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Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) v-vi

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In Memoriam: Wilfred Cantwell Smith

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a Canadian who taught for most of the first half of his career at McGill University in Montreal and for most of the second half at Harvard, died February 7, 2000, in his native Toronto at the age of eighty-three. His wife and companion of sixty years, Muriel, survives him, as do five children and a dozen grandchildren.

Smith, a Protestant Christian and clergyman, played an influential role among both academics and church bodies in advocating open dialogue and personal encounter with the adherents of diverse religious traditions. As one of his students, Professor John Ross Carter of Colgate University, put it, "Before I met Wilfred, I had studied Buddhism as a system. Under him, I came to appreciate the faith of Buddhists as persons."

As an undergraduate, Smith studied Middle Eastern languages at the University of Toronto. He then studied theology in Cambridge, England, and taught during the early 1940s at Forman Christian College, Lahore, in what was then India but is now Pakistan. He became involved in the vital contemporary life of Muslims, and in the Hindu-Muslim-Sikh interface in the Punjab. The partition of India along communal lines in 1947 reinforced his strong sense of the moral urgency of interreligious understanding.

After completing a Ph.D. degree at Princeton University with a dissertation on modern Islam, Smith took up the chair of comparative religion in McGill University's Faculty of Divinity and soon organized McGill's Institute of Islamic Studies, which he directed until 1963. The institute was innovative in two respects. First, it treated Islam as the faith of millions in southern Asia today, where the numerical majority of Muslims live, in contrast with the emphasis of most Orientalist scholarship on classical Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literature. Second, it strove to include roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Westerners in both its faculty and its student body.

Though he had already made seminal contributions to comparative studies, Smith moved fully into that realm when in 1964 he took over the directorship of Harvard Divinity School's Center for the Study of World Religions, and later, of Harvard's entire graduate program in religion in arts and sciences. Through two decades, until his 1984 retirement, the world religions Ph.D. graduates emerging from Harvard, including a significant cohort of specialists in Buddhist studies, were inspired by Smith to focus on the faith dimension of the traditions they studied.

Religious bodies turned to Smith for scholarly advice. To take one important example, he served in 1967 on a commission on world mission of the United Church of Canada. As a result of his input, the commission's report, adopted by the denomination, [End Page v] affirmed God to be working creatively and redemptively in the religious traditions of humankind. Some view this as the first declaration by any church to go so far in the entire history of Christianity.

Numerous responsibilities and honors came to Smith. He became president of practically every organization to which he belonged, such as the American Academy of Religion, the American Society for the Study of Religion (which he said was his favorite), the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion, and the Canadian Theological Society. His writings have been translated into many languages, as diverse as Spanish, Turkish, Urdu, and Korean. He received a dozen honorary degrees, was elected to the Royal Society of Canada, and less than a month before the end of his life was inducted in a special bedside ceremony as an Officer of the Order of Canada, the nearest honor that country has to a title of nobility awarded for merit.

Smith was primarily a historian, ever fascinated by process and change. He observed it not only in the societies and traditions of world culture, but in the conceptual vocabulary with which we describe it. His landmark book, from this point of view, is TheMeaning and End of Religion(1963), in which he traced both the emergence of the view of particular traditions...


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