Revisiting William Robertson Smith and His Evolutionary Theory of Religion

William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) was an important Scottish thinker in the development of biblical criticism who gained notoriety from a trial he faced due to alleged heresy. He was also important in the development of the study of social anthropology and comparative religion. At the young age of fifteen, Robertson Smith began his university career studying classical language and theology. He came to focus on biblical studies and was later appointed the professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at the Free Church College in Edinburgh.

In the study of religion, Robertson Smith is considered important because of his interest in tribal religion and his ethnographic field observations of the religious and social lives of the tribal peoples in Arabia. Several writings are informative regarding his travels such as Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885), Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889), and his article Animal Worship and Animal Tribes among Arabs and in the Old Testament (1912). We will primarily focus on his most important work, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites.


Several sources of influence likely informed many of Robertson Smith’s ideas and theory of religion. He was much influenced by professor A. B. Davidson (1831-1902), under whom he studied classical Hebrew. Davidson was controversial at the time because he viewed the Bible like any other text that should be treated with critical philological methods. Later, under German theologian Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), Robertson Smith came to hold to a more historical-critical and less dogmatic view of the Old Testament and, while occupying the chair of Hebrew and Old Testament studies at the Free Church College in Aberdeen, came to have close relations with the scholars in higher criticism. Julius Wellhausen’s (1844-1918) studies of Arabic traditional religion perhaps had the greatest influence on Robertson Smith, especially on his emphasis on the significance of the sacrificial meal in his theory of sacrifice.

Controversy, Work, and Travels

Robertson Smith encountered significant challenges, most notably in his trial. He was labeled by his conservative theological opponents as a heretic for supposedly undermining the Bible. Several charges were leveled at him, such as claiming that the book of Deuteronomy was not authored by Moses and not merely an account of historical facts. He was also condemned for his view that the biblical writers took liberties and made errors in transcription like any other author’s or scholar’s writings.

Eventually, in 1877, Robertson Smith’s opponents succeeded in having him suspended from the Free Church College. But this did not stop him as in the following years Robertson Smith gave lectures all over the country defending his points of view. The campaign against him continued and ended in 1881 with his dismissal from Free Church College. Robertson Smith was then offered the position as editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and went on to author more than two hundred articles, mainly on Old Testament and Arabic topics.

Robertson Smith completed four books, of which his Religion of the Semites is arguably most important. In Religion of the Semites, Robertson Smith offers theories on the origin and development of early Semitic religion. He argued that religions like Judaism and Christianity did not appear out of thin air, but evolved from more ancient religious traditions that had been passed on from generation to generation.

Robertson Smith did much traveling. He traveled to the Middle East and ventured through the deserts of Palestine, Syria, and Libya on camelback and spent time with Bedouins. He learned and mastered Arabic enabling him to speak with local populations and make his field observations. He also took on the alias of Abdullah Effendi and was well disguised on his visits. Robertson Smith’s efforts to fit into these communities allowed him the opportunity to interview local religious and political leaders.  

Earliest religion

He did, however, see these peoples as inhabitants of a “primitive” religious world. Like some other theorists of his time, Robertson Smith saw himself as occupying a higher level in human development, which made him look down on other cultures and religions he perceived differed significantly from his own. He believed that his observations in Arabia were like seeing back into the deep past: “The religion of heathen Arabia… displays an extremely primitive and unchanging character of nomadic life” (1). This belief here is that one could study the past by observing the present. In this case and from the vantage point of the nineteenth century, Robertson Smith thought that he was witnessing living survivals of a type of religion practiced by Semitics thousands of years earlier. 

Importantly, Robertson Smith’s theorized during a time in which science and the humanities were influenced by evolutionary theories, in particular in biology, history, and social anthropology. Evolutionary theories posited that human cultures progressed and developed towards a higher cultural and moral stage. Evolutionary reconstructions were largely based on theorists identifying survivals (cultural phenomena) that continued to exist even though their original function had disappeared with the society in which they originated.

Regarding religion, the claim is that religions also evolved and progressed through stages of growth, and Robertson Smith came to adopt an evolutionary view “of the origins of the spiritual religion of the Bible” (2). When it came to the Arabian peoples, Robertson Smith believed that by studying them he had direct access to the past.

Of earliest religion, Robertson Smith claimed that bonds between worshippers and their gods and strengthening these were central to religion. Elements like religious dogma and mythology were later developments. This view proved consistent with Robertson Smith’s own theological beliefs that rejected notions of faith being an intellectual assent to a body of received doctrine. Rather, Christianity is about a personal experience of the divine redeeming love of God through Jesus Christ. Faith is conceived here as a trust in God rather than intellectual assent to a series of propositions about God. Returning to his view of earliest religion, Robertson Smith identified ritual and practice as essential, 

“It is of the first importance to realise clearly from the outset that ritual and practical usage were, strictly speaking, the sum total of ancient religions. Religion in primitive times was not a system of belief with practical applications; it was a body of fixed traditional practices, to which every member of society conformed as a matter of course” (3).

