Charisma—Elusive or Explanatory? A Critical Examination of Leadership in New Religious Movements


  • George D. Chryssides York St John University



charisma, Church of Almighty God, Kelsang Gyatso, Sun Myung Moon, leadership, new religious movements, Charles Taze Russell, Max Weber


Although Max Weber’s analysis of charisma has been highly influential, it is not altogether clear what it explains. Using four case studies—Charles Taze Russell, Sun Myung Moon, Kelsang Gyatso, and the anonymous founder of the Church of Almighty God—it is argued that these leaders do not share any common set of characteristics by virtue of which they could be described as “charismatic”. To account for their following, one must look to factors extraneous to the leader; Eileen Barker’s notion of “charismatization” is developed here, showing how followers learn to be deferential towards the leader, and how hagiographical accounts are used. In addition, the role of the ambient culture is highly relevant, and the growing lack of religious literacy encourages seekers to accept a leader’s teachings insufficiently critically. The leader also needs to “maintain charisma”, dealing with potential rivals, and asserting the exclusivity of their teachings. Finally, the roles of media publicity and finance are highly relevant to maintaining a new religious organization.


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Author Biography

George D. Chryssides, York St John University

George D. Chryssides is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and York St John University (UK), having been Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton from 2001 until 2008. He has written extensively on new religious movements, and has a particular interest in Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recent publications include Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change (2016), Minority Religions in Europe and the Middle East: Mapping and Monitoring (2019), Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses (2nd ed., 2019), The Bloomsbury Handbook on Studying Christians (co-edited, with Stephen E. Gregg, 2019), and The Insider Outsider Debate (co-edited, with Stephen E. Gregg, 2020). He is currently president of the International Society for the Study of New Religions.


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How to Cite

Chryssides, G. D. . (2021). Charisma—Elusive or Explanatory? A Critical Examination of Leadership in New Religious Movements. Fieldwork in Religion, 16(1), 35–54.