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He Wrote the Book on American Religions

Times Staff Writer

It’s often said of academics, but for J. Gordon Melton it’s true: He really does have an encyclopedic mind.

After all, Melton is the author of the Encyclopedia of American Religions, the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology and the Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena.

Then, for fun, there’s “The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead.”

“It’s my little niche,” Melton said.

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Actually, it’s a big niche.

Erudite and eternally curious, Melton, 64, is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on religion (and vampires too, but more on that later). The research specialist with the department of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara has written 30 books and co-written or edited 17 more, all of which are expansive and eclectic, and weave a colorful and diverse history of the currents of spiritual worship and tensions around the world.

Sauntering through the aisles of his collection of 40,000 volumes, now housed at UC Santa Barbara, he tried to explain his need to classify religions, the myriad ways people recognize a higher power.

“In 1900 there were 330 different religious groups,” he said. “Now, there are over 2,000, and I find every one of them incredibly interesting.”

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Melton speaks sparingly about his personal life, but his rigorously documented books reflect a mind never at rest.

Ask him about, say, the West African evangelical missionary leader Panya Baba, or the satanic imagery in gothic rocker Marilyn Manson’s songs, or how Christadelphian revivalists depart from the Protestant mainstream, and he talks a blue streak.

On the Elim Pentecostal Church, Melton enthused: “It’s a group that grew out of an independent Pentecostal Bible school in New York. Basically, it started out by training leaders and organizers who went on to pioneer churches from scratch.”

His encyclopedias brim with thousands of entries written in a clean, crisp and deceptively simple style. Their prices underline the stature they command as essential reference works in universities, seminary libraries and theological schools.

His 1,250-page, 7-pound Encyclopedia of American Religions sells new for $320.

Browsing through Melton’s works leads a reader from one unexpected fact to another:

* With nearly 2 million members, the anti-Catholic Iglesia ni Cristo is one of the largest and most controversial churches in the Philippines. It was founded by Felix Manalo Isugan (1886-1963), who is venerated as the angel from the seventh chapter of the Book of Revelations.

* In 1989, the Indian government issued a commemorative stamp for a scholar and pioneer Pentecostalist named Sarasvati Mary Ramabai.

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* Established in London’s East End in the late 1800s, the Salvation Army now includes more than 25,600 commissioned officers serving in 190 countries.

“Melton does very good work,” said S. Scott Bartchy, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA. “My sense in reading him is that he has a lot of insight and information, and doesn’t belong to anybody. He’s independent.”

It’s not surprising that Melton has been an arbiter in matters of dispute concerning religious groups large and small, mainstream and fringe, old and new, for nearly four decades.

He also has been asked to stand with religions gone bad when they needed a scholar of both God and sin on their side.

In 1995 he joined a controversial delegation of American lawyers and religious leaders that traveled to Tokyo at the expense of some members of Aum Shinrikyo after that group was accused of a sarin nerve gas attack on a subway that killed 12 people.

“I was one of the few American scholars who knew anything about the group,” Melton recalled. “So they asked if I could investigate them to prove they had nothing to do with the attack.”

Five days later, however, “We concluded that there was a high likelihood that the groups’ leaders had done what they were accused of,” he said.

Melton’s fascination with vampires has landed him on the witness stand.

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In 2003, when Sony Pictures was sued for copyright infringement in connection with a movie about a war between vampires and werewolves, the company called Melton.

The plaintiffs asserted that the inter-creature relationships depicted in “Underworld” were their original ideas. Sony countered that movies had long paired vampirism with lycanthropy.

“Most people can’t come up with several examples of vampire and werewolf relationships off the tops of their heads,” Sony attorney Steve Mick said. “Melton can.”

Savoring the memory with a smile, Melton recalled: “The case was settled after I pointed out that the characters in question had been part of American popular culture since the 1950s.”

These days, Melton said, he’s “on the road about 100 days a year, giving speeches, organizing research projects, meeting with scholars and lawyers. I also do a little lobbying for the 1st Amendment.”

His steadfast defense of the right of new religions to express themselves has made him a target of leaders of the anti-cult movement, who regard him as an apologist for extremists.

Melton, however, likes to point out that nearly every religious group in America has, at one time or another, been accused of being cult-like.

Assembling his massive troves of information also has changed his perceptions about the roles and influences of religious movements in society.

“I’ve come to believe that coercion in matters of religion is self-defeating,” said Melton, who is also a Methodist minister. “If you leave people alone, the great majority will find their way to the center of one of the 15 or 16 great religious traditions.”

“And the ones on the fringe will not be nearly as violent,” he added. “Religious violence usually, but not always, comes from repressing religion.”

But why encyclopedias?

Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Melton was still in high school when he picked up an unassuming book called “The Small Sects in America.”

“I read it in one sitting,” he recalled. Then he gave up collecting baseball cards and started gathering data on American religious groups, from mainline traditions to UFO cults and Dracula myths, with plans to rewrite the sects book.

“I spent a decade doing the research for the project, and two years writing it,” he said. “It was published in 1979 as the Encyclopedia of American Religions and was an overnight success.”

Rodney Stark, professor of social sciences at Baylor University in Texas, still talks about the day he ran across an ad extolling Melton’s massive work.

“I turned to my wife and joked, ‘If half of what this ad says is true, this would be a marvelous book,’ ” he recalled. “Then I bought it, and it floored me. I could not believe what he had achieved.”

The book described nearly every denomination and the people who made them tick: Protestant groups from Anglican to Pentecostal, Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, neo-pagan groups and atheist associations, along with bibliographical references and mailing addresses.

“I quickly arranged to review it for a journal and then contacted Gordon, expecting to meet a frail guy of 80 who’d spent his entire life putting it together,” Stark said. “Instead, he turned out to be this young Methodist preacher who’d done the whole thing in his attic.”

Melton hasn’t changed much since then, except for his white goatee. He still spends most days at a computer terminal beside a pot of coffee and a record player issuing strains of his favorite bluegrass and sentimental Southern gospel tunes.

Later this year, Melton, who witnessed the 1960s civil rights struggles in his hometown, expects to complete his current obsession, a history of African American Methodists.

“There are 4 million African American Methodists in the United States, yet this is virgin territory for a historian,” he said. “That’s because the whites didn’t want to remember the blacks, and the whites were writing the history.”

Sometime next year, Melton plans to edit an especially daunting project, even by his standards: a biographical work on the 2,500 most important religious figures of all time.

“It’s time for such a book because what we know about these people continues to change,” he said. “For example, until just a few years ago, in America, Muhammad wasn’t considered a very important guy.”


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