John Gordon Melton was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1942. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Birmingham Southern College in 1964, the Master of Divinity degree at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1968, and his doctorate in the History and Literature of Religions with a specialty in American history from Northwestern University in 1975. He became an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church in 1968 and pastored several churches between 1974 and 1980. For several years in the 1980s he served as a research specialist with the department of religious studies at University of California at Santa Barbara. In 2011, Melton accepted a position as a Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion. Melton retired from Baylor in 2022.
Melton’s interest in new religious movements emerged during the 1960s when he was a graduate student. He traveled in the United States, met members of new religious groups, and collected literature these organizations published that he made publicly available. In 1968, he founded the Institute for the Study of American Religion (ISAR) to house the material he collected on his many data gathering trips. His early fieldwork, which he undertook largely as an independent scholar, became the launch pad for his work on new religions.
Melton has been influential in the development of the study of new religions in three ways: he gathered primary information on a broad range of religious traditions, including new religions, he authored and edited numerous books and articles on new religious traditions as the field of study was emerging, and he was influential in shaping the scholarly analysis. His pioneering work is widely acknowledged by his colleagues.
Using ISAR as his base of operations, Melton pursued his primary data gathering mission. The institute was devoted to organizing, motivating, and producing research-based studies and educational material on North American Religion. By 1985, his collection had grown to a point where it needed dedicated space. At that point Melton donated 25,000 books and an equally large amount of related primary material acquired by ISAR to the Davidson Library at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As of 2020, the American Religions Collection had grown to 35,000 books and an equally impressive growth in archival and manuscript material as the library engaged in independent material acquisition initiatives and other scholars studying new religions contributed their primary materials. Many of these items in this collection are rare primary source materials that only exist in the Davidson Library.
One of the hallmarks of Melton’s data collection has been his compilation of encyclopedic reference works. In 1978, Melton published the first of many editions of The Encyclopedia of American Religions (later renamed the Melton Encyclopedia of American Religions). It was the first reference work of its kind, and initially, he authored all of the entries. The presentation style also was unique. Melton clustered religious groups into families sharing certain traits in common, especially doctrine and history. Among the many traditions, denominations, churches, and religious organizations Melton identified in the Encyclopedia of American Religions were new religious groups. At the time, relatively few scholars studied new religions, and the study of new groups was not a recognized area of study. Melton’s encyclopedia was one of the first secular, academic sources to identify new religious groups as a meaningful set of religious organizations for scholarly analysis. The ninth edition, with over 2,300 entries, was published in 2017 as a two volume set, with coverage of Canada contained in the second volume. Melton followed up on his coverage of religious groups in North America with global coverage in the Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices (with Martin Baumann). Which was initially published in 2002. The 2010 second edition of encyclopedia is published in six volumes and includes major and minor religious traditions around the globe.
Melton’s individual scholarship contributed to the early development of the development of a knowledge base on new religious groups. In addition to his encyclopedias, dictionaries, sourcebooks, bibliographies, biographies, almanacs, Melton published a series of books and chapters on groups and traditions such as New Age, Children of God/The Family International, Scientology, Old Catholic Church, Peoples Temple, religious broadcasting, Ramtha, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Church Universal and Triumphant, and vampirism. He collected some of his ongoing work in edited books, such as the Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America in 1992.
Other strands of his work addressed theoretical issues in the study of new religion, such as a viable working definition of the field, the implications of failed prophecy, the occurrence of violence in new religious groups, the impact of anti-cultism and counter-cultism on new religious group formation, charisma as a form of leadership. He also authored one of the earliest attempts to educate the broader public on new religions and the emerging cult controversy, The Cult Experience: Responding to the New Religious Pluralism (with Robert Moore). Much of his early work was based on data he collected through ISAR.
Beginning in the early years of the study of new religions, Melton raised a number of issues emerging in the field based on his data collection and individual scholarship. He argued that the U.S. is the most religiously diverse nation in the world and has been significantly fashioned through immigration, which is one reason for the significance of new religions in the U.S. At the same time, he observed that new religions typically were newer versions of existing religions. He used his encyclopedia to provide data demonstrating that new religions have been continuously appearing in every decade through American history. This position challenged the linking of new religious group formation to the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. He acknowledged the importance of charismatic leadership in the formation of new religions but also observed that many charismatic leaders failed. Significantly, Melton pushed back at the widespread popular notion that new religious groups were inherently deviant and could be grouped together as “cults.”
Melton, J. Gordon and Robert L. Moore. 1982. The Cult Experience: Responding to the New Religious Pluralism. New York: Pilgrim Press.
Melton, J. Gordon. 1984 . Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America. New York: Garland Publishing.
Melton, J. Gordon and Martin Baumann, eds. 2010. Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices. Six Volumes. Second Edition. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Melton, J. Gordon. 2017. Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions. Ninth Edition. Gale.