On the Routinization, Bureaucratization, and Correlation of Charisma: Max Weber and the Mormons

The Theory of Social and Economic OrganizationIf 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 [1]. 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.    


[1] Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, and A M Henderson. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. New York: The Free Press, 1947



  1. I’m reading Weber’s Economics and Society over the next month or two. I guess this is one less post I was planning on writing.

  2. Adam the Younger says:

    I was talking to some folks the other day about the fragility of regimes that glean legitimacy from charisma, and after reading this, am scolding myself for failing to connect that to the JS succession crisis (though a non-state example).

    This line caught my eye: “a charismatic movement must find a way…to take the revolutionary and unstable authority of a charismatic leader and turn it into something predictable and rule governed.” One of my personal research interests being monarchy, I am led to think about the origins of European kingship – probably meritocratic, but doubtlessly with charisma playing a role. The development of states required predictable, instantaneous succession, so a new sovereign’s accession, once based on the decision of high-ranked men, became regulated and routinized.

    The connection I draw here (which I admit in advance of criticism is not well thought out) makes me wonder: In the LDS Church, to what degree was the routinization of prophecy a tool to legitimize leadership succession, and to what degree did it correspond to the bureaucratization needed to deal with growth? How does this compare to the experience other Latter Day Saint movement churches?

  3. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    You write “the definition of charismatic activity will be defined dramatically downward”. I think this is a fundamental characteristic of contemporary Mormonism. Members (and leaders) continually define revelation down. What people want to count as revelation now would have been something else entirely in a previous time. “Inspiration” has been replaced by “personal revelation”, and when our leaders receive “promptings”, they are interpreted as “Revelation”. Weber’s Routinization of Charisma helps explain how the transition from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young, and others, was able to succeed (not without incident but, ultimately, successful), despite a lack of prophecy. Indeed, being a Prophet came to no longer require prophecy. Obviously, this sounds untenable, but Weber makes sense of it. However, we are beginning to see a reintroduction of prophecy for Prophets. But this prophecy is being reconstituted in a very diluted form – mission calls, the organization of Stakes, the daily business of a global Church. What is most interesting to me is that while Church leaders are complicit in this reconstitution, it seems to be primarily driven by a general membership that has an overwhelming need for their prophets to be Prophets – to prophesy. Weber’s Bureaucratization is helpful here, as revelation becomes an organizational tool used in the conducting of the business of the Church.

    All of that is to say, thanks for spending a little time paying attention to a fundamental approach to understanding Mormonism.

  4. How light read is Weber’s book? I’ve been interested in it since I read Lost Legacy by Bates and Smith. I usually don’t enjoy reading books about sociology, so I’m not sure if I liked to try to read this one.

  5. Good reminder of Weber’s work. I think the routinization process was already at work after 1831.

  6. Niklas,

    It is pretty heavy reading if you are not used to dense, jargon-filled social-science writing. But the relevant pages on the routinization of charisma (pp. 358-386) are pretty manageable.

  7. I love learning that there are names and analyses for phenomena that I observe but don’t study. This is great.
    Musing about the routinization of charisma, it seems obvious that this is explanatory of the LDS church, and may also be a useful frame for understanding boundary maintenance including some of the more public excommunications over time. It seems that the institution is or feels under constant attack from alternate visions that have many of the characteristics of charisma. (With less confidence, I would suggest that the charismatic threats come more often from a conservative retrenchment direction than from a liberal progressive direction, but that’s an interesting point of discussion.) It seems likely that routinization of charisma, whenever it occurs, has positive aspects (harnessing, institutionalizing — the point of the OP as I take it) and negative aspects (defense, expulsion, withdrawal). Does Weber address the negative as well? [I know the short answer is ‘go read for yourself’, but it’s worth a question.]

  8. Isn’t Weber who talks about the priestly and prophetic in these terms? A new religion doesn’t begin without the charismatic and prophetic, but can’t survive without a “priestly” organizing impulse that follows.
    I don’t expect those who sit in Joseph’s seat to replicate his charisma; they are largely priestly stewards who preserve and expand what was established through him. This is not to say he was revelatory and they are not, but that there are different degrees needed for establishing vs. maintaining/expanding.

  9. Christian,

    That was my reaction precisely when I encountered this term and analysis by Weber. It gave a name to a set of ideas that I had been groping towards, but that I did not have the vocabulary to really think or write about. This, for me, is what the best academic writing does.

