Prophetic Charisma By Len Oakes:
A Brief Overview

by Shawn Sutherland

08-15-sutherland
Introduction

A valuable tool for the student seeking greater insight into the psyches of so-called “cult” leaders is Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, written in 1997 by Australian psychologist Len Oakes, Ph.D. This book offers one of the more accessible studies of such individuals by first examining the quality known as “charisma” and then mapping out the life stages he contends are common among “prophets” possessing the trait.[1]

This essay is an introduction to Oakes’ thesis and considers how it relates to the charismatic prophet of Jonestown, Jim Jones.

What Is Charisma?

The word “charisma” is derived from the Greek charizesthai, meaning “favor or gift of divine origin.”[2] For many such a definition may summon images of supernatural abilities. Yet for the purposes of this study, the term refers to that innate and irresistible magnetism which inspires a collection of individuals to follow a singular person, namely, persons they believe to be prophets.[3]

It cannot be denied that many non-prophets – including rock stars, actors, athletes, politicians, as well as many persons in ministry – possess this trait, so it must not be presumed that charisma is exclusive to prophets or that every charismatic person is a diabolical individual armed with an egocentric and destructive agenda.[4] But Oakes’ study of “prophetic charisma” is specifically an investigation into the world of “revolutionary religious personalities.” Accordingly, self-professed and self-serving prophets are likewise the emphasis of this essay.

Thus, once appropriately narrowing the focus of this essay to prophets, it should be noted that, since it is the key to the prophet’s success, charisma cannot exist in a vacuum. Instead, in the same way that a performer requires an audience, prophets are only empowered when their gifts are acknowledged by others.[5] However, the prophet need not worry in this regard. Like the moth to the flame, individuals lacking direction and requiring support (be it financial, physical or emotional), are drawn to persons with charisma.[6] And in some instances, observes Oakes while citing research conducted by Max Weber, if empowered to do so, the prophet may claim “authority by sheer force of personality.”[7]   Be it based upon force or charisma, this particular model of leader and follower has the potential to be a disturbing combination, since the type of disingenuous prophets at the heart of Oakes’ study, when subjected to psychotherapy, oftentimes demonstrated “little or no conscience or sense of guilt [and their] relations with others were characterized by a sense that others were merely extensions of their own egos.”[8] Moreover, prophets of this variety nearly always lack one of the most common of human characteristics – vulnerability. As a result, like a hollow man, the prophet in this equation, “is not a great man [but instead] he is a great actor playing the role of a great man.”[9] Perhaps more troubling still is the reality that such prophets do not come to be cast in this “role” by fluke. Instead, more often than not, these individuals follow a similar path to power comprised of five common stages: Early Narcissism, Incubation, Awakening, Mission, and Decline/Fall.

Early Narcissism

The first of the five stages is Early Narcissism which, bearing in mind William Wordsworth’s observation that “the Child is the father of the Man,” is in many ways the most significant. During this period, via the extreme attention lavished upon them by a caregiver, the child’s ego is inflated and its self-esteem strengthened beyond what is healthy. Granted, there are exceptions to every rule, but generally this egocentric worldview is borne of a child’s attachment to its mother.[10]

In the case of Jim Jones, the boy’s mother reportedly told him at an “early age that he was destined to be the savior.”[11] In addition, owing to his father’s physical incapacity, Lynetta Jones was forced to become the family’s primary breadwinner and a neighbor, a Mrs. Kennedy, became Jones’ surrogate mother, infusing into the youth a litany of religious concepts that further reinforced his sense of a religious calling.[12]

The end result of this type of adulation is that the child is shielded from the world’s reality in such a manner as to instill in it a sense that the world exists solely to serve its needs. Together this simultaneous adulation and protection serve to mold a child with a sense that they are somehow sacred or divine.[13]

This is of particular importance, since the dynamics of the child’s relationship(s) with the individual(s) providing this excessive praise invariably shifts over time. Thus, with the influence of their champion removed from their life completely or otherwise diminished, and with reality forced upon them in short order, the prophet becomes an individual who:

learns to charm, manipulate, bully, and calculate his way through situations that defeat others. Alone he denies his aloneness and defies the world. As one who refuses to grow up, the child somehow avoids the “reality principle” – compromise with an indifferent world – and his egocentric view of life remains substantially intact…The result is a remarkable autonomy in which the narcissistic child asserts his own perfection yet uses others to regulate his self-esteem, demanding full control over them without regard for their rights as independent people…The narcissistic child lives in a psychological world of his own creation, beyond or outside ‘normal’ reality, and virtually unreachable at depth.[14]

