When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements

When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements

When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements

When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements


When the charismatic founder/leader of a religious movement dies, the popular belief is that the movement usually disintegrates. However, many new religions not only survive but prosper, despite leadership transition. In this book, prominent scholars examine what happened to eleven new movements following the deaths of their leaders, and why. An Introduction by J. Gordon Melton serves to integrate the case studies.


At the opening reception of the 1986 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Steven J. Gelberg and I found ourselves in a relatively quiet corner of a huge roomful of religion professors discussing recent events in the history of religious movements in America, and in particular that of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Gelberg's own spiritual home for many years. The founder of that movement in America, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Probhupada, had died in 1977; he had appointed a board of directors to oversee ISKCON's future course, but many problems had ensued notwithstanding. Still, ISKCON was alive and, in the eyes of some of its members, recovering from its problems, poising itself to resume adding its Vaishnavite Hindu spice to the American spiritual stew.

As our conversation continued we began trying to compare ISKCON's recent history to that of other movements whose leaders had died. The conventional wisdom has long been that most new religious movements are so heavily dependent on a single dominant personality that they cannot long survive that leader's passing. But the examples we could come up with on that evening kept pointing in the other direction: We could think of many movements that had survived for some time, albeit with struggle and conflict in some cases, and we were hard pressed to think of many that had indeed dissolved on the heels of the leader's demise.

From that conversation came this book. Gelberg here tells the most fascinating tale of ISKCON after 1977, reflecting on the larger issue of the problems involved in transplanting a religion from one culture to another. Eleven other chapters similarly track the courses taken by other religious movements.

A comprehensive analysis of the fate of new religions after the departure of their founding-era charismatic leaders awaits a major monograph that to the best of my knowledge no one has yet undertaken. This book approaches the question through a series of case . . .

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