Remember my preference

About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V


Part II: Primitive Monotheism and the Origin of Polytheism

Chapter 1

From Monotheism to Polytheism

In Sophisticated Society

     SOME YEARS ago Prebendary Rowe observed that it is more sensible to start with the known and reason upon it towards the unknown than to start with the unknown in the hopes of being able to explain the known. We now have a body of "knowns" which is substantial, and in some ways the most assured data are to be found in that quite vast literature which has been preserved from the Cradle of Civilization, Mesopotamia.
When the cuneiform literature first began to reveal its message, scholars of cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics soon found themselves dealing with a tremendous number of gods and goddesses, and demons and other spiritual powers of a lesser sort, which seemed to be always at war with one another and much of the time highly destructive. As earlier and earlier tablets, however, began to be excavated and brought to light, and skill in deciphering them increased, the first picture of gross polytheism began to be replaced by something more nearly approaching a hierarchy of spiritual beings organized into a kind of court with one Supreme Being over all. One of the first cuneiform scholars to acknowledge the significance of this trend was Stephen Langdon of Oxford, and when he reported his conclusions he did so with a consciousness of the fact that he would scarcely be believed. Thus he wrote in 1931: (2)

     I may fail to carry conviction in concluding that both in Sumerian and Semitic religions, monotheism preceded polytheism. . . . The evidence and reasons for this conclusion, so contrary to accepted and current views, have been set down with care and with the perception of adverse criticism. It is, I trust, the conclusion of knowledge and not of audacious preconception.

     Since Langdon took the view that the Sumerians represent the oldest historic civilization, he added:

2. Langdon, Stephen H., Semitic Mythology, Mythology of All Races, vol. 5, Archaeologicl Institute of America, 1931, p.xviii.

     pg 1 of 19      

     In my opinion the history of the oldest civilization of man is a rapid decline from monotheism to extreme polytheism and widespread belief in evil spirits. It is in a very true sense the history of the fall of man.

     Five years later in an article which appeared in The Scotsman, he wrote: (3)

     The history of Sumerian religion, which was the most powerful cultural influence in the ancient world, could be traced by means of pictographic inscriptions almost to the earliest religious concepts of man. The evidence points unmistakeably to an original monotheism, the inscriptions and literary remains of the oldest Semitic peoples also indicate a primitive monotheism, and the totemistic origin of Hebrew and other Semitic religions is now entirely discredited.

     To my knowledge only one person has seriously challenged Langdon's conclusion since. And this was an old professor of mine, T. J. Meek. (4) The argument that Langdon used was based on the following circumstances: The Sumerian religion in its latest development before the people disappeared as an entity swallowed up by the later Babylonians, seemed to have involved about 5000 gods. The inscriptions of circa 3000 B.C. or perhaps a millennium earlier show only 750. The 300 tablets or so known from Jamdet Nasr in 1928 when Langdon published these texts, contained only. three gods; the sky god Enlil, the earth god Enki, and the sun god Babbar. The 575 tablets from Uruk translated in 1936, which Langdon dated about 4000 B.C. but are now believed to be more accurately dated 3500 B.C., contain the names of only two deities: the sky god An and the mother goddess Innina. Meek's criticism of Langdon's essay was that the number of gods he mentions for the earlier tablets is in error. In the Jamdet Nasr text there may have been as many as six, not three. On this account Meek felt that he could accuse Langdon of gross inaccuracy and thus undermine the force of his argument. At the same time he admitted that at least one of these six is doubtful. Moreover, it is not always possible to be sure that a name which appears as someone to whom prayers are made is necessarily thought of as a deity. Praying to saints has been known even in modern days! In any case, when the forward view of history takes us from two deities to a small number whether three or six 500 years later, to 750 a thousand years later, and to 5,000 before the picture becomes indistinct the argument against Langdon's interpretation of the data based upon an error in counting of such small

3. Langdon, Stephen H., The Scotsman, November 18, 1936.
4. Meek, T. J., Primitive Monotheism and the Religion of Moses, University of Toronto Quarterly, vol.8, January, 1939, p.189-197.

     pg.2 of 19     

proportions surely carries no weight at all. It does not seriously challenge his basic argument.
     In any case, subsequent excavations at Tell Asmar from the period of the third millennium B.C. have fully corroborated his findings. Thus Henry Frankfort wrote in his official report:

     In addition to their more tangible results, our excavations have established a novel fact, which the student of Babylonian religions will have henceforth to take into account. We have obtained, to the best of our knowledge for the first time, religious material complete in its social setting.
     We possess a coherent mass of evidence, derived in almost equal quantity from a temple and from the houses inhabited by those who worshiped in that temple. We are thus able to draw conclusions, which the finds studied by themselves would not have made possible.
     For instance, we discover that the representations on cylinder seals, which are usually connected with various gods, can all be fitted into a consistent picture in which a single god worshiped in this temple forms the central figure. It seems, therefore, that at this early period his various aspects were not considered separate deities in the Sumero-Accadian pantheon.

