Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church become emotional when they encounter the term “Mormon cult”.

Quite recently, October 7, 2011, Pastor Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas Texas, introduced Rick Perry, a presidential candidate running against Mitt Romney, a well known member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at the Value Voter Summit in Washington D.C.. After that introduction, Pastor Jeffress was captured on tape visiting with attendees and the press telling them Mormons were not Christians and Mormons are a cult.

Since then Pastor Jeffress made the rounds of news media shows touting the same message, but more strongly emphasizing he thinks Mormons are a “theological cult”. When repeatedly challenged on one news show, Pastor Jeffress admitted Mormons are not a cult according to the definition of a cult in Websters Dictionary, but repeated his claim Mormons are a theological cult.

The current “Mormon Cult” ruckus caused us to wonder about the historical use of the phrase “Mormon Cult” as well as the statistics behind the current “WordQuake” initiated by Pastor Jeffress.

Historical use of Mormon Cult is observable in books (using Google NGram Viewer).

Mormon Cult Ngram

Mormon Cult Ngram

A quick look at the percentages shows the use is very, very low. When we went to a listing of the individual books in Ngram’s American English corpus (the subset of the 5 millions books in Ngram that were published in the U.S. that are in English) that included the phrase “Mormon cult”, there was 1 book in 1885, 2 books in 1896, about 63 books from 1898-1944, 2 books in 1945-1946, about 29 books 1947-1983, about 43 books 1984-2000. The counts are very low so we cut the smoothing of the chart to zero so you could see the spikes of just a few books being published and most years with no books containing the phrase published at all.

One point worth noting, the first books to use the phrase “Mormon cult” in Google’s sample of all published books were published in 1885 and 1886. The religion may well have been referred to as a cult before, but the phrase does not appear to be prominently used in the literature before that date.

The Google Search Engine itself offers a timeline that shows frequency of occurrence of search terms.

"Mormon Cult" Google timeline

"Mormon Cult" Google timeline

Google Search Engine Timeline is built from searching for dates in conjunction with the search terms. In this case, the early (1800-1910) results are more modern publications and web posts talking about the earlier time period. The first actual use of the derogatory phrase “Mormon cult” we encountered in these search results was a 1912 New York Times article.

Using a barrage of historical newspaper databases (Genealogy Bank, NewspaperArchive.com, Heritage Quest, Chronicling America, Newspaper Source Plus, and others), the earliest examples of newspapers using “Mormon cult” we found are below. Some of the newspapers frequently used “Mormon cult” but we only listed the earliest printing date for each newspaper that printed “Mormon cult”.

  • June 3, 1901 Sault News-Record, Sault Sainte Marie Michigan (Genealogy Bank & NewspaperArchive) uses the term.
  • December 26, 1903 Deseret News used the phrase in publishing an article from another paper of a mans travels through Utah and how impressed he was by the industry and success of the Mormon cult. (He used the term in a positive manner, it was just how he referred to the Church instead of by it’s name).
  • January 24, 1904 The Saint Louis Republic used the term in an article in which a New York investigator was making derogatory claims against the Church.
  • October 5, 1905 Salt Lake Tribune repeatedly used the phrase in coverage of President Taft’s visit to the valley and of President Smith speaking in General Conference. (we also found a February 12, 1905 reference on NewspaperArchive but were unable to view it).

All the exercises above indicate that use of the term “Mormon cult” originated about 1900.

Who is Searching for “Mormon Cult”?

Google Trends supplies a chart showing peaks in searching for “mormon cult” occurring in advance of the last presidential election, and right now (October 2011) as the presidential election season heats up again, and in response to Pastor Jeffress comments.

If you switch the region from “All Regions” to “United States” the early 2008 spike leaves. It must be coming from an event outside the U.S.

What we found most interesting was “Who is searching”. Searches for “mormon cult” are predominately coming from very strong LDS areas. Google currently lists the leading cities searching for “mormon cult” as Salt Lake City and Phoenix. Salt Lake is shown as three to four times as many searches as Phoenix. Together (Salt Lake + Phoenix) are performing MANY times more searches than the next four U.S. cities (Seattle, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York City).

We suspect many of those searches are members hearing something about somebody calling the Church a cult and wanting to read more specifically what was said and who said it, but that is pure speculation on our part.

We took a glance at Google Adwords keyword tool through which you can purchase search terms. The tool provides some average monthly counts for keywords. We are not supposed to reveal the number of searches, but we can say the numbers are relatively small and the count is shown to be relatively flat for the last year (prior to October 2011). Interestingly, in the U.S.,”Baptist cult” gets over half as many searches as “Mormon cult”.

Is Anybody Analytically Discussing Use of the Phrase “Mormon Cult”?

We have noticed a few authors discussing use of “Mormon cult”. Some refer to it as a pejorative word, as the “Mormon N-word”, and Mitt Romney called it “Poisonous Language”.

In summary, it looks like the phrase “Mormon cult” has been around a little over a hundred and ten years now (2011) and is being re-utilized primarily by those in opposition to the Church or by those zealously promoting presidential candidates of other faiths. We will know more of the magnitude of the current wordquake created by Pastor Jeffress in a few months when more data becomes available. Until then, let us all remember to use the full name of the Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and personally assist those wishing to learn more, or direct them to the missionaries, or to Mormon.org AND to count to ten when we hear derogatory terms before we act.