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H. Shelton Smith

By Robert L. Browning


H. Shelton Smith (1893-1987): Professor at Duke Divinity School from 1931 to 1963. He was known as an engaging and wide-ranging teacher not only of Christian education but also of Christian ethics and American Christianity. His most lasting contribution to Christian education is his critique of the liberal religious education movement in his book, Faith and Nurture (1941), and his follow-up writings and lectures. His historical study of the varying views of human nature in his Changing Conceptions of Original Sin: A Study of American Theology Since 1750 (1955) symbolizes the direction of his work after his watershed challenge to liberal religious education. As a creative teacher and director of the doctoral program at Duke for 25 years he influenced the lives of many scholars, pastors, and educators throughout the world.


Early Life, Education and Writings

As will be seen later, H. Shelton Smith’s legacy was related to his southern roots but also to the fact that he moved out to the wider world through his studies at Elon College (A.B. in 1917) at Yale (B.D. and Ph.D. in 1923), and through his time as Chaplain in the Army in France in World War I.

Smith was born in Greensboro, N.C., May 8, 1893, the son of Mr. and Mrs. H. B. Smith. He married Alma Lee Bowden, May 27, 1918. He and Alma had one son who later became a medical doctor and enriched their lives with five grandchildren.

After receiving his Ph.D. in religious education from Yale he became Director of Leadership Education for the International Council of Religious Education (1923-29). He was invited to become Associate Professor of Religious Education at Teachers College, Columbia University (1928-29). And then, Yale Divinity School invited him to become Associate Professor of Religious Education (1929-31). After only three years of graduate teaching he became Professor of Religious Education at Duke Divinity School where he served from 1931 to 1963. His interests and his titles changed during these 32 years. In 1940 he was named Professor of Christian Ethics and Religious Education. In 1945 he became Professor of American Religious Thought. From 1940 until near his retirement he served as Director of the doctoral program for the Duke Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In honor of his outstanding contributions he was one of the first to be named the James B. Duke Professor, 1953. His seminal challenge to the field of religious education took place earlier in his career but his influence continued all during his life.

Smith’s doctoral dissertation from Yale, Some Factors Conditioning the Religious Education of Later Childhood (1923) reveals a person thoroughly committed to a liberal view of religious education. However, while teaching at Teachers College and later especially during his teaching at a Yale-Union Summer School he was shaken by John L. Childs’ views in Education and the Philosophy of Experimentalism (1931). Childs underscored the naturalism and pragmatism of John Dewey in a way that made Smith aware of a basic underlying conflict with the theistic worldview he embraced. He started an internal dialogue that would yield a fresh critique of the assumptions of liberal religious education. The dialogue took some time and included several other persons and cultural factors.

As Susan Thistlethwaite (1982) observes in her doctoral dissertation on Smith, he went to Duke still committed to a liberal stance on religious education. However, the internal dialogue continued. He looked more deeply at his earlier experiences in the light of the war, the Depression and the injustices he was discerning in the American expressions of the capitalistic system. All of these reflections caused him to have considerable reservations about an optimistic picture concerning human nature. This reservation was further challenged by continental theology, especially of Karl Barth. This internal dialogue became more external as he wrote in 1934, Let Religious Education Reckon with the Barthians. Then, in 1936 Smith gave a paper entitled, Is Religious Naturalism Enough? He moved on in his critique in an article in 1939, Theological Reconstruction in Religious Education. Of course, his critique was greatly amplified and grounded in his study of the history of religious education in his watershed book, Faith and Nurture (1941).

In Faith and Nurture (1941) he discussed the unrealistic assumptions of Protestant liberal religious education of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially concerning divine immanence and the goodness of human nature. He maintained that the liberalism of the religious education movement “ basically outmoded and must be critically reconstructed and revised”(Smith, 1941, p. 32). He saw the movement: separated largely from central biblical and theological sources of the faith; increasingly detached from the church as the Body of Christ in the world; devoid of an understanding of the nature of sin; unfounded in its faith in “ growth and more growth” as the goal of religious education; and especially failing to bring persons to a living faith in the transcendent God revealed by Christ.

