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Development Of Religion

( Originally Published 1915 )

Crude and Meager Nature of Primitive Religious Practice. — Religion expresses itself in slowly evolving institutions. While in some form it was a persistent accompaniment of early human association, its first expressions were crude and lacking in definite organization. Yet no tribes have been found without religious ideas. Certain explorers have visited tribes and after a superficial investigation have declared them without religious ideas or practice. But afterwards, upon more careful investigation, this has been found false. Deception being the normal practice of tribal life, it is quite impossible to find out the religious life of a savage or barbaric people upon a short acquaintance. Indeed, after long study of the tribal life of the savage, by people who have resided among them, it has been difficult to define clearly their religious views and practices.

An early religious notion is found in the conception of a spiritual life or being.' Arising in the ways indicated in the previous chapter, the religious attitude worked itself out through multitudinous forms in the history of man's development. To begin with, this attitude was a practical one, growing out of the necessity felt by primitive man to control his environment in the interests of his own safety. Convinced that each individual had a dual life, primitive man made that belief the undifferentiated starting point for a long and varied development of both religious ideas and practices and of a theory of the world. Once having determined that the individual was a dual personality and that natural objects had, like man, a spirit which caused them to move and have their being, it was easy to account for all the various effects in nature, whose causes could not be observed, by attributing them to an unseen power, namely, to this spirit. The influence of the belief in this imaginary being upon the thoughts and sentiments of individuals was very great. It influenced the individual in his actions and in his relations to his fellow beings. The relation of this spirit to natural objects finally led to a rude form of nature worship. The spirits were multiplied with a growing keenness of perception as to differences between the various kinds of natural objects and the different phenomena connected with each, in accordance with the activities of nature and the things that were conceivable to be done. The savage mind rapidly passed from a state of unorganized superstition to that of an organized superstition. With the growth of social organization and activities primitive man likewise developed his pantheon. When one group conquered another or amalgamated peacefully with another, there occurred also a coalescence of the religious notions. If it was a case of conquest, the gods of the conquerors were exalted above those of the conquered and the latter became lesser deities in the pantheon or were outlawed and became the gods of secret cults and sectarians. An example is furnished of the former case by what occurred when the Latins conquered the adjacent tribes, of the latter by the history of Israel on the establishment of the Davidic kingdom. Finally, wherever the development went on to completion one god stands out supreme. How closely it may come to be associated with the earthly ruler is shown by the fact that sacrifice to the genius of the emperor, not to Jupiter, was the supreme test to which persecuted Jews and Christians ultimately were forced to submit. In the case of the later Hebrews, owing to the peculiar circumstances of the Exile and to a few choice spirits among the Exilic prophets, monotheism pure and simple developed. Among most other peoples the development never went beyond henotheism, or a belief that there was only one god for each nation, but that each nation had a different god.

In the early stages of religious development it was but natural for primitive man to think that if these spirits had power to do so much for the destruction or salvation of man, they must be sought out and managed. Hence came the idea of manipulating or exorcising the spirits for man's welfare. Offerings were chosen and actions observed that were supposed to please the spirit. Food was given, ceremonies performed, and the conduct of the tribe modified to please these unseen powers.

Then it appeared that there were good spirits who had the preservation of the tribe in view, and others who desired its destruction. The former must be worshiped and praised for their goodness and the latter appeased by gifts and offerings and turned away from their intended destruction. Out of this idea come the subsequent conception of bright and happy spirits and a happy eternal home into which man would be conducted after death, and the idea of evil, destructive spirits who would attempt to lead man into a land of darkness and torture.

The Services of Medicine Man and Priest. — Out of the belief in unfriendly spirits grew one of the most remarkable influences in primitive social control, the medicine man or priest. In the management of spirits some men pretended to have more power than others. Once recognized as having superior power, these assumed a monopoly of influence over the spirits. Owing to the fact that it was thought that disease was an affliction of an evil spirit, the person who managed the evil spirit was the only one who could cure the disease, and so the services of priest and doctor were united in one person, the medicine man. Later these functions became divided and the priest attended to the affairs of religious worship and the medicine man to the cure of disease. But this separation came about very slowly, for the belief of the connection of disease with evil spirits has been very persistent in social evolution, as the belief in demon possession and witchcraft not only in New Testament times, but down through the ages to a very recent period, demonstrates.

