Category Archives: New Religions

Heresies: Now and Then

Heresies have been connected to Christianity from the beginning. Because this is a historical more than theological blog, I’m defining a heresy as a smaller group breaking off from the main group with significantly different doctrines.

Some time ago I taught a course on what are often called cults or sects. I was amazed at how many connections there were between these newer religious movements and heresies in the early church.

Gnosticism – Christian Science

Gnosticism is more of a movement than a group, as there are many types of Gnosticism. It was very much influenced by Platonic philosophy and the idea that matter is bad and spirit/mind is good. Gnostics taught there was secret knowledge (Greek: gnosis) that revealed that matter was an illusion and that we were really spirit. It it was incredibly influential in the early church.

In the 19th century, Mary Baker Eddy started a movement called Christian Science. Christian Science emphasizes healing but it is not the same kind of healing that we see in Pentecostal churches. Eddy taught that healing came from understanding that we are spirit and not body. We can be “healed” of cancer by understanding that not only does the cancer not exist, neither does our body.

Arianism – Jehovah’s Witnesses

Arianism is named after Arius, a church leader who spoke out against the Trinity. He taught that Jesus was different from the Father, specifically that Jesus was a created being. This was so influential that the famous Council of Nicaea was called to deal with the Arian question.

In the 19th century, Charles Taze Russell began the movement that would become the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They rejected the Trinity and believed that Jesus was not God but was a created being, specifically the Archangel Michael.

Modalism – Onenness Pentecostals

This is also called Modalistic Monarchianism. This early heresy also rejected the Trinity but in a different way than Arius. Modalists affirm the full deity of Jesus but focus more on the oneness of God. This means that the one God can at times manifest in different modes, whether the Father, the Son or Spirit, but without any plurality within the Godhead.

Oneness Pentecostals began in the early 20th century. It emerged out of reflection of the baptismal formulas: baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, and baptizing in the name of Jesus. It was concluded that the name of the Father, Son and Spirit was Jesus. There was one God named Jesus, who was revealed in the Old Testament as the Father.

Ebionites – Unitarians

The Ebionites were early Jewish followers of Jesus. They accepted Jesus as the messiah but rejected the idea of the Trinity or the deity of Jesus.

When I talk of Unitarians, I mean the original form coming out of the Enlightenment and not the more recent version after their merger with the Universalists. The original Unitarians were successors of the Puritans and the Congregationalists. They accepted most Christian teachings but concluded that Jesus was a human messiah rather than God incarnate.

I have tried to figure out the ancient equivalent of the Latter-day Saints. I’m leaning toward Pelagianism, but I need to do more research.

The basic conclusion is that there is nothing new. Heresies now began as heresies then.

Historical Timeline of Religion in the 19th Century

I am especially interested in the development of new religions in the 19th century, including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I taught a course on this for Tyndale University College.

As a part of the background, I put together a bit of timeline of the major religious figures from the 19th century (and early 20th century). Some of these are sectarian leaders, some orthodox Christians and some critical scholars. I include also some philosophers who were influential on religious thought. I found it helpful for understanding how everything fit together.

I would suggest that the three most influential figures on the new religious movements were Charles Finney, Alexander Campbell and William Miller.

  • 1782-1849 – William Miller
  • 1788-1866 – Alexander Campbell
  • 1790-1840 – Second Great Awakening
  • 1792-1875 – Charles Finney
  • 1800-1882 – John Nelson Darby
  • 1801-1877 – Brigham Young
  • 1802-1866 – Phineas Quimby
  • 1805-1844 – Joseph Smith, Jr.
  • 1805–1871 – John Thomas
  • 1808–1874 – David Strauss
  • 1809–1882 – Bruno Bauer
  • 1809-1882 – Charles Darwin
  • 1818-1883 – Karl Marx
  • 1821-1910 – Mary Baker Eddy
  • 1825 – American Unitarian Association
  • 1827-1915 – Ellen G. White
  • 1830 – Book of Mormon
  • 1830 – Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • 1831-1891 – Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
  • 1832 – Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • 1832-1914 – Joseph Smith, III
  • 1834- 1892 – Charles Haddon Spurgeon
  • 1835 – Doctrine and Covenants
  • 1837-1899 – Dwight Moody
  • 1843-1921 – C. I. Scofield
  • 1844 – Great Disappointment
  • 1844-1900 – Friedrich Nietzsche
  • 1845–1931 – Myrtle Fillmore
  • 1848 – Christadelphians
  • 1851 – Pearl of Great Price
  • 1852-1916 – Charles Taze Russell
  • 1854–1948 – Charles Fillmore
  • 1856-1939 – Sigmund Freud
  • 1859 – On the Origin of Species
  • 1863 – Seventh-day Adventist Church
  • 1865-1935 – Arthur Drews
  • 1868 – First Vatican Council
  • 1869-1942 – Joseph Franklin Rutherford
  • 1870-1922 – William J. Seymour
  • 1872 – Church of Christ, Scientist
  • 1873-1929 – Charles Fox Parham
  • 1875 – Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures
  • 1875 – Theosophical Society
  • 1881 – Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society
  • 1889 – Unity School of Christianity
  • 1892-1966 – Hebert W. Armstrong
  • 1906-1915 – Azusa Street Revival
  • 1914 – Oneness Pentecostalism
  • 1934 – Worldwide Church of God

If you are interested in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you might like my books:

The Watchtower and the Word

Prophets and Bible Teachers in New Religions

I just finished teaching a course on Contemporary Religious Movements at Tyndale University College. One of the things that I enjoyed about the course was seeing the connections between the different groups. We focused on groups that developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

What was interesting was that there were two basic types of leaders of the sects that developed during this period. I call them the Bible teacher and the prophet. There is some overlap between them, but most leaders fall primarily into one or the other.

Joseph SmithFor example, Joseph Smith, Jr. was definitely in the prophet category, not that I consider him to have been a real prophet. But the religious group that he created was based primarily on what he considered to be his personal revelations. No one could have sat down with just a Bible and come up with Mormonism. It is based on the ideas of their prophet.

On the other hand, John Thomas of the Christadelphians and Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s Witnesses never claimed to be prophets. They sat down with their Bibles and attempted to discover the truth of Scripture outside of traditional interpretation. Even if we disagree with the teachings of Thomas and Russell, we can at least see where in the Bible they got their ideas. They were Bible teachers, even if orthodox Christians might argue that their interpretations were incorrect. (Check out my book, The Watchtower and the Word)

The Seventh-day Adventists are an interesting example (See my post Are Seventh-Day Adventists Christians?) William Miller, who had predicted that Jesus would come in 1844, was definitely in the Bible teacher category. His interpretation was not based on his own prophecy but on an interpretation of Daniel. Now the explanation by others about why Jesus didn’t return in 1844 was a blend of revelation/interpretation. And Ellen G. White, the founder of Seventh-day Adventism wrote her books in the style of a Bible teacher. But she was seen, during her lifetime, as a prophet by her followers.

Oneness Pentecostals are another interesting example (See my post How Did Oneness Pentecostalism Start?). Their understanding of the proper baptismal formula comparing Matthew and Acts was in the Bible teacher category (taught by Canadian R.E. McAlister). But the development of a Jesus only baptismal formula into a rejection of the Trinity was understood as revelation.

The categories of Bible teacher and prophet are not perfect, but they help us to understand the different types of sectarian leaders of this important time in history.


This post originally appeared here.