Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin of the Idea of God, Ernest Brandewie

Reviewed by LJ Frank

Thoughts. Primitive humans gathered in their own “cultural circles” …. from a simplified perspective one might consider primitive humans huddled around a fire, whether in a cave, jungle or in the desert. and communicating with each other, developing, and accepting the idea of one Supreme Being that was cause or part of their existence. These events occurred before the development of animistic beliefs.

Primitive humans invented words for what they surmised as a Creator/Supreme Being for which we define or title as “God”. Man invented “God” and significantly the acceptance/belief in one God according to the Wilhelm Schmidt’s research, long before any other belief structure.

Wilhelm Schmidt, was a priest, ethnologist, anthropologist, and linguist and wrote down his ideas and research in a series of volumes beginning in the early 1900s, based on his findings.

To consider his research context is significant. Context is vital – especially speaking about an historical event in which a person writes down their ideas based on their studies in the field and the people they are influenced by…in Schmidt’s case, he was also influenced by a movement known as Modernism.

His ideas point to a process. That process is the mind and actions of primitive humans before they began the journey of creating an assortment of beliefs, including polytheism and the hundreds of variations of religious beliefs spreading over the Earth, throughout the course of history. A translation of Schmidt’s views indicate an almost Buddhist flavoring (my take) of the idea that all things emanate from the mind. “God’s” actions and activities are in reality man’s rationalizations of what is occurring. Pointing to God is easier than pointing the finger at oneself…exposing the challenge of self-awareness. If anything there was a profound awareness in primitive humans and their existence.

The fascinating ingredient of Schmidt’s work is the idea that in the earliest chapters of human history, there was a belief in one Supreme Being…. most thoughtful histories of God give a nod to Schmidt’s work. What was Schmidt onto in Australia and other places in his research in ethnology, anthropology, and language? His work is in part an explanation. What didn’t he know bothered him.

No verifiable record exists that God/Supreme Being was a visible “being”.  The very nature of the Supreme Being is his physical invisibility. Primitive consciousness may have speculated on God’s voice but there is no record of what it sounded like…history is hearsay unless you are the one experiencing it. That’s where scholarship comes in…to fine tune events. Schmidt’s scholarship is sound.

The most ancient of sacred writings were not actions of “God” in history but rather Man’s interpretations of his own situation that in many cases involved power and control. Most religious rituals tend to be manipulative.

Schmidt found that there was an awareness of a Supreme Being initially and without the need for interpretation or ritual. The Phenomena of a Supreme Being was widespread. And that’s what makes his work thought-provoking. . No one knows with absolute certainty who was the first person(s) that came up with the idea of a Supreme Being or whether it was indeed a natural acceptance…but why? We return to the huddling primitives. Stories were told…and expanded on. Images were evoked as a way of relating meaning. Rituals had yet to be devised. It was men and women and their ideas and their sense of wonder and self and other awareness.

One can only speculate what their mind’s process was under nature’s elements and the breath-taking beauty of ancient skies.…the fascinating aspect to Schmidt’s work was that the belief was a pre-animistic texture in the fabric of their existence.

There’s an abundance of scholarship here to make it intriguing for the person wishing to follow up on more recent scholarship. This book is pricey. Claremont University (CA) has the online text one can borrow/download. I like the copious footnotes…*

*Schmidt spoke about pre-animistic magic theory and its connection with psychological theories of religion… For Schmidt this signals the defeat and collapse of animism and evolutionism as a way of explaining the Origin of religion…