The term Urmonotheismus (German for "primeval monotheism") or primitive monotheism expresses the hypothesis of a monotheistic Urreligion, from which non-monotheistic religions degenerated. This evolutionary view of religious development is diametrically opposed to another evolutionary view of religion: the hypothesis that religion progressed from simple forms to complex: first pre-animism, then animism, totemism, polytheism and finally monotheism (see Anthropology of religion).
Scottish anthropologist Andrew Lang concluded in 1898 that the idea of the Supreme Being, the "high God" or "All Father" existed among some of the simplest of contemporary tribes prior to Western contact, and that Urmonotheism (primitive monotheism or henotheism) that worshipped God, as opposed to a pantheon of polytheistic gods, was the original religion of mankind.
Urmonotheism was then defended by Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954), in his Der Ursprung der Gottesidee appearing from 1912, opposing the "Revolutionary Monotheism" approach that traces the emergence of monotheistic thought as a gradual process spanning the Bronze and Iron Age Religions of the Ancient Near East and Classical Antiquity.
Alleged traces of primitive monotheism were located in the Assyrian deities Ashur and Marduk, and Hebrew YHWH. Monotheism in Schmidt's view is the "natural" form of theism, which was later overlaid and "degraded" by polytheism after deceased ancestors' veneration became worship, and personified natural forces became worshipped as well as gods.
Schmidt's hypothesis was controversially discussed during much of the first half of the 20th century. In the 1930s, Schmidt adduced evidence from Native American mythology, Australian aborigines and other primitive civilizations in support of his views. He also responded to his critics. For instance, he rejected Rafael Pettazzoni's claim that the sky gods were merely a dim personification or embodiment of the physical sky, writing in The Origin and Growth of Religion: "The outlines of the Supreme Being become dim only among later peoples". He adds that "a being who lives in the sky, who stands behind the celestial phenomena, who must 'centralize' in himself the various manifestations [of thunder, rain, etc.] is not a personification of the sky at all". According to Ernest Brandewie in Wilhelm Schmidt and the Origin of the Idea of God, Schmidt also claims that Pettazzoni fails to study Schmidt's work seriously and often relies on incorrect translations of Schmidt's German. Brandewie also says Pettazzoni's definition of primitive ethical monotheism is an "arbitrary" straw-man argument, but he says Schmidt went too far when he claimed that such ethical monotheism was the earliest religious idea.
By the 1950s the academic establishment had rejected the hypothesis of primitive ethical monotheism (but not per se other proposed versions of urmonotheism) so the proponents of Schmidt's "Vienna school" rephrased his ideas to the effect that while ancient cultures may not have known "true monotheism", they at least show evidence for "original theism" (Ur-Theismus, as opposed to non-theistic animism), with a concept of Hochgott ("High God", as opposed to Eingott "Single God") in effect henotheism which acknowledged the Supreme Being but also various lesser gods. Christian apologetics in the light of this have moved away from postulating a "memory of revelation" in pre-Christian religions, replacing it with an "inkling of redemption" or virtuous paganism unconsciously anticipating monotheism. That said, E. E. Evans-Pritchard noted in Theories of Primitive Religion, first published in 1962, that most anthropologists have abandoned all evolutionary schemes like Schmidt and Pettazzoni's for the historical development of religion, adding that they have also found monotheistic beliefs existing side-by-side with other religious beliefs.
Dhavamony, Mariasusai (1973). Phenomenology of religion. Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana. pp. 60–64. ISBN 88-7652-474-6.
The evolutionary view of the history of religions saw religion as progressing from the most simple forms like preanimism, animism, totemism to higher forms like polytheism and finally monotheism.
- Pettazzoni, Raffaele (April 1958). "Das Ende des Urmonotheismus". Numen (in German). 5 (2).
- High Gods in North America, 1933
- The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories, 1931
- Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories, New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1972, page 211
- Brandewie, Wilhelm Schmidt and the Origin of the Idea of God, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1983, page 251
- Brandewie, pages 44 and 119
- Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, pages 104–105