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Essays in the History of Religions by Joachim Wach

Joachim Wach was born in 1898 in Chemnitz, Saxony and died in 1955. Wach insisted there was a definite distinction between the history of religion and the philosophy of religion. He felt an inquiry into the difference must be carried out by employing the religo-scientific method (Religionswissenschaft). Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, 866 third Avenue, New York, NY 10022, in 1988. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Introduction by Joseph M. Kitagawa

Shortly after Joachim Wach’s death in the summer of 1955, I wrote "Joachim Wach, Teacher and Colleague" (The Divinity School News 22, no. 25 [Autumn 1955] [University of Chicago]); "A Glimpse of Professor Wach" (Register 45, no. 4 [November 1955] [Chicago Theological Seminary]); and "Joachim Wach et la Sociologie de la Religion" (Archives de Sociologie des Religions 1, no. I [Janvier-Juin 1956] [Paris]). I have also written about Wach in my introductions to three posthumous works: The Comparative Study of Religions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958); Understanding and Believing (New York: Harper & Row, 1968); and Introduction to the History of Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1987). Readers may also consult the account of Wach’s life and thought in Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, 2 vols. (The Hague: Mouton, 1973) by Jacques Waardenburg.

Joachim Wach was born in 1898 in Chemnitz, Saxony, and died in 1955 while vacationing in Orselina, Switzerland. He was a descendant of Moses Mendelssohn, a lineage that affected his life and career both positively and negatively. His paternal grandfather, the noted jurisconsult Adolph Wach, married Lily, the daughter of Felix Mendelssohn, the composer. His father, Felix, married Kathe, granddaughter of the composer’s brother, Paul. Young Wach was early exposed to music, literature, poetry, and both classical and modern languages.

After attending the Vitzshumsche Gymnasium in Dresden and spending two years in military service (1916-1918), Wach enrolled at the University of Leipzig, but in 1919 and early 1920 he studied with Friedrich Heiler at Munich and with Ernst Troeltsch at Berlin. He then returned to Leipzig to study Oriental languages and the history and philosophy of religion. For a time he came under the spell of the enigmatic poet Stefan George, whose writings spoke of a heightened sense of "experience," through which one perceives the multiple threads of the tapestry of life as a transparent whole. Wach received his Ph.D. degree in 1922 from Leipzig with a thesis entitled "The Foundations of a Phenomenology of the Concept of Salvation," published as Der Erlösungsgedanke und seine Deutung (1922).

When Wach started teaching at Leipzig in 1924, the discipline of the history of religions (Religionswissenschaft), still in its infancy, faced serious dangers. On the one side, its right to exist was questioned by those who insisted that whoever knows one religion (i.e., Christianity) knows all religions; on the other, its religio-scientific methodology was challenged by reductionist psychological and social-scientific approaches. Thus in his habilitation thesis, Religionswissenschaft: Prolegomena zu ibrer wissenschaftstheoretischen Grundlegung (1924), Wach insisted on the integrity and autonomy of the history of religions, liberated from theology and the philosophy of religion. He emphasized that both historical and systematic dimensions are necessary to its task, and he argued that the discipline’s goal was "understanding" (Verstehen): "The task of Religionsruissenschaft is to study and to describe the empirical religions. It seeks descriptive understanding; it is not a normative discipline. When it has understood the historical and systematic aspects of the concrete religious configurations, it has fulfilled its task" (p. 68). His Religionswissenschaft is still regarded as a small classic in the field.

Wach’s agenda centering on understanding led him to produce a three-volume work on the development of hermeneutics in the nineteenth century (Das Verstehen, 1926-1933). The first volume traced the hermeneutical theories of such major figures as Friedrich Schleiermacher, G. A. F. Ast, F. A. Wolff, August Boeckh, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. The second volume dealt with theological hermeneutics from Schleiermacher to Johannes von Hofmann, while the third volume examined theories of historical hermeneutics from Leopold von Ranke to historical positivism. Understandably, Wach felt it absolutely necessary to establish solid hermeneutical foundations for the history of religions.