     This raises an important point; namely, the possibility that polytheism never did arise by the evolution of polydemonism, but because the attributes of a single God were differently emphasized by different people until those people in later years came to forget that they were speaking of the same Person. Thus attributes of a single deity became a plurality of deities. It is not merely that single individuals laid emphasis upon different aspects of God's nature but whole families and tribes seemed to have developed certain shared views about what was important in life and what was not, and therefore, not unnaturally, came to attribute to their god and to put special emphasis upon those characteristics which seemed to them of greatest significance. For example, a warlike people are not too likely to emphasize the gentleness of God nor a legalistic people the forgiveness of God. They will rather emphasize His power in the one case and His justice in the other. In three other Doorway Papers (6) we have explored the possibility that the sons of Noah (Shem, Ham, and Japheth) each developed a bent towards life which led them to different emphases: Shem on the spiritual quality of life, Ham on the practical concerns of life, and Japheth on the philosophical aspects of life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the God of the Semites is a

5. Frankfort, H ., Third Preliminary Report on Excavations at Tell Asmar (Eshnunna): quoted by P. J. Wiseman in New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, London, 1936, p.24.
6. See on this Arthur Custance, "The Part Played by Shem, Ham, and Japheth in Subsequent World History", Part I; Part IV, "The Technology of Hamitic People", Part IV; and "A Christian World View: The Framework of History," Part V; in Noah's Three Sons, vol.1 in The Doorway Papers Series, Zondervan Publishing Co.

     pg.3 of 19     

God of pure spirit. The gods of the Hamites, on the other hand, were gods of power. And the gods of the Japhethites or Indo-Europeans were gods of light, in the sense of being gods of "understanding." I think Matthew's Gospel was written for the descendants of Shem and is slanted towards their way of thinking about God. Mark's Gospel was written for the descendants of Ham and is full of action, of doings, of service, of authority where the characteristic phrase is "immediately," "straightway," and similar terms. Luke's Gospel was undoubtedly written for the descendants of Japheth; and it may be merely coincidence, though I doubt it very much, that the writer's name means "light."
Long before Langdon had made his translations, Friedrich Delitzsch had made a rather similar proposal regarding the continuing tendency towards the multiplication of deities. (7) He refers to a tablet reported upon by T. G. Pinches which, though only fragmentarily preserved, tells us that all, or at any rate, the highest of the deities in the Babylonian pantheon are designated as one with and one in the god Marduk.
The god Marduk is set forth under the name "Ninib," as "the Possessor of Power"; under the name of "Nergal" or "Zamama," as "Lord of Battle"; under the name "Bel," as "Possessor of Lordship"; under the name "Nebo," as "The Lord the Prophet"; under the name "Sin," as "Illuminator of the Night"; under the name "Shamash," as "Lord of all that is Just"; under the name "Addu," as "God of Rain." Marduk therefore was Ninib as well as Nergal, Moon-god as well as Sun-god, the names being simply different ways of describing his attributes, powers, or duties.
The same historical process can be traced in Egypt. Renouf in his Hibbert Lectures for 1879 quotes M. de Rouge as having said that from, or rather before, the beginning of the historical period, the pure monotheistic religion of Egypt passed through the phase of Sabeism; the sun instead of being considered as the symbol of life, was taken as the manifestation of God Himself. Rouge observed: (8)

     It is incontestably true that the sublimer portions of the Egyptian religion are not the comparatively late result of a process of development or elimination from the grosser. The sublimer portions are demonstrably ancient; and the last stage of the Egyptian religion, that known to the Greek and Latin writers, heathen or Christian, was by far the grossest and the most corrupt.

7. Delitzsch, Friedrich, Babel and Bible, Williams and Norgate, London, 1903, pp.144f.
8. Renouf, P. Le Page, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of Ancient Egypt, Williams and Norgate, London, 1897, p.90.

     pg.4 of 19     

Renouf observed:

     M. de Rouge is no doubt correct in his assertion that in the several local (centres of) worship, one and the same deity re-appears under different names and symbols. . . .
     He infers from the course of history that since polytheism was constantly on the increase, the monotheistic doctrines must have preceded it.

A very sound argument indeed.
Again, as in Sumeria and Babylonia, so also in the course of time the Egyptians multiplied and broke up into factions with tribal loyalties and somewhat provincial religious preferences the purer concept of one God which they had all shared at the beginning and which involved some considerable knowledge of His attributes. This led to a confusion of attributes with different individuals, and descriptive terms became names of deities. Rawlinson wrote many years ago concerning this: (9)

     The deity, once divided, there was no limit to the number of His attributes of various kinds and of different grades; and in Egypt everything that partook of the divine essence became a god. Emblems were added to the catalogue; and though not really deities, they called forth feelings of respect which the ignorant could not distinguish from actual worship.

