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Schmidt, Wilhelm


SCHMIDT, WILHELM (18681954), German anthropologist and Roman Catholic priest, was born on February 16, 1868, in Hörde (now Dortmund-Hörde) Germany, the son of a factory worker. In 1883 he entered the missionary school in Steyl, Netherlands, that served as the motherhouse of the Societas Verbi Divini (the Society of the Divine Word), which was founded in 1875. There he completed his secondary philosophical and theological studies, and he was ordained a priest in 1892. He studied Semitic languages at the University of Berlin from 1893 to 1895. In 1895 Schmidt was appointed professor of several theological disciplines at the Society of the Divine Word Mission Seminary of Saint Gabriel in Mödling, Austria (established 1889).

Various questions and problems of missionaries (especially from New Guinea) prompted Schmidt to undertake studies in linguistics, ethnology, and comparative religion. In 1906 he founded Anthropos, as international review of ethnology and linguistics, and in 1931 he established the Anthropos Institute in Mödling, an organization affiliated to the Society of the Divine Word, and he served as the institute's director until 1950. (In 1962 the institute relocated to Sankt Augustin, near Bonn.) From 1921 until 1938 Schmidt was a professor at the University of Vienna.

Schmidt directed the establishment of the Missionary Ethnological Museum in Rome (19221926) under the authorization of Pope Pius XI, and from 1927 to 1939 Schmidt was director of the museum. After the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938, Schmidt resettled with the Anthropos Institute in Switzerland and became a professor at the University of Fribourg (19391951). On February 10, 1954, Schmidt died in Fribourg, Switzerland; he was buried at the seminary in Mödling. Schmidt was a member of many scholarly societies and held honorary degrees from six universities.

Schmidt's Works

Schmidt began his linguistic studies by examining the native languages of New Guinea, but he soon expanded his field of research to include all of Oceania. He showed the relationships between the Austronesian languages and a certain group of the Southeast Asian mainland that Schmidt called "Austroasiatic" languages. His study Die Mon-Kmer-Völker: Ein Bindeglied zwischen Völkern Zentralasiens und Austronesiens (The Mon-Khmer peoples: A link between peoples in central Asia and Austronesia, 1906) was of particular importance.

Schmidt's interest gradually shifted to ethnology. In 1910 he published a book on Pygmy peoples, Die Stellung der Pygmäenvölker in der Entwicklungsgeschichte Menschen (The place of Pygmies in the historical development of man), and in 1924 he published Völker und Kulturen, which he wrote with Wilhelm Koppers. The latter is an attempt at a worldwide presentation of cultural history based on a system of "culture areas" (Kultukreise ). Schmidt's interest in this direction came from the work of the anthropogeographer Friedrich Ratzel and the ethnologists Leo Frobenius and Fritz Graebner.

According to Schmidt's system, the oldest culture of humanity (what he called the Urkultur ) was that of the hunter-gatherers, remnants of which are found among the Pygmies and pygmoids as well as in the Arctic-American area and in southeastern Australia. From this Urkultur there arose, independent of one another, the three "primary cultures": (1) a culture based on the cultivation of plants and associated with matriarchy, developing out of the plants-gathering of women; (2) a "higher hunting culture" controlled by men and associated with totemism; (3) a patriarchal pastoral culture based on nomadic animal husbandry.

Each one of the three primary "culture areas" identified by Schmidt arose, in his view, only once in a given geographical area and then spread through migration. This idea forms the basis of his so-called diffusionism.

Through the intermingling of the primary cultures, secondary and tertiary cultures took shape that in turn grew into the high cultures. The aforementioned changes in the economic bases of culture also had an effect on society as well as religion. In his work Die Sprachfamilien und Sprachenkreise der Erde (Linguistic families and linguistic circles of the world, 1926) Schmidt attempted an ethnological-linguistic synthesis. Later Schmidt sought to elaborate on Graebner's culture-historical method in his Handbuch der Methode der kulturhistorischen Ethnologie (1937; published in translation as The Culture Historical Method of Ethnology, 1939) and at the same time to organize his own ideas into a thoroughly systematic form. With his overview of the development of cultures, Schmidt wanted to substitute a historically grounded system for the evolutionist position, which had been influenced by the natural sciences. Schmidt's critics, however, realized that this new approach was too rigid and schematic. Although the cultural forms he identified cannot be considered historical realities, for his followers they were nevertheless valuable as tools for classification.