    To answer your question, Weber stays at a pretty high level abstraction throughout. He is more concerned with the top level organization of an institution than with the experiences of its membership. And, as a social scientist, he scrupulously avoids terms like “positive” and “negative” in favor of a neutral description of the social mechanisms that he sees working in institutions.

  10. I’m wondering if some more recent changes in culture and society, like the decline in respect for traditional elites and class structures and the rise of meritocracy, are weakening the inherent potential of routinized charisma for maintaining authority.

    It’s my sense that even church leaders themselves, however unevenly, recognize that their authority is founded more on consensual approval of their policy and administration (i.e., merit) than on rhetorical appeals to divine guidance. Of course the traditional rhetoric is maintained, but rarely is it made to bear much weight (esp. after the Prop. 8 debacle). And increasingly, when leaders do play the authority card to legitimize bad judgment (e.g., the LGBT policy bomb last Nov.), the negative response within the church seems to be moving perceptibly to the right.

    At any rate, I think many of us see an authority crisis brewing in the church, however debatable its seriousness. But might a general cultural decline in the valance of routinized charisma be contributing to this?

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Is the Church moving to the right? It seems not considering that on several issues prominent in the right the Church has made pretty significant opposition. Think immigration for instance. Likewise even on the LGBT issues it’s less that the Church has moved to the right than society leapt quickly to the left. (Recognizing that left/right dichotomies don’t really fit most of these issues) One can easily argue that on LGBT issues the Church is quite far to the left of where it was in the late 90’s for instance. It’s just the even as it moved, society moved much farther and with less patience with anyone who didn’t follow its move.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    Regarding Weber, are his views still held with the reverence they were in the 20th century? (I honestly don’t know) The one place I could never figure out the Weber structures applied to Mormonism was on Brigham Young, whose big achievements (in some ways equal or greater than Joseph’s) seemed very tied to his charisma as well.

  13. Sounds like institutions are prima facie evidence of a dearth of prophets and prophecy.

  14. There are two problems that I have with the post.

    The first, and least serious one, is that I’m not fully sold on Weber’s account of charismatic “authority”. He simply doesn’t much of an account of how this “authority” takes on a aura of moral obligation such that not only do we follow what the charismatic person says, but we also hold others to what they say as well. In short, I think he fails to unpack the social relations that constitute charismatic authority – I think Bourdieu’s appeal to symbolic capital (with which he meant to replace Weber’s charismatic authority) gets a little closer to what’s actually going on.

    More importantly, I find it interesting that Weber’s favorite word for what distinguishes charismatic from “routinized” authority is completely lacking in the post: Rationalization. Indeed, since this post just is about the transition from “charismatic authority” to “rational/legal authority”, the marked absence of the latter’s name seems pretty suspicious. What Weber’s account is supposed to accentuate is the irreducible differences and conflicts between appeals to tradition, charisma or reason. In these terms, then, a cry for more leadership by charisma within the church strongly tends towards a rejection of leadership by reason within the church. (I’m all for this, but I don’t think many others here agree.)

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Michael, this was excellent. A very useful lens though which to view much that we see in the Church.

  16. Clark, you are completely correct. I was not trying to say church leadership is moving to the right, but that the portion of church membership inclined to acknowledge missteps by church leadership as human misjudgment is moving rightward. I say that based mostly on my own interactions with Mormon moderates and even conservatives who are increasingly moving from effectively maintaining leadership infallibility to “we all make mistakes, even inspired leaders.” The latter perspective was famously given a bump by Pres. Uchtdorf’s CG talk, even while curriculum is doubling-down on the rhetoric of obedience to authority. The recent FPR guest post by a seminary teacher, “Steve,” shows that the new Doctrinal Mastery Core “puts much more emphasis on obedience and Church authority, as opposed to agency, personal revelation, or the joys of living the gospel.” Certainly this reflects institutional concern over shifts in membership attitudes towards leadership authority and fallibility, and I’m wondering if, beyond the recent historical and cultural controversies, changing cultural bases for authority might be driving this shift.

  17. Michael,

    This is one of the best posts I’ve seen anywhere in a long time. Thanks for the reminder about Weber’s theory. The shoe certainly fits in this case, better than most of us would like to admit.

  18. Aaron Brown says:

    “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.”

    This line made me think of my single biggest frustration from my mission, which repeated itself over and over again.

    Elders: “Mr. Investigator, PLEASE DON’T TAKE OUR WORD FOR IT. Please pray to God to receive your own answer as to whether Mormonism is true.”
    Investigator: “OK”.