With these qualities as his basic life skills, the young prophet thus enters a realm in which “he is his own universe and only his body, needs, thought and feelings are experienced as truly real. Others are perceived intellectually but without emotional weight and color, without substance.”[15] In the prophet’s mind, others are but “extensions of his ego.”[16] Thus, and not surprisingly, the prophet comes to possess “stunted empathy for others.”[17]

This description of the prophet during his formative years is eerily reminiscent of Jim Jones. The adult Jones reportedly recalled “always being alone” as a child.[18] On one level, this is not particularly surprising. In 1978, a childhood acquaintance of Jones’ from Lynn, Indiana recalled in 1978 a boy who “would walk by our house and shout obscenities…[Jones] had special words of endearment for me whenever we met on the street near our home. ‘Good morning, you son-of-a-bitch,’ would be his greeting.” This sociopathic behavior was reportedly in full bloom by the time Jones was six years old.[19]

Yet even more significant than Jones’ questionable choice of salutations is the reality that:

Jim Jones’ confidence in himself was not based, as it is with most of us, on feeling loved and appreciated by friends and family, but on his ability to impress others with his fluent oratory… [T]his isolated youth early convinced himself, as he convinced others, that he was endowed with special powers and spiritual insight. [20]

Such a determination on Jones’ part to persuade others that he was literally extraordinary was no doubt rooted in Early Narcissism, the stage which molds the remainder of the prophet’s life. Specifically, the prophet is likely to perpetually draw inward for self-protection and, Oakes writes, everything he does over the course of his life may be one effort after another to recreate the “dynamics of [the] early narcissistic relationship in which only the utmost devotion by others is recognized as worthy of him.”[21] Consequently, in adulthood, “the prophet assumes a ‘divine’ role in order to get love from others, but the only love he can recognize is the kind of uncritical devotion that echoes his earliest attachment.”[22]

Thus, with his dysfunctional worldview firmly intact, the prophet proceeds into adolescence, young adulthood, and the second of Oakes’ five stages – Incubation.

Incubation

For the nascent prophet, the Incubation period is one of tribulation, permeated by “testing and trial…searching and confusion…[and] prolonged crisis.”[23] During this period, the narcissistic individual learns some painful truths about himself. He “discovers he is different from others,” but rather than learning how to modify his personality and behaviors in order to properly assimilate into society, the prophet “develops a ‘myth of calling’ to explain this difference in an ego-flattering way.” Thus, the mantra of this period becomes, “I am nothing and I should be everything.”[24]

Granted, even non-prophetic individuals navigate their way through adolescence with such a dysfunctional and self-centered worldview. However, what is distinctive about this period for prophets is that it often extends well into the years in which they are supposed to be finding stability and purpose in their lives and coming to terms with the reality that the world does not revolve around them. This understanding of life does not hold for prophets. Instead, for them, “this period is one of “continual change” in which, instead of finding a stable career, their primary focus is their certainty that they are ordained to fulfill “some higher purpose [in] their lives.”[25] This certainly describes Jim Jones as a young man in what would be termed his Incubation period. He changed denominations more than once, began and abandoned several entrepreneurial endeavors, and – even after settling into the role of full time minister – seemingly spent much of his time searching for that elusive something that presumably lay just over the next hill.[26]

If the prophet does find the “something” for which he is striving, as did Jones eventually, it is said that he has then entered the third stage of Oakes’ model, Awakening.

Awakening

The Awakening stage, in which the prophet not only embraces but finds a final justification for their role as “God’s messenger,” is perhaps the least important of the five stages.[27] This is because – in addition to sometimes being a willed act – it is not necessarily a “single life-changing transformation” but instead is comprised of a “sequence of related events” through which the prophet gains a “new understanding of the nature of ultimate reality and of their destinies.”[28] This new understanding leads them to “abandon old roles and behaviors, and adopt new ones.”[29] This awakening need not be – and usually is not – anything mystical. Instead, it can be any event or series of events that “represents the culmination of a long struggle to solve deep personal conflicts”[30] In sum, it is during this stage that the prophet finally finds what he believes to be his higher purpose in life, the elusive something that justifies his long-held conviction that he is divine.