     It was not perhaps unnatural that in order to symbolize God's various powers it would have been taught that His vision was as sharp as a hawk's, or He was strong as a bull, or that He watched unseen like the crocodiles whose eyes alone are to be seen. In time these symbols were mistaken by the common people as being gods in themselves; so was fulfilled that which Paul had written in Romans 1:18-23, that men turned from the worship of God Himself to the worship of His creatures and in due course became vain in their imaginings, and their understanding was darkened. In the second part of this Paper we shall return to this subject again, because it is important to see why these grosser aspects of religious belief should have so completely swamped those loftier aspects which ancient Egyptian texts show clearly to have once been remarkably pure.
     It might be thought that the picture has changed radically since the days of Renouf and his Hibbert Lectures. This is not the case. Sir Flinders Petrie, in an excellent little book on the subject of Egyptian religion, wrote as follows:

     There are in ancient religions and theologies very different classes of gods. Some races, as the modern Hindu, revel in a profusion of gods and

9. Rawlinson, George, editor, Herodotus, appendix to Book 2, p.250.
10. Petrie, Sir Flinders, The Religion of Ancient Egypt, Constable, London, 1908, pp.3, 4.

     pg.5 of 19     

godlings which continually increase. Others . . . do not attempt to worship great gods, but deal with a host of animistic spirits, devils, or whatever we may call them. . . . But all our knowledge of the early positions and nature of the great gods shows them to stand on an entirely different footing to these varied spirits.
     Were the conception of a god only an evolution from such spirit worship we should find the worship of many gods preceding the worship of one god. . . . What we actually find is the contrary of this, monotheism is the first stage traceable in theology. . . .
     Wherever we can trace back polytheism to its earliest stages, we find that it results from combinations of monotheism. In Egypt even Osiris, Isis, and Horus, so familiar as a triad, are found at first as separate units in different places: Isis as a virgin goddess, and Horus as a self-existent God.
     Each city appears to have had but one god belonging to it, to whom others were in time added. Similarly Babylonian cities each had their supreme god, and the combinations of these and their transformations in order to form them into groups when their homes were politically united show how essentially they were solitary deities at first.

      Everywhere the pattern seems to have been much the same, wherever we have sufficient records to establish the historical sequence. It is not strange that a conquering people should set their own deity at the head of the pantheon, but it is also not strange either that for the sake of peace and harmony they should pay lip service to the deities of the conquered, though allotting to them inferior positions. This kind of broad-mindedness we would tend to commend today under the general heading of religious freedom. But the penalty of this broad-mindedness is that the truth is very quickly blurred. The solution is not simple: the Jesuits, as an example, have traditionally taken the stand that only the truth should be given complete freedom of expression and therefore religious tolerance is equated with lack of conviction. Any man who agrees that people may worship whatever they will is really confessing, so they argue, that he himself is not absolutely certain that he has the truth and therefore is willing to be broad-minded. They have a point. The monarchs of antiquity, like Cyrus for example, allowed complete freedom to conquered peoples to build their temples and establish their priesthoods as suited them individually. The consequence was that such men by their "enlightened" policy contributed to the tremendous proliferation of deities. As I have said, the problem is a difficult one: but ecumenism may be a worse menace in the opposite direction by insisting that everybody must agree to worship the same "God" who may be no God at all.
As we pass from these ancient civilizations toward the East we come to India. And although the literature from this land is very ancient, tracing the history of the origin of its religious beliefs is not

     pg.6 of 19     

as straightforward. Nevertheless, there is a measure of agreement that here, too, there has been a steady multiplication of deities through the centuries, until they are now like the stars in the sky for number. One of the best-known authorities in this area was Max Muller, who although he did not have the Christian convictions that many contemporary scholars had, nevertheless, reached certain conclusions that should be mentioned. Max Muller, born in Germany in 1823, studied in Paris and subsequently taught in London. He wrote many volumes among which Chips from a German Workshop is perhaps his best known. He also wrote Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, as Illustrated by the Religions of India. Finally, he edited his great monumental and life work, a series entitled The Sacred Books of the East. He did not believe that early India was monotheistic in its faith, but neither did he believe it was polytheistic polytheism being a later stage which involved a process of degeneration. In his The Science of Language he wrote: (11)

     Mythology, which was the bane of the ancient world, is in truth a disease of language. A myth means a word, but a word which, from being a name or an attribute, has been allowed to assume a more substantial existence. Most of the Greek, the Roman, the Indian, and other heathen gods are nothing but poetical names, which were gradually allowed to assume divine personality never contemplated by their original inventors. Eos was the name of dawn before she became a goddess, the wife of Tithonos, or the dying day. Fatum, or Fate, meant originally what had been spoken; and before Fate became a power, even greater than Jupiter, it meant that which had once been spoken by Jupiter, and could never be changed not even by Jupiter himself. Zeus originally meant the bright heaven, in Sanskrit Dyaus; and many of the stories told of him as the supreme god, had a meaning only as told originally of the bright heaven, whose rays, like golden rain, descend on the lap of earth, the Danae of old, kept by her father in the dark prison of winter. No one doubts that Luna was simply the name of the moon; but so likewise Lucina, both derived from lucere, to shine. Hecate, too, was an old name of the moon, the feminine of Hekatos and Hekatebolos, the far-darting sun; and Pyrrha, the Eve of the Greeks was nothing but a name of the red earth, and in particular of Thessaly. This mythological disease, though less virulent in modern languages, is by no means extinct.