Soon after 1900 the main objective of Schmidt's research became the elucidation of the development and the origin of religion. This problem has now been abandoned by scholars, because it is not possible to provide an adequate scientific response. Schmidt's interest in this topic was decisively aroused by Andrew Lang. In 1898, in The Making of Religion, Lang contradicted the then influential theory of E. B. Tylor that animism was the origin of all religion. Lang pointed out the overt presence of belief in a Supreme Being among Australian Aborigines and other simple peoples. Relying on his own studies, Schmidt published, from 1908 to 1910, a series of articles under the general title "L'origine de l'idée de Dieu" in the journal Anthropos. In these articles Schmidt took issue with existing theories of the origin of religion and thoroughly examined the material available on southeastern Australia, disregarding the significant problem of the structure of religious thought, which is now at the center of anthropological considerations, especially cognitivist anthropology (Boyer, 1994). Schmidt wrote this work in French to support the struggle the Catholic Church was then waging against Modernism, a movement particularly prevalent in France.

The German original of "L'origine de l'idée de Dieu" was published in revised form in 1912 as volume one of Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (2d ed., 1926). Volumes two through six (19291935) of this work deal with the religions of "primeval peoples" (Urkulturvölker ). Volumes seven through twelve (19401955) treat the nomadic peoples of Africa and Asia.

Schmidt arrived at the following conclusions in Der Ursprung der Gotteidee. First, he noted that monotheism is the religion of the extant hunter-gatherer peoples investigated by him; their Supreme Being, the creator of the world, is tied to their ethics and is venerated with a cult. Second, he argued that because these peoples represent the oldest accessible form of human culture, it stands to reason that monotheism is the oldest religion of humanity. Third, he declared that because the religions of these peoples, especially their representations of the Supreme Being, display so many characteristic points of agreement, one must concede that they have a single historical origin. Fourth, Schmidt speculated that the image of the Supreme Being held by primitive peoples is so sublime that it could not have been acquired from human experience and therefore it must be traced back to a divine primitive revelation. Finally, he postulated that, in the course of later developments, progress in external culture was achieved by many peoples, yet decadence often occurred in religion and ethics.

According to Schmidt, the original idea of God is conserved with the greatest relative purity in nomadic peoples' belief in a heavenly God; in other cultures the idea lost ground. Sun worship and magic came to prevail in totemistic cultures, and the matriarchal planting cultures made room for earth and fertility cults, lunar mythology, and worship of the dead.

Critical Debate Concerning Schmidt

In the world of anthropologists and religious historians, the work of Schmidt finds particular support among those scholars who, certain criticisms and objections notwithstanding, refer to the historical method, share the same concept of the world as the Austrian anthropologist, and appreciate the wide scope of his scientific undertaking (cf. Demarchi, 1989). Among other scholars, as Alan Barnard writes (2000), the theory of diffusionism, which forms the basis for spatial dislocation and the structure of different cultural environments, is not particularly popular, even if some of its ideas survive in the debate between archaeologists and physical anthropologists on the question of cultural similarity. Notwithstanding this, it is impossible to disagree with Barnard when he states that diffusionism has been important in the development of the idea of "cultural area," an element of modern anthropological thought.

To fully understand the figure of Schmidt and the influence his thinking has retained in some intellectual circles, one should not overlook his association with the cultural and political outlook developed by the Catholic Church in the 1920s and still prevalent in some parts of it. His indefatigable organizational role stemmed from his embodiment of the Catholic political mission, explicitly stated in the encyclical Maximum Illud of 1919. This encyclical of Pope Benedict XV had certain important objectives: (1) to reorganize the missions in the Third World that had been weakened by World War I; (2) to win over, once again, colonial peoples, who had often seen the Catholic Church as an instrument of colonial penetration; and (3) to reaffirm the principle of the supranationality and universality of the church, which had been questioned by many (Leone, 1980, p. 124).

Certainly Schmidt was the driving force behind this restructuring process, in which his Weeks on religious ethnology (international meetings organized for making known the Catholic idea of this science) also played an important part, but he was more than that. On many issues (the family, nationalism, sex) he represented the viewpoint of the good Catholic. It is no coincidence that, for example, as Ernest Jones (1953) recalls, Sigmund Freud regarded him as an enemy for this reason and held him responsible for the suppression of the Rivista Italiana di Psicoanalisi.

