John Ferguson McLennan

From New World Encyclopedia

John Ferguson McLennan (October 14, 1827 – June 16, 1881) was a Scottish ethnologist. He began his career in law, drafting parliamentary bills for Scotland. After working on an article on law for Encyclopaedia Britannica he developed an interest in the development of customs associated with marriage in primitive cultures.

Pursuing this he gathered large quantities of material and developed the theory that matriarchy was the earliest form of culture, prior to patriarchy. He wrote on topics such as marriage, family, kinship, and related customs, including "marriage by capture" which he saw as the origin of exogamy. His The Patriarchal Theory challenged the views of his contemporary, Henry Maine, and his influential Primitive Marriage (1965) presented a theory of their development, which, although generally rejected today, had considerable impact on the field, influencing William Robertson Smith and Sigmund Freud. His work on the concept of totems was significant in the thinking of Freud and others, such as Emile Durkheim, regarding the role of religion in early societies.

Although McLennan's views have been mostly superseded, many of his ideas were quite insightful. Their limits were in many cases due to the lack of sufficient information. His critique of the patriarchy as the primary and universal form of the family was accurate, in that many forms of the family have indeed been found throughout human history. However, his account of the development of societies based on polyandry, marriage by capture, and exogamy also does not adequately explain the appearance of different familial structures nor does it give a vision of the ideal.


John Ferguson McLennan was born in Inverness, Scotland on October 14, 1827, to the family of John McLennan, an insurance agent, and his wife, Jessie Ross. McLennan studied at King's College, Aberdeen, where he graduated with distinction in 1849, thence proceeding to Trinity College Cambridge, where he remained until 1855 without taking a degree. He then spent two years in London writing for various periodicals including the Leader.

Returning to Edinburgh, McLennan was called to the Scottish bar in 1857. In 1862, he married Mary Bell McCulloch. They had one daughter. McLennan became secretary of the Scottish Law Amendment Society and in 1871 was appointed parliamentary draughtsman for Scotland, a position he held until 1875. He received an LL. D. degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1874. In 1875, he married for a second time, to Eleonora Anne Brandam.

Although successful in the area of law, it was McLennan's anthropological writings that were his passion and through which he had the greatest impact. He wrote on topics such as marriage, family, kinship, and related customs. His influential Primitive Marriage (1965) presented a theory of their development from primitive cultures, which, although generally rejected today, had considerable impact on the field. McLennnan's work influenced William Robertson Smith and Sigmund Freud, and he strongly criticized the work of Henry Maine and Lewis Henry Morgan.

Ill-health prevented McLennan from completing much of his work, including a revision of Primitive Marriage. He died of consumption on June 14, 1881, at Hayes Common, Kent, England. His widow, Eleanora, and his brother, Donald McLennan, together with Arthur Platt took on the task of publishing his papers to complete his work posthumously.


McLennan's work in anthropology began with his contribution to Encyclopaedia Britannica (1857) of an article on "Law." His research into historical social structures for this article stimulated his interest in their origin, particularly the development of marriage and kinship organization from primitive societies.

In 1865 he published Primitive Marriage, in which he presented his ideas:

The primitive groups were, or were by their members, when consanguinity was first thought of, assumed to be all of one stock. Marriage was at first unknown. In time the special attachments of children to mothers led to the subdivision of the groups into rude family groups of the Nair type, and made possible the rise and consolidation of the system of kinship through women only (McLennan 1865).

McLennan introduced the terms exogamy (marriage outside the group, as in bride capture between warring tribes) and endogamy (marriage within a specific group, leading to monogamy and determination of kinship through males, rather than females). He argued that exogamy was originally due to scarcity of women which obliged men to seek wives from other groups, including marriage by capture, and this in time grew into a custom which became established as the law. McLennan also argued that the scarcity of women arose out of the practice of female infanticide which resulted from the struggle for food. This imbalance had led to polyandry (where the woman establishes a marriage or stable sexual union with more than one male) and, since the father of any particular child could not be determined in such societies, descent was reckoned matrilineally:

As exogamy and polyandry are referable to one and the same cause-–a want of balance between the sexes—we are forced to regard all the exogamous races as having originally been polyandrous. ... Therefore we must hold it to be beyond dispute that among exogamous races the first system of kinship was that which recognized blood-ties through mothers only (McLennan 1886).

Thus, McLennan's view was that early societies were initially polyandrous with matrilineal descent. Patriarchal societies developed later. To support his thesis, McLennan gathered a large amount of evidence over a considerable time period. He planned to revise Primitive Marriage based on his new findings, but ill-health prevented him from completing this work in his lifetime. The vast materials which he had accumulated on kinship were gathered and edited first by William Robertson Smith, then by his brother Donald McLennan, and finally by his widow and Arthur Platt who published them under the title Studies in Ancient history: Second Series (1896).

In his The Patriarchal Theory published posthumously from his notes, McLennan severely criticized Henry Maine's view:

The conclusion we are brought to is that, besides the occurrence of Patria Potestas and Agnation in the Roman family in the historic period, there is really no evidence to show the Patriarchal Family, as Sir Henry Maine has described it, was primal and universal. ... For it has appeared at all points, not only that the phenomena dealt with are not intelligible on the Patriarchal Theory, but that they carry us back to a stage of society prior to the form of the family that had a father at its head, to the stage of polyandry and to the form of the family founded upon kinship through women only (McLennan 1885).

