James G. Frazer

January 1

Sir James George Frazer (1854)

It was on this date, January 1, 1854, that British anthropologist, folklorist and author of The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer was born in Brandon Place, Glasgow, Scotland. The Frazer family were devout followers of the Free Church of Scotland, under whose strict doctrines James was raised. Frazer graduated in Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, then studied Law at Middle Temple in London. But his first love was philosophy and anthropology, so he returned to Cambridge.

In 1890, Frazer published, in two volumes, the book for which he is remembered today, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. The Golden Bough, named after the golden bough in the sacred grove at Nemi, near Rome, shows the parallels between Christianity and the rites and superstitions of earlier cultures — the unspoken assumption being that the borrower was Christianity. The only statements approaching skepticism in Frazer's Golden Bough are in the 1900 edition. There, Frazer admits that his work "strikes at the foundations of beliefs in which the hopes and aspirations of humanity through long ages have sought a refuge."*

Although appointed professor of social anthropology at Liverpool University in 1910, Frazer preferred the refuge of Cambridge and returned there the next year to study and write. He went blind in 1931, but was active until his death on 7 May 1941.

Frazer's biographer, R.A. Downie,** does not discuss his religious beliefs. The Dean of the Chapel of Trinity College, although giving him a religious funeral, said after Frazer's death, "He was not an Atheist. I would say perhaps that he held his judgment in suspense."† That is the common definition of an Agnostic.

* J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 2nd ed. 1900, p. xxii. You can find the full text of this work at this link. In other works, such as Folk-Lore in the Old Testament (1908), The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead (1913-24), and The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion (1933-6), Frazer's Rationalism is clearer.
** Robert Angus Downie, James George Frazer: The Portrait of a Scholar, 1940. Downie's silence on Frazer's religious beliefs may have been in well-meaning deference to the feelings of the still-living author.
News-Chronicle, 9 May 1941.

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Huldrych Zwingli

Huldrych Zwingli (1484)

It was also on this date, January 1, 1484, that Swiss Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli was born at Wildhaus near Zürich, Switzerland. The son of a town magistrate whose brother was the town priest, Zwingli was influenced by the teachings of Thomas Wyttenbach (1472-1526), ordained to the priesthood, became a formidable humanist scholar, and set up shop in Zürich in 1518.

Zwingli was the only major reformer of the 16th century whose movement did not become a church. Similar to but apart from Martin Luther's reforms, his were another attempt to return to scripture and to escape the corrupting effect of priesthood on church doctrine. While a disputant of Luther's, Zwingli managed to find more accommodation for science within scripture and enjoyed his correspondence with Desiderius Erasmus.

However, as Andrew D. White points out in his Warfare of Science with Theology, certain superstitions of the old faith Zwingli refused to change in the new faith. He "held to the opinion of the fathers that a great firmament, or floor, separated the heavens from the earth; that above it were the waters and angels, and below it the earth and man" and insisted "that the comet of 1531 betokened calamity."*

To the modern age, one of the more interesting breaks with the Roman Church was on the doctrine of celibacy and chastity. The chief objection to his taking the office of leut-priest in Zürich was that he had seduced a girl of good family. He denied the charge, but admitted to following what amounts to a 16th century version of "free love." From 1522 Zwingli cohabited with a Zurich innkeeper's daughter, Anna Reinhard, only marrying her in 1524 when social pressure demanded it. They produced four children with no discernable diminution of Zwingli's ecclesiastical effectiveness.**

Huldrych Zwingli died in battle, as a field chaplain, when Swiss Catholics overwhelmed his heretical enclave in Zürich, on 11 October 1531. His body was quartered, hanged and burned, as befits those who disagree with the priests of the gentle Galilean.

* Andrew D. White, Warfare of Science with Theology, 1895, Chapters 2 and 4.
** An account of Zwingli's sexual liaisons is given at this link.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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