     Hence once more we see how polytheism develops subsequently. Reverting once more to Rowe's observation about arguing from the known to the unknown, it may safely be said without the slightest hesitation that monotheism never evolved out of polytheism in any part of the world's earliest history for which we have documentary evidence. As we shall see, this was true also in China.

11. Muller, Max, Lectures on the Science of Language, 1st series, Scribner's, Armstrong, New York, 1875, pp 21, 22.

     pg.7 of 19     

     Many of his contemporaries disagreed with Muller's interpretation of the evidence, Andrew Lang being one of them. And since his time there has been wide acceptance of the idea that the history of religious beliefs in India has been characterized by the personification, often in gross physical forms and in increasing multiplicity, of a few concepts of the nature of God which at first saw Him as invisible and made Him so remote that He became virtually impersonal. Such lofty concepts do not appeal to ordinary men and what happened in the Middle East appears to have been repeated in India, except that the process proceeded much further because of the cultural continuity that circumstances allowed in that country. In the course of this, they reached the point where their gods were numbered not by the thousands as in Sumeria but by the tens of thousands. No doubt if Egypt had retained its original culture likewise it, too, might have ended up worshiping 50,000 deities where once they worshiped perhaps only one. Edward McCrady, writing about Indian religious beliefs observed that even the Rig Veda (Book 1, p.l64) shows us that in the early days the gods were regarded simply as diverse manifestations of a single Divine Being. He quoted: (12)

     They call him Indra, Mythra, Varunna, Agni that which is One, the Wise name by different terms.

     Scholars in the West incline to the opinion that the earliest of the hymns in the Rig Veda date from between 1500 to 1200 B.C. (13) Indian tradition, on the other hand, claims for them a much earlier antiquity. Whatever its date and however little Muller shared the Christian view of man's spiritual history, he nevertheless admitted freely: (14)

     There is a monotheism that precedes the polytheism of the Veda; and even in the invocation of the innumerable gods the remembrance of a God one and infinite, breaks through the mist of idolatrous phraseology like the blue sky that is hidden by passing clouds.

     When we come to China, the situation is even more confused, for the Chinese seem to have had a peculiar aversion to the worship of personal deities. Some of the older writers, nevertheless, were confident that they could discern evidence of a once pure monotheistic faith, which however was early lost sight of because of the extreme

12. McCrady, Edward, "Genesis and Pagan Cosmogonies," Transactions of the Victoria Institute, vol.72, 1940, p.55.
13. MacNicol, Nicol, editor, The Hindu Scriptures, Everyman's Library, Dent, London, 1938, p.xiv.
l4. Muller, Max, History of Sanskrit Literature: quoted by Samuel Zwemer as in ref.1., p.87.

     pg.8 of 19     

practicality of the Chinese mind. Such a pure faith, as we have already seen, is not "useful," because one cannot hope to bribe, cajole, or in any way persuade to one's own advantage a Supreme Being who is absolutely pure and above bribery or cajoling. And therefore from a practical point of view one seeks the ear of lesser powers and forgets the Higher One. A notable work in this respect was written by John Ross of the United Free Church of Scotland entitled The Original Religion of China (15) (published in New York, no date), in which the author examined the underlying concepts of early Chinese religion as judged by their names or words for God by special reference to the hyphenated title, Shang-Ti. He interpreted these two words to mean "above" or "superior to" and "ruler," i.e., "Supreme Ruler." He said that the name "bursts suddenly upon us without a note of warning . . . with the completeness of a Minerva." More recently a flood of fresh light on early Chinese faith has resulted from the discovery of the so-called "Oracle Bones." Chinese scholars have divided their ancient times into three separate periods: first, the primal-ancient; second, the mid-ancient; and third, the near-ancient. The first period stretches roughly from the 21st to the 12th century B.C. According to Ron Williams, who could read Chinese fluently, each of these periods possessed its own distinctive religious characteristics. The first was purely monotheistic. The second was dualistic with a tendency towards materialism but still retaining a flavour of the ancient monotheism. The third was completely materialistic. Professor Williams observed: (16)

      It would perhaps be desirable at this point to examine the terms used for God. Chinese writing, like the hieroglyphics of Egyptian or Cuneiform syllabaries of Mesopotamia, was originally pictographic. That is to say, each character was a picture or diagram describing the object or idea to be conveyed.
      There are two terms to be found at this early period. One is Ti'en, or "heaven," occurring with great frequency in the Classics. It consists of two radicals, jen, "man," and shang, "above." That is to say, the sign for heaven, which is now an abstract idea, originated out of two signs meaning "The man above." In later times the Emperor was referred to as the Ti'en Tzu, or "The Son of Heaven." This reflects views generally held in the ancient world regarding the divine origin of kings. The other name, which is the current one in use today in China, is (as mentioned by Dr. Ross), Shang Ti. In the oldest inscriptions which we possess (this was written in 1938), these two characters are combined into a single pictograph, which is composed of three elements. The first is , which is the original

15. Ross, John, The Original Religion of China: p.25: quoted by Samuel Zwemer, ref.1, p.86.
16 Williams, R., "Early Chinese Monotheism," a paper presented before the Kelvin Institute, Toronto, 1938.

