Smith, W. Robertson

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SMITH, W. ROBERTSON . William Robertson Smith (18461894) was a celebrated Scottish biblical critic and a theorist of both religion and myth. Smith's accomplishments were multiple. He brought higher biblical criticism from Germany to the English-speaking world and then developed it far beyond its continental origins. Although his German mentors reconstructed the history of Israelite religion from the Bible itself, Smith ventured beyond the Bible to Semitic religion and thereby pioneered the comparative study of religion. Whereas others viewed ancient religion from the standpoint of the individual, Smith approached it from the standpoint of the group and thereby helped pioneer the sociology of religion.

As an original theorist of religion, Smith asserted that ancient religion was centrally a matter of ritual, not creed. Practice, not belief, counted most. Religion was initially communion between god and humans, not a prescientific explanation of the world. As an equally original theorist of myth, Smith similarly maintained that myth was initially an explanation of ritual, not of the world. Since Smith's time, the ritualist theory of myth has found adherents not only in biblical studies but also in classics, anthropology, and literature.

Smith was educated at home by his father, a minister of the breakaway Free Church of Scotland. Intellectually precocious, Smith was as brilliant in science and mathematics as in classics and Hebrew. He studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh, where he excelled. In 1870, at the young age of twenty-three, he was appointed to the professorship of Old Testament at the College of the Free Church in Aberdeen. He began teaching a day after his ordination as a minister in the Free Church.

Smith's professional troubles began with the publication in 1875 of the article "Bible" for the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, then published in Scotland. On the basis of that article, he was in 1876 formally charged with heresy. The main issue concerned the authorship of the Book of Deuteronomy, which Smith, following the older, continental scholars with whom he had become acquainted, deemed not Moses' farewell address to Israel but instead a work composed long after Moses' time. Smith's Free Church critics assumed that in denying Mosaic authorship, Smith was denying the divine authority of the Bible. On the contrary, argued Smith, revelation itself was gradual and progressive, so that the denial of Mosaic authorship was simply the denial that the advanced, prophetic views expressed in Deuteronomy had been revealed to Moses himself. After four years, during which Smith was suspended from his chair, he won his case and was reinstated. But the appearance of subsequent articles reopened the charge, and though never convicted of heresy, he was in 1881 removed from his professorship.

Embittered but undeterred, Smith had already begun to offer public lectures on his views to huge audiences in Edinburgh and Glasgow. From these lectures came his first two books, The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (1881) and The Prophets of Israel and Their Place in History to the Close of the Eighth Century (1882).

While still a minister (as he had not been convicted of heresy), Smith sought no pastoral post. Instead, to support himself he became coeditor and eventually sole editor of the same edition of the Britannica that had caused his undoing. He enlisted J. G. Frazer (18541941) to write the entries that began the transformation of Frazer from stuffy classicist to pioneering anthropologist.

In 1883 Smith was appointed lord's almoner reader in Arabic at Cambridge University. In 1885 he was elected a fellow of Christ's College. In 1889 he became Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge. He utilized his knowledge of Arabic to root Israelite religion in the religion and culture of ancient Arabia, where for him lay the origin of Semitic culture. His studies culminated in his final and fullest work, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, which was delivered as three series of Burnett Lectures at the University of Aberdeen from 1888 to 1891.

Smith had been a sickly child, but in adulthood he became remarkably fit for prolonged periods. Still, like other family members, he eventually succumbed to tuberculosis. He died in Cambridge at the age of forty-seven. He proved well enough to publish only the first series of the Burnett Lectures (in 1889). Only in the last decade of the twentieth century were the notes of the second and third series of lectures discovered and published.

Whereas Émile Durkheim (18581917), in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), focused on Australian Aborigines as the most primitive and therefore presumably clearest case of religion per se, Smith in the Lectures turned to "heathen Arabia" as the earliest and therefore presumably clearest case of Semitic religion. Smith's fundamental assumption is that the Semites were initially at a "primitive" stage of culture, so that the key to understanding them is to see them as akin to primitives worldwide. He thus uses the terms primitive and ancient (or antique ) almost interchangeably. Unlike Frazer, who was concerned with only the similarities among primitives the world over, Smith was concerned with the differences as well as the similarities between early Semites and other primitives, just as he was concerned with the differences as well as the similarities between early Semites and later ones. But it was his focus on the similarities that was revolutionary and controversial.

