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Huston Smith

Huston Smith

Huston Cummings Smith (May 31, 1919 – December 30, 2016) was a leading scholar of religious studies in the United States.[1][2] He was widely regarded as one of the world's most influential figures in religious studies.[1][2][3][4][5] He authored at least thirteen books on world's religions and philosophy, and his book The World's Religions (originally titled The Religions of Man) sold over three million copies as of 2017 and remains a popular introduction to comparative religion.[5][6][7][8]

Huston Cummings Smith
Born(1919-05-31)May 31, 1919
DiedDecember 30, 2016(2016-12-30) (aged 97)
Known forAuthor of The World's Religions
Spouse(s)Kendra Smith
Academic background
EducationCentral Methodist University (B.A.)
University of Chicago (Ph.D.)
Academic work
DisciplineReligious studies, philosophy
InstitutionsUniversity of Denver
Washington University in St. Louis
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Syracuse University
University of California, Berkeley

Born and raised in Suzhou, China in a Methodist missionary family, Huston Smith moved back to the United States at the age of 17 and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1945 with a PhD in philosophy.[1][9] He spent the majority of his academic career as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis (1947-1958), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1958–1973) and Syracuse University (1973–1983).[1][9] In 1983, he retired from Syracuse and moved to Berkeley, California, where he was a visiting professor of religious studies at the University of California, Berkeley until his death.[1][9][10]

Early life

On May 31, 1919, Huston Cummings Smith was born in Dzang Zok, Suzhou, China to Methodist missionaries and spent his first 17 years there. His first language was Mandarin Chinese, spoken with Suzhou dialect.[8]

Upon coming to the United States to complete his education, he received a B.A. from Central Methodist University in 1940 and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1945.[9][11]

While at Chicago, he married Eleanor Wieman, the daughter of Henry Nelson Wieman, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School.[1][12] She later changed her name to Kendra.[13] They had three daughters, Karen, Gael, and Kimberly Smith.[1][14]

Academic career

Denver, St. Louis and MIT

Smith taught at the University of Denver from 1945 to 1947, and then at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for the next 10 years.[1][9]

In 1958, Smith was appointed professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he remained until 1973.[9] While there, he participated in experiments with psychedelics that professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert conducted at Harvard University. In 1964, during a trip to India, Smith stayed in a Gyuto Tibetan Buddhist monastery. During his visit he heard the monks chanting and realized that each individual was producing a chord, composed of a fundamental note and overtones. He returned to record the chanting in 1967 and asked acoustic engineers at MIT to analyze the sound.[15] They confirmed the finding, which is an example of overtone singing. Smith has called this the singular empirical discovery of his career. The recording was released as Music of Tibet (1967). Royalties from the album continue to support the Gyuto Tantric University.[16][17][18] Because of his belief in religion, however, Smith was mistrusted by his colleagues, leading MIT to prohibit him from teaching graduate students.[19]

Syracuse and Berkeley

In 1973, Smith moved to Syracuse University, where he was Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy until he took emeritus status in 1983.[9] That year, Smith moved to Berkeley, California, where he remained a visiting professor of religious studies at the University of California, Berkeley until his death.[1][9][10]

Religious practice

During his career, Smith intensely studied Vedanta (studying under Swami Satprakashananda, founder of the St. Louis Vedanta Center), Zen Buddhism (studying under Goto Zuigan), and Sufism of Islam for more than ten years each.[20]

As a young man, Smith suddenly turned from traditional Methodist Christianity to mysticism, influenced by the writings of Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley. In 1947, before moving from Denver to St. Louis, Smith set out to meet with then-famous author Gerald Heard. Heard responded to Smith's letter, inviting him to his Trabuco College (later donated as the Ramakrishna Monastery) in Trabuco Canyon, Southern California. Heard made arrangements to have Smith meet the prominent author Aldous Huxley, a highly respected novelist and commentator on modern society. Smith recounts in the 2010 documentary Huxley on Huxley meeting Huxley at his desert home.[21] Smith was told to look up Swami Satprakashananda of the Vedanta Society once he settled in St. Louis. So began Smith's experimentation with meditation and association with the Vedanta Society of the Ramakrishna order.[22] Smith developed an interest in the Traditionalist School formulated by René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon and Ananda Coomaraswamy. This interest became a continuing thread in all his writings.

