Molly Worthen, “From St. Paul to Populist Politics: The Evolution of Charismatic Leadership”

May 18, 2021

Charisma is a concept we typically use to refer to individuals who fascinate, attract, and captivate us in some way. The word’s modern usage, however, obscures its origins in Christian doctrine. In such contexts, charismatic figures were understood to have a kind of divinely ordained authority and spiritual influence.

In this podcast episode, Molly Worthen, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explores the evolution of charisma in the popular consciousness and its role in various historical epochs and movements. From St. Paul to contemporary populist politicians, analyzing the ineffable allure of charisma can help us to understand how power has been produced and wielded in both religious and secular contexts.

Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Molly Worthen is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her BA and PhD from Yale University. Her research focuses on North American religious and intellectual history. Her most recent book, Apostles of Reason, examines American evangelical intellectual life since 1945, especially the internal conflicts among different evangelical subcultures. Her first book, The Man On Whom Nothing Was Lost, is a behind-the-scenes study of American diplomacy and higher education told through the lens of biography. She also created an audio and video course for The Great Courses, “History of Christianity II: From the Reformation to the Modern Megachurch,” and recently released an audio course for Audible, “Charismatic Leaders Who Remade America.” During her time at the National Humanities Center, she is working on her new book project tentatively titled, Spellbound Nation: Charisma in American History.