    (a week passes)

    Elders: “So, Mr. Investigator, did you pray to find our for yourself if Mormonism is true?”
    Investigator: “I guess so. I dunno.”
    Elders: “Well, did you pray about the Book of Mormon?”
    Investigator: “Yeah.”
    Elders: “Well, what happened? How did you feel after praying?”
    Investigator: “Um …. good, I guess.”
    Elders: “That’s great! Now …. ALLOW US TO TELL YOU WHAT THESE FEELINGS MEAN…”

  19. In Mormonism there are two important centers of charismatic authority: in the prophets who lead the church; and in the individual members, many (or most?) of whom are converted through their personal charismatic experiences. It seems to me that part of the reason for Mormonism’s resiliency has been our success in decoupling personal charismatic experience from institutional charismatic experience. There is nothing that missionaries emphasize more strongly than personal prayer and the personal witness of the Spirit. Hence, one’s commitment to the church does not necessarily rise and fall with the charismatic persuasiveness of the prophet; personal commitment can be based largely on personal charismatic experience independent of the prophet’s voice.

    This decoupling puts pressure on church leadership to square itself with members’ personal experience of the divine. In order to maintain my connection to the church, the things I’m hearing from church leaders must be largely consonant with the sacred experiences I have privately and in my intimate friendships. I’m not suggesting that as an individual I can veto prophets’ teachings if I don’t like them. Rather, I’m suggesting that a prophet’s charismatic authority must be evident on a continuing basis in order to maintain its persuasiveness. It is dangerous for the institution to define charismatic experience downward. If I know personally what charismatic experience is like, there is a point at which I will find weaker claims of revelation less persuasive. In other words, the longer it looks like bureaucracy, walks like bureaucracy, and talks like bureaucracy, the harder it will be to convince me that it’s really something else.

    I believe that the rationalization of institutional authority can exist in parallel with continuing, genuine charismatic power. Both are necessary. A thing we ought to develop in the church is a doctrine of prophetic change. We talk all the time about continuing revelation, but we have no good way of explaining changes in doctrine. That makes changes hard to implement, and I suspect that it makes it harder for charismatic authority to speak from within the rationalized bureaucracy.

  20. WVS, I’m certain that it routinization was in progress for years before Joseph Smith was killed. The Doctrine and Covenants contains sections which routinize Church administration, such as sections 20 and 107, and contextualize charismatic authority, in, among others, sections 4 and 121. The combination of mind and heart followership (sections 9 and 10) couldn’t be more clear, and the limits on institutional authority couldn’t be less unclear (especially sections 121 and 134) Perhaps that is why the Church was able to stay organized for the migration to Utah.

  21. Sorry, I meant sections 8 and 9 with respect to followership, not 9 and 10, though section 10 is significant when facing assumptions about prophetic infallibility.

  22. Clark Goble says:

    Alex (11:02) I confess that I find the “infallible” category always a bit misleading. I think even the more “Bruce R. McConkie devoted conservative” acknowledge fallibility. The question typically was over when we should obey and not more abstract ideas about being wrong. Those of the “left” (theologically speaking) are far less likely to give the benefit of doubt to the brethren when the brethren do something in opposition to their political presuppositions. Traditionally (although not always) conservatives have tended to support the authorities. (Again I think left/right categories really don’t fit here for a slew of reasons)

    Regarding Weber I’ll fully admit that I don’t know enough to really say much. I’ve heard the categories quite a bit but I don’t know the evidence for them. An other question I’ve long had is over how much of this “charisma” category is from the leadership and how much is really more a statement about the followers. Whenever I see people raise Weber that seems pretty nebulous. Further, as the Brigham Young example shows, it seems like people can follow for different reasons. Routinization in practice (again not talking Weber here) seems more a question of habit as much as a charisma/rational divide. So I’ll admit to a basic skeptical stance which is why I asked how Weber is taken these days. As WVS notes, it just seems difficult to see this an either/or situation. That seems just as true in the contemporary era.

  23. Because I know nominally conservative people who have left the Church over an apparently liberal policy decision, I can’t agree that the benefit of doubt is stronger coming from leftist Mormons than rightist Mormons. I think using the political spectrum to gauge Church members leaves out so much, and risks so much else, that the metaphor is a dangerous distraction. The specific recent case revolved around the Church’s support of admitting gay boys to Scouting.

    I also see enough self-maintenance with respect to charismatic exploitation among the Q15 to be satisfied they’re aware and anxious about it. Anything that’s left seems habitual and invisible to them, and, honestly, relatively harmless.

