Charismatic Leadership

Cultic Studies Journal, 1986, Volume 3, Number 1, pages 43-57.

Charismatic Leadership: A Case in Point

Natalie Isser and Lita Linzer Schwartz

This article is a psychohistorical study of the life of Theodore Ratisbonne, a French Jewish convert to Catholicism, who became a priest and founded Notre Dame de Sion, a religious order dedicated to converting Jews. Ratisbonne's considerable charisma is compared to that of modem cult leaders, and the social context in which he was able to find converts is contrasted with the factors leading to cult membership today. The authors discuss the ethical shortcomings of contemporary cult proselytizing and conclude that Ratisbonne was different from many cult leaders today in that he did not raise money for his own benefit and glory, had no philosophical plan to dominate the secular world, and was accountable and loyal to a higher earthly authority.

The world has had an abundance of leaders who, by force of their personal characteristics or their beliefs, have been described as charismatic. The description carries no value judgment, for there have been charismatic leaders in constructive causes as well as those whose ultimate purposes were construed as evil; those in the political arena and others in the religious sphere. One tool for studying charismatic leaders and their movements is psychohistory. It is not as empirically satisfying as contemporary social scientific methods, but the employment of research techniques used in history coupled with psychological theory and experimental data augment the insights that can be drawn solely from one discipline.

An essential quality common to all leaders described as charismatic is the perception of them by their followers as being charismatic, of having, as Freud interpreted LeBon's writings, "a mysterious and irresistible power"[1] that LeBon called "prestige."[2] The critical nature of this perception of the leader is stressed by Max Weber, and emphasized as well by Cell, Tucker, and Willner and Willner.[3] Rustow, however, points out that there is a "continuing controversy between those who see leadership (including charismatic leadership) primarily as an individual attribute or trait and those who prefer to view it as being determined by the situation...”[4] Barnes is one who takes the latter view, stating that "the leader is likely to live during a period of radical social change in which the values of the society have changed leaving an opening for a new formulation of religious beliefs."[5]

In such periods of societal transformation, as in nineteenth century France or our own time, a sense of rootlessness, of loss of identity, and feelings of frustration and alienation grip many. As social classes develop new antagonisms, as traditional goals and status are challenged, many cling to their existing beliefs and indeed search for an older orthodoxy with which to sustain their shaky value systems. In these environments there have appeared innumerable millenarian movements or cults.[6] Very frequently, these sects have either been led or dominated by a charismatic personality.

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Guru Maharaj Ji, the late L. Ron Hubbard, the late Rev. Jim Jones, David Berg, and others exemplify those characteristics delineated by Tucker.[7] All of them are or were convinced by their sense of mission and the correctness of their formulas for salvation. Each is or was supremely self-confident. Each in his own way believes or believed that he has or had the remedy for the world's evils and the individual's pains. Moon, Jones, and Maharaj Ji are known for their oratorical persuasiveness, a talent they have taught to their leading subordinates. Hubbard and Berg tend to communicate more often through newsletters.

Today's cult leaders tend to use ritual and repetition to keep their followers in a state of mind receptive to suggestion. Their beliefs and practices, including a view of all non-believers as a threat to the group, tend to alienate members from their families. We even question today whether some converts to the cults are fully aware of the commitment they are making.

Similarly, in nineteenth century France, the development of modernization destroyed the stability of the older communal loyalties. Both the peasants and to some extent the middle classes, perturbed by political upheavals, not only remained loyal to the mainstream religion, but, in the case of many apostates, returned to it because they wished to sustain their traditions and fancily stability. On the whole, they disdained millenarian movements and varying cults associated with them. The reason for this was that the peasants' religiosity was very often sustained and reinforced by rural traditions, which an active, respected clergy supported.[8] Although the forces of anti-clericalism and and-religious rationalism became significant and secularism became a dominant force in French life, the deeply rooted attachment to old ideals and myths remained strong. It expressed itself in a number of ways: in a revival of interest in saints, relics, and especially the adoration of Mary. There were reports after reports of visions of Mary, sometimes accompanied by prophecy, and some of which became accepted and legitimized by the church: La Salette (1846), Lourdes (1858), and Pontmarin (I871), as well as others which were allowed to fade away.[9]

The vast network of railroads and the spread of the mass press enabled devotees to learn of these manifestations and to visit shrines and rural chapels. Furthermore, the Church, sensing the emotional appeal of such loyalty, co-opted the grassroots spontaneous worship by accepting, partially or wholeheartedly, the apparently miraculous visions of the Virgin, by organizing confraternities (lay organizations of men and women) devoted to her service, and by organizing new congregations devoted to her worship.

A second reason for the lack of interest in individualistic sects was the development in both the Catholic and Protestant communities of a powerful evangelical movement. This missionary enthusiasm was abetted by an active educated clergy and numberless zealous religious congregations to which the government applied friendly policies, at least during the early years of the Second Empire. [10]

In such an environment, charismatic leadership appeared within the missionary movement among the clergy. One figure of the time, similar to the cult leaders already described, was Theodore Ratisbonne, an energetic evangelical, who himself was a product of the hyper-religious activity.

Theodore Ratisbonne

Theodore Ratisbonne was born in 1802 at Strasbourg, the second of ten children of a rich and prominent Jewish family. His father and uncle, Louis and Auguste, were founders of a large bank in Strasbourg, and, as was customary in the nineteenth century, were community leaders, active in the Jewish Consistory. Theodore's family, as frequently was the case with affluent Jews of the time, had assimilated to French life, and become secularized in their religious beliefs and lack of religious practices.

