Original Monotheism

By Sarah R. Enterline

Dr. Winifred Corduan wrote a wonderful book called, In the Beginning God, on the topic of original monotheism. It was a fresh look at the work that Wilhelm Schmidt published in 1930 on The Origin and Growth of Religion. They both explain that since Darwin’s work on Evolution was published in 1859, the prevailing theory on religion in academia is that man’s beliefs, like man himself, have evolved from primitive and simple to advanced and complex. He started out believing in basic magic (some immaterial powers), then evolved to belief in Animism, to Polytheism, to Henotheism, and finally to Monotheism.

However, Corduan in writing the forward to Schmidt’s work, states that, “He [Schmidt] demonstrated that it is in those cultures that apparently display the least development that the people worship a single God who bears a great amount of similarity to the God of the Bible.”[1] This means that, according to Schmidt (and others), the most primitive peoples actually began as Monotheists and regressed into the other forms of belief. Schmidt employed what is now known as the Culture-Historical Method. He followed one general rule, consisting of two parts:

  1. “Every cultural element can be explained, as regards its origin, only from ideas and associations belonging to that culture to which itself belongs, and not from any general guesses as to what may have been; still less of course from the ideas and associations of a foreign culture.
  2. Within a given culture, it is the oldest forms of any element which are especially significant for the explanation of its origin, for they come nearest to reflecting the influences, physical and mental, to which the appearance of that element was due.”[2]

There was no Bible used in his study of how religion originated. He simply gathered evidence from previous research, all the known cultures, and found a common theme.

Schmidt quotes the work Fritz Graebner, a German geographer and ethnologist, did on early native Australian tribes extensively (which is considered one of the oldest people groups). Schmidt writes that, “his description of South-East Australian religion is so admirable that I cannot refrain from citing the passage at full-length.”[3] After reading it myself, I found that I agreed and so I will also be posting almost the entire passage here:

“The nature of the All-Father, the great creative god of the Australians, is yet more all-inclusive than that of the two Tasmanian deities. We find this deity especially in the south-eastern portion of the continent, that is to say, in the seat of the oldest culture, next to that of Tasmania; he is variously called Mungan ngaua, Bunjil, Baiame, Nurrundere, and so forth. Generally there exists beside him another figure, powerful but subordinate, most frequently considered to be his son, but often as the primeval ancestor of mankind. Sometimes, for instance among the Kurnai, the great god has no wife, or only an invisible one; occasionally he has produced his son without having a consort. His principal attribute is that of a creator, or first cause of, at least, everything that is important for men; he is the first maker of the most important elements, as the boomerang; he is a magician whose power knows no bounds; he is the celestial chief. Knowledge of him is imparted to the youths at their initiation, when they are received into the status of men; it is given them by the elders. These ceremonies are often celebrated by several neighbouring tribes in common. These are invited to the place of the festival by messengers, and a truce of God prevails during the entire time of celebration. We see here the most primitive form of amphiktyony[4]. It is moreover very important that the great god is considered not only as creator and maker of all things, but also as guardian of the tribal morality. It is of him that the legend is told how in the old days, when men had forgotten their good habits, he sent the conflagration and the flood to punish them. I have already said that the Kurnai fear to this day that the like will happen again when the Aurora Australis appears. It is not improbable that the fire-ceremony of the Central Australian Warramunga is intended to impress a similar event and a similar fear upon the minds of their young men. As regards the nature and meaning of the great god, it must first be said that his existence completely satisfies the lively desire of the natives to know the cause of things… The god is of course also supposed to be the originator of the rites and magical practices by which man rules nature; and to this existence ensures the continuance of the human race even now…His pre-eminent significance and the vividness with which he has been developed are due, in this ancient culture, to another factor still, I mean the ethical. The god is the preserver, not only of the psychical, but above all of the social existence of man, and this of his very essence.”[5]

 The Kurnai people believed in a supreme Father-God who was a creator of all things (a First Cause), had a son, is the creator and guardian of morality, sent a Flood long ago to the earth due to immorality, may send fire in the future for the same reason, is the sustainer of mankind, and satisfies the epistemological and metaphysical desires of the natives. And he sounds very much like the God of the Bible…

Is this the case with all primitive cultures, or just those in the Australian south-east? Schmidt states that, “This Supreme Being is to be found among all the peoples of the primitive culture, not indeed everywhere in the same form or the same vigour, but still everywhere prominent enough to make his dominant position indubitable… But if it’s clear that wherever remnants of the primitive people are still discoverable they show belief in a Supreme Being, then it is likewise manifest that such a belief is an essential property of this, the most ancient of human cultures, which must have been deeply and strongly rooted in it at the very dawn of time, before the individual groups had separated from one another.”[6] This is evidenced by the fact that the cultures that kept following the patriarchs, prophets, and Scripture (like the Hebrews) ended up staying Monotheists, while after being separated (possibly at the Tower of Babel), the others’ beliefs changed into Polytheism, Henotheism, Pantheism, Animism, and Fetishism as they kept looking for alternatives to obeying Jehovah and then subsequently interacting with other tribes.[7] In conclusion, Wilhelm found, through archaeological and historical research, that the characteristics of oldest cultures included Monotheism and high ethical standards, and this was probably the case from the beginning of time.

As we read above, it appears as though the earliest people groups worshipped a Monotheistic deity that was similar to the God of the Bible. By all accounts, it appears as though religion was invented to worship Him specifically.


[1] Schmidt, Wilhelm. The Origin and Growth of Religion. Translated by H.J. Rose. Proctorville, OH: Wythe-North, 2014, 1931; p. vii.

[2] Schmidt, Wilhelm. On the Origin and Growth of Religion. Translated by H.J. Rose. Proctorville, OH: Wythe-North Publishing, 2014; p. 237.

[3] Schmidt, p. 246.

[4] A religious league of neighbors, also see Ancient Greek amphictyonies.

[5] Schmidt (p. 247-8) quoting Graebner’s work on the Kurnai from Weltbild, pp. 25-7

[6] Schmidt, p. 257, 261.

[7] Schmidt, p. 263.

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