The basic religious divide for Smith is that between primitives and moderns. Whereas the heart of modern religion is its beliefs, the heart of primitive religion is its rituals. Smith's focus on practice rather than belief as the core of primitive and ancient religion was revolutionary. Yet on ritual, as on other aspects of religion, his revolution stops abruptly short. He does not propose that modern religion likewise be looked at from the side of ritual foremost. He draws a rigid hiatus between primitive and modern religion. Modern religion he approaches no differently from others of his day. It is creedal first and ritualistic secondno doubt a reflection of Smith's antiritualistic, Protestant viewpoint. Whereas twentieth-century theorists of religion tend to stress the similarities between primitive and modern religion, Smith stresses the differences. If on the one hand Smith gives equal attention to the differences and the similarities between primitives and early Semites, on the other hand he emphasizes the differences between both of them and modern Christianity.

In place of creed in ancient and primitive religion there was myth. Whereas in modern religion creed prescribes ritual, in ancient religion myth explained ritual. Unlike the practice of ritual, the belief in myth was not obligatory. In connecting myth to ritual, Smith was again revolutionary. Whereas others viewed myth as an explanation of the world, he proposed myth as an explanation of ritual. But here too he stops short. Myth for him plays a minor role, arising only after the original reason for a ritual has somehow been lost. The importance wrongly attributed to mythology is for him part of the importance that is wrongly accorded to belief. Since Smith's time other myth-ritualists have given myth far more significance. For Frazer, myth is indispensable to ritual from the start, providing the script for the magical ritual.

To drive home the point that in primitive and ancient religion ritual precedes belief, Smith compares religion with politics and indeed makes religion a part of politics. Religious duty was civic duty. But "so long as the prescribed forms [of practice] were duly observed, a man was recognised as truly pious, and no one asked how his religion was rooted in his heart or affected his reason" (Smith, 1894, p. 21). Practice alone counted.

Once again Smith was revolutionaryhere in seeing ancient and primitive religion as collective rather than individual. Because Smith takes for granted that modern religion really is a matter of the individual, his bold approach once again stops abruptly. Where notably Durkheim argues that religion by definition is collective, Smith's "sociologizing" is confined to ancient and primitive religion.

Another equally fundamental difference for Smith is that whereas modern religion is spiritual, primitive and ancient religion is materialist. God is conceived of as the biological father of worshippers. That conception of God has moral consequences as well, with "the parent protecting and nourishing the child, while the child owes obedience and service to his parents" (Smith, 1894, p. 41). Yet again Smith was originalthis time in placing morality within rather than outside primitive religion.

For Smith, the key relationship between god and his or her worshippers in any religion is that of communication. Therefore the key function of the key ritual, sacrifice, is as a "means of converse between God and man" (Smith, 1894, p. 216). Sacrifice constitutes not "a gift made over to the god"the conventional view of his timebut "an act of communion, in which the god and his worshippers unite by partaking together of the flesh and blood of a sacred victim" (Smith, 1894, pp. 226227). Sacrifice as gift comes only later. A gift is intended to alleviate guilt and to secure forgiveness, but originally there is no guilt to be alleviated or forgiveness to be secured, for worshippers have in no way fallen short.

In primitive religion misfortunes like plague and famine were initially attributed to the weakening of the bond between god and the community. Sacrifice served to restore the bond. Only eventually was the weakening attributed to sin. Sacrifice then came to be taken as atonement. Nevertheless the ultimate aim of even atonement was the restoration of the bond between god and community.

