John Ferguson McLennan

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John Ferguson McLennan
Born 14 October 1827
Died 16 June 1881 (1881-06-17) (aged 53)
Nationality Scottish
Fields ethnology

John Ferguson McLennan (14 October 1827 – 16 June 1881), was a Scottish ethnologist and lawyer.


He was born at Inverness, the son of John McLennan, an insurance agent of Inverness, and Jessie Ross, his wife. He was educated at Inverness and at King's College, Aberdeen, where he graduated M.A. in 1849. He then entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where in 1853 he obtained a Wrangler's place (first class) in the Mathematical Tripos. He left Cambridge without taking a degree there.[1][2][3]

McLennan then spent two years in London writing for The Leader, edited by George Henry Lewes, and other periodicals.[1] He may well have attended one of the Inns of Court.[4] During this period he knew George Eliot and William Michael Rossetti, and dabbled in verse in the Pre-Raphaelite style.[5]

On returning to Edinburgh, he was called to the Scottish bar in January 1857. He became secretary to the Scottish Law Amendment Society, and took an active part in the agitation which led to the Court of Session Act of 1868. As a man of letters he worked with Alexander Smith.[5]

In 1870 McLennan's first wife died, and he moved back to London.[6] In 1871, he took the post of parliamentary draughtsman for Scotland.[1]

His health, however, was already thoroughly undermined by consumption, and while wintering in Algeria he suffered from repeated attacks of malarial fever. He died of consumption on 16 June 1881 at Hayes Common, Kent.[1]


McLennan undertook the article on "Law" for the eighth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. It looked back to the Scottish tradition of Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith;[5] but in it he speculated also on the custom of collusive abduction seen in classical antiquity. Via conjectural steps involving the form of polyandry as it might have evolved, he found the topic that led on to his major work.[6] It has been suggested that McLennan was motivated by disagreement with Henry Maine, on questions of legal reform, to examine Maine's Ancient Law; McLennan wrote attacks on Maine that were not published in his own lifetime.[7]

In 1865, McLennan published Primitive Marriage.[8] In it he argued from symbolic and ceremonial forms of bride kidnapping. His ideas had been partially anticipated by Johann Jakob Bachofen, writing in 1861 on matriarchy, but were independent.[1] McLennan developed from ethnographic data a social evolutionist theory of marriage, and also of systems of kinship according to natural laws. He rejected patriarchal society as an early stage, arguing in favour of agnation as a more basic evolutionary point; he proposed an early model of social groups, a war band mainly male, practicing female infanticide and acquiring female sexual partners, with promiscuity and matrilineality salient features.[7]

In 1866, McLennan wrote in the Fortnightly Review (April and May) an essay on Kinship in Ancient Greece, in which he proposed tests for the history of kinship claimed in Primitive Marriage. Three years later, in the Fortnightly Review for 1869–70, he developed his ideas on totemism from indications in the earlier essay.[1]

A reprint of Primitive Marriage, with Kinship in Ancient Greece and some other essays not previously published, appeared in 1876, under the title of Studies in Ancient History; the new essays included The Divisions of the Irish Family, and On the Classificatory System of Relationship. A Paper on The Levirate and Polyandry, following up the line of his previous investigations (Fortnightly Review, 1877), was the last work he was able to publish.[1]

McLennan also wrote a Life of Thomas Drummond (1867).[1] The materials which he had accumulated on kinship were edited by his widow and Arthur Platt, under the title Studies in Ancient history: Second Series (1896).


McLennan's work had implications for the field of history of religion. In the study The Worship of Animals and Plants (two parts, 1869–70) McLennan suggested a connection between social structures and primitive religions; and he coined the word "totemism" for the social function of primitive religion.[9] This concise term proved to be useful to later historians of religion, and sociologists like William Robertson Smith and Émile Durkheim (among others). The following quote by McLennan (1865) contains the basic premise for the comparative method (as used by Robertson Smith):

In the sciences of law and society, old means not old in chronology, but in the structure: that is most archaic which lies nearest to the beginning of human progress considered as a development, and that is most modern which is farthest removed from the beginning.


For Robertson Smith, McLennan's comparative method proved to be important. One of Robertson Smith's more influential essays, Animal Worship and Animal Tribes among the Arabs and in the Old Testament, directly follows MacLennan's ideas on totemism. It connected contemporary Arab nomads and ancient biblical peoples with the social function of totemism in primitive religions.[11]


McLennan married twice:

  1. On 23 December 1862, to Mary Bell, daughter of John Ramsay McCulloch, by whom he had one daughter;
  2. On 20 January 1875, to Eleonora Anne, daughter of Francis Holles Brandram, J.P. for the counties of Kent and Sussex, who died in 1896.[1]


  • 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. E.B.O.
  • Kippenberg, Hans G. 2002. Discovering Religious History in the Modern Age. Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press.
  • McLennan, John F. 1970 [1865]. Primitive Marriage. An Inquiry into the Origin of the Form of Capture in Marriage Ceremonies. Chicago.
  • Strenski, Ivan. 2006. Thinking About Religion. An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion. Malden, MA., Blackwell Publishing.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Rigg 1894.
  2. "McLennan, John Ferguson". Dictionary of National Biography. 35: 210–211. 1893.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Mclennan, John Ferguson (MLNN849JF)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. John Wyon Burrow, Evolution and Society: a study in Victorian social theory (1966), p. 230; Google Books.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Robert Crawford, Devolving English Literature (2000), pp. 152–3; Google Books.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Rivière, Peter. "McLennan, John Ferguson". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/17666.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Alan Diamond, The Victorian Achievement of Sir Henry Maine: a centennial reappraisal (1991), p. 106; Google Books.
  8. McLennan, John Ferguson (1865). Primitive Marriage (1 ed.). Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Kippenberg 2002:72-73
  10. McLennan 1970 [1865], 6
  11. Kippenberg 2002, Strenski 2006
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). [ "M'Lennan, John Ferguson" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainRigg, James McMullen (1894). [ "McLennan, John Ferguson" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 37. London: Smith, Elder & Co.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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