     pg.9 of 19     

form of , mu, meaning "wood" and is a picture of three sticks or a faggot. The second, , is the earlier representation of , shu, meaning "to bind." Above this bound faggot is placed , which is the ancient  , shang, meaning "above." The character is the archaic form of meaning "to burn a faggot of wood." We therefore find the sign to mean "the burning faggot of a wood offering to the One Above," but also the "One Above to whom the burning faggot of wood is offered."
     And there is in China today an ancient custom at the new year of first binding a bundle of sesame stalks or cedar branches with a red cord and then standing them up on end in the centre of the open courtyard and burning them as an act of worship. This was the sacrifice of the burning faggot to God Above, although now they often call it a sacrifice merely to heaven.
     The terms Ti'en and Shang Ti might be compared respectively to the words God and Jehovah in the Old Testament. In the words of Professor Gile, "Shang Ti would be the God who walked in the garden in the cool of the day; the God who smelled the sweet savour of Noah's sacrifice, and the God who allowed Moses to see His back. Ti'en would be the God of Gods of the Psalms, whose mercy endureth forever."

     Williams pointed out in his paper that the Book of History in its opening sentence states that the ruler, Shun, on his accession in 2255 B.C. "offered the customary sacrifice to God." This statement, made without introduction or explanation, implies an unknown series of antecedent events running back into the remoteness of antiquity. Habitual practice had made them so familiar that they needed no details of the ceremonies involved. Their authority was so unquestioned that there was no place for a preface. Williams continued:

     In this period of Chinese history, God the Supreme Ruler was one and indivisible, incapable of change, having no equal, ruling absolutely and alone over all in heaven above and in earth beneath. He did what He willed and no power was able to hinder Him, and His will was always right. Yet He not infrequently permitted the wicked to flourish and in the Odes we frequently hear the voice of that complaining spirit which gave occasion to the book of Job.

      Subsequently Williams noted that neither in the Book of History nor in the Odes can any reference to idols be traced. No representation to anything in the heavens above or in the earth beneath has ever been made in China to typify God. And He may be worshipped anywhere at any time, being everywhere present.
     So far, our information has been gleaned solely from the pages of the Chinese Classics. There remains yet another source of information to which reference has already been made, the so-called Oracle Bones. As Williams observed, bones inscribed in ancient Chinese characters were found by J. M. Menzies of Cheeloo University in Tsinan, considered by sinologists to be the greatest living authority on the Archaic Chinese script. Over 20,000 fragments of these bones were found near An-yant in North Honan, the site of the early capital 

     pg.10 of 19     

of the Shang dynasty. The bones are inscribed with questions asked by the king of his priest on the one hand and the answer which the priest received by divination on the other. They contain the name of God, Shang Ti, and in spite of their number no reference is made to any other deities whatsoever.
     Let us examine a few of these inscriptions, the oldest Chinese writings which we possess. For clarification, the symbol for deity has been boxed in with a fine line. 

      "Inquire about God ordering rain; there will not be full harvest."

     "God orders rain: a full harvest."

     "Inquire in this, the third moon, about God ordering much rain."

     "Inquire about the king building the city; God consents."

     The form thus appears in these earliest of records as the only symbol for God, and it is completely free of all anthropomorphism.
     In due time, this pure faith begins to be eclipsed as later documents of a similar nature reveal that prayers are now being made first of all through ancestors to God who is not addressed directly, and then in time to the ancestors themselves. Later still petitions to a personal God are replaced by petitions to heaven, and in due course to earth also. In the mid-ancient period the great philosopher Chu, the famous annotator of the Classics, defined heaven as "the blue vault above," or alternatively by some process of mental evolution as "the abstract right."
     Very recently, a volume in the series The Great Ages of Man was published dealing with ancient China. The author was Edward H. Schafer. He traced this devolution as follows:

17 Schafer, Edward H., Ancient China, in the series, The Great Ages of Man, Time-Life Inc., New York, 1967, p.58. 

     pg.11 of 19     

     One of the oldest and certainly the greatest of the deities was the Sky God Ti'en. In the very early days Ti'en was thought of as a great king in the sky, more magnificent than any earth bound king, more brilliant and more terrible. Later, many viewed him as an impersonal dynamo, the source of energy that animated the world.

     So once again, therefore, where we can work from written records, we have evidence of the degeneration of religious faith, not its evolution upwards.
If we move from the Middle East into Europe, the story repeats itself once again. Thus Axel W. Persson, in his work The Religious Beliefs of Prehistoric Greece, remarked: (18)

     Out of two deities, the great Goddess and the Boy God, there later developed a larger number of more or less significant figures which we meet with in Greek religious myths.
     In my opinion, their multiplying variety depends to a very considerable degree on the different invocating names of originally one and the same deity.