The most significant fact concerning it in this connection is that the medicine man had power to control the whole tribe through his supposed connection with unseen forces or spirits of the air. Whatever he declared the spirits had ordered had to be performed. He always had the first claim on the food supply of the tribe and learned early to cause others to attend to his wants. This method of social control increased with the development of religion until in barbaric and semicivilized nations it became the most important ruling power in the government. Priestcraft in Egypt, in Assyria, in Palestine, and in Medieval Europe became the most potent force in social order. Even in modern civilization the power of priests and clergy has manifested itself in the government of nations.

Out of this functionary has grown the minister of religion, the statesman, the educator, the physician, and the judge. Once the medicine man was all these and more. More skillful than others in legerdemain, ventriloquism, and in thought reading, he obtained great power over the people in every way. He was a master of sorcery at first, having power to help or injure those who sought his aid or to injure those against whom he directed his machinations. Later one by one his many functions were assumed by others. Priest and healer he long remained. Many survivals of his power still remain with us. Clairvoyance and fortune telling, as well as the nobler and entirely Christian act of intercessory prayer, are examples.

Religious Forms and Ceremonies. — Religious rites, though influenced to a certain extent by individuals of superior gifts and extraordinary shrewdness, developed independently of them, as a social institution. The fact of death had great influence upon the development of religious ceremonies. The belief in the continued journey of the spirit after death led to the practice of burial ceremonies, and this practice aided development of social order. The custom of placing clothing and implements in the grave for the departed spirit, and the bringing of food to the grave for its sustenance brought the members of a community to a common meeting place, gave them a common social ideal, and developed more or less a regular order of procedure.

Whether originating in reverence and awe for some striking natural object, animal, or some natural function closely connected with the survival of the group, like a symbolic fruit or the reproductive process and organs, or in reverence rendered to the spirit of a departed ancestor, the group's religious activities were centered about a common object by means of common interests and therefrom developed common feelings and actions in other than religious concerns. Gradually these customs brought about permanent religious services because of the connection which the controlling spirit had with these ordinances. The idea of fear on the one hand and of worship on the other arose in the attempt to favor the spirit. In the case of ancestor worship an appeal to the spirit or god for safety of the departed led to prayer and the attempt to please him in order to receive favors gave rise to worship, while the attempt to manage an evil spirit led to necromancy. Sometimes the spirit of the mountain was identified with the spirit of a dead ancestor. Comparatively simple acts grew more and more into ceremony and were attended with increased pageantry. With the development of pomp and ceremonies in approaching the ruler and securing favors from him went growth in the richness of religious rites. The psychology of " the majesty that doth hedge a throne " has not yet been carefully worked out, but there is no doubt that very early in the history of social development the chief learned its practical value, how to create and enhance it in the eyes of his subjects, and the latter found ways of flattering the great by devising somewhat more elaborate forms of reverence and ever more extravagant terms of praise.

Sacred Places and Natural Phenomena. — Animism, or the belief that the spirit life manifested itself in natural phenomena, led to the supposition that all the various forces appearing in nature were in activity in response to the will of various spirits, and was one idea from which developed the theory of sacred places. The worship of the several forms of nature was merely a worship of the spirits that dwelt in these forms, for nature worship was nothing more than spirit worship localized in the various objects of nature. Sometimes it was localized in a high mountain or hill, again it was a lonely or majestic tree, in other cases in a rock standing out alone or of peculiar formation, and sometimes in an animal from which the tribe was supposed to be descended. First there developed clan sanctuaries, then a central sanctuary, and when the nation evolved there grew up the national sanctuary. There were also family sanctuaries out of which later evolved household worship. These meeting places were the foundations of the church or temple. Cabrillo relates that while on his voyage in 1542 he saw the Indians of the Pacific coast come in their bands around a small inclosure. The inclosure was made by driving stakes in the ground, a partition was made in the center, and on this partition was a sort of shelf where feathers of sacred birds were deposited. The Indians came leaping around this inclosure in a sort of ceremonial order. Finally, one of them, the priest or medicine man, left their ranks and went within the inclosure and adjusted the sacred feathers and placed more there, at the same time going through certain ceremonial acts. This represented the primitive meeting place of the spirits that the Indians came to worship. The ceremony over, they all went away to other pursuits.