Although we can never know for certain, Jones’ awakening may have come in 1961 when, after convincing himself that Indianapolis would be annihilated in a nuclear war, he read in Esquire magazine that the area around Ukiah in Northern California would survive such a holocaust.[31] It was there that he relocated his Peoples Temple, and there that he engaged himself full force in what he believed was his mission.

Mission

“A charismatic prophet at the height of his power is an awesome figure,” Oakes writes of the fourth period, Mission. “[T]he prophet heads an organization committed to the dissemination of his or her teaching, and is acknowledged by [their] followers as the source of their ultimate good.”[32]

While an initial reading of this description might be perceived as positive, the negatives are numerous. Instead of a system in which God is the final arbiter, the model described is one wherein the central focus is a prophet driven by power, a power derived from followers who worship the prophet. By empowering the prophet in this manner, and thereby creating an environment that serves as the ultimate salve for the psychological wounds stemming from the Early Narcissism phase, the prophet now “is able to demonstrate on a daily basis his extraordinary abilities.”[33]

By degree, these abilities may generate some positives. Many of Jim Jones’ congregants, who may have otherwise been neglected by society, believed they had truly found a family inside of Peoples Temple who would care for their needs. Yet, as with other narcissistic leaders, Jones manifested the negatives as well, his dark side countering the positive effect of belonging. He tended a flock comprised of individuals he still envisioned as nothing more than appendages of his ego and, as is true with the textbook prophet, his “acceptance of others exist[ed] only as long as his own needs [were] being fulfilled.”[34] By this point, the prophet’s needs may only be satiated in the literal abuse – either physically, mentally or both – of the very people he claims to love. Yet, since the extent to which the prophet’s followers identify with the work they are corporately performing, there is the very real danger that they will cease to hold their leader accountable for his actions and accept whatever punishment he deems they deserve.[35] Thus, the prophet comes to view himself not only as infallible but unaccountable. In turn, his followers come to harbor for their leader a “mixture of love and hate, envy and fear, trust and suspicion [that] is never far from the surface.”[36] As a result, the prophet becomes obsessed with the idea of disloyalty among his followers and eventually “is under constant pressure from his followers and he risks becoming preoccupied with issues of power.”[37]

Jim Jones and Peoples Temple were a textbook example of this cycle. The instances of Jones’ penchant for systematic abuse of his congregants have been sufficiently revisited in the years since the Jonestown tragedy of 1978, so they will not be examined again here. However, the simple fact that such abuse did occur is important because – in the instances where a prophet actually enters into the Decline/Fall stage – the actions in which he has engaged during the Mission period nearly always serve as the triggering mechanism that engages this final stage.

Decline Or Fall

The Old Testament Book of Numbers tells us that, “you may be sure that your sin will find you out.”[38] In many ways, this is the underlying theme of the Decline/Fall stage. Specifically, this last stage is nearly always the result of the “arbitrary excesses, stemming from [the] grandiosity” that have come to define the prophet’s life. Thus, the prophet is placed “on a collision course with reality” that he has been able to avoid up to this point via either his excesses or his various psychological defense mechanisms.[39]

In many instances, such a collision will simply mean the scattering of the prophet’s flock and the end of his days as their shepherd. However, if laws have been broken, it may also result in the prophet’s incarceration. In the most extreme cases, death may be the final result.

In the case of Jim Jones, his Decline/Fall began in August 1977, with the publication of an article in New West Magazine. Quoting former Temple loyalists who became disaffected from the church, the article alleged that the Temple’s prophet was a power-mad dictator who had both abused the members of his congregation and misappropriated their property. This article prompted Jones’ immediate and final flight to South America, which in turn set into motion his final decline. [40] There, Jones would discover his own heart of darkness. As Charles A. Krause has written:

The Reverend Jim Jones in the final days at his Peoples Temple colony in the Guyana jungle was a figure who might have been wrought by Joseph Conrad. He was the paranoid messiah of a terrorized but devoted congregation whose end he predicted nightly at the hands of dark, encircling forces: the CIA, the Ku Klux Klan, racism, fascism, nuclear holocaust.[41]

Yet the decision to destroy Peoples Temple did not come from any outside force. Instead, Jones’ dark journey ended in what he insisted was an “act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”[42] In truth, it was a senseless and unnecessary act brought about by Jones’ egomania.

