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John Henry Barrows: Producing the First Parliament of Religions

By Marcus Braybrooke

Key Figures in Interfaith History

John Henry Barrows was the architect of the 1893 Parliament of Religions. Charles Carroll Bonney has been properly credited for coming up with the idea of a World Parliament of Religions. It was Bonney’s notion that the World Fair in Chicago and its great exhibits should be accompanied by a series of “congresses” or parliaments to provide a forum for discussing the state of anthropology, art, commerce and finance, education, labor, literature, medicine, philosophy, temperance, and religion. The most important congresses to Bonney were about religion. He, therefore, established a committee to organise them and appointed Rev. Dr. John Henry Barrows the chair. 

John Henry Barrows

John Henry Barrows

Barrows, born in 1847, was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He had studied at Yale, at Union Theological (NY) and Andover Newton seminaries, and served congregations in Kansas, Massachusetts, and Paris. Rather than trying to describe the Parliament itself, this essay briefly summarizes Barrow’s contribution and theological stance.

Rev. Barrows, known as a powerful preacher, was clearly a tireless worker. Besides the World Parliament, his Committee organised 45 denominational congresses. In preparation for the Parliament of Religions, some ten thousand personal letters – not to mention forty thousand documents – were sent to the far corners of the world inviting support. “We affectionately invite the representatives of all faiths,” the letter said, “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.”

Then came the suspense of waiting for replies– it was long before the days of email. The response was mixed. Dharmapala of the Maha-Bodhi Society in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, hailed the event as repeating the congress convened two thousand years ago by the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka. The Archbishop of Canterbury, E. W. Benson, sent a blunt refusal because “Christianity was the one religion.” The Catholic Archbishop of Ireland promised his “active co-operation.” Eventually the Advisory Councillors numbered over three thousand.

Dr. Barrows moderated most of the Parliament’s sessions.

Dr. Barrows moderated most of the Parliament’s sessions.

Many could not make the journey to Chicago, so the actual Parliament was less representative than Barrows hoped, but no organizer of a conference can compel attendance. Greeting the thousands who were able to attend was an exciting moment. “When, a few days ago, I met for the first time the delegates who have come to us from Japan, and shortly after the delegates who have come to us from India, I felt that the arms of human brotherhood had reached almost around the globe.” Names on paper had become friends.

Barrows’ own church expressed strong disapproval of the Parliament. This may explain why his address at the opening session was rather defensive. He claimed that the Parliament would be a “blessing to many Christians.” Learning “what God has wrought through Buddha and Zoroaster,” he said, “in no way discredited the claims of Christianity.” Yet he ended his record of the Parliament by affirming that “there is no teacher to be compared with Christ” and that no other teachings “bring God so near to man as he is brought by Jesus’ message of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.” His thinking reflects the evolutionary mood of the time, mirroring the World Fair’s celebration of humankind’s material progress.

In the same way Christianity, for Barrows, represented the highest stage ofhumankind’s religious evolution – “the great quickener of humanity” – but that evolution was not complete and would be enriched by the wisdom of the East. “Human progress,” he said, “would objectively reach its culmination through Christianity. As the apex of all religions, Christianity can influence other religions meaningfully, but not vice versa.”As Joseph Kitagawa said, “Barrows did not see any fundamental tension between being both a seeker of universal religious truth and a Christian.”

Barrow’s views diverged sharply from those of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, who was secretary of the committee planning the Parliament. Jones, a Unitarian minister, looked forward to a “universal religion dedicated to the inquiring spirit of progress, to the helpful service of love.” He criticised Barrows’ record of the Parliament as being too “Christo-centric” instead of “homo-centric.”

Many other theological positions on the relation of religions were reflected at the Parliament, but there was agreement that the coming together of religions around the Golden Rule was essential for a new age of peace and prosperity. “How can we make this suffering and needy world less a home of grief and strife and far more a commonwealth of love, a kingdom of heaven? How can we abridge the chasms of altercation which have kept good men from co-operating?”

All too soon after the Parliament, Barrows was reminded of grief. Two days before the end of the World Fair, the Mayor of Chicago was assassinated, and three months later, the “White City,” site of the Fair, was destroyed by fire. As he completed the 1,600 page record of the Parliament – two months after it ended! – his thirteen-year-old, eldest son, injured in football, died at home of septic peritonitis.

John Barrows died nine years later, in 1902, not before he had traveled to Asia, but before the grief and strife of the twentieth century would have shattered his hope that humanity was steadily journeying “along the pathway toward the spiritual Millennium.”