New religions have often faced a hostile reception from established religious organisations and various secular institutions. In Western nations, a secular anti-cult movement and a Christian countercult movement emerged during the 1970s and 1980s to oppose emergent groups. In the 1970s, the distinct field of new religions studies developed within the academic study of religion. There are now several scholarly organisations and peer-reviewed journals devoted to the subject. Religious studies scholars contextualize the rise of NRMs in modernity, relating it as a product of and answer to modern processes of secularization, globalization, detraditionalization, fragmentation, reflexivity, and individualization.
Scholars continue to try to reach definitions and define boundaries. There is no singular, agreed upon criteria for defining a "new religious movement". However, the term usually suggests that the group be both of recent origin and different from existing religions. There is debate as to what the term "new" should designate in this context. One perspective is that "new" can designate that a religion is more recent in its origins than large, well-established religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. An alternate perspective is that the term "new" should designate that a religion is more recent in its formation, with some scholars viewing the 1950s or the end of the Second World War in 1945 as the defining time, while others look as far back as the founding of the Latter Day Saint movement in 1830.
In 1830 the Latter Day Saint movement including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith. It is now one of the most successful NRMs in terms of membership. In Japan, 1838 marks the beginning of Tenrikyo. In 1844 Bábism was established in Iran from which the Bahá'í Faith was founded by Bahá'u'lláh in 1863. In 1860 Donghak, later Cheondoism, was founded by Choi Jae-Woo in Korea. It later ignited the Donghak Peasant Revolution in 1894. In 1889, Ahmadiyya an Islamic sect was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. In 1891, the Unity Church, the first New Thought denomination, was founded in the United States.
In 1893, the first Parliament of the World's Religions was held in Chicago. The conference included NRMs of the time such as spiritualism and Christian Science. The latter was represented by its founder Mary Baker Eddy. Henry Harris Jessup addressing the meeting was the first to mention the Bahá'í Faith in the United States. Also attending were Soyen Shaku, the "First American Ancestor" of Zen, the Buddhist preacher Anagarika Dharmapala, and the Jain preacher Virchand Gandhi. This conference gave Asian religious teachers their first wide American audience.
In 1911, the Nazareth Baptist Church, the first and one of the largest modern African initiated churches, was founded by Isaiah Shembe in South Africa. The 1930s saw the rise of the Nation of Islam and the Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States; the Rastafari movement in Jamaica; Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo in Vietnam; Soka Gakkai in Japan; and Yiguandao in China.