Smith, for instance, was affirmative concerning many aspects of the work of George Albert Coe and his goal of creating the democracy of God as well as the strong call of Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. However, he saw both too oriented to human activism, too lacking of a sense of divine initiative, and too naive about the self-serving aspects of human nature. Smith’s analysis not only detailed the major movements and leaders in the early 20th century but connected liberalism with 19th century sources: William E. Channing, Theodore Parker and Horace Bushnell, the latter often credited as the founder of the religious education movement through many of his writings, especially Christian Nurture (Smith, 1867).

As Albert Outler (1963) said in his memoir on Smith, in order to “... ground his critique of religious education he went back to a very solid study of theological presuppositions of previous leaders and movements in American Christianity...” Soon, Smith moved into teaching and research in the areas of American church history and theological thought, and Christian ethics, along with religious education. The latter remained lively as he engaged in several debates after 1941 concerning his critique of liberal religious education. However, he never wrote a sequel to Faith and Nurture (1941) in which he presented his thoughts on the specific content of his proposed reconstruction. This was a significant loss for the field. As Outler (1963) opined, Smith thought of himself as tilling “...a farm instead of a field” (Henry, 1963).

In the early years after Faith and Nurture Smith wrote and lectured on the ramifications of his critique. For instance, he lectured at the Pacific School concerning the too optimistic view of human nature, indicating that total depravity is not an option. Rather, he believed that human nature is contradictory, “...fully capable of both saintly and sinful conduct. Any doctrine of nurture that ignores either side of human nature must be regarded as defective” (Thistlethwaite, 1982, p.85). Smith (1942, February) also maintained that Jesus Christ should be the “...permanent historical center...of the Christian movement in the sense that in Him God disclosed the ultimate meaning of human existence once and for all.” Therefore, Smith (Thistlethwaite, 1982) concluded that the progressives were wrong to believe in continuous change and improvement And, in lectures he gave at Eden Theological School and at Austin Presbyterian Seminary (1947, February), he emphasized the place of the church and the importance of liturgical/sacramental life as crucial means of nurture.

While Smith widened his research and teaching at Duke he continued his quest to assess the nature of sin in theology and nurture, finally publishing his Changing Conceptions of Original Sin: A Study of American Theology Since 1750 (1955). The book is a brilliant analysis of the major American interpretations of original sin: from the Federal doctrine, to Taylorism, to the Unitarian challenge to total depravity, to the New Haven conception, to Horace Bushnell’s “condition of unnature,” to the new theology in which original sin was rejected, to the revival of the psychological and theological interpretations of the fall and original sin in the neo-orthodoxy of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.

In the process of working on the history of theological thought in respect to original sin Smith made it a primary goal to build up the Duke library in the field of American church history. He added volumes of early leaders such as John Cotton, Samuel Hopkins, Edward A. Parks, Horace Bushnell and many others. He offered a course, Religion and the Rise of American Culture, which became quite popular. His efforts resulted in the publication of another of his major contributions, the editing of American Christianity (1960-63), 2 volumes, with Robert T. Handy and Lefferts A. Loetscher. These books were focused on representative original documents along with penetrating interpretations. Such research brought to fruition a major collection of Horace Bushnell’s writings along with perceptive analysis by Smith.

The book, Horace Bushnell (1965), is a very significant selection of twelve of Bushnell’s writings, including Christian Nurture. Smith’s commentary illumines the influence of Bushnell on religious education and highlights his more nuanced views about human nature. Bushnell believed in the necessity of personal struggle with temptations and sin, as well as his commitment to Christ and the church as the centerpiece of Christian education. Smith helped clarify Bushnell’s statement that religious education should be based on “the child growing up never knowing when he wasn’t a Christian.” Also, Smith’s book helped establish Bushnell as a major theologian soundly grounded in his understanding of ministry in and through the church as a learning, serving community.

As mentioned above, Smith became Director of Doctoral Studies for Duke, making the program one of the first in a southern setting and one that was highly respected. During Smith’s leadership at Duke he supervised thirty Ph.D. dissertations. In relation to the field of Christian education, two dissertations are especially relevant: (1) Conceptions of Man in the Thought of George Albert Coe and William Bower (1954), written by McMurray Smith Richey. It is more than interesting to note that Richey later became a Professor of Christian Education at Duke. (2) A Study of the Theological Method of Horace Bushnell and its Application to His Central Doctrines (1963), written by John Edward Howell. This dissertation was written during the period of Smith’s own major research and writing on Horace Bushnell.

