Hilrie Shelton Smith papers, 1941-1983

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Smith, H. Shelton (Hilrie Shelton), 1893-
Hilrie Shelton Smith began his long association with Duke University in 1931 as Professor of Religious Education. He remained at Duke until his retirement in 1963. He H. Shelton Smith was an expert on American religious thought and was considered the dean of American ecclesiastical thought and history. His collection contains material pertaining to his life including materials such as Smith's correspondence with colleagues; the correspondence and printed reviews concerning his individual books; and his sermons, addresses, and lectures. Materials in the collection date from 1941-1983.
2 Linear Feet
1,500 Items
Material in English
Collection ID:
University Archives Record Group:
29 -- Papers of Faculty, Staff, and Associates
29 -- Papers of Faculty, Staff, and Associates > 02 -- Individuals


Scope and content:

Collection contains material pertaining to the life and career of H. Shelton Smith. Subjects addressed in the collection include the name change of the School of Religion to the Divinity School in 1941, the origins of the Kearns fellowships and professorships, and the N.C. Council of Churches. However, the bulk of the material consists of Smith's correspondence with colleagues; the correspondence and printed reviews concerning his individual books; and his sermons, addresses, and lectures.

Among his correspondents are Jimmy Carter, Theodore Hesburgh, Perry Miller, Reinhold Niebuhr, Roland Bainton, Paul Ramsey, John Hope Franklin, and Paul Green. The folders entitled "Publications: Correspondence and Reviews" contain substantive discussions and descriptions of theological trends contemporary with the times in which the books were published. The folder "Correspondence 1966-1982" contains letters from friends and colleagues that often mention theological and political issues in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s.

The sermons and addresses deal not only with race but also with general politics, and include a condemnation of U.S. involvement with Indochina. The lectures and unpublished writings are largely or elucidations of many of the themes he has touched on in published works, including the Southern mind, race and the Southern church, the concepts of original sin and Christology, and the general history of American theology. Five folders contain course lecture notes in typed form on similar topics, but also include notes for a course in the American Social Gospel.

Biographical / historical:

Hilrie Shelton Smith was born near Greensboro, NC, on 8 May 1893. After graduation from Elon College as class valedictorian in 1917 with the B.A. degree, he received the Ph.D. from Yale University in 1923. He was ordained to the ministry in the United Church of Christ in 1915, and served in 1918-1919 as first lieutenant and chaplain with the American Expeditionary Force in France. His career as an educator began with the International Council of Religious Education in Chicago, where he served as the Director of Leadership Education (1923-1928).In 1928-1929 he was Associate Professor of Education at Teachers College of Columbia University, and then from 1929 to 1931 he was Associate Professor of Religious Education at the Yale Divinity School. He came to Duke University in 1931, where he was to stay until his retirement in 1963.

Smith's career has centered upon four major themes or tasks: the development of a graduate study program in religion at Duke; the cause of Christian ecumenism, which he upheld through his role as the founder (1935) and first president of the N.C. Council of Churches; the establishment of American Christianity as an autonomous academic field, where his own contributions were to be both theological and historical; and advocacy of civil rights for black Americans, in which his role as publicist and speaker made him an early critic of institutional and legal racism in the South, especially in the Southern church.

He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Gurney Harriss Kearns Foundation for Graduate Study in Religion, and the Amos Ragan Kearns Professorship in Religion. H. Shelton Smith has received numerous honors. The James B. Duke Professorship in 1953 was one of the original groups of J.B. Duke Professorships to be awarded. A Festschrift volume was published by Duke University Press in 1963: A Miscellany of American Christianity, edited by Stuart Henry. His other honors include the presidencies of the American Society of Church History (1957) and the American Theological Society (1958-1959), election to Phi Beta Kappa (1958), and election as "Alumnus of the Year" by Elon College in 1960. In 1978, the N.C. Council of Churched awarded him its "Citation of Merit" for his devotion to the cause of ecumenism.

Acquisition information:
The Hilrie Shelton Smith papers were received by the University Archives as a gift in 1983, 1994.
Processing information:

Processed by Archives Staff, November 2006

Encoded by Sherrie Bowser, January 2007

Accessions 83-16, A94-43 were merged into one collection, described in this finding aid.

Physical location:
For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the Library's online catalog.
Rules or conventions:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard


Click on terms below to find related finding aids on this site. For other related materials in the Duke University Libraries, search for these terms in the Catalog.

Race relations -- Religious aspects
Liberalism (Religion)
Religious education
Duke University -- Faculty
Duke University. Department of Religion
Duke University. Divinity School
North Carolina Council of Churches
Smith, H. Shelton (Hilrie Shelton), 1893-
Southern States -- Race relations


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Copyright for Official University records is held by Duke University; all other copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.

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Preferred citation:

[Identification of item], Hilrie Shelton Smith Papers, Duke University Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.