It is in accord with the habits of early man that Abraham, when he came out of Haran to Bethel, erected an altar of stones and placed thereon the burnt offering. It was a " house of God " where he came to commune with the spirit of God and to worship him. When he returned out of Egypt he came to this place to meet God. Gradually the stone or tree was re-placed by a tent sheltering some sacred casket containing sacred objects, and then an immovable chapel or temple located over or beside a sacred stone or spring or other holly object. So, too, the Greeks had their temples and the Egyptians their meeting places with the gods. Perhaps the best illustrations furnished by historic peoples of this evolution of the sacred place with all that it meant for the development of rite and ceremony, as well as of ideas of deity, are to be found in the evolution of the sanctuary in Ancient Israel and in Rome. The people of Israel who as clansmen worshiped one very high hill and under every green tree, under the influence of the priests of the royal chapel and, finally, of the eighth-century prophets came finally to concentrate their worship in the national sanctuary at Jerusalem so that ultimately sacrifice was permitted only there. The development among the Roman people is almost as clear and instructive. This primitive worship was at first merely an attempt to please God in order to receive his favor, or to appease his wrath in order to prevent the destruction of the tribe. Later it developed into worship, through prayer an appeal for strength and aid, not only for the individual, but for the tribe and nation. Primitive people prayed to their gods to give them victory in war, bountiful harvests, and prosperity in every way. Even yet most prayers have such " practical " ends in view. With the development, however, of an appreciation of the relation of religion to ethical conduct, less emphasis has been laid on the attainment of " material " benefits and more on character growth.

Complexity of Belief and Ceremony. -- Religious beliefs and religious ceremonies grow more complex with the development of social relationships and complexity of social organization. This is strikingly observed in the development of mythology and polytheism. It became necessary to account for every act of the tribe or race by reference to the deeds of ancestral spirits and every phenomenon of nature as produced by some spiritual being controlled by a spiritual power. The origin of the earth and the universe had to be accounted for, and there was no other way except by attributing it to the workings of an unseen power. This developed numberless gods with different powers, capabilities, and services. Numerous stories or myths concerning the actions of gods and their relations to mankind arose. These stories occupied the minds and influenced not only the beliefs but the actions of men. Following the development of polytheistic religions came the more recent ethical religions. In these the relations of individuals and groups to each other are most strongly developed. In the non-ethical religion the relation of the tribe or the individual to the gods was the important feature. While the ethical religion does not ignore this relationship, it goes farther and establishes moral relationship of individuals with each other. To the prophets of the eighth century Israel owed the development of an ethical religion. It was they who declared that Jahweh, their God, was more pleased with them for restoring the pledge to the poor, ceasing oppression, doing justice with lovingkindness, and walking in humbleness than for giving their first-born to redeem their transgressions, the fruit of their bodies for the sin of their souls. With an assurance that carried conviction and an insistence which brooked no gainsaying, Amos urged Jahweh's ethical claims with, " Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let justice roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream." 1 The same conviction inspired Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah.2 Growing out of the insistence of these prophets and their followers we have the development of the legal-ethical religion of the Hebrew, in which the duty of individuals one to another finally is formally stated in the law of the nation. Growing out of the prophetic Hebrew religion has come a humanitarian, ethical religion in which the law of love prevails. In its recent development, the humanitarian idea seems to grow relatively stronger and the relationship of man to God less important. Whether that is a permanent or merely a passing phase of religious development, it is too early yet to say.

