William Robertson Smith – “Primitive” Religion and Higher Biblical Criticism


William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) was a minister, biblical scholar, and professor born in the village of Keig, Scotland. He was a well-known biblical critic and comparativist religion theorist who holds an important place in the history of the development of religious studies.

Smith came from a religiously conservative clerical family, and as a teenager studied classical languages and theology. He later explored geometry, fluxional calculus, and metaphysics of the sciences before shifting his focus to biblical studies and theology. In 1870 he was appointed as Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at the Free Church College in Edinburgh.

Research and Travels in Arabia

Smith spent a great deal of time in the Middle East. As a means to conduct his research, he traveled with Semitic tribes in the region which enabled him to make use of empirical and direct observation (1). He visited Egypt, Libya, Palestine, and Syria, and recounts of how he traveled by camel with local Bedouins in the deserts. Smith even assumed an alias (Abdullah Effendi) and guised himself in local garbs in order to avoid curiosity from the local peoples. His goal was to learn about the world and the lives of the Arab people and he interviewed various religious and political leaders to obtain information. Smith, however, had contempt for the cultures and religions which differed significantly from his own but despite such bias and prejudice, he provided valuable insight into tribal religion and the social lives of tribal peoples in Arabia through his first-hand ethnographic fieldwork. His book Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885) is an important text for those wishing to learn about such people.

Probing into Religion and the Religion of the Bible

Smith had a keen interest in the Bible and wished to determine the nature of its religion at various stages in its development. Such an approach would be a means through which he could isolate and examine the “primitive” elements of the Christian religion. The Bible was not only a sacred religious text but also a rich reservoir of data about the religious lives of the biblical peoples. Smith engaged in a close study of the Bible’s religion and devised a method by which one could engage the rituals, customs, myths, social institutions of biblical times. He also believed that by studying history and religious history in particular, it would be possible to discover a Natural Religion basis for revealed religions. Smith explained that beneath the revealed religions of,

“Judaism, Christianity and Islam lies the old unconscious religious tradition… the body of religious usage and belief… [which] formed part of that inheritance from the past into which successive generations of the Semitic race grew up” (2).

Smith clearly had an interest in Natural Religion which led him to probe into primal religion’s history. Like others, he hoped to form a common mind about the origins of religion which was not determined or influenced by confessional faith. He also held that the religion of the Hebrews was one of the older, if not the oldest, religions or known religions to humankind, and the further one probed into the earlier stages of the history of Israelite religion, the purer this religion would be. He believed that the religion of the Bible was indebted to the “natural” religious or “pagan” foundations upon which it rested.

Smith, by way of his field research, contended that the Arabic people and their “primitive” style of life and religion was evidence of religion in the past: “The religion of heathen Arabia… displays an extremely primitive type, corresponding to the primitive and unchanging character of nomadic life” (3). Through a close study of such people, their practices, and their institutions in the present one had direct access to the past. Smith was convinced that what he had witnessed of the religious lives of the nomadic Arabian people was near identical to the religion practiced by the Hebrews in the days of their desert wanderings a few thousand years earlier. In his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889), Smith explained that he,

“[T]ake[s] it for granted [that] when we go back to the most ancient religious conceptions and usages of the Hebrews, we shall find them to be the common property of kindred peoples, and not the exclusive possession of the tribes of Israel” (4).

His book has value in that it attempts to deal with a number of the prominent topics at the time. For example, it attempts to theorize concerning the original nature of sacrificial rites, the function of totemism (which was thought by some to be the first religion) and provides an explanation of the origins of morality and the development and growth of religion (5). As such, Smith proposed a developmental-evolutionism approach like E. B. Tylor to the study of religion. For example, he suggested that the “primitive” rites of totemism and sacrifice developed over periods of time into more modern and higher forms of religion. His theory was that religious functions such as sacrifice (which he believed were human attempts to put a deity under social obligation), given the right conditions, transformed into the ethical ideal of altruism which is a pure giving of the self for others (6). Therefore, what might perhaps be deemed a negative rite could transform over time into a positive ideal and Smith argued that the same must be true of the Christian religion. Contemporary scholar of religion Ivan Strenski explains that according to Smith,

“In Israel, what had been a gross and material kind of ritualism would gradually over time, and thanks to divine intervention, become the high-minded and purified spiritual morality of the prophet, Jesus, the Reformation fathers, and their liberal Protestant heirs” (7).

Trouble with the Church and Heresy Trial

Smith soon ran into trouble with the conservative church over his use of higher criticism (the investigative tool and method by which one closely examines historical texts such as its origins, sources, genre, and how it compares it to other texts penned in close historical proximity) and intellectual investigations. This came as a big shock for Smith as he had no intention to undermine religion and he did not feel that his intellectual interests and inquiry were a threat to his own faith. In fact, at the end of the day he felt that the historical sciences and religion were compatible and mutually enforcing. Smith explained that,

“… higher criticism does not mean negative criticism. It means the fair and honest looking at the Bible as a historical record, and the effort everywhere to reach the real meaning and historical setting, Scripture records as a whole” (8).

Smith believed that knowledge, derived form higher criticism and elsewhere, only deepened his faith and that although it could cause short term doubt it would still yet ultimately bring one closer to God. Despite such views, Smith was branded a heretic by his theological opponents and in 1876 the church successfully brought him to trial for heresy for denying the divine inspiration of the Hebrew Bible. His opponents accused him of denying that the biblical texts were free from all error in terms of factual statements, as well as denying that Moses penned the book of Deuteronomy. Smith was convicted of the latter charge and it led him to lose his position as a professor at Free Church College in Edinburgh. Despite this, Smith was able to find employment as the co-editor, the principal contributor, and finally editor in chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Smith’s Lasting Significance in the Study of Religion

Smith’s value not only lies in the great effort he put into studying religion observationally but also in his thinking about religion and religious life as being multidimensional. In many cases, religion is rooted in other aspects of human life than just the cognitive or intellectual. It often extends beyond thought and is therefore much more than doctrines, beliefs, and myths. It is also about what people do in the form of rituals and moral practice. Religion is also about forming relationships and establishing networks — both in terms of the divine as well as with other people. Moreover, despite his use of terminology to describe the other cultures, religions, and peoples he studied that is inappropriate and no longer acceptable in the discipline of religion studies, Smith proved a positive example in following the evidence where he believed it led him without letting religious dogma dictate the conclusion he reasoned to. Although committed to the Christian tradition, he still asked probing questions even while aware that this would be uncomfortable for others and bring him opposition.


1. Strenski, I. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. p. 56.

2. Smith, W. R. 1923. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. London: Adam and Charles Black. p. 1-2.

3. Smith, W. R. 1923. Ibid. p. 14.

4. Smith, W. R. 1923. Ibid. p. 3-4.

5. Strenski, I. 2015. Ibid. p. 60

6. Smith, W. R. 1923. Ibid. p. 434

7. Strenski, I. 2015. Ibid. p. 54-63

8. Smith, W. R. 1912. “What History Teaches Us to Seek in the Bible.” In J. S. Black and G. Chrystal (editors), Lectures and Essays of William Robertson Smith. p. 233.


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