Methodologically speaking, one may say that Schmidt's concept of cultural diffusionism harked back to what George W. Stocking (1987) has termed "biblical paradigm." Used by various scholars in different historical contexts, this is a method of interpretation that considers history as the result of a hereditary process, the origins of which are recoverable by applying linguistic methodology to cultural phenomena, finding the roots of different linguistic expressions by comparative means. In this process changes have occurred as a result of degeneration, and human beings, who are placed within it, have become inured to and live in a patriarchal society.

The stress upon the hereditary aspect above all and the failure to examine the system of internal relations between cultural environments have led anthropologists to take little interest in the thinking of Schmidt, especially because functional and structural analysis, which have become established in this discipline, have been so fruitful. This has allowed the development of a productive relationship with natural science, which the followers of the culture-historical method had opposed. The patchy interest in the works of Schmidt has also resulted from a lack of knowledge of German on the part of scholars.

In short, biblical paradigm, characterized by diffusionism, consists of taking the Bible as a tool for the interpretation of human history, the origins of which are identified with the institutions of monogamy and monotheism and are the product of a single source. Such paradigms form the basis of the anti-evolutionism of Schmidt, even if many scholars, such as Marvin Harris (1968), regarding him as a follower of Joseph François de Maistre and thus a reactionary thinker, have emphasized the evolutionary nature of some of his theories.

The belief of Schmidt that involved going back to so-called primordial religion derived from the human tendency to seek out the origins of religion (and to seek it in a probable divine revelation) is the aspect of his thinking that is most discussed. On this topic there was a heated debate (Man, 1910) between Schmidt and Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown, in which Lang also became involved, concerning the figure of the Andaman Island god Puluga. In essence, Radcliffe-Brown accused Schmidt of interpreting Andaman religion in a prejudiced manner by referring it back to his own religious beliefs. Other scholars repeated the charge, against which he was in part defended by Ernest Brandewie (1990), who could not, however, help linking the philosophical outlook of Schmidt to Thomism and the Scholastics, and thus to the traditional view of the Catholic Church regarding the origin of religion and the relation between faith and reason. Brandewie (1990) also recognized in Schmidt's work an objective of apologetics as well as science. Henryk Zimón (1986), on the other hand, holds that Schmidt was not motivated solely by a desire to reconcile Catholic dogma with ethnological research, especially since some Catholic theologians did not support his degenerationist views or his ideas regarding monotheism and primordial revelation.

The critical advance of Raffaele Pettazzoni (1957), in which he held that true monotheism stems from an antipolytheistic revolution instigated by a religious reformer, is also important. The sociological critique developed by Guy E. Swanson (1960) is often neglected. Swanson opposed the Austrian anthropologist by holding that monotheism was not the actual religion of the simplest and most archaic societies. For monotheistic belief to surface required the existence in society of at least three dominant groups, which in his opinion consisted of an organization exercising independent authority in a given social sphere.

Another important methodological problem has been raised by another follower of Schmidt, Joseph Henninger, who wonders whether the similarities between the Supreme Beings of different peoples demonstrates the unique historical origin of belief in a Supreme Being (see first edition of Encyclopedia of Religion [1987]). Furthermore, he observes that Schmidt, in claiming that revelation is proved by the presence of a belief in a Supreme Being among such peoples, oversteps the bounds of the historical study of religions and makes philosophical and theological statements. The complex nature of the figure of the Supreme Being in different cultures has been documented by Edward B. Tylor, who thought that in all probability the missionaries themselves had interpreted the religious ideas of the native peoples so as to extract the figure of a monotheistic god from them.

Schmidt has also been criticized for his failure to clearly define the categories he used, such as Supreme Being and monotheism. For this reason even if one accepts his assumptions (which were not been critically evaluated by him), they cannot be easily harmonized with his own theories because they are subject to ambiguous interpretation. Besides, as Zimón stated (1986), when returning to this subject and analyzing the religion of the Bambuti Pygmies, it is always best to make clear in concrete terms the nature of the monotheism of the group being studied. In this case it seems not to have been a clear and unequivocal idea of a Supreme Being called upon under various names and identified as a god of heaven, a god of the forest, or a god of hunting. Contrary to what Schmidt thought, it is a Supreme Being who is dualist in nature, that is, both chthonic and celestial.

One more general aspect of the historical ideas of Graebner and Schmidt, which has even been criticized by those who make reference to the culture-historical method, is the notion of the fixed, permanent nature of cultural elements, which would allow one to go back to primordial cultural forms. For example, Fritz Bornemann (1982), director of the Anthropos Institute from 1950 to 1955, stated that this was an a priori assumption that took for granted what the culture-historical inquiry needed to prove, namely the chronological collocation of the culture being studied. This consideration convinced him to avoid using the term Urkultur.