McLennan (1869-1870) also wrote on totemism, suggesting that the worship of plants and animals by primitive cultures was the first religion. Functioning as a "totem," an animal, plant, or other object provided symbolic meaning for early social groups. McLennan argued that the entire human race had passed through a totemic stage at some point in the distant past. According to McLennan, such totemism cemented the clan as the unit of society, particularly in the context of exogamy and matrilineal descent.

In his Totem and Taboo, Freud regarded the totem as the projection of a hypothetical tribe's Oedipal guilt for the murder of their patriarch, and subsequently the lynchpin for their systems of taboos and morality that allegedly developed in the aftermath. Freud credited McLennan for his work on totemism and exogamy:

The credit for having recognized the significance of totemism for the ancient history of man belongs to the Scotchman J. Ferguson McLennan (Fortnightly Review 1869-70). ... McLennan (1865) ingeniously inferred the existence of exogamy from the vestiges of customs that seemed to indicate the earlier practice of marriage by capture. He formed a hypothesis that in the earliest times it had been a general usage for men to obtain their wives from another group and that marriage with a woman of their own group gradually 'came to be considered improper because it was unusual' (Fortnightly Review 1869-70, 289). He accounted for the prevalence of exogamy by supposing that the practice of killing the majority of female children at birth had led to a scarcity of women in primitive societies (Freud 1918).

In addition to these anthropological works, McLennan also wrote a Memoir (1867) of Thomas Drummond, the Scottish civil engineer who served as Under-Secretary for Ireland.


While John Ferguson McLennan's name may not be as famous today as many other social scientists of his time, his influence was profound. His work impacted many renowned researchers and theorists.

It was through McLennan that William Robertson Smith was motivated to study comparative religion and primitive culture, leading to his famous Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885). Smith learned from McLennan that religious and social structures in early society were intimately related (Rivière 1995). Smith and McLennan shared common interests and approaches. In fact, Smith called McLennan "one of the best friends I ever had" (Bediako 1997).

McLennan's pioneering work on totems (as survivals of primitive worship of fetishes, plants, animals, and anthropomorphic gods) and his theory of primitive marriage and societal organization had a great influence upon social scientists. Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud took his ideas and built upon them in their highly influential works regarding the origin and role of religion in early societies. James G. Frazer suggested that totems bind people together in social groups, and serve as an impetus for the development of civilization. Others, particularly Claude Lévi-Strauss, however, brought into question the importance and even the plausibility of totemism as an adequate classification in religious scholarship. Nonetheless, totems clearly have functioned to reinforce clan identity and solidarity, and a variety of totems serve to demarcate particular groups or clans within larger tribes.

Similarly, McLennan's work on exogamy and marriage by capture led to much debate and controversy, including that which McLennan generated with Henry Maine and Lewis Henry Morgan in his own writings. His work certainly stimulated further research and theoretical development in this important area. Thus, McLennan's efforts helped advance our understanding of different societies, even though his work was far from the complete picture:

Marriage by capture has a long lineage in anthropological writing and speculation and still appears frequently in modern ethnographic contexts. It was central to John F. McLennan's theory of the origin of exogamy, which linked totemism, female infanticide, exogamy, marriage by capture and polyandry into a single theory. Although his theory has generally been dismissed, it provided the starting point for a considerable body of analytic discussion. It has left its mark even on authors who may not acknowledge it, or even be unaware of it. We may wonder what McLennan would have made of the much more sophisticated ethnography of the present, if he were given the opportunity to test his views on it (Barnes 1999).

Main publications

  • McLennan, John Ferguson. [1865] 1970. Primitive Marriage. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226560805
  • McLennan, John Ferguson. 1867. Memoir of Thomas Drummond, R.E.,F.R.A.S., Under Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 1835-1840. Edmonston and Douglas.
  • McLennan, John Ferguson. [1869] 1870. "The worship of animal and plants: Totems and totemism." Fortnightly Review (6-7).
  • McLennan, John Ferguson. 1876. Studies in Ancient History Comprising a Reprint of Primitive Marriage: An Inquiry into the Origin of the Form of Capture in Marriage Ceremonies. London: Bernhard Quaritch.
  • McLennan, John Ferguson. [1885] 2006. The Patriarchal Theory. Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 0543926028
  • McLennan, John Ferguson. 1888. "The origin of exogamy." The English Historical Review. 3(9) (1888): 94-104.
  • McLennan, John Ferguson. 1896. Studies in Ancient History The Second Series: Comprising an Inquiry into the Origin of Exogamy. London: MacMillan.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barnard, Alan. 2000. History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521774322
  • Barnes, R.H. 1999. "Marriage by capture." In Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
  • Bediako, Gillian M. 1997. Primal Religion and the Bible: William Robertson Smith and His Heritage. Sheffield Academic Press. ISBN 1850756724
  • Freud, Sigmund. [1918] 1950. Totem and Taboo. Routledge. ISBN 0710046014
  • Rivière, Peter. 1995. "William Robertson Smith and John Ferguson McLennan: The Aberdeen roots of British social anthropology." In William Robertson Smith: Essays in Reassessment, 293-302. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. ISBN 185075523X

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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