Within this assimilated and opulent environment, Theodore and his siblings were trained to assume their proper social and financial positions within the Jewish community, and with it, to accept the consequent charitable and communal responsibilities. He had no need to define his future identity as he matured; that was clearly delineated for him. He was to marry within the proper Jewish social and financial circles; he was to enter banking, the professions, or scholarly pursuits; and he was subsequently to assume leadership in the Jewish Consistory and other Jewish institutions.

As Erikson explained, personality evolves against the backdrop of family and community, through an internalized series of crises which gradually bring the individual to full realization of his identity.[11] Theodore's struggle for the development of an ego identity arose from his rebellion against his future role, and was fraught with guilt and repressed anger. He was educated as befitted his future role by being sent to a secular primary school in Strasbourg, but sought solitude by trying to run away. At the ages of thirteen and fourteen, he attended a boarding school at Frankfurt, a practice among the wealthy, where he was taught the rudiments of Hebrew, but given no religious training, and more important, where he associated with children of prominent Jewish families. He disliked the school intensely, and when he was fifteen, he was brought home. Shortly after, he was sent to Paris, where he lived with friends of the family, the Foulds, and was to be trained in the banking business. Years later, Theodore wrote that, although surrounded by the pleasures of urban life and supplied with unlimited funds, he remained a solitary figure, interested in nature and mountain climbing with its attendant risks. He hated Paris, and he hated the banking business. When he was sixteen, his beloved mother died, and he became depressed and "desolate."[12] Finally, in 1820, he returned to Strasbourg, still seeking a purpose, a future occupation, and his own identity.

Theodore remained confused, solitary, and alienated. He read novels and wrote bad poetry, eventually discovering his lack of Went. He attempted to study law, which he despised; he studied medicine, an equally fruitless endeavor. He even decided to study Judaism, a task at which he proved to be as incompetent as he had previously. Finally, bereft of goals and purpose, he was forced to accept a position teaching in a Jewish school at Strasbourg (a sinecure secured through his father’s influence).

His passive resistance to the plans of his father and his uncle for his future had been expressed in his academic and vocational failures, and his withdrawal from situations he disliked. He could not, however, bring himself to open rebellion. Theodore was restless, unsatisfied, and seemed unable to find his identity, even as a young adult. He sought answers to his existential questions, again according to his own report from boyhood on, in nature, in the synagogue, and then in the study of philosophy. While in this state of enervating indecision and withdrawal, he was induced by a close childhood friend, Jules Level, to attend a philosophy course given by Jean Bautain. Bautain himself had been reconverted to Catholicism by a pious, scholarly woman, Mlle. Humann (niece of the Archbishop of Mainz). Theodore gradually became part of a group dedicated to Catholic theological study, a group whose members were either Jewish converts or being proselytized (Isadore Goschler, another childhood friend; Nestor Level, brother of Jules; Jacques Mertain; and Protestants such as Alphonse Gratry, and others who became prominent clergymen -- Henri de Bennechose and Eugene du Regny.

Surrounded by the warmth, sympathy, and cohesion of his peers, Theodore was further directed toward the Catholic faith through the, friendship and advice of Mile. Humann. He came to see her as his mother "who baptised him and formed him in his Christian life."[13] Very slowly, both Bautain and Mile. Humann introduced Theodore to Catholic precepts. Bautain told him that "Christian dogmas are the development, the application, the fulfillment of the announced truths of Judaism."[14]

It took four years before Theodore assented to baptism in 1827, and so reluctant was he to confront his family that even then he withheld the news of his involvement. He continued to teach at the Jewish school, and with the encouragement of Bautain subtly introduced Catholic precepts to his pupils. Theodore's conversion was an intellectual one, based on study and thought. Emotionally, it lay in Theodore's desire to escape his fate and to ascertain his own identity. His was a loving family, however, and because open rebellion was so difficult, his secret conversion engendered feelings of guilt and ensuing self- hate. On the other hand, his new identity brought him praise, warmth, and even adulation from new friends and persons important in the French community. Ultimately his strong need to deny, even sever, his associations with the past led him to internalize his new faith, complete with its new theology, new symbolism, imagery, and prejudices. The total immersion of Theodore in his new role thus enabled him to resolve the cognitive dissonance involved in conversion. His new identity became so complete that gradually he became a different person from the alienated, introverted young Jew he had been.

The change in personality that Theodore experienced is analogous to that observed today in young adults who become members of modem religious cults. The explanation given for their change applies equally well to Theodore. Two important forces are involved that lead to a third. "First a strong belief system is engendered, a raison d’etre, a seemingly coherent system of ideas and values. Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the rapid development of a sense of belonging, of commonality, of being an integral part of a group ... These two experiences -- believing and belonging -- serve to produce a third vital effect, a significant increase in the individual's self esteem. The result is a person with a strong sense of identity, feeling good about himself ... with a powerfully supportive group, and a shared ideology, affect and catharsis."[15]

The revelation of his conversion to his students and family led to their consternation, anger, and rejection. Theodore was forced to sever his ties with them and leave his position. He found a place with Abbe Bautain, who maintained a residence for young Jewish male converts and students, who then helped or taught in a seminary for young boys in Strasbourg. In 1830, Theodore became a priest and began his move to prominence. His fellow converts at the residence did not take Holy Orders, and their accomplishments remain anonymous and hidden in the past. The psychohistorian is thus confronted with the problem of identifying those of Theodore's unique characteristics that propelled him into a position of leadership within the Church.