Religion and Social Progress. — There has been a wide difference of opinion as to the influence of religion on the progress of civilization, but scholars are coming to an agreement that this influence has been a strong factor in the development of society. If we look to the early forms of culture, we shall find every one of them closely interwoven with religious beliefs. Being associated with every time of crisis in the life of primitive man, religion has been a most important spur to mental and physical activity. It provided a working hypothesis to his groping mind and thus introduced order into the chaos of his thought. It bound the energies of the savage which were being expended in anti-social ways, on the one hand, and on the other loosed those energies in activities, mental and physical, which ministered to the welfare of the group. For example, by causing him to act in a crisis religion spurred him to a series of experiments with nature which has not yet been exhausted. While the hypothesis with which it supplied man has been modified many times, by proceeding upon it he laid in experience the basis of a better. It provided him, furthermore, a basis upon which he began his significant attempts to alter the environment for the welfare of his group and himself, and to bend other men to his will, not by physical force, but by spiritual devices. While from the modern standpoint it enthralled him in activities which later impeded his progress, in his early history it gave spur to his otherwise undeveloped tendencies to help his fellows. The feelings, thoughts, and activities of primitive people clustered around religious life. The well-established customs of primitive society were all founded on religion. While we may consider much of this religious belief as false, and, in many instances, degrading, nevertheless, it called forth feeling and mental action in the struggle for existence. Simple as this life may appear, still it served as a stimulus to the simple mind of primitive people. Besides aiding in the establishment of ordinary custom it had a powerful influence in the development of intellectual and moral character. In the first place the mind was strengthened by positive belief. Belief led to more definite relationships of the life of the individual and society. Also, in the attempt of the individual to contemplate the phenomena of an unknown world, religion became a positive necessity. Imagine an individual suddenly brought into contact with the activities and appearances of natural life without any knowledge or experience or instruction. The effects are startling and appalling, he sees the flash of lightning, he hears the thunder, observes the storm and the destructiveness of the roaring torrent, the change of seasons, the movement of the heavenly bodies, the growth of plants and animals, and all the manifestations of sun and air and moisture, and yet he understands not one of all these phenomena. The moment his mind begins to inquire, his childish nature is satisfied by attributing these activities to the doings of an unseen power, a spirit, a god. The beginnings of speculation as to the nature of the universe which has its fruitage in modern science, originated in primitive religion. And so in the childhood of the race religion served a similar purpose to that of science in the more developed social life of the present. It is poor food for the mind of the fully developed man, but it was a fitting food to the ignorant, superstitious creature of primitive times.

Religion a Strong Factor in Society Building. What concerns the sociologist most is the influence of religion in the development of social organization.' In the first place religion has always been connected with social order. The control of families, tribes, groups, and even nations, has been brought about through religious influence. Religion has lent a powerful sanction to virtue and morality, for it has established the relationship of individuals in the home as well as in matrimonial life. Long before politics and civil law could be established, religion had made the customs that preserved the equilibrium of the social group. It has always fostered a vague belief in immortality. Whether in its crude form as held by the primitive savage or in its perfected state, it has had more or less influence in the control of human society. In its early form it inspired fear and thus controlled social action, while in its later development the idea of immortality inspires hope and faith and courage, — strong elements, indeed, in the development of man. Again, it has strengthened patriotic feeling on account of its local character. The religion of the family developed family pride and glory, relating ancestors to gods.

When the tribes expanded into a national life the god of the nation led the hosts in battle, preserved their lives and integrity. And thus the idea became an inspiration to patriotic life. In upholding the central authority of the head of the family social order was developed. There was established on one side the governing class, on the other the governed. Thus people learned to rule and to obey, to command and to serve. By surrounding them with formal ceremonies, religion tended to purify the family and other domestic institutions and to pre-serve the family intact.

