Book Plunge: The Origin and Growth of Religion

What do I think of Schmidt’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Wilhelm Schmidt. Neither had I. Why? Because he died around the middle of the twentieth century and wrote about a topic that not many of us learn about frankly. Schmidt was a student of the origins of religion in that he sought to find the most primitive cultures and study them and see what their original ideas relating to the questions of deity were.

Many of our concepts of religion are based on an evolutionary theory of religion. This is not saying anything about evolution in science. Evolution in science could be entirely true and evolution of the kind spoken of in religion could be entirely false. The common theory of religion that we have is that at the start, mankind believed in many gods, such as in an animistic sense, and then gradually religion evolved up to henotheism and then finally moved on to monotheism.

But what if this is false?

Schmidt’s work was to study various people groups of the world and see what they believed about the origins of religion, and this would be apart from what any of us would call special revelation. Through a study of cultures, the goal was to find which ones were the oldest and which beliefs in those cultures were the oldest. Fortunately in some cases, the beliefs had quite likely not changed much over time.

Some might be interested in the Biblical questions, but while there are bits and pieces of that here and there, the book as a whole does not really say much about the matter. However, the overall thesis would prove troubling to those who held to a JEPD theory on the evolutionary origins of the Pentateuch that said that monotheism was a late development.

Schmidt in his studies also determined that many many tribes believed originally in a supreme being who would sound surprisingly consistent (to those who hold to an evolutionary theory of religion) with the God described in the great monotheistic systems. In fact, while there could be images of other gods and perhaps totems and such, this God is often seen as invisible and cannot be imaged.

It goes further. In a polytheistic system, many gods are said to have wives and/or consorts and often times children, but in many tribes, this deity does not have a wife and in fact the idea that He would have a wife is seen as ridiculous. This deity is also seen as all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good. He is the source of morality and the giver of life and the bringer of death.

Included in all of this would be questions related to sin and prayer and sacrifice. These generally do exist in these primitive cultures. There is seen as a place of reward and rest for those who live good lives and a place of punishment for those who lead wicked lives. There is even often said to be an evil being who stands opposed to the supreme being, but this evil being is in no way anything like an actual competitor. His power cannot begin to compare to that of the supreme being.

Students interested in the origin of religion will find this fascinating. It is certainly a bit dated for our times, but it was one of the major works in its day and has now been redone so students can learn from it once more. If this is an area of interest to you, this is a book you need to get your hands on.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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2 Responses to “Book Plunge: The Origin and Growth of Religion”

  1. labreuer Says:

    Schmidt in his studies also determined that many many tribes believed originally in a supreme being who would sound surprisingly consistent (to those who hold to an evolutionary theory of religion) with the God described in the great monotheistic systems. In fact, while there could be images of other gods and perhaps totems and such, this God is often seen as invisible and cannot be imaged.

    I’d love to hear more about this, including other sources. Owen Barfield says a lot about “the unrepresented” in Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, and Jacques Ellul talks about the primacy of words over images in The Humiliation of the Word. Add to that the hiddenness of persons before they chose to self-reveal (e.g. the white stone in Rev 2:17), and you can get quite a ways. Go even further and represent people as [largely] dialogically constructed, and you get The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships.

    Book requested from library!

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