From The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Author: Young, Lawrence A.
In ordinary usage the word "sect" refers to any body of followers or adherents, ranging from the main religions of the world to small groups of heretics. "Sect" derives from the Latin sequi, to follow. In sociological terminology, a sect is a separately organized religious group that meets specified criteria. Technically, this term does not adequately describe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As defined by social scientists, three criteria are central in determining whether a religious group is a sect: (1) a sect is organizationally simple; (2) it stands in high tension with the dominant society (typically because sect members view themselves as a "faithful remnant" of the pure religion that has been rejected by society); and (3) it views itself as uniquely legitimate, the sole source of salvation. Applying these criteria to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not always easy. With respect to these factors, the organizational structure of the LDS Church is obviously complex and international in scope. While the nineteenth-century commitment to building a literal political and economic kingdom and the practice of plural marriage placed the LDS Church in tension with its host societies, neither of these practices sociologically characterize the twentieth-century Church. In fact, the Church has always embraced many values central to the dominant value systems of the United States and other host countries, including an emphasis on family, hard work, and national loyalty. Nevertheless, moderate tension remains, partly because of the Church's claim of unique legitimacy.
"Churches" and "denominations" in sociological terminology differ from sects in that both of the former are organizationally complex and have positive relationships with society. Denominations accept the legitimacy claims of other religious groups, while churches do not (Roberts, pp. 181-202). There are several problems in classifying The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints according to this typology. Its claim to unique legitimacy makes it something other than a denomination, while its lack of societal dominance makes it something other than a church (except in Utah and certain other locations).
To explain unclear cases like this, sociologists developed an additional classification-the "established sect" (Yinger, pp. 266-73). An established sect is organizationally complex while retaining moderate tension with society and the claim to unique legitimacy. While the LDS Church meets these criteria, social scientists increasingly argue that it deviates sufficiently from conventional religious traditions to warrant even further classification outside of the church-denomination-sect typology. They argue that the term "new religion" is perhaps the most accurate and that modern-day Mormonism is on the verge of becoming a major new world religion (Stark, pp. 11-12). [See also Cult.]
Roberts, Keith A. Religion in Sociological Perspective, 2nd ed. Belmont, Calif., 1990.
Stark, Rodney. "How New Religions Succeed: A Theoretical Model." In The Future of New Religious Movements, ed. D. Bromley and P. Hammond, pp. 11-29. Macon, Ga., 1987.
Yinger, J. Milton. The Scientific Study of Religion. New York, 1970.
LAWRENCE A. YOUNG