J. Gordon Melton
John Gordon Melton
September 19, 1942
Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.
|Alma mater||Birmingham Southern College, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Northwestern University|
|Fields||Religion, American religious history, new religious movements|
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 the Distinguished Professor of American Religious History with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he resides. He is also an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.
Melton is the author of more than forty-five books, including several encyclopedias, handbooks, and scholarly textbooks on American religious history, Methodism, world religions, and new religious movements (NRMs). His areas of research include major religious traditions, American Methodism, new and alternative religions, Western Esotericism (popularly called occultism) and parapsychology, New Age, and Dracula and vampire studies.
Melton was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Burnum Edgar Melton and Inez Parker. During his senior year in high school he came across The Small Sects in America by Elmer T. Clark and became interested in reading as much as possible on alternative religions.
In 1964 he graduated from Birmingham Southern College with the B.A. degree and then proceeded to theological studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, from which he received an M.Div. with a concentration in church history in 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, an appointment he retains 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 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.
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 much of his career identifying, counting and classifying the many different churches, major religious traditions, and new and alternative religions found in North America. His Encyclopedia of American Religions, which was originally published in 1978 (ninth ed. 2016), has become the standard reference work in the field.
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 six multi-volume series of reference books: American Religious Creeds, Religions of the World, The Churches Speak, Cults and New Religions, Sects and Cults in America Bibliographical Guides, and Religious Information Systems Series.
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. 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.
Melton drew a distinction between the Christian countercult and the secular anti-cult movements. In his Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America he articulated the distinction on the grounds that the two movements operate with very different epistemologies, motives and methods. He was urged to make this distinction in the course of a formal dialogue with evangelical sociologist Ronald Enroth and 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.
From his college days, Melton developed an interest in the subject of vampires, which he has since pursued in his leisure time. In 1983 he served as editor for Vampires Unearthed by Martin Riccardo, a 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 and most recently The Vampire in Folklore, History, Literature, Film and Television: A Comprehensive Bibliography (2016).
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 May 1995, during the investigation into the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the group responsible for the attack, Aum Shinrikyo, contacted an American group known as AWARE (Association of World Academics for Religious Education), founded by American scholar James R. Lewis, claiming that the human rights of its members were being violated. Lewis recruited Melton, human rights lawyer Barry Fisher, and chemical expert Thomas Banigan. They flew to Japan, with their travel expenses paid by Aum, and announced that they will investigate and report through press conferences at the end of their trip.
In the press conferences, Fisher and Lewis announced that Aum could not have produced the sarin with which the attacks had been committed. They had determined this, Lewis said, with their technical expert, based on photos and documents provided by the group.
British scholar of Japanese religions Ian Reader, in a detailed account of the incident, reported that Melton "had few doubts by the end of his visit to Japan of Aum’s complicity" and eventually "concluded that Aum had in fact been involved in the attack and other crimes" In fact, the Washington Post account of the final press conference mentioned Lewis and Fisher but not Melton. A Christian anti-cult Web site called Apologetic Index quoted the Washington Post article and implied that Melton had spoken in the press conference. Melton was, however, not mentioned in the Washington Post original article.
Lewis, on the other hand, maintained his opinion that Aum had been framed, and wrote that having the trip funded by Aum had been arranged "so that financial considerations would not be attached to our final report."
Reader concluded that, "The visit was well-intentioned, and the participants were genuinely concerned about possible violations of civil rights in the wake of the extensive police investigations and detentions of followers." However, it was ill-fated and detrimental to the reputation of those involved. While distinguishing between Lewis' and Melton's attitudes, Reader observed that Melton was criticized as well by both Japanese media and some fellow scholars. Using stronger words, Canadian scholar Stephen A. Kent chastised both Lewis and Melton for having put the reputation of the whole category of scholars of new religious movements at risk.
Melton's scholarly works concentrate on the phenomenology and not the theology of NRMs. Some Christian countercultists criticize Melton for not critiquing the groups he reports on from an evangelical perspective, arguing that his failure to do so is incompatible with his statements of professed evangelicalism. Some secular anti-cultists who feel that new religious movements are dangerous and that scholars should actively work against them have likewise criticized him. Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs, for example, characterized Gordon Melton, James R. Lewis, and Anson Shupe as biased towards the groups they study. In non-scholarly writings, Melton has recommended that Christian churches should examine new religions in terms of evangelization, and he sees his work as a means to facilitate that end.