Smith was a teacher who stimulated students to do creative, independent thinking but in a collegial way. Another of Smith’s doctoral students was Stuart Clark Henry whose relationship with Smith eventuated in Henry’s editing the Festschrift for Smith at the time of his retirement. According to the Archives at Duke, Smith was instrumental in establishing the Gurney Harris Kearns Foundation for Graduate Study in Religion and the Amos Ragan Kearns Professorship in Religion at Duke.

In addition to his teaching and administrative prowess, Smith was an active participant in the life of the First Congregational Church (later the United Church of Christ) in Durham. Very interested in transcending denominationalism, he was the primary architect of the North Carolina Council of Churches.

As a southerner he was particularly concerned about the civil rights of African Americans. As a person who grew up in a segregated community, he felt he understood how racism evolved. He took such sensitivity and knowledge into the dialogue. In 1957, he wrote an article on Moral Crisis in a Troubled South. He followed up with studies of southern schools in 1960, Southern Schools: Progress and Problems. Smith continued to work toward racial unity in his writings, classes, sermons, and lectures, culminating in several essays, articles, and book reviews in the 1960s and 70s. His book in 1972, In His Image, But...Racism in Southern Religion, 1780-1910, is a major contribution to civil rights and a profound example of his understanding of a relevant Christian education. This “retirement” book identified and examined the sources of racism in southern Christian churches until the early 1900s. It was a project to which he was committed passionately during most of his life. Affirming a biblical anthropology of imago Dei, that all persons are created in the image of God and are therefore to be treated as equals, Smith (1972) concluded his detailed analysis with these words:

The movement of racial orthodoxy... grew stronger every year through at least the first decade of the present is clear that organized religion in the white south was dominated by spokesmen who held firmly to the dogma of Negro inferiority, and who maintained that the system of black-white separation represented the normal development of a divinely implanted instinct. They furthermore defended the policy of segregation on the grounds that it was necessary for the preservation of racial integrity. Moderates as well as extremists sanctioned the southern campaign to disfranchise blacks. When the twentieth century dawned, white churchmen of the South had largely lost ecclesiastical contact with their ‘brothers in black.’ They were enslaved to the traditional spirit of color caste, and there was little prospect of the emancipation in the foreseeable future.” (p. 304)

It must have given Smith some sense of joy that he lived long enough to see the impact of the civil rights revolution (in which he took leadership as an advocate and educator) on the church he loved. He also must have been gratified to see the church finally take leadership in bringing about significant change.

Smith continued his valued consulting to the Divinity School and to the church and wider community until his death on January 8,1987 at the Methodist Retirement Home in Durham, N.C.

Contributions to Christian Education

It is somewhat amazing that H. Shelton Smith’s very significant contribution to Christian education was largely centered on the publication of one book, Faith and Nurture in 1941. The book has been heralded as the hinge on which the liberal religious education movement of the late 19th and early 20th century swung toward a Christian education with clear biblical, theological and ecclesial grounding. While Smith’s interests took him in the direction of ethics and the history of thought in American Christianity, the impact of his critique of Protestant liberal religious education can hardly be over-stated. While Smith himself did not follow-up with a sequel that put teeth in the reconstruction he called for, others did come forth with versions of the direction he projected. After the hiatus of World War II came an early effort to bring theological and biblical corrective to the field by a study committee of the International Council of Religious Education, Paul Vieth’s The Church and Christian Education (1945). Then, came Randolph Crump Miller’s The Clue to Christian Education (1951), James Smart’s The Teaching Ministry of the Church (1954), Lewis Sherrill’s The Gift of Power (1963), and others.

Smith’s critique of the religious education movement was balanced. He was appreciative of many dimensions of the movement. He was sensitive to the importance of the organic views of Horace Bushnell concerning the power of nurture within the family and within the faith community; he incorporated the findings from the historical-critical approach to the scriptures; he saw the importance of understanding the dynamics of human development in the process of Christian education; he was in tune with the insights coming from evolution along with the potential in employing the scientific method; he was committed to bringing all peoples into the fruits of democracy and into a community of equality and justice; he wanted the gospel to bring social as well as personal wholeness; he was positive about employing many of the creative methodologies developed by leaders such as John Dewey, John Childs, George Albert Coe and others. Smith, however, believed that many of the theories of the liberal movement were overly optimistic about human nature, slowly but surely losing sight of the basic theological understandings concerning the nature of a transcendent God, did not possess a clear Christology, were not committed to the church as the Body of Christ in ministry, and did not see the truth involved in a realistic awareness of the human struggle with anxiety and the sin of pride.