Weber, Tucker, and others have attempted to articulate the qualities of the charismatic leader. The subject studied usually possesses extraordinary personality traits that attract disciples and followers who accept his authority and/or leadership. He can sometimes inspire awe and reverence, and even, on occasion, love. The ability to arouse passionate devotion and enthusiasm can lead his followers to deny their bourgeois commitments to career, promotions, and Wary. Very often these leaders have established communal cooperative organizations rather than the more normative hierarchic structures. Authority is more frequently effected by a freely offered obedience, while leadership is sustained through intellectual and moral domination. The leader, too, is very cognizant of his hold upon his supporters, and he tries to maintain his personal attraction in a variety of ways, such as speeches, writings, and personal communication. Weber further defined the charismatic leader as one who attracts to his cause those who are seeking change either in their personal lives or who are determined to alter the social environment.[16] In addition to these qualities, Cell noted that the leader frequently extols an innovative program that exudes promise and hope to his followers.[17] He further cited the fact that the members of the new community of ideological followers view all those who disagree or are non-committed as either wrong or stubbom.[18] Another significant element in the attraction of the leader is his sense of personal mission, his supreme self-confidence, and the promise of salvation (political, religious, or economic) that he offers to his followers.[19] An examination of Theodore's career after 1830 reveals the personality attributes and activity of the charismatic leader, as so cogently described by these and other social scientists.

The melancholy young man had found his vocation, and became dedicated to the mission of converting other young Jews. His preaching became eloquent, and his scholarship suddenly became prodigious. He wrote a two volume history of St. Bernard which brought him his first recognition.[20] This study was supposed to contain the true account of the medieval church's attitude toward the Jews.[21] Associated with Coschler, de Bonne, and others under the inspiration of Bautain in the Archconfraternity of St. Louis, he taught in a school for young boys and attempted to proselytize among Jewish and Protestant youth. His patroness, Mlle. Humann, expressed the hope that a similar school could be created for girls. Abbe Ratisbonne showed, at this stage of his development his remarkable propensity -- for attracting women and commanding their total loyalty and continuing devotion. He seemed to have an unerring instinct for cultivating individuals who were emotionally vulnerable or who were seeking changes in their lives.

Mme. Sophie Stouhlen was one of the first of innumerable women who were to serve in Ratisbonne's community. Mme. Stouhlen was a financially comfortable widow who was very unhappy, grieving for her husband and inconsolable at her loss. She met Theodore at a confession. Becoming her confessor, Theodore also assumed the roles of guide and teacher. In her letters, she explained that her beloved priest had taught her "patience, and the capacity to accept freely and willingly the afflictions of life.”[22] Ratisbonne persuaded the widow to dedicate herself and her wealth to the task of educating young girls at Strasbourg. She worked assiduously in a school founded by priests of St. Louis, and remained in constant communication with Abbe Theodore, even after he left Strasbourg.

Another woman who became drawn to the priest at this time, and who was also to become one of the leaders in his future religious order, was Mme. Louise Wewada. She was the eldest of a family of twenty-four, heavily burdened with the care of her younger siblings. The whole family was present during the celebration of Theodore's first mass and were very impressed by the ardent young priest. Through his counseling and guidance, Louise was encouraged to attend boarding school and achieve a fine education. In gratitude and devotion, she remained in continual contact with her mentor. At the age of twenty-six, Louise returned home from school and, following the advice of Rafisbonne, she joined Mme. Stouhlen teaching in the school for girls. The two women lived and worked together in piety and earnestness, but neither of them had yet committed herself to the religious life. As with his other proteges, the Abbe wrote frequently to Louise after his departure from Strasbourg, a correspondence that lasted for fifty years.[23]

In 1840, Abbe Bautain moved his school to Paris, to the parish of Notre Dame Des Victoires. Ratisbonne, a devoted member of the Archeconfraternity, followed the group to Paris. in contrast to his pre-conversion behavior, Ratisbonne excelled in his performance as a teacher, and his success was rewarded by promotion to the post of director of the school, where he scored notable coups in converting young Jewish boys and non-practicing Catholics. In 1842, both his reputation and hopes were enhanced by the sudden conversion of his younger brother Alphonse, who experienced a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary. This event not only led to the reconciliation of the estranged brothers, but it reinforced Theodore's conviction that his conversion had been foreordained by providence, and that his mission was to bring salvation to his fellow Jews.

Mission Phase

The years 1843-1845 were those in which Theodore, aided somewhat by his brother Alphonse, became involved in his greatest missionary efforts. His belief in the righteousness of such a mission, typical of charismatic leaders, rationalized for him all his excesses and provided inspiration to those who followed his teachings. Fully convinced that God had chosen him for this task,[24] Father Theodore made a pilgrimage to Rome and implored the Pope to grant him "the task of attempting the conversion of the Jews.”[25] The Holy Father, Gregory XVI, conferred upon him the title of Apostolic Missionary and encouraged his work.

On his return to Paris, Theodore, in addition to his other duties in the Archconfraternity and the school, became engaged in a series of extensive preaching assignments throughout France, first in the various parishes of Paris and then in the provinces.[26] He drew massive crowds, who came out Of Curiosity based on the notoriety of his brother's miracle, but also in response to his emotional and eloquent appeals. The effectiveness of his sermons was reflected by the large number of converts. Judging by contemporary accounts, the Abbe was a most effective preacher, combining oratorical flair with intelligence, good looks, and zealous sincerity. Witnesses spoke of Theodore's "leonine head," the noble and saintly expression on his face, the great eloquence of his speech, and his general aura of authority. "He excelled in confession, spiritual direction, and exercised a penetrating gentle influence on females in quest of perfection," opined the many nuns with whom he worked and counseled.[27]

