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Schmidt, Wilhelm

Schmidt, Wilhelm



Wilhelm Schmidt was born in 1868 in Hörde, Westphalia, and died in 1954 in Fribourg, Switzerland. He joined the Divine Word Missionaries (Societas Verbi Divini, or S.V.D.) in 1883 and was ordained a priest in 1892. From 1893 to 1895 he studied at the University of Berlin, majoring in Oriental languages; he was appointed professor in the St. Gabriel Mission Seminary at Mödling, near Vienna, in 1895 and remained there until 1938. He also taught at the University of Vienna, beginning in 1921, and after he left Austria, he taught at the University of Fribourg from 1939 to 1951. He founded the periodical Anthropos in 1906, was director of the Museo Missionario-Etnologico Lateranense in Rome from 1927 to 1939, and was director of the Anthropos Institut at St. Augustin near Bonn from 1932 to 1950.

Early in his career, Schmidt was very interested in linguistic studies, but later he turned increasingly to studies in ethnology and the science of religion. The impetus to his work in these latter fields came from his philosophical, theological, and linguistic training and from the observations made by S.V.D. missionaries, especially in New Guinea and Togo. He was influenced as well by the folklorist Andrew Lang, by the Indologist Leopold von Schröder, and by the ethnologists Friedrich Ratzel, Leo Frobenius, Ernst Grosse, C. N. Starcke, Alfred Vierkandt, Edward Westermarck, Franz Boas, and, above all, by Fritz Graebner and his theories of Kulturkreise.

In his studies of the evolution and forms of the family, Schmidt followed Grosse in correlating family types with economic activities. He refined Graebner’s theory of Kulturkreise, which differentiated between matrilineal and patrilineal societies, seeking to explain their origins on the basis of subsistence patterns; thus, food planters would be matrilineal in descent and residency rules, while nomads would be patrilineal.

He agreed with others, such as Havelock Ellis and Westermarck, in offering psychological explanations for exogamy. Also, his arrangements of traits in Kulturkreise are frequently in accord with functionalist ideas (although he did not want to be associated with “functionalism” — see 1944 for his violent criticism of functionalism). Thus totemism is identified with clan exogamy, in contrast with the consanguineal basis of local exogamy; education is linked to initiation ceremonies, which are usually obligatory for all the young men of the tribe, rather than to secret societies, which often constitute an elite and have special requirements for admission.

Schmidt was concerned with the variability of individuals and their relationship to society. He asserted that the individual, even among primitives, exerts an influence on the institutions of his community.

In his 12-volume work, Der Ursprung der Gottesidee(1912-1955), he made use of extensive material supporting the theory that the Supreme Being occupied a position so superior (compared with spirits and other beings of religious significance) in the religion of primitive hunters and gatherers that this religion may properly be considered monotheistic. Subsequently, such monotheism persisted especially in nomadic pastoral civilizations, while in the Kulturkreise of the matrilineal agricultural peoples and the more advanced totemic hunting cultures, the figure of the Supreme Being was stifled or supplanted by other religious elements, e.g., fertility cults, ancestor worship, magic. Totemism itself was regarded by Schmidt as essentially social; he particularly stressed its significance for clan exogamy. Although totemism does imply a certain reverence for the totem animal, Schmidt did not consider it a religious phenomenönan actual animal cult.

From the time that Schmidt became familiar with Graebner’s concept of Kulturkreise (Graebner believed that he established such Kulturkreise for Oceania, including Australia), this concept exerted an influence on his linguistic work. He tried to show that when Australian languages are classified, different groups coincide with totemistic and matrilineal cultures respectively. Furthermore, he attributed certain linguistic phenomena to economic and social change: thus, he felt that the change to uxorilocal residence and the ownership of land by women might result in the learning of a foreign tongue by the men, and thus contribute to the disintegration of the language. Indeed, Schmidt made an even more comprehensive attempt to relate all aspects of linguistic evolution to general cultural evolution, to explain the former largely in terms of the latter, and to set up parallels between linguistic areas and Kulturkreise.

Schmidt’s influence was far-reaching, especially in the German- and English-speaking regions of the world, where his journal Anthropos was a repository of field data collected by missionaries around the world. Schmidt was also concerned that his findings have a practical application to colonial policy and missionary practice. Many of his publications, especially those dealing with family and social ethics, were addressed to a public wider than the academic one.

Joseph Henninger

[For the historical context of Schmidt’s work, seeAnthropology; and the biographies ofBoas; Ellis; Frobenius; Graebner; Ratzel; Westermarck. For discussion of the subsequent development of Schmidt’s ideas, seeHistory, article onculture history; Linguistics, article onhistorical linguistics; and the biography ofKoppers.]


