|John Gordon Melton|
September 19, 1942
|Residence||Santa Barbara, California|
|Fields||religion, new religious movements|
|Institutions||University of California, Santa Barbara|
Garrett Theological Seminary
Religious Leaders of America
The Encyclopedia of American Religions
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 a research specialist in religion and New Religious Movements with the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion.
He is the author of more than twenty-five books, including several encyclopedias, handbooks, and almanacs on American religion and new religious movements. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.
Melton has been criticized by several scholars for what they see as conflicts of interest in his reporting of some of the groups he studies.
Melton was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Burnum Edgar Melton and Inez Parker. In 1964 he graduated from Birmingham Southern College with the B.A. degree and then proceeded to theological studies at Garrett Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1968). He married Dorothea Dudley in 1966, with one daughter born. The marriage ended in divorce in 1979.
In 1968, Melton was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist church and remains under bishop's appointment 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 graduate studies at Northwestern University where he received his Ph.D. in the History and Literature of Religions in 1975. 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.
Melton recounts that "vocationally, the most influential force in my life was the writings of a man I never met but who became my hero, Elmer T. Clark ... while my contemporaries became enthused with UFO's, Elvis Presley, or Alabama football, during my last year in high school one of Clarke's books, The Small Sects in America, captured my imagination. After reading it I wanted to consume everything written on American alternative religions." 
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 almost four decades in identifying, counting and classifying the many different churches, major religious traditions, new religions and alternative religions found in North America. His Encyclopedia of American Religions, which was originally published in 1978, has become a standard work of reference that outstrips the number of groups that Clark was able to identify and classify in the 1940s.
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 four different multi-volume series of reference books: The Churches Speak (published by Garland), Cults and New Religions (published by Garland), Sects and Cults in America Bibliographical Guides (published by Garland), and Religious Information Systems Series (published by Garland). Several of these reference works provide significant information for the study of American religious history and church history.
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.
Melton's major emphasis has been on collating primary source data on religious groups and movements. His approach to research is shaped, in part, by his training in church history, but also 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. These details then take shape in the profiles Melton drafts up in 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 the wider social, religious and historical contexts.
Melton states that he is "a United Methodist minister with a deep commitment to conservative Evangelical Protestantism" (Finding Enlightenment, p. 160). However, his own writings lack the distinctive critical emphases that are found in Christian countercult literature. As Melton has concentrated on the phenomenology and not the theology of new religions, his lack of explicit doctrinal criticisms of cults has elicited considerable critical comment from countercult apologists. Some countercult apologists cannot reconcile his statements of professed evangelicalism with the content of his books. Countercult apologists appear to assume that an evangelical writing on cults would necessarily present direct doctrinal objections. Anton Hein has emphasized this latter point in his criticisms of Melton. (See "Criticism" section).
Melton believes that as an evangelical he can simultaneously uphold his commitment to Christ as saviour and defend the civil rights of non-Christians to religious freedom. He explains his perceived and apparent reluctance to pursue the apologetic concerns of his colleagues in the Christian countercult movement:
"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." 
Finally, while much of his writings have focussed on the phenomenology of new religions, he has indicated that Christian churches should examine new religions in terms of missions (see his essay "Emerging Religious Movements in North America: Some Missiological Reflections," Missiology 28/1 January 2000, pp. 85‚Äď98). He did discuss issues of methodology in the research of new religions and Christian missions in various articles he contributed to Christianity Today magazine in the early 1980s. In the mid-1980s he dialogued with Ronald Enroth about differences between their respective approaches to the analysis and evangelization of new religions (see Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails). He also indicated in his dialogue with Enroth that he particularly values the writings of the evangelical apologists J. Stafford Wright and John Warwick Montgomery in their analyses of occult phenomena.
Melton is one of the more prominent critics of the anti-cult movement and some Christian countercult organizations, pointing out that since colonial times many US Christian theologians, pastors, missionaries and apologists have questioned the legitimacy of other religious groups and teachings. (see his Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, pp. 221‚Äď227; and his essay "The Counter-cult Monitoring Movement in Historical Perspective").
