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 an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, and he is affiliated with the New Cult Awareness Network, an organization operated by the Church of Scientology.
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.
His areas of research include major religious traditions, new and alternative religions, occultism and parapsychology, New Age, and vampirology.
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, Melanie. The marriage ended in divorce in 1979. His second wife is named Suzie.
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 received a Master of Divinity degree from Garrett Theological Seminary with a concentration in church history.
Melton pursued further graduate studies at Northwestern University where he received his Ph.D. in 1975 in the History and Literature of Religions with a specialty in American history. 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 Talmage 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."
Methodology and writing
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.
Main areas of research
Christian countercult and secular anti-cult
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. 221–227; 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 argued that deprogramming violated civil liberties and the religious freedom principles guaranteed in the US Constitution and that the efficacy of deprogramming or counter-brainwashing stratagems was 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.
Questions the validity of critical former members' testimony
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, Céligny, 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, “Therapy and Magic in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ and beyond” 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 curiæ 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."
Encyclopædia Britannica contributor
Melton is the second most prolific contributor to the Encyclopædia Britannica, after Christine Sutton. He has contributed 15 Micropædia 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 Witnesses, New Age Movement, Pentecostalism, People's Temple, Scientology and Wicca.
Aum Shinrikyo investigation
In May 1995, in the early stages of investigations into the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, Melton, fellow scholar James R. Lewis and religious freedom lawyer Barry Fisher flew to Japan to voice concern that police behaviour, including mass detentions without charge and the removal of practitioners' children from the group, might be infringing the civil rights of Aum Shinrikyo members. They had travelled to Japan at the invitation and expense of Aum Shinrikyo after they had contacted the group to express concern over developments, and met with officials over a period of three days. While not having been given access to the group's chemical laboratories, they held press conferences in Japan stating their belief, based on the documentation they had been given by the group, that the group did not have the ability to produce sarin and was being scapegoated. Melton revised his judgment shortly after, concluding that the group had in fact been responsible for the attack and other crimes. The scholars' defence of Aum Shinrikyo led to a crisis of confidence in religious scholarship when the group's culpability was proven.
As a scholar who reports on New Religious Movements without condemning those groups, Melton has received criticism from scholars and organizations, especially from the anti-cult movement, that feel that new religious movements are dangerous and that scholars should actively work against them. Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs published a critical article, When Scholars Know Sin (1998), in which they characterize Gordon Melton, James R. Lewis, and Anson Shupe as biased towards the groups they study.