1906 Die moderne Ethnologie; L’ethnologie moderne. Anthropos 1:134-163, 318-387, 592-643, 950-997.

1908-1910 L’origine de 1’idee de Dieu. Anthropos 3:125-162, 336-368, 559-611, 801-836, 1081-1120; 4:207-250, 505-524, 1075-1091; 5:231-246. -* A revised German version appeared in book form in 1912 as Volume 1 of Der Ursprung der Gottesidee.

1910 Die Stellung der Pygmäenvölker in der Entivick-lungsgeschichte des Menschen. Studien und Forschungen zur Menschenund Vblkerkunde, Vols. 6-7. Stuttgart (Germany): Strecker … Schröder.

1912-1955 Der Ursprung der Gottesidee: Eine historisch-kritische und positive Studie. 12 vols. Miinster in Westfalen (Germany): Aschendorff. → A second edition of Volume 1 appeared in 1926.

1924 Schmidt, Wilhelm; and KOPPERS, Wilhelm Volker und Kulturen. Regensburg (Germany): Habbel.

(1925) 1964 Familie. Pages 13-42 in Wilhelm Schmidt, Wege der Kulturen: Gesammelte Aufsdtze. Anthropos Institut, Studia, Vol. 20. St. Augustin bei Bonn (Germany): Verlag des Anthropos-Instituts. → First published in the Handwörterbuch der Staatswissen-sckaften.

1926 Die Sprachfamilien und Sprachenkreise der Erde. Heidelberg (Germany): Winter.

(1927) 1946-1949 Rassen und Völker in Vorgeschichte und Geschichte des Abendlandes. 3d ed. 3 vols. Lucerne (Switzerland): Stocker. → First published as Rasse und Volk.

1930 Handbuch der vergleichenden Religionsgeschichte zum Gebrauch für Vorlesungen an Universitäten, Seminaren usw. und zum Selbststudium: Ursprung und Werden der Religion. Theorien und Tatsachen. Minister in Westfalen (Germany): Aschendorff.

1935 The Position of Women With Regard to Property in Primitive Society. American Anthropologist New Series 37:244-256.

(1937) 1939 The Culture Historical Method of Ethnology: The Scientific Approach to the Racial Question. New York: Fortuny. → First published as Handbuch der Methode der kultur-historischen Ethnologie.

1937-1942 Das Eigentum auf den dltesten Stufen der Menschheit. 3 vols. Minister in Westfalen (Germany): Aschendorff.

1944 Untersuchungen zur Methode der Ethnologie. Anthropos 35/36:898-965.

1952 Entstehung der Verwandtschaftssysteme und Hei-ratsregelungen. Anthropos 47:767-783.

1955 Das Mutterrecht. Anthropos Institut, Studia, Vol. 10. Vienna: Missionsdruckerei St. Gabriel.→Published posthumously.

Wege der Kulturen: Gesammelte Aufsdtze. Anthropos Institut, Studia, Vol. 20. St. Augustin bei Bonn (Germany): Verlag des Anthropos-Instituts, 1964.


Baumann, Hermann 1958 P. Wilhelm Schmidt und Das Mutterrecht. Anthropos 53:212-228.

Bornemann, Fritz 1954 Verzeichnis der Schriften von P. W. Schmidt, S.V.D. (1868-1954). Anthropos 49: 397-432.

Bornemann, Fritz 1956 P. W. Schmidts Studien über den Totemismus in Asien und Ozeanien. Anthropos 51:595-734.

Bornemann, Fritz 1958 P. W. Schmidts Studien über den Totemismus in Afrika. Antfcropos 53:945-1003.

Burgmann, Arnold (1954) 1966 P. W. Schmidt als Linguist. Volume 2, pages 287-328 in Portraits of Linguists: A Biographical Source Book for the History of Western Linguistics, 1746-1963. Edited by Thomas A. Sebeok. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press. → First published in Volume 49 of Anthropos.

Festschrift: Publication d’hommage offerte au P. W. Schmidt. Edited by Wilhelm Koppers. 1928 Vienna: Missionsdruckerei St. Gabriel.

Henninger, Joseph 1956 P. Wilhelm Schmidt, S.V.D. (1868-1954): Eine biographische Skizze. Anthropos 51:19-60.

Semaine D’ethnologie Religieuse Comptes rendus. → Proceedings of meetings held between 1912 and 1929; published in 5 volumes between 1913 and 1930.

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Schmidt, Wilhelm

Wilhelm Schmidt, 1868–1954, German linguist and anthropologist, a Roman Catholic priest. Educated at the universities of Berlin and Vienna, he entered the Society of the Divine Word in 1890. Residing mainly in Austria, he taught at the Univ. of Vienna, founded and directed an anthropological institute at Mödling, and, after 1938, was a professor at the Univ. of Freiburg. Schmidt devoted particular attention to the languages of S Asia, Australia, and Oceania. His books available in English translation are The Origin and Growth of Religion (1931), High Gods in North America (1933), The Culture Historical Method of Ethnology (1939), and Primitive Revelation (1939).

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