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 based his criticisms on the grounds that (a) deprogramming violated civil liberties and religious freedom principles guaranteed in the US Constitution and (b) the efficacy of deprogramming or counter-brainwashing stratagems were doubtful.
In his Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America he drew an academic distinction between the Christian countercult movement and the secular anti-cult movement. He made the distinction on the grounds that the two movements operate with very different epistemologies, motives and methods. He was also urged to make this distinction in the course of a formal dialogue with evangelical sociologist Ronald Enroth, and also 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 challenges the validity of anti-NRM sources, and the 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
In a paper presented at the conference on "New Age in the Old World" held at the Institut Oecumenique de Bossey, C√©ligny, 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 believes that the community of people it brought together has grown to be "one of the most important minority faith communities in the West."
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.
In a 2000 Speak Magazine interview, Melton comments on how he first became interested in the subject of vampires, stating that his interest in the subject started during college days. He stated that: "During the 1990s, vampires began to consume my leisure time."
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, ‚ÄúTherapy and Magic in Bram Stoker‚Äôs ‚ÄėDracula‚Äô and beyond‚ÄĚ 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 titled as the "Count Dracula Ambassador to the U.S".
Melton is the president of the American chapter The Transylvanian Society of Dracula (TSD). This chapter appears to be inactive, as most English speaking members join the Canadian chapter.
Melton, together with a group of scholars and the American Psychological Association, submitted on February 10, 1987 an amicus curi√¶ 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 "this 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."
Dr. Melton is the second most prolific contributor to the Encyclop√¶dia Britannica, after Dr. Christine Sutton. He has contributed 15 Microp√¶dia 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 Witness, New Age Movement, Pentecostalism, People's Temple, Scientology and Wicca.
In May 1995, after the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, American scholars James R. Lewis and Gordon Melton flew to Japan to hold a pair of press conferences in which they announced that the chief suspect in the murders, religious group Aum Shinrikyo, could not have produced the sarin that the attacks had been committed with. They had determined this, Lewis said, from photos and documents provided by the group. Police reports describe that they had discovered at Aum's main compound in March a sophisticated chemical weapons laboratory that was capable of producing thousands of kilograms a year of the poison. Later investigation showed that Aum not only created the sarin used in the subway attacks, but had committed previous chemical and biological weapons attacks, including a previous attack with sarin that had killed seven and injured 144 persons.
One criticism of Melton is that he fails to evaluate cults on a theological level, as Melton states,
I have, not being a theologian -- and I make no claim to be one -- a difficult task in sorting through doctrinal questions to do an adequate theological analysis of most groups' beliefs. I'm a church historian with most of my theological work in historical theology, not systematics. That's part of where I'm coming from. I also have another problem...I have a problem as to where to draw the line -- what's heresy and what's evangelically kosher. What is acceptable doctrinal deviation? 
Melton's treatment of religions such as Scientology have resulted in charges that "he basically reiterates whatever religious groups tell him." Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs published a critical article When Scholars Know Sin, in which they characterize Gordon Melton, James R. Lewis, and Anson Shupe as cult apologists. Melton was also characterized as a "apologist" in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, and by a Singaporean lawyer as a "cult apologist who has a long association of defending the practices of destructive cults" in The Straits Times, and in an article: "Apologist versus Alarmist", in Time Magazine. The term "cult apologist" was also used in Esquire Magazine in describing Melton's actions in the Aum Shinrikyo incident.
During the Aum Shinrikyo incident where James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton traveled to Japan to defend them, as stated above ‚Äď their bills for travel, lodging and accommodations were paid for by AUM, according to The Washington Post. Lewis stated that "because time was of the essence, AUM offered to help move up our timetable by paying the team's expenses, an offer that was accepted only after AUM further arranged to provide all expenses ahead of time, so that financial considerations would not be attached to our final report".
Additionally, according to the financial books of the Children of God, his institute received money from the organization. This happened after he wrote favorably about them. His work and stance on these and some other issues has led to debates about integrity in research when receiving sponsorship from the leaders of cults.