In Faith and Nurture Smith (1941) made it clear that he respected liberal religious education but disagreed with many of its thought patterns and results. While penetrating in his criticism, he indicated a willingness to learn from those who held different views than his own. Up-front, he acknowledged his debt to Reinhold Niebuhr and continental theologians. He thanked Niebuhr for reading his manuscript and making suggestions.

Smith’s major criticisms of liberal religious education were in the areas of divine immanence and the assumed goodness of human nature; growth as the goal of learning; the focus on the historical Jesus rather then the Christ of faith; the importance of the church; and a distorted notion of the Kingdom of God. Tracing the dilution of Christian education, Smith discussed with discernment the work of central theoreticians, especially William Channing, Theodore Parker, and Horace Bushnell of the 19th Century and John Dewey, Ernest Chave, George Albert Coe, Harrison S. Elliott and others in the early 20th century. Smith pointed out the serious limitations in Unitarian assumptions, Dewey’s naturalism, and Coe’s “limited God.” What is needed, he maintained, is a centering of faith in a transcendent God, revealed in Christ who is in the process but beyond the process.

Concerning the goodness of human nature, Smith promulgated a realistic view of human sin consistent with Bushnell’s recognition that a child nurtured in a loving Christian family must still struggle with anxieties, experience “a fall and a rescue” and have to own his or her faith as an individual. Smith agreed with Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of sin as an internal psychological struggle with anxiety which is a by-product of human freedom and the lack of perfect love from parents and others, resulting in self-protective strategies at the personal level at first and then at the social and political levels as well.

Such a realistic view of human nature called into question the liberal religious education assumption that God’s loving presence is inherent in each person only to be drawn out. Channing, for instance, stated that the goal was to grow more God-like by gradual unfolding of the person’s inner nature. Smith saw the importance of the Imago Dei, and being in tune with the processes of human growth and the best teaching- learning moments; but, he recognized the discontinuities in life as well - the lapses, the need for the spiritual guidance provided by confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and the humility of a life enriched by God’s grace and love.

Smith was very interested in the research on the historical Jesus and the focus in liberal religious education on Jesus the Master teacher. He wanted to go deeper. He agreed with Bushnell that Christian education should lead to a commitment to a living Christ. Bushnell’s affirmation of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice for us was essential for Smith. He also agreed with Bushnell that Christ calls each one of us to be willing to sacrifice for others. He wanted a dynamic view of Christ, not a rigid one where our surrender to Christ would bring an automatic salvation.

In respect to the concept of the Kingdom of God, Smith taught and worked valiantly for social justice and civil rights, especially concerning racial equality. He believed, however, that it was unfortunate to associate “the democracy of God,” as Coe implied, with the Kingdom of God. Smith believed that faith in human action, however positive, can obscure faith in God. In other words, to equate any form of ideal society with the Kingdom of God is to distort the deeper meaning of the Kingdom. Smith’s realistic understanding of human nature (“...we never do and never can love our enemies, or even our neighbors, as we love ourselves.”) transferred well into the social and political realms (“...then, we shall be able to understand why coercion and realistically adjusted balance of power always will be a necessary part of all strategies of social adjustment”) (p. 61).

Smith underscored the fact that human beings cannot resolve their dilemmas in any ultimate way through education, science, or their own thinking or actions. He believed that Paul was right: “God commended his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”(Romans 5:8). Smith concludes that human “...contradiction is ultimately resolved not by man’s ability to love and forgive, but by Divine mercy which, through Christ, absorbs into itself the sins of the truly repentant sinner. Thus, ‘by grace you have been saved through faith’”(p.172). Smith’s confidence in the good news in Christ led him to critique the underlying assumptions of experimentalism and pragmatism. It was clear to him that “... experimentalism has no place for a worldview that is compatible with that of Hebrew-Christian tradition...for experimentalists, in general, nature is self-generating and self-explanatory” (p.185). To Smith, “Christianity sees the self as a gift from God and moral values emerge through the activity of a transcendent Being” (p. 191).

While positive about many of the advances coming from the liberal religious education movement, Smith ends on a negative note: “In so far, therefore, as the religious faith of experimentalism has penetrated the theory of religious nurture it has served to distort and emasculate it” (p. 202). There is no doubt that Smith’s critique deeply challenged the religious education establishment and opened the door to a fresh direction for Christian educators to travel.

