Christian Scholar Extraordinary:
The Work of Wilhelm Schmidt
Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) was among the foremost authorities on linguistics, ethnology and the history of religion whose pioneering work was done in the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Germany, he became a Catholic priest in 1892 and a dedicated scholar of world-wide renown from 1895 until his death. He founded the internationally famous journal for ethnology and languages Anthropos in 1906 and edited it for many years. He also founded the Anthropos Institute which he directed from 1932 to 1950. Both the journal and the institute began in Moedling near Vienna, Austria. When Fr. Schmidt precipitately fled from Austria to Switzerland in 1938 to escape the Nazis, angered by his opposition to their evolutionist racism, Anthropos and the Institute moved there with him. After his death they relocated in St. Augustin near Bonn, West Germany.
Fr. Schmidt served as professor at the universities of Vienna from 1921 to 1938, and of Freiburg, Switzerland, from 1939 to 1951. He established the ethnological department of the papal Missionary Ethnological Museum at the Vatican in 1925 and served as its director from 1927 to 1939. These are only highlights of his incredibly diligent and fruitful life.
Fr. Schmidt published over 600 books and articles. They include his pioneering linguistic work on the connections between the languages of the peoples of Southeast Asia and those of the South Seas. This was "one of the major accomplishments in the field of linguistics, which ranks in importance with the proof of the relationship among all of the Indo-European languages .... the language group proposed by Father Schmidt as the 'austric linguistic stock' embraces almost two-thirds of the inhabited area of the earth."4 Equal in importance is his monumental 12-volume work The Origin of the Idea of God, published between 1912 and 1955. A condensation of the earlier volumes was published as The Origin and Growth of Religion in America,2 and it is well worth reading. Only two other books by Schmidt are available in English, The Culture Historical Method of Ethnology3 and The High Gods in North America.4
Schmidt persistently attacked the evolutionist presuppositions rampant among nineteenth and twentieth century anthropologists, ethnologists and sociologists. Paul C. Vitz comments:
As far as I can judge, the reasons for the lack of awareness of Schmidt's contribution even today among social scientists are that, first, Schmidt's main writings have not been translated from the German, second, they are very scholarly, especially with respect to his great knowledge of primitive languages, and, finally, he was a Catholic priest who showed how much evidence supports the general picture of religion as portrayed in Genesis...5
Yet Schmidt's work is not altogether unknown; at least his English books are regularly read at the college library where this writer does much of her research. However, Vitz's point is well taken, and certainly Christian students of anthropology, ethnology and linguistics in particular ought to acquaint themselves with him.
An excellent general introduction to all aspects of Schmidt's work and thought is the collection of his articles, Wege der Kulturen (Pathways of Cultures), published in 1964 as Vol. 20 of the series "Studia Instituti Anthropos" by the Anthropos Institute (unfortunately only available in German). The samples from Schmidt's work excerpted and translated on the following pages were originally published in this collection.
1 M. Gusinde. ''Wilhelm Schmidt, S.V.D., 1868-1954," American Anthropologist, 56, p. 868.
2 Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 59 Fourth Avenue, New York, NY 10003, 1971).
3 Wilhelm Schmidt, The Culture Historical Method of Ethnology (New York: Fortuny's, 1939).
4 Wilhelm Schmidt, The High Gods in North America (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933)
5 Paul C. Vitz, Sigmund Freud's Christian Unconscious (New York: The Guildford Press, 1988), n.124, p.255. Vitz refers to the hostility expressed by Freud towards Fr. Schmidt in fascinating detail (pp.197- 199), and includes a brief summary of Schmidt's refutation of Freud's Totem and Taboo (by which Freud sought to undergird his "Oedipus Complex'):
[Schmidt's] major and well-documented point was that most (sometimes Schmidt argued all) of [the most primitive cultures] had a simple monotheism with a concept of a personal god, and that this provided the foundation of their morality. These findings led Schmidt to a direct, strong rebuttal on empirical grounds of Freud's theory of the totemic origin of religion... Schmidt also made it clear that many other cultures, much more advanced than the most primitive. never passed through a stage of totemism at all. Hence their religion as well could not be accounted for by any totemic theory, much less by Freud's particular totemic theory. No wonder Freud didn't care for Father Schmidt! (p.198)
For the complete arguments by Schmidt himself, which deal with totemism, the false theories of W. Robertson Smith which Freud used in support of his work, Freud's Totem and Taboo, and also briefly with Émile Durhkeim's "Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse", see Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1971), Chapter IX, "Totemism," pp.103- 117. The refutation of Freud is on pp.109- 115, and it is devastating.
This writer is grateful to Dr. Vitz for first acquainting her with the person and work of Fr. Schmidt.