This and other more detailed criticisms of the culture-historical method led some of those who had originally supported Schmidt and Koppers (for example, Josef Haekel) to distance themselves from the theory of "culture areas." If the theory of the origin of monotheism proposed by Schmidt were accepted, it would make meaningless all the research conducted by historians who have sought to reconstruct accurately the course and historical contexts (Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient Israel) in whichaccording to Marcel Gauchet (1985), via the influence of a complex series of factors, such as the idea of an absolute Lord as a counterpoint to an earthly rulerthe monotheism that characterizes modern Western civilization emerged.

See Also

Frobenius, Leo; Graebner, Fritz; Kulturkreise-lehre; Pettazzoni, Raffaele.


Barnard, Alan. History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Bornemann, Fritz. "Verzeichnis der Schriften von P. W. Schmidt, S.V.D. (18681954)." Anthropos 49 (1954): 385432.

Bornemann, Fritz. P. Wilhelm Schmidt, S.V.D., 18681954. Analecta Societatis Verbi Divini no. 59. Rome, 1982. Includes additions to Bornemann's 1954 bibliography.

Boyer, Pascal. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. Berkeley, Calif., 1994.

Brandewie, Ernest. Wilhelm Schmidt and the Origin of the Idea of God. Lanham, Md., 1983. Contains a translation of selections from vols. 16 of Der Ursprung der Gottesidee.

Brandewie, Ernest. When Giants Walked the Earth: The Life and Times of Wilhelm Schmidt, SVD. Fribourg, Switzerland, 1990.

Demarchi, Franco, ed. Wilhelm Schmidt, un etnologo sempre attuale. Pubblicazioni dell'Istituto di scienze religiose in Trento 14. Bologna, Italy, 1989.

Gauchet, Marcel. Le désenchantement du monde. Paris, 1985.

Harris, Marvin. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. New York, 1968.

Henninger, Joseph. "P. Wilhelm Schmidt, S.V.D. (18681954): Eine biographische Skizze." Anthropos 51 (1956): 1960.

Henninger, Joseph. "Wilhelm Schmidt, S.V.D. (18681954)." Verbum SVD 20 (1979): 345362.

Jones, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 3. New York, 1953.

Lang, Andrew. "Puluga." Man no 30 (1910): 51-53.

Leone, Alba Rosa. "La politica missionaria del Vaticano tra le due guerre." Studi storici 21 (1980): 123156.

Pettazzoni, Raffaele. L'essere supremo nelle religioni primitive. Novara, Italy, 1957.

Schmidt, Wilhelm. Wege der Kulturen: Gesammelte Aufsätze. Studia Instituti Anthropos, vol. 20. Saint Augustin bei Bonn, Germany, 1964. A memorial volume containing a collection of representative articles.

Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred R. "Puluga: A Reply to Father Schmidt." Man 17 (1910): 3337.

Schmidt, Wilhelm. "Puluga, the Supreme Being of the Andamanese." Man 2 (1910): 27.

Schmidt, Wilhelm. Nochmals: "Puluga, das höchste Wesen der Andamanesen." Man 38 (1910): 6671.

Schmidt, Wilhelm. Nochmals: "Puluga, das höchste Wesen der Andamanesen." Man 47 (1910): 8286.

Stocking, George W. Victorian Anthropology. New York, 1987.

Swanson, Guy E. The Birth of the Gods: The Origin of Primitive Beliefs. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1960.

Waardenburg, Jacques. Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion. 2 vols. The Hague, 19731974. Contains selections from The Origin and Growth of Religion and High Gods in North America.

Waldenfels, Hans. "Wilhelm Schmidt (18681954)." In Klassiker der Religionswissenschaft: Von Friedrich Schleiermacher bis Mircea Eliade, edited by Axel Michaels. Munich, 1997.

Zimón, Henryk. "Wilhelm Schmidt's Theory of Primitive Monotheism and Its Critique within the Vienna School of Ethnology." Anthropos 81 (1986): 243260.

Zwernemann, Jürgen. Culture History and African Anthropology: A Century of Reasearch in Germany and Austria. Uppsala, Sweden, 1983.

Joseph Henninger (1987)

Alessandra Ciattini (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis

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