Jevons, F. B.

views updated


JEVONS, F. B. (18581936), was an English classical scholar. Frank Byron Jevons played a significant role in popularizing the comparative study of religion in the English-speaking world during the two decades before World War I. Jevons, who was classical tutor at the University of Durham from 1882 to 1910, joined R. R. Marett, Andrew Lang, Gilbert Murray, and other Edwardians in applying the theoretical formulas of British evolutionist anthropology to the interpretation of Greco-Roman texts.

Magic was his special area of interest; he questioned the conclusion of James G. Frazer and others that magic necessarily preceded religion along a unilineal, evolutionary pathway. As he put it in his Idea of God in Early Religions (1910), magic and religion were "two moods" that were different from the beginning. Likewise, prayers and the worship of gods were phenomena that were originally separate from (and apparently as ancient as) spells and fetishism.

Jevons's most widely read work in England was An Introduction to the History of Religion (1896; 2d ed., 1902), complemented in the United States by his Hartford-Lamson Lectures on comparative religion for the American Board of Foreign Missions in 1908 (revised and published in 1910 under the title Comparative Religion ). A liberal Anglican, Jevons thought that the religious quest of humanity reflected the divine will, and he maintained that all religions had their fulfillment in Christianity. He argued that Buddhism was not a religion but an etiolation of tendencies already present in ancient Brahmanism. Religious evolution, he believed, was above all the process by which the truth of monotheism came to be discerned. Following his appointment as professor of philosophy at the University of Durham in 1910, his books on Evolution (1910), Personality (1913), and Philosophy (1914) all find him espousing a species of nonmaterialist, creative, and dispersive (i.e., social) evolutionism influenced by Henri Bergson.

Jevons was principal of Hatfield Hall, Durham, from 1896 to 1923, and from there he corresponded with many scholars. His obvious theological orientation and evolutionism have led to a decline of interest in his work since World War I.


Two important works by Jevons not discussed above are Religion in Evolution (London, 1906) and An Introduction to the Study of Comparative Religion (Cambridge, Mass., 1909). For works about Jevons, I refer the reader to Eric J. Sharpe's Comparative Religion: A History (London, 1975) and Jacques Waardenburg's Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, 2 vols. (The Hague, 19731974).

New Sources

Davies, Douglas. Frank Byron Jevons, 18581936: An Evolutionary Realist. Lewiston, N.Y., 1991.

Davies, Douglas. "William Robertson Smith and Frank Byron Jevons: Faith and Evolution." In William Robertson Smith, pp. 311319. Sheffield, U.K., 1995.

Garry W. Trompf (1987)

Revised Bibliography