Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Theoretical concept of a mode of authority in human groups. Innovated in sociology by Max Weber, the idea of charisma or charismatic authority is becoming increasingly important to the sociology of religion, in part because leadership in proliferating (and sometimes highly controversial) new religious movements (NRMs) "has almost wholly assumed a personal charismatic form" (Bird 1993:76). Charismatic leadership is often associated with dynamic and volatile religious phenomena and with profound and sudden transformations of a spiritual milieu.

In Economy and Society (University of California Press 1985 [1922]), Max Weber distinguished between traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic modes of authority. The third is based upon the perception of believers that a particular individual possesses extraordinary qualities. Charisma thus denotes a relationship rather than an individual personality attribute (Wilson 1975). Charismatic authority nevertheless represents personal and noninstitutionalized leadership, although Weber employed the term routinized charisma to refer to the partial institutionalization of charisma through the establishment of specified positions open exclusively to persons who demonstrate personal specialty. Institutionalized charisma is also represented by charisma of office , which pertains to beliefs that certain officeholders, by virtue of occupying a sacred office (e.g., priesthood), acquire certain special powers or qualities. In contrast, the pure personal charisma of prophets and sages resists institutional influences. It is antithetical to stable authority lodged in fixed codes and customs. "Charisma, then, represents the extraordinary, the non-routine aspects of life and reality" (Hamilton 1995:142).

Priests and other representatives of institutionalized charisma are generally associated with received spiritual and normative ideas derived from existing traditions. "In contrast, personal charismatic leaders such as sages and prophets communicate normative messages for which they are the primary authors" (Bird 1993:76). Weber saw the charismatic prophet as a vital "agent of religious change and of the development of new and more complete solutions to the problem of salvation" (Hamilton 1995:142). On the other hand, some scholars have criticized this view as reflecting an idealistic "Great Man" theory of history (Worsley 1970). In any case, charismatic leaders generally are said to arise in unsettled times suffused with disorienting sociocultural change. In such periods, unconventional sects arise "composed of people who are fearful of the future, who hope that by placing their faith in some charismatic leader they will eradicate the past and protect their lives against unknown and unseen dangers" (Fogerty 1993:486).

Instability of Charisma

The volatility of charismatic authority and of groups manifesting charismatic leadership has been a persistent theme (Johnson 1979, Robbins and Anthony 1995, Wallis 1984, Wallis and Bruce 1986). In essence, charismatic leadership is unstable because it lacks both institutional restraints and institutional supports (Robbins and Anthony 1995).

By definition, charismatic leaders are not tied to institutional means that define and structure their accountability (Bird 1993). "Aside from existing legal constraints, few structures have been established or inherited to control the conduct of charismatic [NRM] founders" such as the Rev. Moon, Bhagwan Rajneesh, or Moses David Berg (Bird 1993:85). The absence of routinized structures of accountability fosters corruption in charismatically led "cults" (Balch 1988) and perhaps also in televangelical operations. In conjunction with the "deification of idiosyncrasy" (Lifton 1979), or tendency for believers to rationalize the whimsical behavior of revered leaders, the lack of institutional restraints also can facilitate other forms of deviant or extreme behavior, including violence. Wallis and Bruce see charismatic leadership as the enabling context for the sexual deviance and/or violence that appeared in movements such as the Peoples Temple, Synanon, and the Children of God (now "The Family"). The dynamics of charismatic leadership can thus "provide opportunities for charismatic leaders to indulge the darker forces of their subconscious" (Wallis and Bruce 1986:117).

The absence of institutional restraints upon charismatic leaders interfaces with the lack of institutional supports available to sustain leaders' authority. "Charismatic authority," notes Wallis (1993:176) "is a fundamentally precarious status" because leaders' claims to authority rest "purely on subjective factors." Followers' perception of the leader's extraordinary qualities may be situated and ephemeral. The charismatic leader must continually face the prospect that his special "gift of grace" will no longer be perceived and his authority will fade. Johnson (1979) analyzes a spiraling process whereby the steps that Jim Jones took in response to challenges to his charismatic authority brought into play new factors that potentially undermined his authority, and that in turn required new defensive responses. The leader's increasingly frantic defensive measures to shore up his authority and the unanticipated consequences of his responses contributed to the cataclysmic end of the Peoples Temple settlement at Jonestown, Guyana.