Here Robertson Smith placed rituals and practices in ancient religions as primary to myths and theologies. Early religion was a social affair involving the community as a whole and any notion of a personal spiritual life was absent. Understanding a people’s economic arrangements and political organization is essential for an investigator to understand the religion of a given people. This led Robertson Smith to offer detailed accounts of social conditions among various Semitic peoples such as their laws and customs, kinship systems, methods of agriculture and husbandry, diet, and more.

Totemism and Sacrifice 

Robertson Smith suggested that the “primitive” rites of totemism and sacrifice were early in the history of religion and developed over time into more modern and higher forms of religion. As he states, “sacrifice is the typical form of all complete acts of worship in antique religions” (4). He thought he identified traces of totemism and sacrifice in early Semitic religion. In these cultures, it was forbidden to eat the totem animal although, on certain ritual occasions, the animal was sacrificed and shared among members of the community and their god.

The earliest form of sacrifice took the form of a joyous communal banquet of sharing in a meal of the sacrificial victim. It was “an act of communion in which the god and his worshippers unite by partaking together of the flesh and blood of a sacred victim” (5). Here people and their gods dined at the same table together enjoying kinship with each other. The people and their gods feasted as good friends “who understand each other perfectly and united by bonds that are not easily broken” (6).

This period in human history was like youth accompanied by childhood bliss and happiness. The god was a benign father figure, occasionally moved to irritation or anger by his children’s disobedience, but mostly protecting and nourishing them in return for obedience and service. The gods were members of the societies that worshipped them. Robertson Smith explains the intimacy between humans and their gods as follows,

“The tribal or national societies of the ancient world were not strictly natural in the modem sense of the word, for the gods had their part and place in them equally with men. The circle into which a man was born was not simply a group of kinsfolk and fellow-citizens, but embraced also certain divine beings, the gods of the family and of the state, which to the ancient mind were as much a part of the particular community with which they stood connected as the human members of the social circle… Thus a man was born into a fixed relation to certain gods as surely as he was born into relation to his fellow-men” (7).

But this purer form of sacrifice evolved and was later corrupted. Over time, sacrifice became corrupted as humans began bribing the gods to attain their favor with the underlying logic that they could buy off the gods with sacrificial offerings. This eventuated as people began to find the old religious forms inadequate and view the anger of the gods as much more frequent and permanent. Humanity had, in Robertson Smith’s words, substituted “the old joyous confidence [with] a painful and scrupulous anxiety in all approach to the gods” (8)

Relevance to Religious Studies

Turning to a different question, what is Robertson Smith’s relevance to the academic study of religion today?

What impresses many scholars is his fieldwork component. Unlike many other theorists, Robertson Smith personally visited the countries and the cultures he wanted to study, whereas many other theorists of his day made use of secondary sources composed by missionaries and travelers. Robertson Smith’s first-hand experience makes him unique and different (in a positive way) from these other theorists.

Engaging in fieldwork and observation is important in contemporary religious studies as scholars attempt to attain information by embedding themselves within the religious communities they are studying. This involves observing what religious people do, possibly partaking in their rituals and activities, and engaging in interviews with insiders. Although this side to Robertson Smith’s work is commendable, it is unfortunate that he was prejudicial in viewing the subjects of his study as primitive and backward. Such prejudices have been criticized. The anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973), who did fieldwork with tribal peoples in South Sudan, has criticized such views for underestimating the intellectual and artistic complexity of pre-historical cultures.

Also criticized is Robertson Smith’s evolutionary approach underpinned by the belief that one can identify survivals that continued to exist. A weakness in this is that deciding whether something is a survival or not must be based on a priori suppositions of the direction and character of historical development.

Another important point to consider in Robertson Smith’s favor is that he, despite being committed to his Christian faith and tradition, engaged in a study of religion free of confessional limitations, which is an approach that landed him in hot water with his conservative religious opponents. Many of Robertson Smith’s supposed heretical views are considered uncontroversial today. For example, the vast majority of scholars today do not believe that Moses authored the book of Deuteronomy, a view which Robertson Smith held and generated for him intense opposition in his time. Part of Robertson Smith’s value here lies in him introducing a generation of Christians to Old Testament higher criticism through his public lectures.

Robertson Smith is also useful because he realized the religion is more than doctrines, beliefs, and what people think; it is also what people do in ritual and moral practice. As we noted, early religion, according to Robertson Smith, had little to do with beliefs and mythologies, but more to do with establishing networks of relationships, both divine and with other humans.


1. Robertson Smith, William. 1907. Religion of the Semites. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers. p. viii.

2. Robertson Smith, William. 1907. Ibid. p . 2.

3. Robertson Smith, William. 1907. Ibid. p . 20. 

4. Robertson Smith, William. 1907. Ibid. p. 214.

5. Robertson Smith, William. 1907. Ibid. p. 226-227.

6. Robertson Smith, William. 1907. Ibid. p. 255.

7. Robertson Smith, William. 1907. Ibid. p. 29-30. 

8. Robertson Smith, William. 1907. Ibid. p. 258.


One comment

  1. No doubt, religion has its own lineage of evolution, as did the human brain along the cultures of civilizations, because religion is, after all, a conception hosted by the brain, for a lifeless brainless stone cannot be a believer, be it of God, or of no God.

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