Wach was convinced that the history of religions (Religionswissenschaft) should not lose its empirical character. He felt C. P. Tiele and P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye had failed to make an adequate distinction between the history of religions and the philosophy of religion. He was critical both of those who started with philosophy and developed science and of those who started with science and moved toward philosophy. In his view, the history of religions lay, rather, precisely between the two. In this respect he followed Max Scheler, who posited a "concrete phenomenology of religious objects and acts" between a historical study of religions (a positive Religionswissenschaft) and the essential phenomenology of religion (die Wesensphänomenologie der Religion). According to Scheler, this intermediate discipline aims at the fullest understanding of the intellectual contents of one or more religious forms and the consummate acts in which these intellectual contents have been given. It was Wach’s conviction that an inquiry such as Scheler envisaged could be carried out only by employing the religio-scientific method of Religionswissenschaft.

Wach’s reputation for erudition attracted many students to Leipzig. However, his productive career there came to an abrupt end in April 1935. The government of Saxony, under pressure from the Nazis, terminated Wach’s university appointment on the ground of his Jewish lineage, even though his family had been Christian for four generations. Fortunately, through the intervention of American friends, Wach was invited to teach at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he stayed until 1945. His adjustment to the new environment was by no means easy; he was especially anxious about his mother, sister, and brother, who were suffering under the Nazi tyranny. From 1945 until his death, Wach taught at the University of Chicago.

Wach always asserted that the method of the history of religions must be commensurate with its subject matter, that is, the nature and expressions of the religious experience of humankind as that experience has been unfolded in history. Following his mentor, Rudolf Otto, Wach defined religious experience as the experience of the holy. Throughout his life, he never altered his views on the basic structure of the discipline: its twin tasks (historical and theoretical); the centrality of religious experience and its threefold expressions (theoretical, practical, and sociological); and the crucial importance of hermeneutics. But Wach emphasized three different methodological accents in three successive phases of his career.

During his first phase, Wach was preoccupied with the hermeneutical basis for the descriptive-historical task of the discipline. He was greatly influenced by the philological hermeneutics of August Boeckh, who defined the hermeneutical task as "re-cognizing" that which had previously been "cognized," that is, as articulating what has been recognized in its pristine character, even to the extent of "re-constructing" in its totality that which does not appear as a whole. Accordingly, Wach insisted that the historian of religions must first try to assimilate that which had been recognized as a religious phenomenon and "re-produce" it as one’s own. Then he must observe and appraise that which has become one’s own as an objective something apart from oneself.

During his second phase, Wach attempted to develop the systematic dimension of the history of religions by following the model of sociology. In Wach’s view, the sociological (systematic) task of Religionswissenschaff had two main foci: (1) the interrelation of religion and society, which requires an examination, first, of the sociological roots and functions of myths, doctrines, cults, and associations, and, second, of the sociologically significant function and effect of religion in society; and (2) the study of religious groups. In dealing with religious groups, and especially with the variety of self-interpretations advanced by these groups, Wach employed the typological method. As he stated in his Sociology of Religion (1944), he was convinced of the need to develop a closer rapport between Religionswissenschaft and other disciplines, especially with the social and human sciences. In this sense, his Sociology of Religion was an attempt to bridge "the gulf which still exists between the study of religion and the social sciences" (p. v). Yet the ultimate aim of his sociological (systematic) study of religion was "to gain new insights into the relations between the various forms of expression of religious experience and eventually to understand better the various aspects of religious experience itself" (p. 5).

During the third phase, Wach’s concern for an integral understanding of the various aspects of religious experience and its expressions led him to reassess not only the relationship of Religionswissenschaft with the social sciences but also its relationship with normative disciplines such as philosophy of religion and the various theologies. After Wach’s sojourn in India, where he delivered the Barrows Lectures at various universities in 1952, this concern became more pronounced. It was, in fact, one of the key motifs of his lectures on the history of religions sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies in 1954. Increasingly the vocabulary of "explaining" (Deuten; Erklären) came to be used side by side with that of "understanding" (Verstehen) in his lectures. Wach shared his dream of pursuing a new grand synthesis for the, study of the human religious experience, a sequel to earlier works such as Religionswissenschaft and Das Verstehen, with friends during the Seventh Congress of the International Association for the History of Religion, held in Rome in the spring of 1955. But death came that summer and robbed him of this venture.