     The same basic process is apparent in early Italy. Rosenzweig, (19) writing about the Iguvine Tablets, the date of which is not certain but probably belonging within early Etruscan times, remarked upon "the curious flexibility" of the pantheon revealed in these tablets, in which "deities are distinguished by adjectives, which in their turn emerge as independent divine powers. . . ." The author considers this to be perhaps the most striking feature of these tablets.
It seems to me that from all that has come to light over the past hundred years from the study of ancient documents, that is to say, from the written records of ancient civilizations, the picture of man's spiritual history, in so far as his formalized beliefs are concerned, allows us only to conclude that he began with a pure faith in a God of justice and compassion, who was omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, who could be worshiped in spirit without the necessity of images or other such paraphernalia. This concept, in fact, was too high to survive among ordinary men whose knowledge was not either being miraculously reinforced or continually added to by revelation. The gross polytheism of paganism in the classical world of Rome and Greece can be accounted for not as man striving to purify his faith but rapidly losing the truth he once had. The extent to which this classical world was indebted to the Middle East for its degenerate faith is amply borne out in Hislop's justly renowned study, The Two Babylons. (20)

18. Persson, Axel, The Religion of Greece in Prehistoric Times, University of California Press, 1942, p.124.
19. Book review, American Journal of Archaeology, vol.43, 1939, p.170,171.
20. Hislop, A., The Two Babylons, Partridge, London, 1903.

     pg.12 of 19   

In Unsophisitcated Society

     We have no written records to cover the original beliefs of primitive people, but a tremendous number of detailed and sympathetic studies of their beliefs have been made during the past hundred years and collected, notably by Wilhelm Schmidt. The evidence by inference allows us to say with confidence that the course of their religious history was precisely the same as that of the higher civilizations of antiquity with this difference, that whereas in the civilized countries a pure faith was corrupted by faulty reasoning due to the sinfulness of human nature, among primitive people a pure faith was corrupted through ignorance and superstition, again reinforced by the sinfulness of human nature. If we are to follow Lyell's principle of interpreting the past in the light only of things happening within historic times, then we have no right whatever to make the assumption that man started by groping in the dark and has only now begun to approach the Light. The evidence shows that he began with the true Light and now has his understanding increasingly darkened. The evidence for this among primitive people is to be found in every corner of the world where such people now exist or have existed within recent times. And paradoxically, the more primitive they are, the simpler and the purer is their faith often found to be. We shall look very briefly at a few pieces of evidence, which are merely representative of a vast compendium of information now available in such volumes as are listed in the bibliography of this Paper.
Without a doubt the most informative work on the monotheism of primitive people is that by Wilhelm Schmidt, which, though originally a many-volumed work in German, was published in 1930 in a condensed English translation as a single volume. (21) This is an excellent study, written with authority and fluency, having none of the stuffiness about it that one might expect with such an erudite author, and most informing.
Schmidt first traced the history of thinking on the subject of the origin of religion as it developed during the last century. He pointed out, briefly, that Spencer was largely responsible for the first evolutionary interpretation of "religion," noting that he anticipated Darwin by seven years as is shown by his article, "The Development Hypothesis," which appeared in The Leader for March 20, 1852. It

21. Schmidt, Wilhelm, The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories, translated by H. J. Rose, Methuen, London, 1931, xvi and 302 pp.

     pg.13 of 19     

may be worth noting also, in passing, that Tennyson wrote In Memoriam, with its erroneous description of Nature as "red in tooth and claw," ten years before Darwin's Origin appeared. Schmidt observed that Spencer made no effort whatever to employ genuinely historical methods to establish his thesis. (22) On the basis of present evidence it is now apparent that Spencer was completely wrong. Spencer held that primitive people began by worshipping ancestors, and that as civilization developed, ancestors "naturally" were formed into hierarchies, and hierarchies in turn led to rank, the highest ranks becoming deities.
What Schmidt was able to prove conclusively was that if primitive cultures are grouped on the basis of their cultural level and these groups are then placed in an ascending order, it is found that the lowest groups have the purest concept of God and that as one progresses from mere hunters, to food gatherers and storers, to food growers as pastoral nomads maintaining flocks, to food growers who have settled land use, and on up the scale to semi-urban communities, one finds at first a simple faith in a Supreme Being who has neither wife nor family. Under Him and created by Him are the primal pair from whom the tribe is descended. According to Schmidt we find this form of belief among the Pygmies of Central Africa, the Southeastern Australians, the inhabitants of North-Central California, the primitive Algonkins, and to a certain extent the Koryaks and Ainu.
As soon as we come to the next order of primitive cultures, to use Schmidt's words, "conditions are entirely changed." It is no longer only the primal pair or the first father who received worship but a greater or smaller number of other dead ancestors. Moving on up the scale of cultural complexity, the worship of ancestors and other deceased persons supplants the worship of the Supreme Being entirely, and the anthropomorphization of the gods resulting from this equation gives rise to the making of "images" of various kinds. The pure spirit of the Supreme Being is reduced to a gross caricature of a dead man. The progress of man's spiritual understanding was really a degression, the first step sometimes being the transfer of worship from the Creator of the first man to the man himself first created as the head of the human race. This progenitor of the race then appears as an intermediary between God and men, but being more easily conceived in the mind's eye, he soon displaces God altogether. Thus, quoting Schmidt: (23)

22. Ibid., p.63.
23. Ibid., p.71 .

     pg.14 of 19     

     The falsity of Spencer's theory is shown by the mere fact that ancestor worship is very feebly developed in the oldest cultures while a monotheistic religion is already clearly and unmistakeably to be found there. . . .
     It is also unfortunate for Spencer's theory that the highest development of ancestor-worship does not come till the most recent times. . . .

