Although he was born into humble circumstances in Horde, a small town in Westphalia (western Germany), Father Wilhelm Schmidt became a lifelong student of the world as a leading authority in his day on linguistics, ethnology, and comparative religion. At the age of 15, he entered the mission school of the Society of the Divine Word (Societas Verbi Divini, SVD), at Steyl, in the Netherlands. This seminary was established in 1875 by Father Arnold Janssen for the training of Roman Catholic missionaries; Schmidt completed his education there and was ordained into the priesthood in 1892. After he studied Semitic languages at the University of Berlin for 2 years, Schmidt began teaching at the new SVD seminary in Modling (near Vienna), Austria; he held this post from 1895 until 1938, when he left Austria because of the Nazi takeover.
Schmidt developed a special interest in the languages spoken in regions where his SVD colleagues served (i.e., North and South America, Europe, the Far East, and Oceania); he obtained the support of Janssen to publish a journal that would advance this missionary endeavor and promote anthropological studies. In 1906, Father Schmidt launched Anthropos: International Review of Ethnology and Linguistics; the year 2005 witnessed the publication of Anthropos, Volume 100. This journal, which has published thousands of articles and reviews, remains one of Schmidt’s greatest contributions to anthropology. From the beginning of his work as professor and editor, Schmidt encouraged missionaries to become better students of the people groups among whom they worked—and to advance the study of Völkerkunde, the world’s cultures and languages.
In addition to his teaching and editorial work, Father Schmidt helped to start the Vatican’s Ethnological Missionary Museum; this collection was established in 1926 and was directed by Schmidt from 1927 until 1939. During this same period, he founded the Anthropos Institute and Library at Mödling/Vienna as another means to advance his religious-apologetic-anthropological agenda; Fathers Wilhelm Koppers, Paul Schebesta, and Martin Gusinde, also SVD clergy, helped establish this research center. When the Anschluss occurred, Schmidt transferred the Anthropos Institute and its library to Fribourg, Switzerland, where it remained from 1938 until 1962. By 1962, the Society of the Divine Word moved their Institute to Sankt Augustin, outside Bonn, where it remains today. Wilhelm Schmidt also taught at the University of Vienna (1921-1938) and at the University of Fribourg (1939-1951). Over the course of his professional career, Father Schmidt was in constant contact with coworkers from different parts of the world and applied his comparative perspective and linguistic skills in many research projects. He published over 600 books and articles and received honorary degrees from six universities.
Schmidt’s initial scholarly activity focused on linguistics, including the languages of Papua New Guinea—one of the places where SVD missionaries worked. He expanded his study to include Oceania (including Australia) and identified connections between “Austronesian” (formerly Malayo-Polynesian) languages and those spoken in Southeast Asia; Schmidt named this family the “Austro-Asiatic” languages.
Father Schmidt also made significant contributions to the field of cultural anthropology and was a leading figure in the German school of Diffusionism, along with Frobenius, Graebner, and Ratzel. In opposition to theories of cultural evolution, these—and other scholars in Europe and America—proposed a system of “culture circles” (Kulturkreise), by which cultural traits diffused outward from their points of origin. This historical-geographical emphasis, which was worked out in great detail, countered the theory of unilinear evolution but did not hold up under close scrutiny. Nevertheless, the “Vienna Cultural-Historical School” exerted great influence on the development of anthropological theory, including advocates of the “American Historical Tradition” (e.g., Boas and Kroeber), and avoided the excesses of the British diffusionist school (e.g., Rivers and Smith). One of Schmidt’s best known books, available in English translation, delineates his views (The Culture Historical Method of Ethnology: The Scientific Approach to the Racial Question ) and partially explains his conflict with the National Socialists.
Though he wrote many books and articles, published in the Anthropos journal and elsewhere, there is no doubt that Schmidt’s greatest work is his 12-volume magnum opus, Der Ursprung der Gottesidee: Eine historisch-kritische und positive Studie. This study is a compilation of an enormous body of data, and its production occupied much of his career—from the appearance of the 1st volume in 1912 until the 12th volume in 1955. In this collection and analysis of a vast array of religious traditions (reminiscent of the range of illustrations treated by Frazer or Eliade), Schmidt attempted to prove (a la Andrew Lang) that the religions of the technologically primitive (or “ethnologically oldest”) peoples include a “monotheistic” trend. In short, he was attempting to demonstrate that the widespread recognition of a “High God” reflected the original monotheism of the Bible. This view has not been widely accepted by specialists in the anthropological and historical study of religion, and many scholars have given up their attempt to discover the religious primordium. In the end, Schmidt, who rejected an evolutionary explanation of culture and religion, fell back on a similar method—that is, assigning cultural and religious levels to a theoretical historical sequence. The monumental Ursprung der Gottesidee is available only in German, but two English titles that reflect Schmidt’s work in this area are The Origin and Growth of Religion (1931) and High Gods in North America (1933). These and his other works reflect important stages in the history of anthropological theory—and in the rise and development of «missionary anthropology.”
- Bornemann, F. (1982). P. Wilhelm Schmidt S.V.D. 1868-1954. Rome: Apud Collegium Verbi Divini.
- Brandewie, E. (1983). Wilhelm Schmidt and the origin of the idea of God. New York: University Press of America.
- Brandewie, E. (1990). When giants walked the Earth: The life and times of Wilhelm Schmidt, SVD. Fribourg, Switzerland: Fribourg University Press.
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1965). Theories of primitive religion. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
- Harris, M. (1968). The rise of anthropological theory: A history oftheories of culture. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.
- Honigman, J. J. (1976). The development of anthropological ideas. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.