When A. Eustace Haydon retired as professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, Wach agreed to take his place. There he spent the last ten years of his life, 1946 to 1955, as professor of the history of religions in the Divinity School (then part of the Federated Theological Faculty) and with the University of Chicago’s Committee on the History of Culture.

When Wach arrived in Chicago, the university was not even sixty years old. William Rainey Harper, who founded the university in 1892, had counted among his close friends Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, the first professor of rabbinical literature and philosophy; John Henry Barrows, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church and permanent chairman of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions; and Mrs. Caroline E. Haskell, who donated to the university the Haskell Lectureship on Comparative Religion and the Haskell Oriental Museum. A11 were keenly interested in comparative religion, however that subject was understood, and so a foundation was well laid early on at Chicago for the tradition to which Wach found himself heir.

By the mid-1940s, in fact, Chicago had seen at least three major approaches to comparative religion. The first was epitomized by George Stephen Goodspeed (d. 1905), author of A History of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Goodspeed established the Department of Comparative Religion in the university’s Division of Humanities and was himself professor of comparative religion and ancient history. That he clearly approached religion, or religions, through the Judeo-Christian tradition can be seen in the title of a small booklet he edited after the Parliament: The World’s First Parliament of Religions: Its Christian Spirit, Historic Greatness and Manifold Results (Chicago: Hill & Shuman, 1895). Similarly, in a presentation delivered at the Haskell Oriental Museum, Goodspeed expressed the hope that "there will go forth from these halls [of the University of Chicago] enlightenment, inspiration, and guidance in that learning which has come from the East and West, culminating in the Book of Books and in the teachings of the Son of Man, [which] will ever abide as our most precious possession."1

The second approach to comparative religion at Chicago was advocated by George Burman Foster (d. 1918), who accepted a widely held three-layered scheme: (1) a narrow history of religions -- conceived to be the simple historical study of "raw" religious data, often colored by an evolutionary ideology --toward (2) "comparative religion," which aims to classify religious data and culminates in (3) a philosophy of religion (or a theology) that provides a meaning for the comparative religion enterprise as a whole. Louis Henry Jordan, too, accepted this combination of "scientific study of religion" and "philosophy of religion" as the program of comparative religion.2

The third approach, spearheaded by A. Eustace Haydon (d. 1975), was in a sense a critique of and a reaction to the first and second orientations. An erudite scholar and an eloquent speaker, Haydon had outgrown the fundamentalist faith of his childhood, as is evident in his numerous writings. For him, the loss of his childhood orthodoxy had three important outcomes. First, religious reality had given way to the ethical and the aesthetic, to use Kierkegaardian shorthand, and he found a "home" for himself in the Ethical Culture movement. Second, he was driven to a religious relativism as the alternative to affirming Christian faith as the only religion of humankind’s salvation. Third, he championed comparative religion, understood by him as an umbrella term for objective studies, by specialists, of the historic religious traditions, no more and no less.

Haydon took it for granted that, originally, human needs created all the forms of religion. Throughout history, all religions had had to wrestle with the problem of change or, if you will, the problem of "modernism"; yet, in the twentieth century the great historic religions were forced to come to, terms with revolutionary forces heretofore unknown, namely, the "new scientific thinking" and "applied science." The former had profound implications for all aspects of human life, especially for traditional religions and their ancient cosmologies, theologies, and supernaturalisms. And applied science -- especially modern machinery, communications, and systems of transportation -- was already reshaping the face of the world. By way of responding to this new situation, Haydon, qua comparative religionist, organized the World Fellowship of Faiths in 1933. The conference dealt with Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism and tried to generate discussion on four topics: (1) World-Religions and Modern Scientific Thinking; (2) World-Religions and Modern Social-Economic Problems; (3) World-Religions and Inter-Cultural Contacts; and (4) the Task of Modern Religion. Haydon was persuaded that the six religious systems all faced the same problems.3

