Wilhelm Schmidt (February 16, 1868 – February 10, 1954) was a German Roman Catholic priest, and a famous linguist, anthropologist, and ethnologist. His work in systematizing the languages of Southeast Asia revealed connections to those of Oceania, leading to the recognition of the Austric group of languages. Schmidt formulated the idea of "cultural circles"—four stages in the development of all human societies. Through his study of cultures worldwide, Schmidt discovered similarities in their belief in one creator with whom human beings had lost their close relationship due to some misdeed. He concluded that monotheism, not polytheism or totemism, was the most primitive type of religion worldwide. Schmidt's ideas were thus focused on the unity of humankind in the past, giving hope for re-unification in the future.
Wilhelm Schmidt was born in Hörde, Germany in 1868. Already as a young man he had met Christian missionaries and dedicated his life to service of others. In 1890, he joined the Roman Catholic order of Society of the Divine Word and was ordained as a priest in 1892. After that he went on to study linguistics at the universities of Berlin and Vienna.
In 1906, Schmidt founded the journal Anthropos, and in 1931, the Anthropos Institute, which he directed from 1932 to 1950. In 1938, due to his strong opposition to Nazi ideas of evolutionary racism, Schmidt had to flee from Nazi-occupied Austria to Freiburg, Switzerland. The Anthropos journal and the institute moved together with him. After his death, both were relocated in St. Augustin near Bonn, Germany, where they have remained in operation.
Schmidt served as a professor at the University of Vienna from 1921 to 1938, and the University of Freiburg, Switzerland, from 1939 to 1951. Schmidt received numerous awards and recognitions, and was appointed president of the Fourth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. He established the ethnological department of the papal Missionary Ethnological Museum at the Vatican in 1925, serving as its director from 1927 to 1939. Schmidt published over six hundred books and articles. His works available in English translation include: The Origin and Growth of Religion (1931), High Gods in North America (1933), The Culture Historical Method of Ethnology (1939), and Primitive Revelation (1939).
Wilhelm Schmidt died in 1954 from natural causes, at the age of 86.
Schmidt’s main passion was linguistics, and he spent many years in study of languages around the world. His early work was on the Mon-Khmer languages of Southeast Asia, and languages of Oceania and Australia. The conclusions from this study led him to hypothesize the existence of a broader Austric group of languages, connected to the Austronesian language group. Schmidt managed to prove that Mon-Khmer language has inner connections with other languages of the South Seas, one of the most significant findings in the field of linguistics.
Schmidt also created a new phonetic system, which he called "Anthropos-Alphabet," which could relate the sounds of different foreign languages. By 1926 he had published his work systematizing all the languages in the world.
From 1912 to his death in 1954, Schmidt published his 12-volume Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (The Origin of the Idea of God). There he explained his theory of primitive monotheism—the belief that primitive religion in almost all tribal peoples began with an essentially monotheistic concept of a high god—usually a sky god—who was a benevolent creator. He argued that all primitive cultures in the world have that notion of a supreme god. They worship a single, high deity, omniscient, and essentially similar to the God in Christianity. Here are some typical beliefs that he noted:
Based on his findings, Schmidt maintained that all peoples originally believed in one god. However, due to the rebellion against Him, people alienated themselves from Him, and their knowledge of Him was lost.
What Schmidt was proposing was that primitive religions were not polytheistic, as was believed, but that they started as monotheistic. Thus, according to Schmidt, monotheism is the oldest religious system in the world. He strongly opposed Sigmund Freud’s formulation of totemism as the oldest religion, claiming that many cultures in the world have never passed through the stage of totemism at all. Freud, in return, criticized Schmidt’s work (Vitz 1988, 197-199). Schmidt’s theory has not been widely accepted.
Schmidt believed in the existence of so-called “cultural circles”: four main stages through which all cultures in the world passed. The stages are as follows:
This stage theory of cultural development was rather popular during his lifetime. In developing this model, Schmidt was inspired by Fritz Graebner’s idea of "cultural diffusion," formulated in his theory of Kulturkreis.
Wilhelm Schmidt was not well known in anthropological circles. He was neither famous nor celebrated as were many of his contemporaries. His work, however, reflects all the characteristics of a great scientist. His systematization of the Southeast Asian languages, and the link he drew between them and the languages of Oceania and Australia is regarded as revolutionary. This discovery is considered equally as important as the discovery of relationship among Indo-European languages.
Schmidt’s work on religion and ethnology is also not widely known. This can be attributed to the fact that much of it has not been translated from German, and the style of writing Schmidt used was too sophisticated and too complex for a wider audience. For Christian students of anthropology, however, Schmidt's work is essential reading. His study of primitive religions and monotheism remains among the most highly respected within the field of anthropology.
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