It is my own view that H. Shelton Smith’s analysis of the deficiencies of the liberal Protestant religious education of the time was quite accurate in regard to the major theorists of the day, but less accurate about religious education in actual local churches. Many mainline churches were committed, at the same time, to creative, child-centered curricular designs and practices but still appeared to be Christ and church centered. Such a situation was probably true for Smith himself until he had his sudden insight about the underlying theological assumptions of many leaders in the liberal movement - assumptions which were weakening the quality and results of an adequate and vital Christian education.

Smith’s critique was very important and did cause the religious education establishment to pause, re-evaluate, and begin to reconstruct.



  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1941). Faith and Nurture. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1955). Changing conceptions of original sin: A study in American theology since 1750. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons.
  • Smith, H. Shelton, Handy, Robert L., & Loetscher, Lefferts A. (Eds.). (1960-63).
  • American Christianity (Vols. 1-6). New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1965). Horace Bushnell. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1972). In His image, but...racism in southern religion, 1780-1910. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.


  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1923). Factors conditioning the religious Education of later childhood Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Yale University, New Haven.

Articles, Essays, and Published lectures

  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1929). Religious education tomorrow. International Journal of Religious Education, 5, 13-14.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1934). Let religious educators reckon with Barthians. Religious Education, 29, 45-50.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1935). A divided church in a divided world. Advance, 78, 524-525.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1936 a). The gospel for an age of good works. Advance, 78, 579-581.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1936 b). Is religious naturalism enough? Religious Education, 32, 107-111.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1938). The church and the social order in the old south as interpreted by James H. Thornwell. Church History, 7, 115-124.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1939). Theological reconstruction in religious education. Christendom, 4, 565-574.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1942-43). The supremacy of Christ in Christian nurture. Religion in Life, 12, 31-42.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1942, February). The dilemma of the progressive movement in protestant nurture. Lecture given at Pacific School of Theology.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1944). As American Protestants have seen Jesus. Miriam Goldberg lectures given at Hebrew Union College.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1945). Christian faith and racial valuation. Theology Today, 2, 175-188.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1947, February). Faith and nurture in contemporary protestant thought. Lecture given at Austin Presbyterian Seminary and Eden Theological Seminary.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1947). Christology and the Kingdom of God. Lecture given for the American Theological Society.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1949). Christian realism and the color Bar. Address given at Chapel Hill, N.C.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1949). A History of the independent Congregational Church, Charleston, South Carolina. Church History, 18, 119-120.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1950). Church and state in the United States. Church History, 19, 307-309.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1951 a). Literature and theology in colonial New England. Theology Today, 7, 556-568.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1951 b). Christian education: Do progressive religious educators have a theology? In S. Nash (Ed.), Protestant thought in the twentieth century: Whence and whither? (pp. 225-246).
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1951, April). The doctrine of original sin: Its decline and revival in American thought. Levi Stone lectures given at Princeton Theological Seminary.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1952-53). George Albert Coe, re-valuer of values. Religion in Life, 22.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1954, August). The Christian faith and its communication. A series of nine lectures delivered at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Richmond, Virginia.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1955 a). Acts I:8: Sound recording. Presbyterian School of Christian Education.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1955 b). The new theology and the idea of progress. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Society of Church History, Washington, D.C.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1956-57). Moral crisis in a troubled south. Journal of Religious Thought, 14, 37-42.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1960). Southern schools: Progress and problems. Religious Education, 55, 150.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1962). American post-liberal protestant mind. Duke Divinity School Bulletin, 27 (N), 120-128.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1963). Ministry of reconciliation. Duke Divinity School Bulletin, 28 (N), 184-187.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1973). A Christian America: Protestant hopes and historical realities. Duke Bulletin, 38, 58.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1973). Am I not a man and a brother: British missions and the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in west Africa and the west Indies, 1786-1838. Church History, 42, 290-291.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1976 a). Roll, Jordan, roll: The world the slaves made. Church History, 45, 264-265.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1976 b). Time on the cross: The economics of American Negro slavery. Church History, 45, 263-264.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1976 c). The problem of slavery in an age of revolution. Church History, 45, 262-263.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1976 d). Black power and Jimmy Carter. Christianity and Crisis, 36, 205-206.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. (1978). Valley of shame. Duke Bulletin, 43, 96-101.