The contrast between the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, which helped to shape the first approach to comparative religion at Chicago, and the 1933 World Fellowship of Faiths, the brainchild of its third approach, is interesting. Both divorced religious realities from human communities, so that participants could speak, for example, of Buddhism apart from Buddhist community life; and both dealt with socioeconomic problems as if they owed nothing to religious factors. In contrast, though, to the 1893 conference, which recognized the importance of the past to various religions, the 1933 conference concerned itself solely with the modern phases and movements of the living world religions.

But by far the most salient feature of the 1933 conference was the way in which it equated both religion and morality and comparative religion and science. In the words of K. Natarajan of Bombay, "The task of religion in all ages has been to assert the supremacy of the moral law over the lives of individuals and nations."4 And Haydon’s friend, Rabbi Solomon Goldman, added: "The ancient techniques of prayer and ritual need to be retained only in so far as they are aesthetically appealing. Modern religion must become the friend and not the enemy of science."5 Haydon agreed: the task of comparative religion was to help people overcome the antiscientific bias and to show them the religion of tomorrow, a synthesis of science and idealism. "The whole world," he said, "wrestles with the same problems, aspires toward the same ideals, and strives to adjust inherited thought-patterns to the same scientific ideas. In such times the prophetic fire of religious aspiration flames anew and religions move into new embodiments . . . the religions of tomorrow are emerging surrounded by a multitude of modernizations of the old."6 Ironically, it was Haydon, the ex-fundamentalist, who transferred the Department of Comparative Religion from the Humanities to the Divinity School of Chicago shortly before his retirement in 1944.

When Wach arrived in Chicago, he was aware that comparative religion at the university had had three successive approaches, none of which appealed to him. In order to make a fresh beginning, Wach proposed to refer to his enterprise as the History of Religions (Religionswissenschaft), which was the official English designation of the international association.7 Wach was afraid that the name might suggest a purely historical discipline, but he was more afraid that the history of religion, in the singular, the usage he had preferred in Germany, might suggest a philosophical discipline. Thus he settled on the history of religions and used the term consistently for the remainder of his career.

Wach was irenic by nature and wanted to relate himself positively to each of the earlier orientations in comparative religion. Accordingly, he paid special attention to (1) the special place of Judaism and Christianity in Western civilization, which the first approach had stressed; (2) the relationship between the history of religions and philosophy of religion (or theology), which the second approach had emphasized; and (3) the concern North Americans had shown for specific religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. (Wach lamented, however, the lack of interest in the so-called primitive religions in North America).

When Wach came to the campus on the Midway, the University of Chicago was an unusually exciting place under the dynamic leadership of Robert Maynard Hutchins. During the war years, the university made a point of welcoming European refugee scholars -- many from Germany; some, like Enrico Fermi, from Italy -- who helped to create an international atmosphere at Chicago. The Divinity School, then under the deanship of the young theologian Bernard M. Loomer, was involved in creating the Federated Theological Faculty, which included Ernest Cadman "Pomp" Colewell, Amos Wilder, J. Coert Rylaarsdam, Allen P. Wikgren, Paul Schubert, Wilhelm Pauck, Charles Hartshorne, Bernard E. Meland, Daniel Day Williams, Sidney Mead, James H. Nichols, James Luther Adams, and Samuel Kincheloe. Wach took a modest room in the Disciples Divinity House, 1156 East 57th Street, and later moved to an apartment in the Ingleside Avenue faculty building. He was close to many scholars in the neighborhood, notably O. J. Matthijs Jolles, one-time chairman of the Committee on the History of Culture; Peter von Blankenhagen; Ludwig Bachhofer; Robert Platt; Robert Redfield; John Nef; Wilbur Katz; Everett Hughes; and his own cousin, Otto von Simpson. Wach also received many visitors who delighted his students by appearing in his classes. Among these visitors were Martin Buber, Gershom G. Scholem (Wach’s fellow student at Munich), D. T. Suzuki, Hideo Kishimoto, Gerardus van der Lecuw, Jacques Duschesne-Guillemin, A. A. Fyzee, and Swami Vivekananda.

