes (2003), for example, the author is first ridiculed for having been a dancer and having made TV-commercials. Then, the well is poisoned by slandering the author’s sources: “career apostates, excommunicants (often for moral failings), homosexuals, self-proclaimed experts, dissidents (Bitton & Midgley 2003). Other examples are the infamous “Metcalfe is Butthead” episode and, more recently, the “hit piece” against Mormon podcaster John Dehlin (who was excommunicated for dissent in 2015).

34. Does the group fail to address issues but attacks critics instead?

Yes, see question 33.

35. Is the threshold to initiate litigation against critics low?

Yes, although Mormon church leaders tend to be wary of the bad publicity surrounding such cases. The church’s lawyers try to settle sensitive issues out of court as much as possible. Another proven tactic, also used by other cults like Scientology, is suing critics for copyright infringements.

Next to the civil legal system, the church also has an internal disciplinary procedure to pressure, punish or excommunicate critics. In areas where Mormonism is socially, culturally and/or economically dominant, internal discipline is often more effective than civil litigation.
> Differences Between Internal and External Perception (2/2)

36. Does the group maintain a self-image that contradicts its public image?

Yes. The Mormon church presents itself as a moderate, family-oriented Christian church. However, Mormons reject most traditional Christian doctrines (Hinckley 2002a, 2007; Holland 2007) and, in turn, most Christian churches reject the distinctive doctrines of Mormonism. Despite their moderate rethoric, Mormons still consider themselves members of God’s one and only true church on earth (Eyring 2008), thereby implying that all other churches are false.

The emphasis on families, too, is mostly cosmetic. The demands the church places on its members are so time-consuming that the average Mormon family will spend less time together than a non-Mormon family. Moreover, it is not uncommon for family members to become estranged when only part of the family is, becomes or remains Mormon. Church leaders teach that the love for family members is conditional upon the measure to which they conform to the demands of Mormonism (Oaks 2009a).

37. Do the adherents feel misunderstood by the outside world?

Yes. Mormons are constantly busy correcting misperceptions by outsiders. As the answer to question 36 shows, however, this is not because outsiders have the wrong perception of Mormonism but because Mormons pretend to be something they are not. Somehow unbeknownst to the Mormons, outsiders easily see through this facade and prefer to address underlying realities rather than projected illusions, feeding the Mormon trench mentality in which they feel they “are constantly under attack from one quarter or another” (Hinckley 2007a).
> Enmity / Imaginary Threats / Paranoia (4/4)

38. Does the group feel discriminated against, treated unfairly or threatened by cult researchers, authorities, journalists, etc.?

Yes. Like most cults, the Mormon church strongly denies being a cult. Authors who suggest otherwise are often vehemently attacked. Bitton & Midgley’s attack on Abanes (see question 33) was made specifically in the context of Abanes’ research on cults.

In the Mormon world view, understanding Mormonism is “problematic” for journalists who are “pressed by daily deadlines” (Approaching Mormon Doctrine 2007). Moreover, “the news media are not reliable” and “particularly susceptible to conveying erroneous information”. Since Mormons “persistently disdain the comfortable fraternity of ecumenical Christianity”, the media “are having a field day”  reporting only biased, controversial information about Mormonism (Oaks 1985).

The Mormon church also feels threatened by civil authorities, who are portrayed as trying to curtail their religious freedom. “Most of the battles over the extent of religious freedom have involved government efforts to impose upon the practices of small groups like Mormons. Not surprisingly, government officials sometimes seem more tolerant toward the religious practices of large groups of voters” (Oaks 2009).

While the loss of religious freedom may seem like a legitimate concern, the Mormons’ main goal is to establish the freedom to discriminate against gays and lesbians and not be challenged on this issue in the public domain (Mormon Leaders Call for Laws That Protect Religious Freedom 2015).

To improve its public image and to transcend the marginalisation of a small cult movement, the Mormon church employs PR-agencies and lobbyists. The main goals are to receive recognition as a church and to increase its status in general, although tax benefits are a welcome bycatch (Levine 2009).

39. Does the group believe in coordinated campaigns by opponents?

Yes. This belief is not without merit because the Mormon church has indeed, from its earliest beginnings, been a target of coordinated campaigns. Examples are the campaigns against the theocratic governance model of the church in the 19th century, against polygamy at the start of the 20th century, against the discrimination of blacks in the 1960s and ‘70s, of women in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and, today, of gays and lesbians.