Theodore's enthusiasm for conversion of nonbelievers and Jews soon created opposition toward him in the Jewish community. All apostates and missionaries were disliked in general, but open enmity was rarely expressed toward missionary efforts unless there were questionable methods or anti-Semitic statements expressed. Jews regarded "conversionists" with distaste and contempt, but they were exposed to so much proselytization that most efforts passed without much comment. Theodore's methods, however, frequently were questionable and involved what the government characterized as "excessive" proselytization. In his case, conflict became inevitable; the first instance occurred over the baptism of an elderly man, Dr. Terquem, who was dying. The family felt the man should be permitted to die in peace and opposed his baptism. (If their relative ware baptized, it would mean interference in burial practices, as he would be interred in a Catholic cemetery.) Abbe Ratisbonne disregarded the family's wishes. He claimed that as a result of the baptism, Dr. Terquem "was happy and peaceful in his last moments because of the aid of the sacraments.”[28]

Terquem's brother objected, informing the Jewish press and the Central Consistory. The Central Israelite Consistory responded to the case by protesting to the goveminent.[29] The Archbishop of Paris, however, strongly supported Ratisbonne, and the matter was ignored by the govemment.[30] Father Theodore responded to the Jewish community in the manner of one who knows that he alone possesses the truth. "If the Jews had any knowledge of the joy of the soul reconciled to God, they would not persist in retaining the religious debris of Judaism, and instead of attempting to reconstruct an edifice of worm-eaten material, they would seek in the breast of Christianity, the true temple and the living religion of our fathers."[31] He also disliked Protestants intensely, for they were rivals in proselytization, calling them "religious speculators or Bible distributors.”[32]

The major source of irritation that continued to plague the Abbe and the Jewish community was actually over the most significant achievement of his life, the founding of the religious order of Notre Dame de Sion. A dying Jewish woman, Mrs. Wurmser, was baptized unknown to her husband and in his absence, and, just before she died, she turned her baby daughter over to the Abbe to be baptized and educated. Convinced that this event was a miracle, Ratisbonne began the active recruitment of young Jewish girls to be educated as Catholics. He started by bringing the little foundling to the Sisters of St. Vincentt, and gradually brought more children to them. The Convent soon proved too small for the growing number of children. He began to solicit funds for the construction of an additional chapel and school which was eventually to become the Mother House of a new religious order dedicated to converting Jewish girls. By 1842, the number of students had swelled to such a size that Abbe Ratisbonne wrote to the fifty-four-year old widow, Mme. Stouhlen, who had just lost her mother, to come to Paris to take charge of the school. So strong was her attachment to her priest that, at his request she distributed her fortune to her family, and left her home and friends. In 1843, a happy coincidence provided an opportunity for Louise Wewada to visit Paris, where she was contemplating taking her religious vows. However, the presence of Mme. Stouhlen in her new position, plus the prospect of working for her beloved priest changed her mind. She decided not to join the order of the Dames de Saint Louis, and instead devoted herself to the missionary work of the new school.[33] Rafisbonne's efforts brought many more Alsatian nuns to help the two women, and the nucleus of the new order was formed. Mme. Stouhlen would become its first Mother Superior in 1847.

The new school's program (later, that of the teaching order) was outlined in a small brochure, which stipulated prayer, penitence, communal life, and contemplation. The ultimate purpose of the order would be to visit Jewish families, to provide maternal home for their young girls, and to educate them. The school would provide scholarships for poor Jewish girls, who would be taught Catholic doctrine and whose baptism would be eagerly solicited, often without regard to their family's wishes. Such methods smacked, not only of insensitivity, but also callow disregard for Jewish family life. The Jewish community, angered at Ratisbonne's work, seized every opportunity to criticize his activities, and to press whatever action they could.[34]

Despite the apparent successes of his missionary efforts, Ratisbonne met many obstacles and disappointments. As with many charismatic personalities, he responded to adversity with full self-confidence, firmly convinced of his ultimate vindication. He had turned over much of his funds and business affairs to a notary who mishandled his money. The school, as a result, faced bankruptcy. "The height of my troubles was to see myself stripped of all my resources [which] deprived me from [sic] supporting the children I had adopted. I saw the frightening necessity of renouncing for all time that which had given me so much edification and hope. Until this moment I never had the occasion to truly appreciate the grace of saintly poverty and I had not known, in practical terms, the exhilarating impulses that the cross have [sic) to God's works."[35]

Facing bankruptcy and the closing of his school in 1847, Abbe Ratisbonne sought and was able to find new means of financing his work. He took fees for the innumerable sermons and lectures he gave (in the past, he had donated these honoraria to charity). In addition, he employed his oratorical gifts to solicit funds, and managed to collect enough offerings to keep the school open and functioning. However, the entire educational project of the Notre Dame de Sion remained plagued with penury and a shortage of funds, as indeed did most of the secondary Catholic schools during the Second Empire.[36] He warned his teachers and neophytes of the continuing poverty and lack of luxuries they must face. "As to our heavy cross, we must carry it while blessing the Lord. We must suffer, for without suffering, the cross would not be the cross, and without the cross, pious works would not be God's works... All our dames and our children accept, as the hand of God, the law of sainted poverty ... “[37]

His work enjoyed approbation within the Catholic community, and had been recognized in 1847 by Pius IX, who permitted the order to assume the duties of educating and converting Jews, training neophytes and the Catechumens. By 1853, the enthusiasm and personal magnetism of Father Ratisbonne had brought fifty-five sisters to the school, and by 1856, he had received legal authorization from the French govemment.[38] The House was not fully approved by Rome at that time because it was fearful of the effect of such recognition after the hostile climate of opinion produced by the Mortara Affair. The final and definitive status of the House was recognized in 1874.[39]

