Smith was born to American Methodist missionary parents in Soochow (now Suzhou), China in 1919. He moved to America for his education, studying at Central Methodist University and the University of Chicago, and then pursued a distinguished career as one of America's leading scholars of religion. His last post was at Syracuse University. He published many books, of which the most successful was The Religions of Man (1958), reissued in 1991 as The World's Religions. This became very well known in the USA, selling more than three million copies, but remained little known in the UK.
Smith encountered Frithjof Schuon late in his career, in 1974. "He looked every inch a figure of mystery and romance," wrote Smith, "He wore flowing robes, and upon entering his presence, you kissed the ring on his finger.... The Romantic poets (Shelley, even Yeats) had fantasized about a fraternity of hidden adepts who practiced in secret throughout the world. Schuon headed such a secret order of Sufi adepts." Smith joined it, later attending his first dhikr in Tehran. He wrote of this in Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, an Autobiography, excerpted in The Huston Smith Reader.
Smith continued to pray the five prayers and to fast Ramadan (though he later gave this up "because it caused too much havoc in my household"), but he also continued much of his earlier religious practice. It seems that the Maryamiyya provided access to Islam, and that Islam provided one part of his religious life, just as Schuon and Traditionalism provided one part of his religious understanding. The strongest Traditionalist influences in his later work are to be found in Forgotten Truth (1976) and Beyond the Postmodern Mind (1982).