Born in Suzhou, Huston Smith

If young Christian missionaries deeply encounter a great and ancient nonChristian culture, what happens?

This is a placeholder for a blog that I want to begin now and complete in the future. I’m grateful to cousin Karen Smith who reminded me of the connections between Kate Smallwood’s time in Suzhou, Kate’s best friend there named Alice Longden, and Alice’s son Huston Smith (not related to Karen), the great scholar-practitioner of world religions.

The previous 3 posts (first one here) told the story of Kate Smallwood, who became engaged to Billy Guyton just before leaving for a 5 year mission term in Suzhou, China. When she returned, they married and eventually settled in Oxford, Mississippi. Kate never tired of describing Chinese customs and wisdom to various womens’ groups in North Mississippi. But what can we say about her religious beliefs?

Kate’s actions over the next 50 years in Oxford as well as testimony from those who knew her best give abundant evidence that she remained actively faithful to Christ throughout her life. On one point, however, uncertainty must be expressed. Did she adhere to Christian exclusivity – the notion that belief in Christ is the exclusive means to salvation?

Kate’s daughter Ruth left Christianity to join the Unitarian Church. Years later Ruth told me that her mother “never showed any resentment toward me for joining a church other than Methodist.”

In Mississippi during the early and mid-20th century, if you had any religious ideas beyond traditional Christianity, you kept them quiet. Ruth told me that her father Billy Guyton once showed her “papers about the Greater Unitarian FelIowship which he had joined and to which he had been sending contributions for many years.” Billy never told Kate about that. He adored her. He also respected her faith, but did not fully share it. What would she have said about his joining the Unitarian Church? We don’t know.

Further insight may be gained by looking at another family. Alice Longden was Kate’s closest friend during her 5 years in Suzhou. After marrying Wesley Moreland Smith, she returned with him to China where they served 41 years as missionaries. Their son, Huston Smith, was born in Suzhou in 1919 and spent his first 17 years in China.

Huston Smith’s teaching, including 14 books, a public television series with Bill Moyers, and several videos, emphatically expresses a viewpoint that might be called nonexclusive Christianity, which appreciates all of the world’s major religions. The banner at the top of this blog shows a paperback cover of his most significant book along with a handwritten note from my mother confirming Karen Smith’s reminder to me. The Religions of Man was first published in 1958. Later editions have the gender-neutral title The World’s Religions.

At this time in August 2016, Huston Smith’s official website states that at age 97 he is now in hospice care. What a contribution he has made!

I want to learn more about Huston Smith’s ideas. I’ll revisit this blog in the future after reading more of The World’s Religions (thus far only the chapter on Confucianism in the 1956 edition) and hopefully his autobiography as well. But don’t wait for me. You can check out the official website, another website, or Amazon to benefit from his lifelong exploration of religion with its roots in Methodism and China.


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