The Bluth Affair

Other trials, even more troubling than financial scarcity, occurred in 1861. Two scandals threatened the reputation of Abbe Ratisbonne, and aroused the anticlerical foes of the church. The first and most disruptive of the conflicts was the Mallet-Bluth Affair, which had its origins in 1847. The episode involved the Bluth family, German-Jewish immigrants who had come to Paris seeking teaching positions. Their eldest daughter Anna, lonely and frightened in a strange city, proved especially vulnerable to the blandishments of Ratisbonne, and she was easily converted to Catholicism, assuming a new name (Maria Siona) with her new identity. With Maria Siona's (Anna's) cooperation, Ratisbonne sought to convert the entire family. The father and a brother Adolph were converted; the mother remained true to her ancestral faith. Despite the mother’s objections, five younger children were placed in Catholic schools. Maria Siona (Anna), meanwhile, had taken a teaching position in Cambrai in the Department of the Nord. There she met the canon of the cathedral, Abbe Mallet, and became his mistress. The Bluth parents, discovering the existence of the liaison, became distressed. The father and brother abjured their new faith, and demanded the return of their children from the Catholic schools. The two boys were duly sent home, but the three daughters, having been baptized while still minors, had disappeared and could not be located.[40]

The girls had been secreted in various convents. The kidnappings took place through the efforts of the Abbe Mallet with the active aid, cooperation, and encouragement of the sisters of the convent of Sainte-Union, and also with the help of the Abbe Ratisbonne. The girls were recovered by 1861, after two were insane, and one was finally discovered in a convent in London. The Abbe Mallet was convicted by the French government of the kidnapping of minors and sentenced to six years of hard labor. Although Ratisbonne was not indicted for any crime, he was called as a witness at Mallet's trial, and he strenuously resented his implication in the case.

As a witness in the trial of the canon Mallet, he defended himself and his order by attacking the Jews, and declaring that baptism or spiritual law supercedes parental or natural rights.[41] He infuriated the Jewish leadership, who castigated him roundly in the Jewish press.[42] The anticlerical press also used the case to illustrate the nefarious consequences of the excessive and unsupervised proselytizations, and demanded government surveillance of the Catholic schools and religious orders.[43] Ratisbonne had been proud of his role and successes as a missionary; suddenly he was under suspicion, and many criticized his activities. He resented the damage to his reputation and that of his beloved order. To refute these charges and hoping to present his case, he published a brochure: Quelques mots sur I'affaire de lafanzille Bluth (A Few Words on the Bluth Affair). He hoped that this pamphlet and the passage of time would remove all stigma of the trial and that his reputation would be salvaged.

The Linneweil Affair

Unfortunately another scandal appeared, concerning a new case of excessive proselytization, which also involved Ratisbonne and further besmirched his reputation. A Jewish child, Elizabeth Linneweil, lost her mother at birth, and was raised with the father's consent by a loving Jewish foster family who gave her their name, Sarah Estener. She was educated at various Catholic schools, where she claimed she was pressured to convert to Catholicism. When her foster parents died, her father claimed guardianship (she was eighteen at this time). She suddenly disappeared (with the aid of Catholic neighbors). When she was found by the Minister of the Interior, she said that she had been sequestered at various Catholic schools and Carmelite nunneries, one of which was the school of Notre Dame de Sion. The nuns' rationalization for their deception was that Elizabeth expressed an ardent desire to convert. The Catholic neighbors were indicted and accused of kidnapping, and Theodore, whose school had been involved in the affair, was once again called as a witness in the trial at Riom. Although the Mother Superior of the Carmelite order was exonerated of the charge of kidnapping, the accused were assessed three thousand francs in damages.[44] Ratisbonne, however, remained undaunted by these attacks, even by criticism from Catholic liberals. He allied himself firmly with the conservative ultramontane factions and continued what he perceived was his ordained mission from the Lord.

Growth of Notre Dame de Sion

Ratisbonne continued working with his brother Alphonse, which necessitated his becoming once more involved in fundraising. Abbe Alphonse had founded a Chapter of the Notre Dame de Sion and its Brothers of Sion in Jerusalem to "assume the double task of expiation and regeneration. Expiation would be developed through incessant prayer and sacrifice to succor Israel's favor, regeneration would be carried out by the free education of Palestinian children, now being raised in schism and error.”[45] To assist his brother in the acquisition of additional property for his work, Theodore created a fundraising committee in Paris, headed by one of his patronesses, Baroness de Barante. Lord Fielding supported him and the Countess of Bourmont contributed her diamonds, again illustrating how compelling his appeals could be. Requests were made to found additional chapters; the first that Father Theodore approved was at Constantinople, and later others were established in England, Romania, Tunisia, and the United States. Thus, in spite of all his efforts, and the huge collections, he always needed more money to fulfill the ever growing needs of his religious works.

Theodore the Charismatic

Abbé Theodore was more than a fundraiser, and he was, as is true in the case of other charismatic leaders, more than a successful evangelist. He was a superb organizer and administrator, and he had the personal characteristics that commanded fealty and utter devotion. He had, beyond an of these qualities, other traits which made him an effective leader. He kept in touch constantly with his followers, exhorting and encouraging them through his talks, and a continual stream of letters, essays, and similar communications. Theodore's hold on his converts, Catholic, non-Christian, and non-believer alike, was enormous, and many proved their unquestioned obedience and love by taking religious vows and joining his order, He encouraged his converts to participate in religious life, often persuading them to leave their families. Such decisions frequently engendered familial conflicts, and great emotional wrenches for his young people.