From the beginning, it was crystal-clear to Wach that he wanted to teach the history of religions (Allgemeine Religionswissenschaft), which is an autonomous discipline situated between normative studies, such as philosophy of religion and theology, and descriptive studies, such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology. He was also convinced that Religionswissenschaft consisted of two complementary aspects, the "historical" and the "systematic" procedures of study. The "historical" task required a mutual interaction between the "general" history of religions and the historical studies of "specific" religions, while the "systematic" task aimed at disciplined generalizations and the structuring of data and depended on a collaboration of phenomenological, comparative, sociological, psychological, and other studies of religions. Historical and systematic inquiries were to be thought of as two interdependent dimensions of one and the same discipline called the history of religions (Religionswissenschaft).

Wach affirmed that the history of religions should start with the historic religions. Thus he shared common ground with the third approach to comparative religion at Chicago. But unlike this third approach, he never accepted the premise that what authenticated, say, Hinduism or Buddhism is simply Hindu or Buddhist religious experience. Wach was convinced that the raison d’être of the history of religions is the hidden "religious experience" of humankind, described as the experience of the "holy" by Rudolf Otto and as the experience of "power" by G. van der Leeuw. Wach was sympathetic to the desire to find a special place in the study of religion for Judaism and Christianity, which was the emphasis of the first approach to comparative religion at Chicago. But, unlike the first approach, which viewed all religions through the window of the Jewish-Christian tradition, Wach insisted that Judaism and Christianity alike must be seen as parts of the "whole" religious experience of the human race. In the last ten years of his life, Wach was often mistakenly thought to be in the camp of the second approach to comparative religion at Chicago, which necessitated his stating repeatedly that while the philosophy of religion applies an abstract philosophical idea of what religion is to the data of empirical, historical studies, the history of religions begins with the investigation of religious phenomena, from which, it is hoped, a pattern of "meaning" will emerge. The history of religions’ inquiry into the "meaning" of religious phenomena leads one to questions of a philosophical and metaphysical nature, but the history of religions as such cannot deal with those questions philosophically.

Wach believed that the history of religions was a discipline to be taught in a university, ideally simultaneously in a department of theology and in the humanities. He himself taught primarily in the Divinity School but he had an intellectual, outlet in the Committee on the History of Culture. He devoted much time as well to the social sciences, participating, for example, in an interdisciplinary seminar called "The Birth of Civilization’, under the direction of the great anthropologist Robert Redfield. But basically he was happiest when surrounded by his own students, the so-called Sangha. He was convinced, in fact, that each of his students would be an important emissary for the history of religions.

In retrospect, I wonder how happy Wach was in Chicago. He lived in the twentieth century, but he was more at home with the nineteenth, academically speaking. Cosmopolitan though he was, he had, after all, been driven out of Germany, and his intellectual gaze never wandered very far from Dilthey’s Erlebnis (experience), Ausdruck (expression), and Verstehen (understanding). Be that as it may, Wach remained quite sure about the nature of his calling. As he once stated:

The need for understanding, understanding people and peoples, their thought and affections, their words and deeds, has impressed the author from his youth. He chose the problem of hermeneutics -- the theory of interpretation -- as the subject of an extensive historical study [meaning Das Verstehen, 3 vols.]. He has tried to carry out his work both as a scholar and as a teacher, in two continents, with a view to practicing and teaching understanding. Two wars brought home to him even more clearly the urgency of helping to create the conditions for understanding among nations.8

