If somebody asked me to name ten books that would help them understand modern Mormonism, I wouldn’t be able to do it. There are too many to choose from, and I could never narrow it down. However, if somebody asked me to name a single book that would tell them more about modern Mormonism than any other, I wouldn’t even have to think about it twice—even though the book I have in mind uses the word “Mormon” only once. That book is Max Weber’s The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, where the great sociologist develops the concept he calls “the routinization of charisma.”
The notes that became The Theory of Social and Economic Organization were written some time around 1920, but they were not published in English until Talcott Parsons published a heavily edited translation in 1947 . The central question of the book is, “How is authority legitimated in a society?” Another way to ask this question is, “What makes people let other people tell them what to do?” We cannot understand any modern society–or any religious organization–without answering this question.
And Weber offers lots of potential answers. Authority can be legitimated by heredity, by a shared ideology (such as democracy or communism), by kinship networks, and so on. The most interesting of these—and the one for which he explicitly invokes Joseph Smith and Mormonism, is what Weber calls “charismatic authority,” or simply “charisma,” which he defines as
a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers of qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader. (pp. 358-59)
For most Latter-day Saints, this definition will immediately conjure images of Joseph Smith, who is, in fact, the first example that Weber himself gives of the phenomenon. A synonym for “charisma” in Weber’s system is “prophecy.”
Charismatic leadership is one of the most powerful legitimizing forces in human societies, but it is also the most unstable. Charismatic leaders are unpredictable and revolutionary, which means that most charismatic movements fail when they lose their leader. In order to survive as an institution, a charismatic movement must find a way to, in Weber’s terms, “routinize” the charismatic authority–to take the revolutionary and unstable authority of a charismatic leader and turn it into something predictable and rule governed.
But charisma looks very different as a rhetorical tool than it does as an earth-shaking prophetic force. Routinized charisma worries more about the fact of revelation than with actually revealing anything, for it needs legitimacy far more than it needs new ideas. In the routinization phase of a charismatic movement, it is far more important to be a prophet than to prophesy.
When an institution is in this phase, a number of things may happen. In the first place, the definition of charismatic activity will be defined dramatically downward. Rather than making world-shaking assertions about God and humanity, leaders may make fairly conventional moral assertions with the force of revelation, lending the rhetorical force of charismatic authority to stable, traditional values. And yet within the institution, these pronouncements have all of the rhetorical force, and all of the cultural expectations, of direct communication with the divine.
Such institutions also expect a certain level of charismatic experience from everybody. Official guidelines might instruct people to “receive revelation” about all sorts of things–but these revelations will be carefully constrained by the institution. This often puts enormous pressures on members of the organization to get with the program and receive revelations–such that, even in the absence of genuine charismatic experience, people may interpret any subjective experiences as indicators of divine will, which the institution will often interpret for them.
In all such cases, the trick is for the institution to harness the rhetorical power of charismatic authority without unleashing the messy and potentially disruptive effects that almost always accompany genuine charismatic experience. Appeals to charismatic authority can be overwhelming within an institution even when charismatic experience is rare. Invariably, this leads institutions to focus on loyalty and obedience rather than on any specific set of principles.
I need to note two things here. First, Weber is talking about a wide variety of institutions that have found ways to institutionalize charismatic authority. His analysis does not invoke Mormonism beyond simply using Joseph Smith as an example of a charismatic leader, and not everything that he says is applicable to either the historical or the contemporary LDS Church. Second, none of this should be read as sinister or even negative. All institutions have to have some way of institutionalizing authority. In Weber’s scheme, an institution cannot function as an institution without some kind of authority that it’s adherents recognize as legitimate. Institutions gotta institute.
But Weber can help us (or at least help me) understand Mormonism better by showing the enormous challenges required to turn Joseph Smith’s ground-breaking and world-making revelations into a set of handbooks and teacher’s manuals. Prophecy is messy, and the authority it confers is volatile and contradictory. Large organizations cannot function under this kind of authority, so legitimation mechanisms of some kind are always necessary–even though they are not always pretty. Even a Church that was organized by God must be directed by human beings, which means that there will always be a lot of messiness and muddling through between the moments of revelation and transcendence that are also very real.
 Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, and A M Henderson. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. New York: The Free Press, 1947