  24. Aaron B,

    I definitely feel your pain on that mission experience. Every. Single. Day.

  25. Clark Goble says:

    Rob there definitely are places conservatives have broken from the brethren in recent decades. The whole Denver Snuffer apostasy is typically labeled as a conservative break rather than a liberal one. (Although again issues like spiritualism show the left/right divide is problematic – an other example of that would be the 19th century Gobeite movement) The end days issues up in Idaho the past year or two is an other. On more obviously political issues a lot of people had trouble with the brethren’s comments on immigration. There have been people on the right who disliked moves by the brethren on things like support of civil unions for gays and seeming to accept homosexuality as in some measure innate. There’s been tensions with survivalists and that whole faction that’s a bit farther right like Bo Gritz in the 90’s or more recently those ranchers in Nevada who took over that facility in Oregon.

    This is why the whole left/right thing just isn’t that helpful IMO.

  26. Susan W H says:

    Thanks for this post, Michael. I’m not familiar with this book. The post takes me back decades when I was a political science major at the U. At the time I had no idea who Thomas O’Dea was, but I took his class–I think it was Soc 101–on the advice of J. D. Williams. O’Dea introduced me to Max Weber and Talcott Parsons. Years later I realized what a great opportunity I’d had.

    I’ve been doing research on some minor but important characters in Mormon history. I’ve been attempting to explain a character by describing him to myself a narcissist–at least in trying to understand him. This morning I started thinking about the concept of charisma and whether that would explain the character’s appeal, at least to certain classes. Now I’m going back to Max Weber to learn what he can teach me about charisma.

  27. A third problem:

    I worry that Weber’s appeal to charisma might be a bit circular. He largely describes it in terms of success- Napoleon being another of his central examples. But it seems to me that success is exactly what charisma is supposed to be explaining.

    Basically the concept seems underdeveloped and a bit of a grab-bag, “other” category.

  28. Like Niklas, I learned of Weber mostly through the stimulating book, _Lost Legacy_ thanks to a BCC review here by J. Stapley. Rings very true.

  29. Real revelation is knowing the mind and will of God. It comes from looking to the Lord’s servants as you seek to follow the Lord. Not critiquing them, but genuinely looking to their words as revelation from God. Then, it’s absolutely crucial that you humble yourself, love others and serve them as Christ would do. Easing their burdens by taking them on yourself as you are able. A classical example is getting close to someone in need, understanding their needs and helping them significantly with your financial means. While emotional or physical maladies often involve our time and action on a personal level. In every instance, it’s a real sacrifice that comes with personal consequences that ultimately leaves the other better off — that’s real charity. At the same time, not excusing or ignoring the commandments, but teaching them with love.

    So you have the following pattern, plain as day in the scriptures and how the church is organized, taught every conference, but rarely do we live up to it with gumption:

    Look the Lord’s servants to receive God (oath covenant of the priesthood)
    Have Charitity to all (sacrificial true Christ like service)
    Virtue unceasing (commandments)

    The promise is revelation will flow endlessly. We’ll be confident before and know the mind of God. We’ll receive all the Father has. Exaltation, eternal lives, worlds without end.

    This book and the banal approach so many confuse for true piercing the veil revelation is just the perspective of an outsider and sadly an inside (who doesn’t get it) way to observe and describe how we latter day saints experience revelation.

    There are many of us who know better. That you or others don’t, says nothing of those who do. But I am sad this approach to the topic in anyway strike a chord with us members.

    I’m sorry for those who don’t have this experience in their mission. It would seem all the pieces of the puzzle are assembled. Maybe the what’s lacking for the real prophetic revalatory experiences is truly loving those you serve. I see a lot of missionaries talk of love and even feel it, but the sacrificial love that is willing to descend to the depths of hell for another can’t possibly make any mission experience banal.

  30. Another aspect of charisma has been the inclusion of members over time in a progression of programs and efforts to make us feel chosen and set apart i.e., introduction of the BoM, the idea of Zion as a place, building the Kirkland temple and the events surrounding its dedication, the Nauvoo temple and introduction of the temple ceremony, polygamy, and the renewed emphasis on being temple worthy with the increase temple building. Each event built on the instilling of charisma to bind people closer to the church as something more than just another religious community.

  31. Ben,

    Why don’t we just look directly to God to receive God instead of having to go through mortal men to receive God? Aren’t we commanded to not rely upon the arm of flesh?

  32. Nibley addressed the prophet/priest charisma/bureaucrat dichotomies in his “Leaders to Managers – the Fatal Shift” essay.

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