To be fair, though, such targeted campaigns against the Mormon church are triggered by the Mormons’ own coordinated campaigns against civil liberties, women and minorities to begin with. To the Mormon mindset, however, this only confirms that the whole world is against them.

40. Does the group perceive any form of criticism, however mild, as a full-frontal attack?

Yes, see question 31.

41. Are the adherents paranoid?

Yes. Mormons are convinced they are constantly under siege by the entire world: “As the Church holds firm to the traditional values (…), the pointing finger of a failing society seems to be regularly aimed at us. One can hardly get through a day without hearing some form of criticism about the Church” (Pace 1989). “Notwithstanding the present strength of the Church, it seems that we are constantly under attack from one quarter or another” (Hinckley 2007a).

One characteristic of paranoia is that the affected person is not aware of it and cannot critically examine his own behaviour in this respect. On the contrary, external signals which contradict the Mormon self-image reinforce their us-versus-them mentality. “History has proven quite conclusively that the Church has grown under persecution; it has prospered under criticism” (Faust 2000). “I think we will witness increasing evidence of Satan’s power as the kingdom of God grows stronger. I believe Satan’s ever-expanding efforts are some proof of the truthfulness of this work” (Faust 2007).

Only the group offers protection against these imaginary threats: “Lucifer is determined to fight a war against good. He is seeking to surround us with every conceivable form of temptation, hatred, bigotry, and corruption. So where is there safety? Where but in the Church, under the protection of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the priesthood of the Most High?” (Sorensen 2007).
> Subdivisions / Front Organisations (3/4)

42. Does the group have subdivisions of which the public is hardly aware?

Yes. The Mormon church is actually a corporate conglomerate of hundreds of businesses. The church’s religious activities are only a minor part of this business empire – there is not even a separate legal church entity. The primary goal of this complex maze is to pipe corporate profits and donations, and avoid taxes.

The Mormon church also uses front organisations to discretely handle non-financial matters like exerting influence over the legislative process. In a December 20th, 1995 memo to apostle Neal Maxwell, for instance, elder Loren Dunn described the use of about a dozen intermediaries and middle-men in the state of Hawaii, and a front organisation called Hawaii’s Future Today. “In this way,” Dunn concludes, “we have distanced the church from the coalition itself but still have input where necessary through our local source” (these and other memos related to the Mormon fight against equal rights for gays can be found here).

Another subdivision that even the members know little about, although it directly affects them, is the Strengthening the Church Members Committee, a department established in the mid-1980s for the purpose of spying on ordinary members of the Mormon church and “maintaining files on every member of the church regarded as critical of LDS policies or as too liberal” (click here to read more about the Strengthening the Church Members Committee).

43. Do they organise meetings through these subdivisions?

Yes. Regarding the anti-gay-rights example mentioned in question 42, these front organisations hold meetings, demonstrations, rallies and fund raisers. Another example is the Special Affairs Commitee, founded in 1974 to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. In June 1977, ten women were recruited from each Mormon congregation in Utah to sabotage a meeting of about 3,000 proponents of the ERA; the 13,867 Mormon women who were drummed up in this manner had no problem drowning out the opposition (Quinn 1997, pp. 373-406).

There are also several Mormon apologetic organisations that have more or less informal ties to the Mormon church, and that organise meetings and conferences disseminating research that purports to support the Mormon truth claims (see also question 33).

44. Does the group hide behind these front organisations in times of trouble?

Yes. As explained under question 42, these organisations are founded for the express purpose of creating distance between the church and the political arena. The same holds true for the apologetic front organisations. While officially claiming to have no ties to the Mormon church, these organisations and their officers are often referred to for answers to difficult theological or historical questions while church leaders remain silent on controversial topics.

45. Does the group use pseudonyms in its recruiting efforts?

No, Mormon missionaries always clearly identify themselves as representatives of their church.


The Mormon church scores “Yes” to 40 of the 45 questions on this list (89%). This means that, in the psychological sense, the Mormon church exhibits many characteristics of a cult by exerting far-reaching, one-sided influence on the emotions, thoughts and behaviour of its members through the application of manipulative processes and authoritarian structures.