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Book Review - Prophetic Charisma

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 2000, Volume 17, pages 223-225. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities. 

L. Oakes. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997, 246 pp.

Charismatic Cult Leaders. T. Streissguth. Minneapolis, MN: The Oliver Press, 1995, 160 pp.

The link between these two slim volumes is obviously the word “charisma.” Oakes, a former member of a communal cult in New Zealand, later studied the psychology of charisma as a resident observer of the group for several years and then for his doctoral dissertation. Streissguth, a journalist and sometime teacher, has singled out eight charismatic leaders from John of Leiden (1509-1536) to David Koresh (1959-1993) to introduce cults and their leaders to juvenile readers. He attempts to distinguish between those leaders who exploited their followers and those who did not.

Looking first at the Streissguth book, the author’s effort to show abuse of trust and power by several leaders is apparent. The essence of “charisma” is explained in the brief introduction, but the word is mentioned only once more in direct connection with any of the cult leaders. The “magnetism” of a Father Divine or Sun Myung Moon tends to get lost in a welter of other details, including how many of the leaders changed their names for various reasons, as well as how their early beneficial community efforts were often downplayed later as the leaders became more and more subject to narcissistic demands and growing paranoia. In addressing a youthful audience, Streissguth should have recalled from his teaching experience that a concluding chapter helps to summarize and synthesize the major points made in a text. The absence of such a chapter here reduces the value of the facts conveyed for too many of the book’s young readers.

Oakes, writing for a more adult audience, mentions many of the same leaders – Hubbard, Jones, Moon, Joseph Smith – as he develops a theory of the life cycle of messianic and charismatic leaders. His own experience in a communal group plus his research on 20 groups in New Zealand gives him an unusual perspective.

Oakes defines a prophet as “one who (a) espouses a message of salvation that is opposed to conventional values, and (b) attracts a following of people who look to him for guidance in their daily lives” (p. 2). Whether male or female, the group leaders and prophets who he studied displayed a few common traits: enormous energy, grandiose self-confidence, fixation on a revolutionary vision, “phenomenal” rhetorical skill, and extreme manipulativeness. One of their key talents is social insight, their ability to read their audience. Combined with the other traits, this talent makes them potentially very powerful.

He also describes a five-stage “natural history” of the prophet that begins with early narcissism. In the second stage, “incubation,” the individual’s “differentness” from others becomes apparent and is tested. Next comes an “awakening” or visionary experience which leads to the fourth stage – a sense of mission. This is the point at which the public tends to become aware of the prophet and his followers. The final stage is the one in which the charismatic prophet declines or falls. Drawing primarily on Kohut’s work, Oakes portrays, in the course of several chapters, the development of the narcissist who becomes a charismatic leader. Leaders of a number of the small New Zealand cults, as well as some more familiar to American readers, serve as examples of Oakes’ thesis.

He also discusses the cult followers and how their needs are met as they become part of the group. Many questions are asked of new members, and their self-disclosures tie them more closely to those already committed to the leader. Later on, then new members are themselves committed to the leader, they have to continue trusting him even when flaws are revealed so as to justify all that has been given up from their previous lives – family, independence, and personal goals.

Oakes also provides a list of characteristics that differentiate messianic and charismatic leaders. Two of the more significant are 1) that messianic leaders tend to be regarded as highly consistent, whereas charismatic leaders are more likely to be inconsistent, and 2) "For the messianic the highest ethic concerns notions of truth and duty, whereas the charismatic'’ highest ethic is expressed in terms of freedom and love"”(p. 184).

Oakes has presented an informed and informative narrative about cult followers as well as their charismatic leaders. Even if the reader disagrees with some of the points made, Oakes has provided much food for thought about cults. His book is worth reading.

Lita Linzer Schwartz, Ph.D.

Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology

Pennsylvania State University, Ogontz

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 17, 2000