Due to his connection with Heard and Huxley, Smith went on to meet Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and others at the Center for Personality Research, where Leary was research professor. The group began experimenting with psychedelics and what Smith later called "empirical metaphysics".[23] The experience and history of the group are described in Smith's book Cleansing the Doors of Perception. During this period, Smith was also part of the Harvard Project, an attempt to raise spiritual awareness through entheogenic plants. During his tenure at Syracuse University, he was informed by leaders of the Onondaga tribe about the Native American religious traditions and practices, which resulted in an additional chapter in his book on the world's religions. In 1990 the Supreme Court ruled that the use of peyote as a religious sacrament by Native Americans was not protected under the US Constitution. Smith took up the cause as a noted religion scholar. With his help in 1994, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act amendment, providing legislative protection to a religious practice that the Supreme Court had decided lacks constitutional protection.[24]

Smith was a practicing Christian who credited his faith to his missionary parents who had "instilled in me a Christianity that was able to withstand the dominating secular culture of modernity."[25]

Public activities

Television and film

While at Washington University, Smith was the host of two National Educational Television series (NET – the forerunner of PBS): The Religions of Man and Search for America.[26]

In 1996, Bill Moyers devoted a 5-part PBS special to Smith's life and work, "The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith". Smith has produced three series for public television: "The Religions of Man", "The Search for America", and (with Arthur Compton) "Science and Human Responsibility". His films on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism have all won awards at international film festivals.

  • The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith: A Bill Moyers Special: A Personal Philosophy, 1996, PBS, DVD
  • The Roots of Fundamentalism: A Conversation with Huston Smith and Phil Cousineau, 2006, GemsTone, DVD
  • Death and Transformation: The Personal Reflections of Huston Smith, 2007, Fons Vitae, DVD
  • The Arc of Life: Huston Smith on Life, Death & Beyond, 2012, GemsTone, DVD[27]

Community engagement

Brandon Williamscraig and Huston Smith conducted their first community dialogue at Epworth United Methodist Church in Berkeley, CA.

Throughout his career, Smith made himself available to the communities where he resided. Toward the end of his life, while living in Berkeley, California, he participated in the Pacific Coast Theological Society at the Graduate Theological Union. He also attended local churches, including Trinity United Methodist, First Congregational Church, and Epworth United Methodist. On the occasion of publishing Tales of Wonder, in 2009 he co-convened "community conversations" at Epworth, during which he responded to questions about his life and work.[28][29]

Awards and honors

For his lifelong commitment to bringing the world's religions together to promote understanding, social justice and peace, Smith received the Courage of Conscience Award from the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts.[30]

Smith was named to be one of the first recipients of the Order of Universal Interfaith and Universal Order of Sannyasa's Interfaith-Interspiritual Sage Award in January 2010. He received the award at his home on February 23, 2010.[31]

The Pacific Coast Theological Society celebrated "the lifetime of achievements of Professor Emeritus Huston Smith by considering the relationship between theology, mythology, and science" in a special session in 2012.[32] In 2015, the society presented Smith with their Codron Prize for The World's Religions.[33]



  • "If we take the world's enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race."[34]
  • "Institutions are not pretty. Show me a pretty government. Healing is wonderful, but the American Medical Association? Learning is wonderful, but universities? The same is true for religion... religion is institutionalized spirituality."[35]
  • "The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits."[36]:97


  • The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, 1958, rev. ed. 1991, HarperOne, ISBN 0-06-250811-3[37]
  • Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions, 1976, reprint ed. 1992, HarperOne, ISBN 0-06-250787-7[38]
  • Beyond the Postmodern Mind, 1982, reprint ed. 1989, Quest Books, ISBN 0-8356-0647-3
  • The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions,1995, HarperOne, ISBN 0-06-067440-7[39]
  • Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals, 2000, Tarcher/Putnam, ISBN 1-58542-034-4, Council on Spiritual Practices, ISBN 1-889725-03-X, Sentient Publications, ISBN 1-59181-008-6[40]
  • Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, 2001, HarperOne, 1st ed.:ISBN 0-06-067099-1, reprint 2002: ISBN 0-06-067102-5[41]
  • Islam: A Concise Introduction, HarperOne, 2001, ISBN 0-06-166018-3[42]
  • The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life, 2003, University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-23816-8 (cloth); ISBN 0-520-24489-3 (paper) Edited and with a Preface by Phil Cousineau
  • Buddhism: A Concise Introduction, with Philip Novak, HarperOne, 2004, ISBN 0-06-073067-6[43]
  • The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition, 2005, HarperOne, 1st ed. ISBN 0-06-079478-X[44]
  • A Seat at the Table: Huston Smith in Conversation with Native Americans on Religious Freedom, 2006, University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-24439-7 (cloth) edited and with a Preface by Phil Cousineau
  • Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, (autobiography), 2009, HarperOne, ISBN 0-06-1154261
  • And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life—Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World's Great Religious Leaders, 2012, With contributions from Phil Cousineau