Charismatic leaders must continually be on the alert for threats to their authority from outsiders, dissidents, and rivals within the movement as well as from their administrative staff. The latter is generally oriented toward expanding the scope of its authority and rationalizing administrative procedures to the detriment of the leader's freedom of action (and sometimes leading to his or her actual deposition). As noted by Johnson (1992), leaders may opt to ignore this conflict, support institutionalization and the consequent shrinkage of their role, or act to resist staff encroachments. The latter strategy tends to maximize volatility, as the leader may engage in persistent "crisis-mongering" to keep the movement in constant turmoil such that stable institutional structures cannot be consolidated, hence the leader's indispensability is underlined. "Routinization may be resisted by perpetual environmental change and the shifting of goals" (Hiller 1975:344). A variation of this approach entails ratcheting up tension at the group's boundary to enhance internal solidarity. In the process, conflict with persons and groups in the environment is heightened. The lynching of the founding Mormon prophet Joseph Smith demonstrates that this can be a risky strategy. In any case, internal and boundary turmoil often tends to force out of the group persons who are not entirely loyal to the leader or who may be disinclined to endorse extreme (e.g., violent) measures in support of the leader's vision.

Lacking both immediate restraints and long-term supports, a charismatic leader will be inclined to protect his or her position by attempting to "simplify" the group's internal environment to eliminate sources of dissension, normative diversity, and alternative leadership. To the degree that the leader succeeds, one consequence will be the attenuation of the cross-pressures that inhibit group members from accepting extreme demands made upon them by an eccentric authoritarian leader (Mills 1982). The absence of both restraints and supports also may provide the context for extreme acts promoted by a leader who perceives his or her authority threatened. This may have been a factor in the 1994 murder-suicides in Québec and Switzerland associated with the Order of the Solar Temple (Palmer 1996).

An additional consequence of the lack of institutional supports for charismatic leadership involves the absence of regularized procedures for the transfer of authority, that is, the problem of succession . Thus, failure to effectively institutionalize the charisma of the founding prophet led to intensifying factionalism and ultimately to lethal violence in the Hare Krishna movement (Rochford 1985; Huber and Gruson 1987).

Roy Wallis (1984) has posited a connection between charismatic leadership and "world-rejecting" movements, which often have apocalyptic worldviews and envision themselves "as islands of sanity or righteousness in a hostile and degenerate world." But, "so great a break with prevailing society can only be justified by the authority of someone perceived to be truly extraordinary" (Wallis and Bruce 1986:122). Such movements tend to be founded and led by charismatic leaders, who will often resist tendencies toward institutionalization, as the latter threatens the leader's authority and will likely lead to a mitigation of the movement's apocalyptic vision and world-rejecting posture.

When an older movement, such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA), remains committed to apocalyptic prophecy while simultaneously becoming more accommodative in its practical stance to the larger society, schisms may develop whereby aspiring charismatic leaders develop their own movements based upon revisions of the original prophecy and linked to their claimed prophetic or messianic role. Such groups are also prone to schisms and conflicts between rival prophets. The notorious David Koresh (née Vernon Howell) rose to the leadership of the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the earlier schismatic Davidian offshoot of the SDA Church (Bromley and Silver 1995, Pitts 1995). Koresh "identified himself as the Lord's anointed and saw the standoff at Waco as the literal fulfillment of an intensifying campaign by demonic earthly rulers to destroy the righteous remnant" (Boyer 1993:30). It is arguable, then, that the most potentially volatile form of personal charismatic leadership is the messianic pattern in which charismatic leaders "identify the millennial destiny of humankind with their own personal vicissitudes and demonize any opposition to their aspirations and personal aggrandizement" (Robbins and Anthony 1995:244). "Messianic" leadership combines the instability of charismatic authority with the potential for volatility and tension inherent in apocalyptic world-rejecting movements.

