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A Brief History of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions

From the Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Edited by Derek Michaud

This brief history is reprinted from the Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology edited by William Wildman. The excerpt is the opening section of an entry that also surveys the themes of the Parliament and its legacy. You will find a bibliography there and footnotes for the various quotations.

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The 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, held on the shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago, was the largest and most spectacular event among many other congresses in the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Exposition itself was a large trade fair that was to celebrate the quadricentennial of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.

John Henry Barrows, the “architect” of the 1893 Parliament – Photo: Barrows

John Henry Barrows, the “architect” of the 1893 Parliament – Photo: Barrows

The organizing process of the Parliament began after Charles Carroll Bonney, a layman in the Swedenborgian church and the president of the World’s Congress Auxiliary, appointed John Henry Barrows to administer the General Committee on the Congress of Religion, which eventually was called the World’s Parliament of Religions. Under Barrows’ leadership, the Parliament was expected to be “the most important, commanding, and influential, as surely it will be the most phenomenal fact of the Columbian Exposition.”

The committee consisted of sixteen persons from different religious backgrounds. Although most of them were from Christian mainline denominations, we could find distinguished names such as E.G. Hirsch (Jewish rabbi from New York), Jenkin Llyod-Jones (Unitarian), and P.A. Feehan (Catholic bishop).

A postcard promoting the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition, where the World’s Parliament of Religions was held. – Photo: Wolfsonian Library

A postcard promoting the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition, where the World’s Parliament of Religions was held. – Photo: Wolfsonian Library

In June 1891, more than three thousand copies of the Preliminary Address were sent out to the world, informing the plan of the 1893 Parliament and inviting religious leaders from all over the world to attend it. The responses were varied and well documented in Barrows’ two-volume report books (1893). The enthusiastic responses came from those like Max Müller, a champion in the field of comparative studies of religion. Although he deeply regretted failing to attend the Parliament, he expressed his hope that the Parliament would increase interest in the studies of religions. He also said that the Parliament “stands unique, stands unprecedented in the whole history of the world.” Some other positive responses demonstrated particular interests, for instance, to show the supremacy of one religion over others or to clarify misconceptions about their religious traditions.

There were also those who disapproved. For instance, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the home church of John H. Barrows, passed a resolution against convention. Yet, the fact that this resolution was passed hurriedly in the closing hours of the General Assembly in 1892 did not produce a unified voice among the Presbyterians; indeed, their opinion was divided. Further opposition came from the Archbishop of Canterbury, saying in his letter that his disapproval rested on “the fact that the Christian religion is the one religion. I do not understand how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their position and claims.” Along with these two, the sultan of Turkey, the European Roman Catholic hierarchy, and many North American Evangelical leaders such as D.L. Moody also opposed this convention.

In spite of these varied responses, the 1893 Parliament had to be recognized as a great achievement within modern civilization in general and Western American culture in particular. As Marcus Braybrooke said, “It remains a remarkable pioneer event, and no subsequent interfaith gathering has come near to it in size or complexity.” The glory of the Parliament was most obvious in the opening ceremony, on September 11, 1893. More than four thousand people had gathered in the Hall of Columbus, when at ten o’clock a dozen representatives from different faiths marched into the hall hand in hand. At the same time, the Columbian Liberty bell in the Court of Honor tolled ten times, honoring ten great world religions – Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The inaugural ceremony began with “an act of common worship to Almighty God,” in which Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of the hundredth Psalm was sung:

Praise God, from whom all blessing flow;
Praise him, all creatures here below;
Praise him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Afterwards, Cardinal Gibbons led the crowd in the Lord’s Prayer, which, interestingly, became the “universal prayer” – to use Barrows’ words – that marked the beginning of each day during the 17 days of the Parliament.

Swami Vivekananda, of all the Parliament speakers, made the most powerful impression. – Photo: Wikimedia

Swami Vivekananda, of all the Parliament speakers, made the most powerful impression. – Photo: Wikimedia

Statistically speaking, the Parliament was dominated by English-speaking Christian representatives, who delivered 152 of 194 papers. The opportunity for the leaders from other religious traditions was limited but significant; 12 speakers represented Buddhism, 11 Judaism, 8 Hinduism, 2 Islam, 2 Parsis, 2 Shintoism, 2 Confucianism, 1 Taoism, and 1 Jainism. Among them, Swami Vivekananda’s three speeches undoubtedly drew most attention from the American public. Barrows recorded that when Vivekananda addressed the audience as “sisters and brothers of America,” they went into rapture with “a peal of applause that lasted for several minutes.”

The whole program of the Parliament was designed to provide a wide range of topics presented by a great variety of speakers. Beside a large amount of papers focused on religion per se, several papers were categorized under the rubric of “scientific section” and “denominational congress.”

More than 7,000 people attended the closing session on the seventeenth day. Several Christian hymns were sung before Bonney and Barrows delivered their concluding addresses. Along with them, some representatives also spoke to express their thanks and impressions. The “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah was then sung. About this Barrows commented, “To the Christians who were present, and all seemed imbued with a Christian spirit, [the chorus] appeared as if the Kingdom of God was descending visibly before their eyes and many thought of the Redeemer’s promise – “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

The Parliament was officially closed with the Lord’s Prayer led by Emil G. Hirsch, a rabbi from Chicago.

Ten Objectives of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions

Set by the General Committee planning the Parliament

If you can get past the sexist language that dominated the culture at the end of the 19th century, it is fascinating to see how much agreement there is between the 1893 objectives and our own 122 years later.

  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 hold 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 are 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.