Selected book reviews

  • Sherrill, Lewis. (n.d.). The rise of Christian education. The Westminster Bookman, 4, 13.
  • Williams, J. Paul. (n.d.). The new education and religion. The Westminster Bookman, 5, 8.
  • Harner Nevin C. (1942). Youth work in the church. Christendom, 7, 441- 442.
  • Cannon, William R. (1949). The theology of John Wesley. The Duke Divinity School Bulletin,13, 118-120.
  • Drummond, Andrew L. (1950). Story of American Protestantism. The Duke Divinity School Bulletin, 16, 140-141.
  • Ramsey, Paul. (1951). Basic Christian ethics. The Duke Bulletin, 16, 63-64.
  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. (1953). The irony of American history. The Duke Bulletin, 18, 17.
  • Stokes, Anson Phelps. (1950). Church and state in the United States. Church History, 19, 307-309.
  • Williams, J. Paul (1954). What Americans believe and how they worship. The Journal of Bible and Religion, 22, 143-144.
  • Smart, James D. (1954). The teaching ministry of the church. The Westminster Bookman, 13, 19-20.
  • My thanks to Susan Thistlethwaite and the Duke University Archives for helping me to identify several of the above resources.

Books and articles about H. Shelton Smith

  • Cully, Kendig Brubaker. (1959). Two decades of thinking concerning Christian nurture. Religious Education, 54, 481-489.
  • Henry, Stuart C. (1963). A miscellany of American Christianity: Essays in honor of H. Shelton Smith. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
  • Kinoshita, Carol Krichi. (1965). Two theologies of evangelism and nurture: A study of the function of the church in the thought of Horace Bushnell and H. Shelton Smith. Unpublished master’s thesis, Golden Gate Baptist Theological School.
  • Steward, David S. (1968). Patterns of conversion: An interpretation of the recent work of Christian education theorists. Religious Education, 63, 259-269.
  • Miller, Randolph Crump. (1982). Religious education and theology. Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press.
  • Thistlethwaite, Susan Brooks. (1982). H. Shelton Smith: Critic of the theological perspective of progressive religious education, 1934-1950. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Duke Divinity School.
  • Zikmund, Barbara Brown. (1990). H. Shelton Smith: Contagious Christian. Christian Century, 107F7-14, 151-152.

Excerpts from Publications

Horace Bushnell, pp. 24-25, 378. Comments on Smith’s Research on Horace Bushnell

Smith’s study of Horace Bushnell was very perceptive and his editorial interpretations revealed a different picture of Bushnell’s view of Christian education. Most liberal religious educators highlighted Bushnell’s organic views concerning God’s presence in the everyday relationships of love, trust and care within the family where the child grew up never knowing when he or she was not a Christian. Bushnell, as we have noted, did identify the elements of personal struggle with temptations that could distort the truth of Christ’s revelation. In Smith’s editorial interpretations in Horace Bushnell (1965) we learn about Bushnell’s own personal struggles, especially after he wrote his first book, Discourses on Christian Nurture (1847). A fire storm was raised against him by his more orthodox peers. Smith reflects, “With a few notable exceptions, the guardians of orthodoxy, raised such a loud outcry against him the publishers quickly suspended the sale of his book without even consulting him. Stung by the treatment, he answered the publisher and reviewers in a caustic pamphlet. On second thought, however, he rebuked himself for having spoken so intemperately. Thus, this controversy may have been a factor in prompting him to search for a deeper experience of God. But, explain it as one may, the fact is that Bushnell felt discontented with his spiritual life and grasped for a new light. His wife watched his personal search expectantly, and when, on a February morning in 1848, she saw a new radiance in his face, she asked, ‘What have you seen?’ Back came the joyful words, ‘The Gospel’.” Later, Bushnell reflects, ‘I seemed to pass a boundary. I had never been very legal in my Christian life, but I passed from these partial seeings, glimpses and doubts, into a clearer knowledge of God and into his inspirations, which I have never fully lost. The change was into faith- a sense of freeness of God and the ease of approach to him.’ (Horace Bushnell, pp. 24-25).

Smith continues his interpretation of Bushnell's theology, showing how his more organic views were strengthened with more transcendent views. Bushnell said later, “...‘the roots of the natural understanding are in a lower plane, you must rise, you must go up in truth and know God- God himself- by this inward discovery of his infinite spirit and person. This kind of knowing ‘is knowing God within even as we know ourselves’...”(p. 33).

