Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

(1822-1895) German social theorist, born to a Pietist family of industrialists. 

Influenced by David Strauss's radical critique of early Christian lives of Jesus, he became a convert to left Hegelianism but retained an interest in religion. From 1850 through 1869, he worked for his family's manufacturing firm in Manchester, in part, to help support his financially dependent, lifelong friend Karl Marx. With no doctoral training, Engels was an autodidact who wrote on many subjects, including primitive religion, early Christianity, and religion's role in early modern European historical conflicts. His later writings, especially his correspondence, allow for the possible influence of religious ideas on the economic structure and lay the basis for both mechanical Marxism as well as multifactor sociological theories of sociocultural change.

Although Engels relied too heavily on a limited number of secondary sources of evidence, his writings about religion and society are frequently insightful. He compared early Christianity's place in antiquity with the role of socialist movements in the modern capitalist state and likened the spirit of the communist movement to early Christian brotherliness. The Peasant War in Germany (1850) located the Reformation teachings of Luther as well as the millenarian religiosity of Münzer in their social class settings.

Engels's emphasis on the peasant and plebeian origins of the radical sects has been widely accepted and has encouraged the recent revival neo-Marxian Reformation historiography. His attempts to correlate specific religious doctrines with social class interests have been less enthusiastically received.

Donald A. Nielsen


D. McLellan, Marxism and Religion (New York: Harper, 1987).

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