He provided reassurance and rationalizations for his religious novices facing opposition from their families and doubts about their future. He explained, "The conduct that I outline to you comes from Evangelical texts that oblige children to obey their parents; when the Lord commands, they must obey God before they obey their parents.”[46] He added: "When our Lord called his disciples to his service, he said to them 'follow me!' They did not respond with objections. They did not say to him, 'We will follow you later, because for the moment, our family claims our devotion.' They marched with confidence. Their contemporaries called them crazy, but posterity recalls their magnitude and eternity postulates their glory.”[47] To relieve the anxiety of his novices, and to lessen the conscience-stricken novices' sense of guilt over the break with their families, he instructed them: "The blessings that you will bring from Our Lord will fall upon your parents, for more than you, they are making a sacrifice . . . Those who serve Jesus Christ totally will find innumerable consolations in his service. The sacrifice remains entirely on the parents' part ... The soul who has consecrated itself to the Lord, is subsequently to find the way to peace, to happiness, and infinite joy. Your parents have assured you this heritage by their separation; God will console their Christian hearts."[48]

Besides reassuring, comforting, and persuading his novices, he taught them as well. In carefully worded, eloquent phrases he described their role and tasks as religious figures in the Order of Notre Dame de Sion:

Mary has inspired our work ... You are charged to lead back to the Church, the descendants of the Patriarchs, and you must equally preach and teach on the one hand to the people of Israel and then on the other hand to the Christian people ... The work of Sion must be firstly that of the conversion of Israel; but it must embrace as fervently charitable works which remain closely tied to our original goals. You must join meritorious work with your prayers in order to obtain heavenly grace. That is why your constitution authorizes you to run boarding schools for poor students, orphans, and workers' children ... Above all you must love the children of Israel, for love alone can gain souls, and you must pray continually for their welfare, and for their union with Jesus, with Mary.[49]

Father Ratisbonne, who had been a teacher and later a director of a school, also delineated a program and a pedagogical philosophy for the tasks of his schools. He advocated the Catholic precepts of education[50] by emphasizing the importance of rigorous discipline. Religious instruction was to be integrated into every facet of secular training including all the arts and sciences, by stressing what he preached incessantly: the three major virtues of prayer, modesty, and obedience. Women would be trained to assume their proper roles in society as mothers, wives, and teachers.[51]

The schools of Notre Dame de Sion prospered in France, surviving the travails of war (1870-1871), and revolution (the commune). The number of nuns increased, devoted wealthy supporters brought financial subsidies, important social and political families sent their daughters to the school,[52] and its reputation was firmly established. Ecce Homo, the chapter in Jerusalem, became renowned; the orders in Romania, England, and Turkey also prospered. In addition to the many convents, schools, and priestly chapters, Theodore created through his devoted following of women, an archconfraternity of Christian mothers whose aim was to provide charitable assistance for the educational purposes of the order.

In one respect Theodore differed from the charismatic leader described by Weber, who claimed that the priest's source of command was based upon his role, which was sustained by the sacred tradition or institution. On the other hand, Weber declared that the prophet’s leadership was solely dependent on his own personal revelation and charisma. Therefore, according to Weber, very few prophets ever arose from the priestly class.[53] Theodore was a priest, but one who had broken with his own past faith, and who had accepted a different revelation of salvation. The revelation that he adopted and then communicated to his devoted disciples was new to him, yet was part of an older continuing tradition. Nevertheless, in the process of discarding an older belief, it was necessary for him to rationalize Catholic dogmas, in order to create for himself a cognitive, systematic, and meaningful attitude toward life. His constant writing was a reflection of his two internal needs: one to maintain his pastoral leadership and authority; the other to rationalize his own role and relationship to God and the Church. Hence, he maintained a constant stream of letters, instructions, and essays, in addition to the continued travel and supervision of the well established religious houses, to the end of his days.

From 1874 to 1880 he reedited the History of St. Bernard (which reached a tenth edition). In 1874 he published a book entitled Rayons de Verite, a collection of essays written for the Annales des Mer Chretiennes from 1866 to 1870. Two years later he published some of his sermons, Miettes Evangeliques, dedicated to his orders. He continued to send circulars to his various religious houses, discussing points of rule, or how to administer charity. Finally, disturbed over the lessening number of converts, he published a pamphlet entitled Responses aux d'un Israelite de notre temps (1878). Even though both brothers became enfeebled with age, they remained active in their correspondence and travel until their deaths in 1884 within months of each other.

The persona and attitudes that Ratisbonne absorbed were formed in the context of the nineteenth century French Catholic Church, which was theologically anti-Semitic. Judaism was regarded as inferior. Jews had been at one time elected by God, but now they were to be scorned because they were too stubborn to accept Jesus as the Messiah and they remained outside the true Church. In the Church's view, God punished them for their disavowal by dispersing them throughout the world and by causing them untold suffering. Conversion was the only possible solution for the Jew. Therefore, these principles remained a primary part of all Catholic teaching; missionary activity, whatever the familial consequences, was perceived as good. Theodore, in his conversion, also adopted this view, and expressed it well at the time of his brother's conversion. Theodore wrote to the Bishop of Paris begging him to forbid Alphonse to visit his home. "My poor brother will be surrounded by all kinds of temptation and his budding faith will be subjected to all kinds of entreaties, reproaches, and arguments." He ended his letter by requesting that the Bishop pray for the conversion of the rest of the family as the only way to end the great breach between him and his brother and their family.[54]

It behooves us to observe that his arguments were part of the mainstream evangelical tradition of the time. The Pope justified the kidnapping of the Mortara child (1858) and the Cohen boy (1864) from their families because the saving of their souls was ultimately more important than fancily relationships.


Contemporary sects and cults pose their greatest appeal to the adolescent seeking (often painfully) a sense of identity, or to those who are especially vulnerable, experiencing an emotional crisis, or loss, or indecision. Often the cult, the sect, the religious evangelical movement offers a change, a challenge, another family, or an experiential commitment. As ore psychiatrist observed: "However lovingly and carefully children are raised, there will always be some who meet obstacles to their growing up. Some will seek a detour that is for them the better path. And fortunately, many of these sons and daughters will be able to use this detour to arrive at their own vision of success, one that rests in commitment and community, in belief and belonging."[55] Father Ratisbonne had only one such choice in his time and offered the same option to his converts. He brought them a sense of family and belonging in his religious order. He gave them a belief system, commitment, comfort, and religious love, which eased their doubts, and made their sacrifices seem worthwhile.