Wach was delighted to deliver the Barrows Lectures on Comparative Religion in India in 1952 and the American Council of Learned Societies Lectures in the History of Religions in 1954-55.9 In late spring 1955, he attended the Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) in Rome. His later travels confirmed for him a statement made early in his Chicago days: "The European centers of learning, nearly all of which were affected by war, continue to devote great interest to the study of Eastern civilizations and religions. But the handicap under which they have to work places an increased responsibility upon American scholarship and initiative."10 And, true to his own words, Wach was determined to do his share of teaching and scholarship in America. Just before his death in August 1955, he received the coveted invitation from Marburg University offering him the chair once occupied by his mentor, Rudolf Otto. Tempting though this offer was, especially since he felt the kind hand of his former teacher, Friedrich Heiler, in the invitation, Wach declined the offer because "my vocation is to develop what I have started at Chicago.’’11

This volume contains representative essays from each of the major phases of Wach’s scholarly career. From the first phase we have chosen two essays. The first, "Master and Disciple," was originally published as Meister und Jünger: Zwei religionssociologische Betrachtungen (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1925). The English translation by Susanne Heigl-Wach and Frederick Streng first appeared in the Journal of Religion 42, no. 1 January 1962), 1-21. The second, "Mahayana Buddhism," was originally published as Mahayana, besonders im Hinblick auf das Saddharma-Pundarika-Sutra (Munich-Neubiberg: Schloss, Untersuchungen 16, 1925). The English translation by Nancy Auer Falk has not appeared before. Also included are two essays from Wach’s second phase: "Wilhelm von Humboldt" (which was found in Wach’s desk after his death) and "Sociology of Religion," written at Brown University and published first in George Gurvitch and Wilbert E. Moore, eds., Twentieth Century Sociology (New York: Philosophical Library, 1945). Four essays represent Wach’s third and last phase: "Radhakrishnan and the Comparative Study of Religion," which appeared in P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1952), pp. 443-58; "Religion in America," which was based on notes from lectures given at various universities in the United States; "On Teaching History of Religions," which appeared in a memorial volume to honor G. van der Leeuw called Pro Regno Pro Sanctuario (Nijkerk: G. F. Callenbach, 1950), pp. 525-32; and "On Understanding," which appeared in A. A. Roback, ed., The Albert Schweitzer Jubilee Book (Cambridge, Mass.: SCI-Art Publishers, 1946), pp. 131-46. All are reproduced here with proper permission. These selections will, we hope, provide readers with some understanding of Wach’s intellectual pilgrimage.

Joachim Wach’s spirit lives among his former students, to whom this volume is dedicated. I wish to take this opportunity to thank Charles E. Smith, Paul Bernabeo, and Elly Dickason of Macmillan Publishing Company for their advice and assistance in bringing together this collection.

Thanks also are due to Dean Franklin I. Gamwell of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago; to my secretary, Martha Morrow-Vojacek, and to Peter Chemery, my present research assistant, upon whose extensive care and attention my recent work has depended.

Lastly I wish to express my special appreciation to Professor Gregory Alles of Western Maryland College, co-editor of this volume and of this book’s companion volume (also published by Macmillan this year), entitled Introduction to the History of Religions, consisting of Wach’s 1924 habilitation thesis, Religionswissenschaft and six articles which appeared in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (1930). In both Professor Alles has cheerfully carried a heavy burden because of my poor health.



1. Quoted in Thomas W. Goodspeed, A History of the University of Chicago: The First Quarter-Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1916), PF,. 299-300.

2. See Louis Henry Jordan, Comparative Religion: Its Genesis and Growth (New York: Scribner’s, 1905).

3. A. Eustace Haydon, ed., Modern Trends in World-Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934), xi.

4. Ibid., p. 221.

5. Ibid., p. 220.

6. Ibid., ix.

7. The official English designation is the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR).

8. J. Wach, Types of Religious Experience -- Christian and Non-Christian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), xiii.

9. Notes based on these lectures were posthumously published as The Comparative Study of Religions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958).

10. Quoted in Wach’s paper entitled, "Research in the History of Religions" (n.d., Chicago).

11. J. Wach, Understanding and Believing (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 107.

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