This is not surprising, since, as Anthony Storr says of ego-driven prophets like Jones, “Their aim [is] absolute power, and the ultimate expression of power over others is to bring about their death.”[43] So, as with Adolf Hitler before him, Jones’ own final solution proves that, while the prophet is oftentimes gifted with an “absolute certainty” that makes for “great leadership,” it is also a quality that “risks total failure … such people lack flexibility and have an all or nothing quality with only two options: success through strength, or destruction through defeat, suicide, or psychosis.”[44] Sadly, Jim Jones epitomized both of these extremes.

Conclusion

In the 32 years that have elapsed since the annihilation of Peoples Temple, countless prophets have come and gone. Thankfully, most have generated little fanfare and are today nameless entities known to but a few. Some, however, such as David Berg, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite, are as infamous as Jim Jones. And prophets will most likely never become a relic of the past. Instead, as Oakes notes:

Throughout history men and women have chosen [prophets] for special tasks [and] they will again.…What all prophets have in common is their opposition to convention and their ability to inspire others with their visions…the prophet’s power lies in his challenge to the most fundamental values and beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world we live in…therein lie a danger and also a hope.[45]

Will the knowledge of Oakes’ thesis avert another Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate ? It is possible but, as with anything that remains confined to the world of academia, such knowledge has not yet found a place in general public discourse.

Nevertheless, such knowledge would be the first step to avoiding the potential danger, if only by degree. “[A]n informed choice can only work for our greater good,” Oakes writes, and the hope is that an understanding of his thesis will serve to arm those prone to following prophets and “go some way toward making such informed choices possible.”[46]

(Shawn Sutherland is a graduate of Abilene Christian University, and lives in the Dallas, Texas area, where he has been involved in patent law for the past 16 years. He is currently at work on Barefoot Messiah of the Atomic Age, the definitive biography of Krishna Venta. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at shawn_sutherland_1964@hotmail.com.)


Notes

[1] Oakes, Len. Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997.
[2] Oakes, 25.
[3] Oakes, 25.
[4] Oakes defines a prophet as an individual who “espouses a message of salvation that is opposed to conventional values, and attracts a following of people who look to him for guidance in their daily lives.” Oakes, 2.
[5] Oakes, 43.
[6] Oakes, 35.
[7] Oakes, 28.
[8] Oakes, 31.
[9] Oakes, 37.
[10] Oakes, 45.
[11] Oakes, 50.
[12] Storr, Anthony. Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners, and Madmen: A Study of Gurus, New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 5.
[13] Oakes, 47.
[14] Oakes, 33-34.
[15] Oakes, 34.
[16] Oakes, 34.
[17] Oakes, 34 and 36.
[18] Storr, 5.
[19] Krause, Charles A. Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account, New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1978, 27.
[20] Storr, 10.
[21] Oakes, 21.
[22] Oakes, 21 and 34.
[23] Oakes, 21 and 74. Oakes further dissects this section by delineating six themes that are often common to prophets, in whole or in part, during this period: “a sense of not belonging to any group”; “construction of a personal ‘myth of calling’”; “splitting of the personality”; “radical autonomy”; “conflicts with authorities”; and “acquisition of practical skills appropriate to a later prophetic career.” Oakes, 21.
[24] Oakes, 97.
[25] Oakes, 76.
[26] Krause, 28-29.
[27] Oakes, 22 and 110.
[28] Oakes, 21-22, 99 and 111.
[29] Oakes, 99.
[30] Oakes, 112.
[31] Kilduff, Marshall and Phil Tracy. “Inside Peoples Temple,” New West, August 1, 1977; and Krause, 29.
[32] Oakes, 114.
[33] Oakes, 114.
[34] Oakes, 37.
[35] Oakes, 36.
[36] Oakes, 117.
[37] Oakes, 122.
[38] Numbers 32:23.
[39] Oakes, 178.
[40] Storr, 7.
[41] Krause, 25.
[42] Smith, Jonathan. Transcript of Q 042.
[43] Storr, 4.
[44] Oakes, 35.
[45] Oakes, 2 and 23.
[46] Oakes, 23.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on November 28th, 2020.
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