     Schmidt then treated of a second alternative view of the origin of religion, the animistic concept proposed by E. B. Tylor. Tylor's view assumed that primitive man used his own existence as a measure of all other existences and came to think of everything, beasts and plants at first but even inanimate things in the end, as consisting of body and soul like himself. It was assumed that primitive man would soon discern by introspection that he had a soul, some kind of spiritual inner reality which could, for example, travel in dreams, or in ecstasy, or in hallucinations. He attributed to all forces of nature a soul life similar to his own, which could not be seen, but was assumed. From this animistic concept he moved "naturally" to the view that this spirit world was personal. Thus arose polydemonism. In due time as society became stratified socially, so did the "demon" world, until we arrive at a stage of polytheism in which many of the demons have been elevated into deities. The final stage was the acknowledgment of one spiritual being who became Chief, i.e., God, and to whom all other demons and lesser deities were subservient and in a lower category. Even after this rationalization had supposedly given rise to a monotheistic faith, Tylor maintained that such a Being would be too high, too exalted, too remote, to need human worship, "too indifferent to concern himself with the petty race of men." (24) So He was simply ignored. Thus a monotheistic faith which resulted from a process of rationalization became by a further process of rationalization a faith so removed from the exigencies of life that it came to be irrelevant.
Schmidt's massive work is concerned with showing that in spite of the reasonableness of Tylor's reconstruction which, incidentally, swept the learned world as persuasively as did Darwin's Origin, it is totally unsupported by the evidence, as he put it: (25)

     Tylor's theory, like Spencer's, was produced during the heyday of Evolutionism, and has all the marks of its origin, especially its a priori assumption of an upward development of mankind along a single line, and the absence of any proof that the single stages of the process have any historical connection with one another. For indeed, no such proof is to be found for any step of Tylor's long evolutionary path. The order of the steps and their connection one with another is founded purely and simply on the psychological 

24. Ibid., p.77.
25. Ibid., p.81.

     pg.15 of 19     

plausibility of this connection; and the plausibility depends on the assumption that the simple always precedes the complex.

     Schmidt considered one further view, that of Max Muller, who developed a complex theory which argues that the attempt to rationalize the natural forces at work in the world, the sun, moon, rain, thunder, earth, sky, fire, water, led to stories attempting to explain these forces which took the form of nature myths. The terms which were paramount in these myths, the word for fire for example or the sky, came to be viewed by the less intelligent as the names of deities and these gave rise to the pantheons of classical antiquity. As Schmidt pointed out, however, in spite of his fame and his great learning Max Muller lived too long, long enough in fact to see his ideas gradually abandoned completely.
In Schmidt's closing chapter there are several eloquent passages in which he summed up what is known about the origin of the idea of the Supreme Being in primitive cultures. He said that man has social, moral, and emotional needs. The first or social needs were met by his early belief in a Supreme Being who is also the Father of mankind. The second, or moral needs, find their support in belief in a Supreme Being who is Judge of the good and the bad and is Himself free from all moral taint. The third group of needs, the emotional, were satisfied by his belief in a benevolent Supreme Being from whom comes nothing but good. Man has other needs, too. He seeks a rational cause and this is satisfied by the concept of a Supreme Being who created the world and who orders it in a way that makes sense, in a way that is dependable. Man also needs a protector and finds it in this Being who is omnipotent. And thus in all these attributes this exalted figure furnished primitive man with the ability and the power to live and to love, to trust and to work, and to sacrifice unworthy objectives for more worthy goals beyond. Schmidt said, "We thus find, among a whole series of primitive races, a notable religion, many-branched and thoroughly effective." (26)
In the intervening nearly 300 pages he showed that the more primitive the culture, the more clearly do these attributes of the Supreme Being show forth, being taken so much for granted that they are often scarcely expressed, a circumstance which led many investigators to assume that they didn't even exist. To sum up his findings very briefly, then, in his own words: (27)

26. Ibid., p.284.
27. Ibid., p.191.

     pg.16 of 19     

     Going back to the most primitive people, the Pygmies of Africa or the central Australians or the central Californian Indians all have one Supreme Sky God to Whom they make offerings of their blood and their first fruits taken in the hunt or from the soil. All these peoples also have short prayers with, here and there, ceremonies, to the Supreme Creator God before Whom nothing existed.

