In terms of Tolkien’s own use of the word “cult”, he was very careful to limit himself. In Letter No. 42, which he wrote to Father Robert Murray in December 1953, Tolkien said:
…The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism…
However, in Letter No. 211, which he wrote to Rhona Beare in October 1958, Tolkien said:
Question 3. I have not named the colours [of the remaining two wizards], because I do not know them. I doubt if they had distinctive colours. Distinction was only required in the case of the three who remained in the relatively small area of the North-west. (On the names see Q[uestion]5.) I really do not know anything clearly about the other two — since they do not concern the history of the N.W. I think they went as emissaries to distant regions, East and South, far out of Númenórean range: missionaries to ‘enemy-occupied’ lands, as it were. What success they had I do not know; but I fear that they failed, as Saruman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and ‘magic’ traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron.
In June 1972 Tolkien wrote in a letter (this excerpt is numbered 338) to Father Douglas Carter:
…have written nothing beyond the first few years of the Fourth Age. (Except the beginning of a tale supposed to refer to the end of the reign of Eldaron about 100 years after the death of Aragorn. Then I of course discovered that the King’s Peace would contain no tales worth recounting; and his wars would have little interest after the overthrow of Sauron; but that almost certainly a restlessness would appear about then, owing to the (it seems) inevitable boredom of Men with the good: there would be secret societies practising dark cults, and ‘orc-cults’ among adolescents.)…
Of course he was referring to the text his son Christopher published in The Peoples of Middle-earth, the abandoned sequel that had a working title of “The New Shadow”.
Cults are a matter for much debate and speculation, but people are fascinated with them. For example, a friend of mine has published an article on the 10 most famous cults in US historyand it just receives an insane amount of traffic. People like to debate and argue about what is and is not a cult, but I think the most scientific definitions hold that cults are defined by beliefs and practices that depart from the mainstream of society. In theory a cult could transform into a major religion, and it has been said that all major religions began as cults.
In Middle-earth, however, Tolkien deliberately omitted the trappings of religion (a “fault” some find with his fiction, but I think they miss the point entirely) except in a very few special cases. Despite its uses of clocks, gunpowder, and chainmail Middle-earth is really supposed to represent a much more primitive time in Earth’s history, at least in terms of human society’s sophistication. The sophistication was still largely in the hands of the Elves and Dwarves, who had not yet been fully supplanted by Men.
Hence, there is not much room for mainstream religious exposition in The Lord of the Rings (or Middle-earth) simply because religion as we know it had not yet (in Tolkien’s conception) become a full part of the human experience. The most cult-like scene in The Lord of the Rings may be the Barrow-wights attempt to sacrifice (or murder) Frodo and his companions.
I chose a picture of actor Tom Hiddleston dressed as Loki from Comic Con-San Diego in 2013 for this article because when he walked out in front of an audience of thousands of fans the crowd went wild. Tom hammed it up and demanded that the audience say his name. They cried out “Loki” several times, growing louder each time. This type of charismatic behavior is often associated with cults, which can be built up around dictators, religious “prophets”, or leaders who propound any sort of ideology or lifestyle. Sauron might not have taught his followers to say his name, but may very well have (in Tolkien’s imagination) used a charismatic style of addressing the troops.
In “The Two Towers” movie Peter Jackson evoked a similar image of charismatic devotion when he had Saruman address his assembled army in Isengard. However, both Sauron and Saruman were relying on their native abilities to influence or dominate the wills of weaker creatures. A true charismatic cult leader will use ritual, pomp, ceremony, and endless repetition of doctrine to get the message across. We really see very little of this type of behavior in Middle-earth, but apparently Tolkien allowed for the possibility of its emergence.