The fire storm created by Bushnell’s 1847 piece continued off and on for many years. Finally, Bushnell pulled together all of his writings and addresses, and several freshly prepared essays and published his classic Christian Nurture. (1861). Smith concludes, “This is the best known of Bushnell’s books, and it has exerted more influence on the modern theory of Christian education than any other single work” (p. 378).

Comments by Others on Smith’s Life and Major Works: Outler, Albert C. H. (1963). Shelton Smith: An appreciative memoir. In Stuart C. Henry, A miscellany of American Christianity: Essays in honor of H. Shelton Smith. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

“... whatever the rest of us might have expected or desired, Faith and Nurture has had no sequel. Christian nurture still awaits its still needed theoretical re-evaluation. Smith might have contributed to this; I have a feeling that he had more than one occasional impulse to attempt it. What is certain is that he maintained his competence in the field together with an unwavering conviction that any theory of Christian nurture must be constructed within the compass of an adequate doctrine of the Christian church. But, now, however, because he had come upon so vast and underdeveloped a territory in American church history, so directly relevant to the needs of contemporary theology , it turned out that his first book in the field was his last. Faith and Nurture must be set down as an official announcement of the heyday of conventional religious education - plus an explanation of how it had come to be and why it was passing away “

Comments by Others on Smith’s Life and Major Works: Cully, Kendig Brubaker. (1959). Two decades of thinking concerning Christian nurture. Religious Education, 54, 481-489.

“A critical reaction to Professor Smith’s book was often violent, especially since his treatment of the matter was one of the very first statements of a critique of liberal religious education from a neo-orthodox position.... the opposition to the ‘uncritical’ liberalism was starting to produce an offensive characterized by learning and a kind of zeal characteristic of the new convert. This writer remembers attending a Boston chapter meeting of The Religious Education Association shortly after Faith and Nurture came out. Practically all in attendance were considerably shaken by the critique.”

Comments by Others on Smith’s Life and Major Works: Stewart, David S. (1968). Patterns of conversation: An interpretation of the recent work of Christian education theorists. Religious Education, 63, 265.

“Smith’s attack on the liberal position was entirely critical, warning against the misuse of human freedom, but not tackling a reconstructive job. This is understandable because Smith’s main purpose was to protect the transcendence of God and to show the futility of those efforts which forget it... Smith’s persistent bludgeon, skillfully used, was that ‘it is in the Christian faith that man is a theonomous being. This means man is not autonomous or final, but derives his meaning and value from his relation to God, the highest value.’ His main complaint against the theological left was that ‘ the principle of respect for personality is carried to the length of endowing persons with supreme worth’ and therefore ‘the Christian conception of human value is perverted.’ There resulted ‘a little deification of humanity’ which led to the notion that man can create through his own efforts the Kingdom of God.”


Smith, H. Shelton. (1941). Faith and nurture. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons.

A balanced but Strong critique of the naturalism and pragmatism of the liberal religious education movement. While appreciating many of its contributions, Smith shows how the theorists in the movement were too optimistic about human nature, had lost sight of the transcendent nature of God, did not have a clear Christology, and were not committed to the church as the Body of Christ in ministry to the world.

Smith, H. Shelton. (1955). Changing conceptions of original sin. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons.

A penetrating analysis of the dynamics of the doctrine of original sin in American Christianity: from the early federal doctrine all the way to the perceptive interpretations of the influence of the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich on contemporary theology.

Smith, H. Shelton. (Ed.). (1965). Horace Bushnell. New York: Oxford University Press.

Presents Smith’s insightful editorial interpretations of the meaning and power of twelve selections of Bushnell’s writings. The book establishes why Bushnell is one of America’s finest theologians as well as one of the founders of modern Christian education.

Author Information

Robert L. Browning

Robert L. Browning is Emeritus Professor of Christian Education at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio. He was on the founding faculty of the school and taught a wide range of courses in the M.Div, M.A. in Christian Education, and double degree programs. As a graduate from Union Theological Seminary in 1948 and as a student of Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Harrison S. Elliott and later of Lewis Sherrill, he experienced first hand the impact of H. Shelton Smith’s challenge. Since retiring in 1989 he has continued teaching, writing, and consulting.