See also


  1. Martin, Douglas; Hevesi, Dennis (2017-01-01). "Huston Smith, Author of 'The World's Religions,' Dies at 97". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-03-15.
  2. Rourke, Mary. "Huston Smith, pioneering teacher of world religions, dies at 97". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2019-03-15.
  3. John Blake. "Huston Smith's painful spiritual odyssey". CNN. Retrieved 2019-03-15.
  4. The Way Things Are. University of California Press. 2003.
  5. Bill, Williams (July 27, 2009). "Religion scholar stresses events over emotions". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-08-06.
  6. "Huston Smith, Author of 'The World's Religions,' Dies at 97". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 June 2017.
  7. "Review of PBS Bill Moyers' interview of Huston Smith" Archived 2013-01-11 at the Wayback Machine
  8. "Knowing Huston Smith". The Interfaith Observer. Retrieved 2019-03-15.
  9. "Huston Smith Papers An inventory of his papers at the Syracuse University Archives". Retrieved 2019-03-15.
  10. Siow, Fionce; Staff (2017-01-05). "UC Berkeley visiting professor of religious studies Huston Smith dies at 97". The Daily Californian. University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 2019-03-15.
  11. Smith, Huston; Why Religion Matters, Harper-Collins: San Francisco, 2001.
  12. "Henry Nelson Wieman". Retrieved 2019-03-15.
  13. "Huston Smith, pioneering teacher of world religions, dies at 97". Los Angeles Times. 2017-01-05. Retrieved 2019-11-19.
  14. "Huston Smith Homepage". Retrieved 2019-03-16.
  15. Huston Smith telling story of recording on YouTube
  16. listing
  17. NPR story of recording and MIT analysis
  18. Official Website of Recording
  19. Smith, Huston (2012-03-26). The Huston Smith Reader. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520952355.
  20. "Huston Smith: About the Author: HarperCollins Publishers". Archived from the original on 2012-08-07.
  21. "Huxley on Huxley". Dir. Mary Ann Braubach. Cinedigm, 2010. DVD. Archived from the original on 2014-11-08. Retrieved 2013-08-05. {{cite web}}: External link in |others= (help)CS1 maint: others (link) CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  22. "Description by Smith of meeting Heard". Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  23. Ralph Metzner (2005-04-18). "The Ecstatic Adventure – Chapter 5". Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  24. Review of One Nation Under God
  25. Smith, Huston (2005). The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. "Acknowledgments" p. 167. ISBN 978-0-06-079478-1.
  26. "Biography of Smith". Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  27. Official Website
  28. Huston Smith and Brandon Williamscraig July 5, 2009 Introduction
  29. ABC - Conversations with Huston Smith
  30. "The Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Recipients List". 2005-11-20. Archived from the original on 2009-02-14. Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  31. "OUnI Ordination and Sage Award". Archived from the original on 2011-07-27. Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  33. Brandon Williamscraig accepts the Codron Prize for Huston Smith
  34. Sinclair Community College Archived 2012-05-10 at the Wayback Machine
  35. Mother Jones, November/December 1997.
  36. Huston Smith (2003/1992). "Encountering God". In Huston Smith, Phil Cousineau (2003). The Way Things Are: Conversations With Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life. University of California Press. ISBN 0520238168, ISBN 9780520238169
  37. "Browse Books at HarperCollins Publishers". 2010-03-24. Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  38. Smith, Huston. "Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions by Huston Smith". Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  39. Smith, Huston. "The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions by Huston Smith". Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  40. "Council on Spiritual Practices – Cleansing the Doors of Perception". Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  41. Smith, Huston. "Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith". Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  42. Smith, Huston. "Islam: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith". Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  43. Smith, Huston; Philip Novak. "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction". HarperCollins. Retrieved 2010-11-16.
  44. Smith, Huston. "The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition by Huston Smith". Retrieved 2010-11-16.
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