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New Religious Movements: The Current Landscape (September 2013): General Reference Works

By Stephen Bales

General Reference Works

Most researchers need go no further than general religious studies reference materials to find ample information concerning NRMs.  For example, Lindsay Jones’s edited fifteen-volume Encyclopedia of Religion, now in its second edition, is an important resource for answering all manner of questions concerning religion, and a reliable first stop for most questions concerning new groups.  The entry titled “New Religious Movements” is seventy pages long and includes eleven substantial articles on topics such as women, children, violence, and millennialism.  Many narrower NRM-related entries, e.g., “Theosophical Society” and “Neopaganism,” are also available throughout the encyclopedia.  Written by experts in religion, all the entries provide extensive bibliographies to aid further research.

J. Gordon Melton, leading NRM scholar and founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, has written many standard reference books on religion.  The second edition of Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, edited by J. Gordon Melton and Martin Baumann, is a case in point.  This six-volume encyclopedia is comprehensive, covering in more than 1,700 entries, religions across the world’s cultures.  Melton explains in his preface that he intentionally included subjects often excluded in traditional religion reference sources, many of which relate to the study of NRMs (e.g., Western esotericism, Aum Shinrikyo, and the Great White Brotherhood).  Two other encyclopedias by Melton also offer substantial information about NRMs.  The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena collects entries on religious experience and presents phenomena relating to NRMs in entries such as “Psychic Healing” and “Ouija Board.”  Melton’s edited, two-volume Religious Celebrations: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances, and Spiritual Commemorations features descriptions of holy days and events from religions worldwide and, as with most of his works, thoroughly represents new religious movements.

Two recent reference works deal specifically with NRMs.  The Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements, edited by Peter Clarke, provides hundreds of short entries concerning NRMs from around the globe.  The entries give basic explanations of the movements’ history, structure, and major tenets, as well as brief bibliographies for those interested in further research.  This reference book is remarkable for the range of topics covered, including many movements that this essayist has not seen in other subject encyclopedias, with entries including “Earth People of Trinidad,” “Deima,” and “Neuro-Linguistic Programming.”  Both African and Japanese NRMs are particularly well represented, and library selectors will find the entry “Resource Guide to NRM Studies” useful for identifying works published prior to 2004.  The second edition of George Chryssides’s Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements contains brief but informative entries concerning NRMs and the major figures associated with new religions over the past two hundred years.  Faithful to the title of this volume, the entries are largely historical biographies of NRMs or entities related to them, but also typically include mention of major religious concepts and beliefs.  Since this is a historical dictionary, it is of particular value for researching defunct groups that may be absent from other reference resources.

For an encyclopedia focusing specifically on the American religious experience, see the eighth edition of Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, written by Melton and edited by James Beverley et al.  This single-volume encyclopedia features essays on religious traditions in the United States, integrating discussion of NRMs into articles on major religious families.  These include “Eastern Liturgical Family” and “Middle Eastern Family.”  The book provides entries specifically about NRMs, e.g., “Magick Family,” “Spiritualist, Psychic, and New Age Family,” and “Latter-Day-Saints Family.”  However, most of the encyclopedia is a directory, also organized by religious families, that identifies and describes individual American religious groups.  Information includes demographics, contacts, and bibliographic references.  The Encyclopedia of Religion in America, edited by Charles Lippy and Peter Williams, is a similar work that goes into great detail about American religious groups.  This four-volume encyclopedia has broad essays concerning religion in the United States and Canada.  As with Melton’s Encyclopedia, multiple articles are dedicated to new and nontraditional religious movements.  Additionally many articles offer useful information concerning the relationship of NRMs to broader religious traditions or phenomena.

For those who are researching specific religious groups in the United States, two useful guides combine elements of encyclopedias and directories.  Now in its thirteenth edition, the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, by Craig Atwood, Frank Mead, and Samuel Hill, gives concise descriptions of more than 250 religious bodies in a portable volume of just over 400 pages.  The bulk of entries are for Christian organizations, but the Handbook also includes entries for Jewish, Islamic, Mormon, “Esoteric and Spiritualist” (primarily Christian-based), Baha’i, and other religious groups.  Entries provide a current description and short history of each denomination, along with recent demographic information including membership numbers, number of active congregations, and contacts.  Nelson’s Guide to Denominations, written by the prolific Melton, is a guide to current American Christian churches and religious organizations.  The first part consists of essays on American Christianity.  The bulk of the book, however, is a directory that gives background and contact information for Christian organizations.  Because of the depth provided concerning American Christianity, this is a valuable resource for identifying Christian NRMs in the United States.