Max Weber (1864–1920) has long been regarded as one of the great pioneers, some would say the pioneer, in the development of the distinctively sociological study of religion. While Weber's work is the primary focus here, attention will be paid to others to whose work Weber's thinking can be fruitfully related. Among previous thinkers particular emphasis will be given to Hegel and Marx; while among contemporaneous intellectuals the importance of Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) and, to a lesser extent, Georg Simmel (1858–1918) will be underlined.
It will briefly be argued that the comparative-historical frame of inquiry suggested by Hegel's philosophy and phenomenology of religion was echoed in Weber's historical-sociological studies of the major world religions; and that – more concretely and directly – Weber's sociology of religion was in part developed in response to Marxian ideas. In some respects Weber's sociology of religion was a synthesis of Hegelian ideas concerning the entry of 'spiritual’ matters into ‘worldly’ history and Marxian ideas concerning the impact on religion of economic-class interests and structures. However, Weber's ideas were far too bold and innovatory to be characterized as of mere synthetic significance. Among Weber's contemporaries particular attention is given to Troeltsch, who is also the subject of a separate article in this volume. Although the more strictly theological and philosophical aspects of his thought are covered there, it is more natural to deal with his specifically sociological interests here in connection with Weber, with whom he formed a close intellectual relationship.