Finding revelation in anthropology: Alexander Winchell, William Robertson Smith and the heretical imperative

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    Abstract

    Anthropological inquiry has often been considered an agent of intellectual secularization. Not least is this so in the sphere of religion, where anthropological accounts have often been taken to represent the triumph of naturalism. This metanarrative however fails to recognise that naturalistic explanations could sometimes be espoused for religious purposes and in defence of confessional creeds. This essay examines two late nineteenth-century figures – Alexander Winchell in the United States, and William Robertson Smith in Britain – who found in anthropological analysis resources to bolster rather than undermine faith. In both cases these individuals found themselves on the receiving end of ecclesiastical censure and were dismissed from their positions at church-governed institutions. But their motivation was to vindicate divine revelation, in Winchell’s case from the physical anthropology of human origins and in Smith’s from the cultural anthropology of Semitic ritual.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)435-454
    JournalBritish Journal for the History of Science
    Volume48
    Issue number3
    Early online date30 Mar 2015
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - Sep 2015

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