The triumph of secularism in today's world has accentuated the vulnerability of older adolescents and young adults to proselytization appeals. The rapid changes in society have left young people without a solid base of values and beliefs. Though they claim to seek freedom from parental lifestyles and conformity to social norms, following paths blazed in the rebellious 1960's, they often instead turn to the highly structured, value-laden, conformist groups for approval, authority, and acceptance.

Unlike the cults, traditional or "mainline" religions are often highly intellectual, relatively unemotional, and minimally structured. Hence, they frequently fail to kindle the loyalty or commitment of their members, whose religious practices then weaken. Youths tend to regard their parents' affiliation as superficial and hypocritical. The young person is even less committed, partly because of inadequate religious education and partly because of the lack of appropriate role models at home. Rejecting institutional values immaturely perceived, the youth turns, knowingly or not, to a group that offers an opportunity for emotional and experiential involvement.

Response to this evidence of inadequate and ineffective religious education reflects the ambivalence of parents and the adult society in general. Though vocally supporting religious precepts and education, the lack of reinforcement at home contributes to the lack of internalization of religious values. Such internalization would aid the youth in resisting missionary and cult attempts at conversion and commitment. Theodore Ratisbonne might today have become a member of the Hare Krishna movement or the Unification church, rather than a convert to Catholicism. Similarly, today’s cult members might, in that earlier day, have become active participants in the Church. The mid-nineteenth century, as today, was an era of fervent missionary activity with frequent episodes of being “born again” into a stronger, more fundamental religious affiliation and commitment. In both periods, the solution to the individual’s inner conflicts is withdrawal from the main arena to a more circumscribed and authoritarian area of activity.

Common-law support for the family as an integral unit of society would appear to give the family the right to resist intrusions on their religious way of life. The family, and by extension the community, is fighting for its child's right to freedom of thought as a prerequisite to freedom of religious choice. Moreover, it is in the interest of the community to maintain this concept of the sanctity of the family by developing the legal and ethical implementation of the common law principle.

Just as Jews as a community have reacted negatively to proselytization, established Christian groups have acted with suspicion and distress to the intrusion of the cults. For the community is the guardian and the transmitter of the culture and is responsible for its own perpetuation and survival. Hence, deviant and nonconformist religions pose a challenge to the group as well as the family, especially if a proselytizing cult is involved.

In those cases where deviant religious groups present doctrines and practices contrary to the norms and values of the community, opposition can be measured in legal restraints and/or “persecution.” Thus, one of the reasons for the anger against the Mormons was their practice of polygamy, a practice forbidden by the state. Other cults such as Father Divine’s or the Shakers have been tolerated so long as they did not proselytize too actively or so long as their doctrines reflected the community’s values. As the deviant sects such as the Mormons and Christian Scientists either muted or rejected doctrines inimical to the larger society, they were accepted as part of mainstream religion.

Many of the present-day cults, on the other hand, are perceived as dangerous, deviant, non-conformist, and socially undesirable because of their suspicious recruiting methods, bringing into question the concept of informed consent of the recruit. Furthermore, many of the cults urge the isolation of their members from nonbelievers, including family members, and channel the energies of their committed believers into fundraising activities of questionable value or legitimacy. Most disturbing to the various traditional religious communities, perhaps, is the recruiting of cult members across religious lines. That practice may be further distressing because once in the cult, the member is turned against his/her former faith (much as Theodore Ratisbonne was, and as he encouraged his followers).

As an ethical issue, if Catholics want to appeal to lapsed members of their faith, or Protestants to ex-parishioners, or Chassidim to less observant Jews -- all of them seeking to bring lost sheep back into the fold -- no one can be hostile to that effort. However, when a cult recruiter or missionary goes into his neighbor's pasture to take his sheep, the neighbor can only regard this act as an unethical breach of boundaries. When deception, disinformation, and attempts at thought control are employed, this is also perceived as a breach of ethical or socially acceptable behavior. It is these latter activities, more than anything else, which have brought about the formation of anti-cult groups, and anti-anti-cult groups.

At a minimum, the cults should be expected to follow the practices of some active missionaries. When members of the Mormon Church or Jehovah's Witnesses, often likened to the cults in terms of their early history and continuing proselytization efforts, approach someone, they introduce themselves and their religious affiliation before "witnessing." If the prospect continues to listen and chooses to follow them it is with "informed consent" and not on the basis of half-truths, evasions, or other deceptions. Further, if the cults would cease to manipulate emotions (such as fear, guilt, and love), usually in the absence of competing information, as a primary recruiting technique, there. would be an improved rapport with the wider community. The fact that such manipulation has been used successfully by political and religious groups for centuries does not justify its continued use. Indeed, the use of less than ethical means to reach what might be desirable ends seems incompatible with the morality espoused by these religious groups.

It is appropriate to point out that there are differences between Theodore Ratisbonne and today's cult leaders. Unlike some of the modem cult leaders, Theodore did not raise funds for his own benefit and glorification. Secondly, he did not seek, nor did he hold a political philosophy with which he sought to dominate the secular world. Indeed, he subscribed to the politics of his own mentors, that of the conservative, legitimist ultramontane wing of French political belief, and above all he was dedicated to the welfare of a higher authority -- the Papacy -- and loved and served the Pope unquestioningly. Although his methods may not have been laudable, as is often the case today, Theodore, alone of these charismatic leaders, can be perceived as sincere in his beliefs and loyalty to a higher authority than himself. And lastly, the religious order that he founded and the schools that he established remain active today. Moreover, the Order's work of proselytization of the Jews has been abandoned in the face of the anguish and moral dimensions of the Holocaust (a period in which these nuns saved many Jewish children). Today, as noted in "In Nostre Aetate" by Pope John XXIII in 1965, the major labor of Notre Dame de Sion is to promote understanding between the Jews and the Church. The Order's durability, therefore, remains a memorial to the charisma of its founder, a figure who, despite his many acts of excessive religiosity, evolved from a weak, vacillating youth to a strong and persuasive man perceived as a charismatic leader by thousands. One wonders whether the cult leaders of today will leave a similarly durable, and ultimately constructive, legacy.


1. Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, translated by James Strachey (New York, 1959).

2. Ibid., 13.

3. Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, translated by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston, 1956), 46-60; Charles P. Cell, "Charismatic Heads of State -- the Social Context," Behavior Science Research, 9 (1974): 255-305; Ann Ruth Willner and Dorothy Willner. “The Rise and Role of Charismatic Leaders.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 358 (1965): 77-88; Robert C. Tucker, "The Theory of Charismatic Leadership," Daedalus, 97 (1968): 731-756.

4. Dankwart A. Rustow, "Introduction to Philosophers and Kings: Studies in Leadership," Daedalus, 97 (1968): 691.

5. Douglas S. Bames, "Charisma and Religious Leadership: An Historical Analysis," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 17 (1978): 15.

6. c.f. Fred D. Harrison, The Second Coming, Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers U. Press, 1979); Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Fairlawn, N.J. : Essential Books, 1957).

7. Tucker, 198.

8. Yves Marie Hilaire, "La pratique religieuse en France de 1815 a 1878," L'infortation Historique, 25 (1963): 62.

9. Marina Warner, Alone of all Her Sex, The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Knopf, 1976), 94-95; c.f. Thomas A. Kselman, Miracles and Prophecies in Nineteenth Century France (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers U. Press, 1983).

10. Paul Leulliot, L’AIsace au debut de XlXe siecle (Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 1959) III,246.

11. Eric Erikson, Young Man Luther (New York, 1958).

12. Maxie-Meodore Ratisbonne, Ratisbonne, fondateur de la societe des pretres et de la congregation des religieuses de Notre-Daow de Sion (Paris, 1903) I, 27.

13. Ibid., 1, 167; Marie-Theodore Ratisbonne, Mes Souvenirs (Paris, Privat, 1966), 66.

14. Ratisbonne, Fondateur, 1, 27.

15. Saul V. Levine, "The Role of Psychiatry in the Phenomenon of Cults," Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 24 (1979): 594.

16. Weber, 106-109; Tucker, 748-751.

17. Cell, 272-273.

18. Ibid.

19. Willner and Willner, 19; Tucker, 748-75 1.

20. Ratisbonne, Fondateur, I, 146-147, 175.

21. Marie-Theodore Ratisbonne, Histoire de St. Bernard (Paris, 1879).

22. Ratisbonne, Fondateur, 1, 294-295.

23. Ibid., I, 308.

24. Ibid., I, 267.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., I, 524-526.

27. Marguerite Aron, Pretes et religieuses de Notre-Dame de Sion, third edition (Paris, 1936), 50.

28. Ratisbonne, Fondateur, I, 327.

29. Central Israelite Consistory to the Minister of Religion, Paris, 19 March, 1845, Archives Nationales, Ministry of Cults, MSS, Paris, F 19, 11031.

30. Ratisbonne, Fondateur, I, 317.

31. Ibid., 329.

32. Ibid., 1, 333.

33. Ibid., 1, 314.

34. c.f. Lita L. Schwartz and Natalie lsser, "Some Involuntary Conversion Techniques," Jewish Social Studies, 43 (1, Winter, 1981): 1-10.

35. Marie-Theodore Ratisbonne, Souvenirs, 15 1.

36. Patrick J. I-larrigan, "Church and Pluralistic Education," Catholic History Review, 64 (April, 1978): 133-135.

37. Ratisbonne, Fondateur, 1, 393.

38. Aron, 74.

39. Ibid., 74-79.

40, Natalie Isser, "The Mallet Affair, a case study in scandal," Revue des Etudes Juives, 138 (Fall, 1979): 291-305.

41, The Mortara Affair had provoked a bitter debate over the fate of a young Jewish child kidnapped by Papal authorities because he had been secretly baptized. The Papal decision was a precedent for the Ratisbonne arguments in this case. c.f. Natalie Isser, "The Mortara Affair and Louis Veuillot," Proceedings of the Western Sociely for French History, 7 (1981): 69-78.

42. Archives Israelites, March 186 1; Univers Israelite, March, April 1861; Verite Israelite, 28 March, 26 April 186 1.

43. L'Opinion Nationale, 7-20 March 1861; Siecle, 8-15 March 1861.

44. Interrogation, Riom, 7 May 1861, Archives Departmentales, MSS, Haut-Loire Puy de Dome.

45. Ratisbonne, Fondateur, II, 18.

46. Ibid., II, 40.

47. Ibid., II, 72.

48. Ibid., II, 72-73.

49. Ibid., II, 74-77.

50. Harrigan, 194-199.

51. Ratisbonne, Fondateur, II, 85-93; Aron, 50-55.

52. Ratisbonne, Fondateur, II, 553.

53. Weber, 74-79.

54. Ratisbonne, Souvenirs, 66-67.

55. Saul V. levine, Radical Departures (New York, London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1984), 194.34

Natalie Isser, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of History and Lita Linzer Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Psychology at the Pennsylvania State University, Ogontz Campus. Active collaborators for more than ten years, they are the authors of the recently published The American School and the melting Pot, a full-length manuscript entitled Proselytization, Conversion, and Commitment, and numerous articles and papers on religious cults.