On the other hand, in modern times religion has at times been a coercive weapon of reaction, and has opposed the newer developments in society which had for their aim the betterment of society. What aspirations of earnest souls struggling to express a newly discovered truth has it not tried to crush ! How often have religious institutions been found on the side of reaction in the struggle for freedom ! Even in ancient Israel, as Cornill1 has remarked, the outcome of the Prophetic religion was to crush the free spirit of the common people and to bind upon them the rites and ideas of the religion of the narrow party of Jerusalem. It paved the way for the priestly domination of the following centuries, and had a share in pre-paring for the hateful spirit of the Pharisee. In early Christian times ecclesiasticism crushed the free spirit of the Montanist, drove into ecclesiastical exile that early forerunner of untrammeled thought, the Gnostic, under the leadership of such men as Cyprian and Calixtus narrowed the church to a sect, and bound it with the hard bonds of a party domination. It throttled free inquiry in the Middle Ages, making independent thinking a heresy, and laid the foundation of a revolt which has rent the world into hundreds of warring factions. It forced Galileo to recant his carefully established convictions that the earth moves round the sun, retarded the development of science, threw water upon the flaming aspirations of scholars and stifled the democratic longings of the common people. Clothed with the garments of ecclesiasticism in more recent times men anathematized such truth seekers as Darwin and Huxley and belittled God's records written in the rocks and in the bodies of animals and men. Too often through its well-meaning but benighted representatives, religion has mocked the findings of careful and conscientious scholars, stood with the representatives of arrant wrong against those who in love of the truth have battled for the rights of the people. Nevertheless, such an attitude represents but one side of the work of religion, the conservative side. Even that side is needed in society, as a stabilizing force. One must never forget, more-over, that some of the mightiest revolutions have been inspired by religious innovators. The Hebrew prophets, Jesus and Paul, Mohammed and Buddha, — who shall say of them and of the movements they inspired that they did not give the race a great impetus toward progressive development?

The chief influence of religion on the individual was largely subjective. In the first place it gave him an ideal. It pointed out something towards which he might direct his energies and gave him inspiration to reach this well-defined goal. Finally, when he had clothed the spirit he feared with certain attributes of power, he strove to become like it. But more than all, on account of service to an authority and to a superior, he trained himself in the arts of social life. For each individual that improves must learn first to serve. It .may be to serve an individual, or a human desire, or an ideal. In all service he subdues and masters himself through effort, and that effort made man.


BALDWIN, J. M. Social and Ethical Interpretations, 1913, pp. 443—455.

BLAKEMAR, F. W. Story of Human Progress, pp. 200—211.

DENNIS, JAMES S. Christian Missions and Social Progress, Vol. I, pp. 1—60.

ELLWOOD, C. A. "The Social Function of Religion," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XIX, p. 289, Nov., 1913.

GUIZOT, F. P. G. History of Civilization, Vol. I, pp. 103—149.

HEARN, W. E. Aryan Household, pp. 1—38.

KIDD, BENJAMIN. Social Evolution, pp. 1—117.

KING, IRVING. The Development of Religion, Chaps. XII—XIII.

LETOURNEAU, CHARLES. Sociology, pp. 217—248, 319—326.

PESCHEL, O. The Races of Man, pp. 245—318.

RATZEL, FRIEDRICH. The History of Mankind, Vol. I, pp. 38--65. Ross, E. A. Social Control, pp. 126—145.

SPENCER, HERBERT. Principles of Sociology, Vol. III, pp. 3—36.

TARDE, GABRIEL. Les lois de l'imitation, pp. 291—314.

TYLOR, E. B. Primitive Culture, Vol. I, pp. 417—502; Anthropology, pp. 342—372-

WARD, LESTER F. Dynamic Sociology, Vol. I, pp. 686—7o6; Vol. II, p. 279.


1. Trace the development of religious ideas, religious practices, and changes in the organization of some one denomination or religion with which you are acquainted.

2. What changes, if any, have you observed occurring in the nature of the public meetings in the church which you attended in childhood?

3. What part did the Hebrew prophets of the eighth century B.C. play in the development of the Hebrew religion?

4. In what respects does the medicine man differ from the modern minis-ter of religion? How does he differ from the physician?

5. Trace the development of prayer from its origin in flattery to a superior to its highest form known today.

6. What survivals from ancestor worship may be found in religious ideas to-day ?

7. Trace the evolution of the sacred place into the church.

8. Why are some people afraid to go into a dark church at night?

9. Show how religion has affected human progress both as a favoring influence and as a hindrance to progress. Give concrete historic instances.

10. State the ways in which religion is a help to social progress at the present time. In which it is a hindrance.

11. What steps could the churches of your town take to hasten social progress? What problems could the church be most useful in attacking with the hope of solving?

Outlines Of Sociology:
Theory And Function Of The State

Social Phases Of Production And Consumption Of Wealth

Exchange As A Social Function

Evolution Of Ethics

Social Origin Of Religion

Development Of Religion

Processes Of Socialization

Social Forces

Social Laws

Social Mind

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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