Chapter 4 of Prophecies and Penalties, and charismatic Instruments

Ethan Knowles may be married to Emily’s former babysitter, but he’s got a history, a history that makes Emily not sure she can trust him. Still, for the moment, he’s the best source she has for what’s going on with the Children of the New Revelation. And as it turns out, he’s not the creepiest thing Emily’s going to encounter. Read all about it in chapter four of Prophecies and Penalties, “Who’s the killer?”

Weber is considered one of the founders of Sociology

Max Weber (picture taken 1894)

As I’ve mentioned once before, the sociologist Max Weber (1864 – 1920) is best known for his distinction between charismatic and bureaucratic forms of authority. Charismatic figures lead by inspiration; bureaucratic authority is governed by rules. Many movements begin with a charismatic leader. When that leader dies, the followers either disperse and the movement ends, they find a new charismatic leader (a rare event), or they try to encode the leader’s views into rules and devise a procedure for selecting successors. The successors rule not by their own charisma, but rather because they were selected by the rules, are officially considered to have charisma (even when they don’t), and enforce the rules. The best known example to most of my readers is probably Jesus of Nazareth, who wrote nothing down himself, and the Roman Catholic Church, the largest and most enduring collection of rules for both conduct and selecting Jesus’ successors as leaders of the movement.

Yet the possibility always exists that new charismatic figures will emerge in a society governed by bureaucratic authority. Say a new prophet arises who claims God speaks to them. For the bureaucratic leadership, this creates a crisis: unless the new prophet’s teachings can be brought into line with the existing rules, the prophet will become a new source of authority who can claim to be superior to the existing leadership. This is how many religious movements have developed schisms: the followers of the new prophet break away from those who reject him or her and adhere to the old rules.

Amana on a Sunday in the early 20th century

Amana on a Sunday in the early 20th century

Some religious groups have institutionalized the role of charismatic leaders who speak with God. Among them was the Amana Society, a group of German Pietists who migrated to Iowa starting in 1854, and founded a religious community there in which all property was held in common. They believed that there were people who were directly inspired by God, people they called Werkzeuge, or, as they were called in English, Instruments. Since they also believed that people might falsely claim to be inspired, or might be inspired by the devil, they devised rules to identify and manage true Instruments. That included rules to discipline them, even punish them, if they got out of line. And they devised a thirteen member Great Council of the Brethren to provide the bureaucratic authority to run the community on a day-by-day basis. While the Instruments had the final word, they were not expected to comment on most matters. This scheme worked well enough for the Amana Society, at least until their last nineteenth-century Instrument died in 1883.

It should be obvious that I’ve swiped some ideas from the Amana Society for my Children of the New Revelation. But don’t let that fool you into thinking the two are the same, or even very similar. The Children run by different rules. And as we’ll see, the issue of authority among them has become confusing with the appearance of the Prophesied One.

Amana is ready for tourists

Amana is ready for tourists

Amana still endures as a community today, but not in the same form. The attractions of the outside world, and the lack of guidance from any Instrument after the last nineteenth-century one died in 1883, led to dissatisfaction among members and a dissolution of the communal organization in 1932. Much of their business was set up as the for-profit Amana Corporation, well-known for their refrigerators and air conditioners. But that company was sold to private investors in 1950, and is now part of the Whirlpool Corporation. And the town has become a tourist attraction, trading on its unique past. Yet there are still those of the faith who live and worship in the seven Amana villages.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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9 Responses to Chapter 4 of Prophecies and Penalties, and charismatic Instruments

  1. danagpeleg1 says:

    I visited the place with my family on our trip across the US in 2009. I really enjoyed it! It felt very much like an old Kibbutz, except for the religious part.

  2. crimsonprose says:

    Another interesting article. I must admit, although the name isn’t entirely unfamiliar to me, I knew nothing about them. Certainly not the Whirlpool association. Thank you.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      You’re welcome. There were quite a few German religious groups, mostly pietist, that came to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. The settlers of the Ephrata Cloisters (Pennsylvania), Aurora (Oregon) and Bethel (Missouri) and the Separatists of Zoar (Ohio) and Rappites of Economy (Pennsylvania) were all Germans-speaking religious communitarians.

      • crimsonprose says:

        And I have trouble getting to grips with Wesleyians and Nonconformists! So many sects. Leaves me politely speechless..

        • Brian Bixby says:

          Well, the short version of what happened with most of these groups is that they were the nonconformists of Germany, rebelling against what they saw as the spiritually sterile state churches, whether Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist. Every so often, one of the German princes would clamp down on these pietists, and they’d pack up and come to the U.S. The Separatists of Zoar pretty much captured the problem in their name: they had separated from the state church in their native German principality.

          • crimsonprose says:

            You know in Britain there is this head-scratching over the fervent Christianity found in the States.Yet it becomes understandable when we remember that the religious sects here that were scorned if not outright persecuted all headed off to America. I guess we in England are the obedient ones who, no matter private beliefs, kept their mouths shut and heads down. And now the Christian religion here is all but dead.
            Ironic, in a way, that one of my ancestors fled France to escape religious persecution (he was a Huguenot).

            • Brian Bixby says:

              It’s a bit of a mystery to me, too, because historically that fervent faith comes and goes in waves. In my own family, the saying goes that we’re all either fanatics or skeptics.

              The Huguenots, specifically the Camisards, are usually credited as a major influence that led to the Shakers arising in Manchester, before they came to this country. And the home town politician I’ve occasionally mentioned, George Boutwell, well, his surname is either Huguenot in origin or Norman, depending on who you talk to.

              • crimsonprose says:

                As an armchair historian I really do agree with that truism, that the more you learn, the more you realise you know nothing. Although we all have our areas of ‘expertise’ and certainly C18th & C19th are not mine.

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