“To Unite All Religion Against Irreligion”

Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a grand affair, celebrating (one year late) in the form of a world fair the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyages. For religious historians, the event is especially important because the Exposition hosted the World’s Parliament of Religions—the first ever, at least in terms of scale, interreligious dialogue among what was dubbed then “the ten great religions of the world.”

I have been examining this “Parliament” lately for a project that I am doing on the history of “interreligious dialogue”—a buzzword today but one that hardly existed a century ago. The Parliament was the brainchild of two men: Charles Carroll Bonney, a Chicago lawyer and Swedenborgian, who in his youth had become fascinated by “the Science of Comparative Religion,” and John Henry Barrows, the rather staid but enterprising pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Below are three key documents from the Parliament. I submit them simply for those interested in how interreligious dialogue was conceptualized in the 1890s. Much has changed, to be sure, but some things have remained the same. I will be exploring both in future posts.

1-This was the charge that Bonney gave to Barrows and other members of the Committee tasked to plan the Parliament:

[The goal of the Parliament should be] to unite all religion against all irreligion; to make the Golden Rule the basis of this union; to present to the world in the Religious Congresses, to be held in connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the substantial unity of many religions in the good deeds of the Religious Life; to provide for a World’s Parliament of Religions, in which their common aims and common grounds of union may be set forth, and the marvelous Religious Progress of the Nineteenth Century be reviewed; and to facilitate separate and Independent Congresses of different Religious Denominations and Organizations, under their own officers, in which their business may be transacted, their achievements presented, and their work for the future considered.

2-Once plans were underway, Barrows (again, working with a committee) sent a letter to no less than 10,000 religious leaders the world over, inviting them to participate. The letter contained the following:

Believing that God is and that he has not left himself without witness, believing that the influence of Religion tends to advance the general welfare, and is the most vital force in the social order of every people, and convinced that of a truth God is no respecter of persons, but that in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted of him, we affectionately invite the representatives of all faiths to aid us in presenting to the world, at the Exposition of 1893, the religious harmonies and unities of humanity, and also in showing forth the moral and spiritual agencies which are at the root of human progress. It is proposed to consider the foundations of religious Faith, to review the triumphs of Religion in all ages, to set forth the present state of Religion among the nations and its influence over Literature, Art, Commerce, Government and the Family Life, to indicate its power in promoting Temperance and Social Purity and its harmony with true Science, to show its dominance in the higher institutions of learning, to make prominent the value of the weekly rest-day on religious and other grounds, and to contribute to those forces which shall bring about the unity of the race in the worship of God and the service of man.

3-Finally, these are ten goals that Barrows and the committee set for the Parliament, which took place over seventeen days in September of 1893:

1. To bring together in conference, for the first time in history, the leading representatives of the great Historic Religions of the world.
2. To show to men, in the most impressive way, what and how many important truths the various religions held and teach in common.
3. To promote and deepen the spirit of human brotherhood among religious men of diverse faiths, through friendly conference and mutual good understanding, while not seeking to foster the temper of indifferentism, and not striving to achieve any formal and outward unity.
4. To set forth, by those most competent to speak, what arc deemed the important distinctive truths held and taught by each religion, and by the various chief branches of Christendom.

5. To indicate the impregnable foundations of theism and the reasons for man’s faith in immortality, and thus to unite and strengthen the forces which are adverse to a materialistic philosophy of the universe.
6. To secure from leading scholars, representing the Brahman. Buddhist, Confucian, Parsee. Mohammedan, Jewish and other faiths, and from representatives of the various churches of Christendom, full and accurate statements of the spiritual and other effects of the religions which they hold upon the literature, art, commerce, government, domestic and social life of the peoples among whom these faiths have prevailed.
7. To inquire what light each religion has afforded, or may afford, to the other religions of the world.
8. To set forth, for permanent record to be published to the world, an accurate and authoritative account of the present condition and outlook of religion among the leading nations of the earth.
9. To discover, from competent men, what light religion has to throw on the great problems of the present age, especially the important questions connected with temperance, labor, education, wealth and poverty.
10. To bring the nations of the earth into a more friendly fellowship, in the hope of securing permanent international peace.

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