Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Religious Movements of Protest among Tribal and Third-World Peoples

By Bryan R. Wilson | Go to book overview

6
Thaumaturgy Denominationalized

MANY of the thaumaturgical groups that we have examined rely on the charismatic gifts of a single thaumaturge, who by adopting particular pre-existing patterns of organization, particularly that of the tribe (in societies where tribes are large), may command a considerable movement. Such a pattern of organization is legitimated by the past. So, too, is thaumaturgical practice. Thus organization and practice represent cultural continuities and are mutually reinforcing. Such a new movement depends on traditional devices for the (sometimes considerable) degree of stability which it attains: on patterns of deference: hereditary succession; the gathering of followers at the holy place; and participation in occasions of reunion. Nor do these features immediately disappear even when thaumaturgical practice is embraced in a different pattern of organization. In some contexts tribal structure may represent too much of an identification with a now discredited past to be acceptable as the organizational model for new religious movements. Thaumaturgical demand itself persists even when the ends sought are innovative ends, learned in a new non-tribal social context. In such circumstances the actual style of thaumaturgy is likely to be ostensibly and conspicuously distinguished from traditional thaumaturgical practice, and from traditional forms of social organization.

All of this implies some immediate loss in stability. Outside traditional contexts, thaumaturgy attracts a volatile clientele, and its practice is likely to be local, transient, and haphazard--unless there are stable procedures and structures which new movements can imitate. Within new organizational forms, however, the difficulty which arises is that of socializing a clientele to the idea that flashes of miraculous power may be associated with, may even depend on, persistent commitment to a regular pattern of worship and a formal system of belief. It is in this socializing process that we may see the beginnings of an ethical orientation among thaumaturgical movements (most noticeable in urban contexts, for example among the Kardecists and even among the Umbandists of Brazil). As long as thaumaturgy was located in tribal organization, and undertaken for collective tribal ends, the volatility of individual clients was unimportant: communal solidarity ensured

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