     Many writers on this subject have singled out these particular primitive tribes for a good reason. They are all people who have been in a sense isolated either by reason of island residence (such as the Andamanese or Madagascans), inhospitable forests (such as the Tierra del Fuegians), desert regions (such as the Australian aborigines or the Bushmen), inhospitable climate (such as the Eskimo or other Arctic people), or because of their frank hostility toward the white man (such as the Zulu in Africa or many American Indian tribes).
Andrew Lang, after pointing out that the Australian aborigines have probably the simplest culture of any people known to us, states that they have religious conceptions which are "so lofty that it would be natural to explain them as the result of European influence." (28) Yet at the time of writing he felt this explanation was quite unjustified. God is all-knowing, lives in the heavens, is the Maker and Lord of all things, rewards the good conduct of men and by His "lessons" softens the heart. Such was their belief.
The same author, speaking of the Andamanese whom he considered to be living at approximately the same cultural level though in somewhat more pleasant circumstances, states that their God is invisible, immortal, the Creator of all things except the powers of evil, knows the thoughts of the heart, is angered by falsehood and wrongdoing of all kinds, is pitiful to those in distress or pain and sometimes personally affords them relief. He is the Judge of souls and at some future time will preside over a great assize. The information supplied to Lang came from older members of the community who were not acquainted with other races at that time. As Lang says, foreign influence seems to have been more than usually excluded. (29)
Samuel Zwemer spoke of the truly monolithic character of the Supreme Being of the Pygmies of Africa, the Tierra del Fuegians, the Indians of North America, the Central Australian tribes, and the primitive Bushmen, as well as many peoples of the Arctic cultures, 

28. Lang, Andrew, The Making of Religion, Longmans Green, London, 1909, pp.175-182, 196.
29. Ibid., p.196.

     pg.17 of 19     

which he maintained is "clear even to a cursory examination." (30) In his paper, he was not merely reiterating what others have observed, namely, that all these primitive peoples have knowledge of a Supreme Deity, but rather that the Supreme Deity they recognize is everywhere essentially the same figure with the same attributes.
Canon Titcomb, (3l) speaking of the warlike Zulus who established such a reputation for themselves when British troops were battling with them, quoted a former Bishop of Natal who had a firsthand acquaintance with them while they were still culturally intact, as stating that they had no idols (a rather exceptional observation in Africa), but acknowledged a Supreme Being who was known either as the Great-Great One equivalent to "The Almighty" or as the First Outcomer equivalent to "The First Essence." The bishop said that in spite of their reputation as being without even a concept of God, the Zulus repeatedly spoke of Him, and quite of their own accord, as the Maker of all things and all men.
The same author made an interesting statement about the Madagascan native beliefs, which he said are often found expressed in proverbial form. (32) They had such sayings as the following: "Do not consider the secret valley, for God is overhead" in which the truth of divine omnipresence is clearly recognized. Another was, "The willfulness of man can be borne by the Creator, for God alone bears rule" which clearly recognizes the omnipotence of God. A third such proverb says, "Better be guilty with man than guilty before God," which clearly implies a belief both in divine holiness and justice.
Speaking of the American Indians, Paul Radin wrote: (33)

     Most of us have been brought up in the tenets of orthodox ethnology, and this is largely an enthusiastic and quite uncritical attempt to apply the Darwinian Theory of Evolution to the facts of social experience. Many ethnologists, sociologists, and psychologists still persist in the endeavour. No progress will be achieved, however, until scholars rid themselves once for all of the curious notion that everything possesses an evolutionary history.

     The same writer some years later, speaking of Lang's view that polytheism did not precede and lead to monotheism, remarked, "his intuitive insight has been abundantly corroborated." (34)
In conclusion we may note that the Journal of the Royal 

30. Zwemer, Samuel, "The Origin of Religion: By Evolution or by Revelation," Transactions of the Victoria Institute, vol.67, 1935, p.189.
31. Titcomb, J. H., "Prehistoric Monotheism," Transactions of the Victoria Institute, vol.8, 1873, p.145.
32. Ibid., p.144.
33. Radin, Paul, Monotheism Among Primitive Peoples, no publisher, London, 1924, pp.65ff.
34. Radin, Paul, Primitive Men as Philosophers, Dover, New York, revised edition, 1956, p.346.

     pg.18 of 19     

Anthropological Institute by 1950 was prepared to publish a paper by E. O. James in which the writer spoke as follows: (35)

     Thus, it is impossible to maintain a unilateral evolution in religious thought and practice in the manner suggested by the rationalistic classifications of Tylor and Frazer following along the line of the "Law of the Three Stages" enunciated by Comte. Nevertheless, neither the Euhemeran speculation that the idea of God arose in ancestor worship, revived by Herbert Spencer, nor the Frazerian evolution of monotheism from polytheism and animism as a result of a process of the unification of ideas, can be reconciled with the shadowy figure of a tribal Supreme Being now known to have been a recurrent feature of the primitive conception of Deity.

     From high cultures and low cultures the same picture emerges. It is a picture of a remarkably pure concept of the nature of God and His relation to man being gradually corrupted on the one hand by rationalizations which resulted from the gradual substitution of man's own thinking in place of revelation and on the other hand by superstition which stemmed from ignorance and forgetfulness of the original revelation. As we shall see, briefly, in the following part of this Paper, there is little to choose between rationalization and superstition. The end result in both cases is the same man's foolish heart is darkened. 

35. James, E. O., "Religion and Reality," Journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute, vol.70, 1950, p.28.

     pg.19 of 19     

Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

Previous Chapter                                                                      Next Chapter

Home | Biography | The Books | Search | Order Books | Contact Us