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Lecture 17: Religious Roles: Prophet & Priest

May 7, 1999



How cultural meanings reflect and change direction of organizational interests of those who create, maintain and disseminate culture.

Weber’s The Sociology of Religion (1991 [1922]) is his fullest explanation of how ideas shape human action.

Weber assumes people pursue their interests.   But in their pursuit people use ideas.

Weber tries to show is how ideas come to define the very world within which interests can be formulated.

Weber’s focus of theoretical concern is human beings acting on their interests, as they understand them.


Interests always influence the development of religion but ideas, in turn, shape what people’s interests are.

Religious roles: e.g., laypersons, priests, prophets, magicians, and mystagogues.


Charisma: mainly a quality of the individual that places him or her above normal expectations and endows him or her with the authority to utter new commandments; it is a relational concept because it comes into existence only when it is recognized by a group.

Prophet: "a purely individual bearer of charisma, who by virtue of his mission proclaims a religious doctrine of divine commandment."

It is "the personal call" that is "the decisive element" that distinguishes "the prophet from the priest."

The priest’s authority is based on his or her service to a sacred tradition.

In contrast, the prophet’s authority is based on "personal revelation and charisma."

Unlike magicians prophets claim "definite revelations."


Core of a prophet’s mission: a doctrine about how to live, not magic.

What most distinguishes the prophet from priests and magicians "is an economic factor": prophets (e.g., Amos) don’t get paid for their prophecies.


What distinguishes Hebrew prophecy is that it seeks social reform on religious grounds.

Jesus, Zoroaster, & Muhammad weren’t interested in social reform in itself. They were interested interpreting suffering—in other words, finding or making meaning out of human existence.


Most crucial mark of prophecy: the prophet "is never found where the proclamation of a religious truth of salvation through personal revelation is lacking."


Mystagogue: someone who knows secret rites of initiation (e.g., Gnostics).

Main difference between prophets & mystagogues: the latter don’t have ethical doctrines.


Two kinds of prophets: ethical & emissary.


Ethical prophet: primarily and instrument of the proclamation of a god and his will.

Since he or she is preaching what god revealed to him or her personally, the ethical prophet demands obedience as ethical duty (e.g., Muhammed).

Exemplary prophet, e.g., Buddha, is a man or woman, who, by personal example, "demonstrates to others the way to religious salvation."

What is perhaps most important for Weber about a prophet is that to a prophet, both humanity and the world, both social and cosmic events, "have a … coherent meaning." And to this meaning, the social arrangements and actions of human beings must be oriented for salvation to occur. For it is only in relation to this meaning that life obtains its point and significance.

To Weber, the ultimate metaphysical question is, and always has been: "if the world as a whole and life in particular were to have a meaning, what might it be, and how would the world have to look in order to correspond to it?"

Campbell & Pettigrew, "Racial and Moral Crisis: The Role of the Little Rock Ministers," American Journal of Sociology 64 March 1959: 509-516.



Race Crisis—Littlerock, Arkansas 1957

Issue: School Desegregation

Campbell and Pettigrew interviewed 29 white ministers

five segregationists

16 "inactive integrationists"

eight "active integrationists"

All ministers had segregationist congregations


Key conclusion: a large number did not encourage their members to define the issue as religious, nor did they initiate actions or participate in programs aimed at integration. And of those liberal ministers who defended integration and condemned those who supported segregation it was their "personal integrity" alone that led them to do so.


Crucial point: obligation to consider the expectations of their church membership.

"When an individual is responsible to a public," Campbell and Pettigrew wrote, "we distinguish three [reference] systems as relevant to his [or her] behavior:

  1. self-reference system (SRS): minister’s own expectations of him or herself;
  2. professional reference system (PRS): national, regional & local church orgs.,
  3. peers, friends;

  4. membership reference system (MRS): members of congregation.


Minister’s main goal: maximize support from all members.


Church hierarchy doesn’t want to see divided congregations, reduced membership or decreased contributions.

Informal rationales begin to creep in unnoticed such as "It’s okay to be liberal, boys; just don’t stick your neck out." "Don’t lose your congregation." "Things take time." "You can’t change people overnight." "You can’t talk to people when they won’t listen."


In such circumstances, the progressive positions of the national church on racial matters loses much force.


Three kinds of institutional responsibilities:

  1. to be a cohesive force;
  2. show an increase in membership; and,
  3. to encourage a maximum of annual giving.

When crisis occurs certain assumptions the minister makes come into play that foster gradualism. The minister is set up not to want to risk alienating those he or she wishes to change.


What Campbell and Pettigrew found surprising was that a small number of Little Rock ministers actually fought for the civil rights of Black people in the face of strong opposition from their congregations, threats of reprisals and lukewarm support or even "quiet discouragement from their superiors and peers."