In its fullest, Christian form, God sacrifices himself to atone for the sins of the worldwide community, though Jesus' death still serves primarily to restore the fellowship between God and humanity. Indeed Smith increasingly downplays the atoning aspect of Jesus' death, for which he never found a satisfactory place in his irenic characterization of Christianity. The ineluctable link between atonement and fear, in contrast to that between communion and love, could not but push religion based on fear in the direction of, by Smith's own criteria, magic rather than religion. Frazer attributed Smith's reluctance to acknowledge the place of fear in religion to his own belief in a God of love rather than of fear.

Despite Smith's insistence on the presence of both communion and atonement in primitive and higher religion alike, the gulf between these stages of religion remains wide because primitive religion still conceives of both materially, whereas higher religion conceives of both spiritually. In primitive religion the goal is physical contact with godachieved through the shared eating of a sacrifice, which in its earliest form is the eating of the totemic god itself. At first little attention is paid to the cause of the separation from god or to the justification for it. The materialist conception of religion clouds the recognition of spiritual concepts like ethics, sin, and atonement.

Consequently "to free the spiritual truth from the husk was the great task that lay before the ancient religions" (Smith, 1894, p. 439). The Prophets were the first to sever communion from material sacrificeSmith taking the Prophets as uniformly antiritualistic. Once communion with God came to be conceived of spiritually, separation from God came to be conceived of ethically, as a matter of the justification for the separation and of the amends needed for overcoming it. But the subsequent, postexilic restoration of material sacrifice conflated anew the spiritual with the material. Only with Christianity was the spiritual fully disentangled from the material.

To explain the evolution of sacrifice, Smith appeals to God. Israelites and Christians on their own could never have made the leap from a material conception of sacrifice to a spiritual one. Only God's intercession, undertaken indirectly through inspiration, can account for the jump.

Smith is rightly viewed as a pioneering, perhaps even the pioneering sociologist of religion. He shifted the focus of the study of primitive and ancient religion from beliefs to institutions and from the individual to the group. For him, the function of primitive and ancient religion is the preservation of the group, even if he does not, like the more relentlessly sociological Durkheim, make group experience the origin of religion, let alone make the group the object of worship.


Bediako, Gillian M. Primal Religion and the Bible: William Robertson Smith and His Heritage. Sheffield, U.K., 1995.

Beidelman, T. O. W. Robertson Smith and the Sociological Study of Religion. Chicago, 1974.

Black, John Sutherland, and George Chrystal. The Life of William Robertson Smith. London, 1912.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York, 1965. Original publication of this translation was in 1915.

Johnstone, William, ed. William Robertson Smith: Essays in Reassessment. Sheffield, U.K., 1995.

Jones, Robert Alun. "Robertson Smith, Durkheim, and Sacrifice: An Historical Context for The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 17 (1981): 184205.

Jones, Robert Alun. "Robertson Smith and James Frazer on Religion: Two Traditions in British Social Anthropology." In Functionalism Historicized, edited by George W. Stocking Jr., pp. 3158. Madison, Wis., 1984.

Riesen, Richard A. Criticism and Faith in Late Victorian Scotland. Lanham, Md., 1985.

Rogerson, John. Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century. London, 1984. See particularly chap. 20.

Rogerson, John. The Bible and Criticism in Victorian Britain. Sheffield, U.K., 1995. See particularly chaps. 410.

Smith, William Robertson. "Bible." In Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th ed., vol. 3. Edinburgh, 1875.

Smith, William Robertson. The Old Testament in the Jewish Church. London, 1881.

Smith, William Robertson. The Prophets of Israel and Their Place in History to the Close of the Eighth Century. 1st ed. London, 1882; 2d ed., London, 1892; reprint of 2d ed. with new introduction by Robert Alun Jones, New Brunswick, N.J., 2002.

Smith, William Robertson. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. 1st ser. Edinburgh, 1889; 2d ed., London, 1894; reprint of 2d ed. with new introduction by Robert A. Segal, New Brunswick, N.J., 2002.

Smith, William Robertson. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. 2d and 3d ser. Edited by John Day. Sheffield, U.K., 1995.

T. O. Beidelman (1987)

Robert A. Segal (2005)

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