Charisma and Social Explanation

The precariousness and instability of charismatic leadership and its consequences in terms of group volatility, factionalism, and possible violent episodes represent instances in which the concept of charisma can facilitate the explanation of sociohistorical events. Wallis (1993) partly accepts the views of Worsley (1970) and Wilson (1973) that charisma is basically a descriptive concept that labels rather than explains the power of leaders and the submission of believers. Nevertheless, an explanatory role for charisma may be salvaged when violence or other kinds of deviance (e.g., sexual deviance) emerge within movements. Wallis (1993:177) suggests "that charisma has a greater role as an explanation of a leader's actions and their consequences than . . . as an attempted explanation of the behavior of his followers ."

It has been suggested above that the development of controversial new movements and noninstitutionalized spiritual ferment in contemporary society is enhancing the importance of charisma to the sociology of religion. Yet charismatic authority and its concomitants in terms of the tendency to view social relationships and organization in personal terms and to envision messianic termination of present evils is generally thought to be associated more with primitive rather than complex modern societies (Wilson 1975). Indeed, the controversiality of contemporary NRMs is due in part to the lack of legitimacy accorded to charismatic authority in modern society, where it is widely seen as primarily appropriate to the "unserious" realms of sports and entertainment (Wilson 1987).

Thomas Robbins


R. P. Balch, "Money and Power in Utopia," in Money and Power in New Religions , ed. J. Richardson (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1988): 185-222

F. B. Bird, "Charisma and Leadership in New Religious Movements," in Handbook of Cults and Sects in America , Vol. B, ed. D. G. Bromley and J. K. Hadden (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1993): 75-92

P. Boyer, "A Brief History of the End of Time," New Republic (May 17, 1993): 30-33

D. G. Bromley and E. Silver, "The Davidian Tradition," in Armageddon at Waco , ed. S. Wright (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 43-72

R. Fogerty, "Sects and Violence," The Nation (April 12, 1993): 485-487

M. B. Hamilton, The Sociology of Religion (London: Routledge, 1995)

H. Hiller, "A Reconceptualization of the Development of Social Movement Development," Pacific Sociological Review 17(1975):342-359

J. Huber and L. Gruson, "Dial 'OM' for Murder," Rolling Stone 497(1987):53-59

B. Johnson, "Of Founders and Followers," Sociological Analysis 53(1992):S1-S13

D. P. Johnson, "Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership," Sociological Analysis 40(1979):315-323

R. Lifton, "The Appeal of the Death Trip," New York Times Sunday Magazine (Jan. 7, 1979): 26

E. Mills, "Cult Extremism," in Violence and Religious Commitment , ed. K. Levi (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1982): 75-102

M. J. Neitz, Charisma and Christianity (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1987)

S. Palmer, "Purity and Danger in the Solar Temple," Journal of Contemporary Religion 11(1996):303-318

W. R. Pitts, "Davidians and Branch Davidians," in Armageddon in Waco , ed. S. Wright (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 20-42

T. Robbins and D. Anthony, "Sects and Violence," Armageddon in Waco , ed. S. Wright (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995):236-259

E. B. Rochford, Hare Krishna in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985)

R. Wallis, The Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life (London: Routledge, 1984)

R. Wallis, "Charisma and Explanation," Secularism, Rationalism and Sectarianism , ed. E. Barker et al. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993): 167-179

R. Wallis and S. Bruce, "Sex, Violence and Religion," in Sociological Theory, Religion and Collective Action , ed. R. Wallis and S. Bruce (Belfast: Queens University, 1986): 115-127

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978)

B. Wilson, Magic and the Millennium (London: Heinemann, 1973)

B. Wilson, The Noble Savage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975)

B. Wilson, "Factors in the Failure of New Religious Movements," in The Future of New Religious Movements , ed. D. G. Bromley and P.E. Hammond (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1987): 30-45

P. Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound (St. Albans, U.K.: Paladin, 1970).

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