Religious Sects: A Sociological Study

Religious Sects: A Sociological Study

Religious Sects: A Sociological Study

Religious Sects: A Sociological Study

Excerpt

Sects are movements of religious protest. Their members separate themselves from other men in respect of their religious beliefs, practices and institutions, and often in many other departments of their lives. They reject the authority of orthodox religious leaders, and often, also, of the secular government. Allegiance to a sect is voluntary, but individuals are admitted only on proof of conviction, or by some other test of merit: continuing affiliation rests on sustained evidence of commitment to sect beliefs and practices. Sectarians put their faith first: they order their lives in accordance with it. The orthodox, in contrast, compromise faith with other interests, and their religion accommodates the demands of the secular culture.

At first glance, sects may appear to be marginal and incidental phenomena in history -- odd groups of alienated men with outlandish ideas. Yet, at times, sects have had an immense significance for the course of history. After all, Christianity itself was only a Jewish sect at the beginning. The Mahdi movement in the Sudan in the 1880s, or the Tai-ping movement in China a couple of decades earlier, each significantly affected the history of their own peoples and that of people far from the places where these sects arose. Sects sometimes act as catalysts in history, crystallising in acute form social discontents and aspirations, and marking the moments of social structural collapse, and sometimes heralding, or even promoting, social reintegration. Three examples, drawn from very different societies and historical periods, will illustrate these points.

Social collapse and millennia! hopes

In Münster, Westphalia, at a time of acute social, religious and political dissension, in the 1530s, just over a decade after Luther had taken the first steps leading to the Reformation, there occurred one of the most extraordinary sectarian outbursts in European history. All over northern and central Europe men were challenging the church, and the most radical of these dissenters were the Anabaptists (so-called from their insistence on adult baptism of believers). They looked forward to the establishment of the kingdom of . . .

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