Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

World Parliament of Religions (1893)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

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. 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” (in Ziolkowski 1993, 5). 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).

In June 1891, more than three thousand copies of the Preliminary Address was sent out to the world, informing the plan of the 1893 Parliament and inviting religious leaders from all over the world to attend to it. The responses were varied and well documented in Barrows' two-volume report books (1893a, 18-61). 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” (in Seager 1993, 154). 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 (Braybrooke 1980, 2).

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 this convention. Yet, the fact that this resolution was passed hurriedly in the closing hours of the General Assembly in 1892 did not produce 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” (in Barrows 1893, 20-2). 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 the modern civilization in general and the Western American culture in particular. As Marcus Braybrooke said, “it remains a remarkable pioneer event, and no subsequent inter-faith gathering has come near to it in size or complexity” (1980, 8). 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 of 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 the 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 (Barrows 1893a, 66):

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. (67)

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 seventeen days of the Parliament.

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 religion, 2 Shintoism, 2 Confucianism, 1 Taoism, and 1 Jainism (Seager 1986, 87). 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” (Barrows 1893a, 101).

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 seven thousand 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.” (Barrows 1893a, 172-3)

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

2. Works (Selected List)

The World's Parliament of Religions: An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World's First Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893 (edited by J.H. Barrows in two volumes, 1893).

3. Themes

An Analysis of Culture and Religion

John P. Burris is correct when he maintains that in the Parliament “religion was perceived as the center of any given society and the most obvious aspect of culture through which the essence of a given people's cultural orientation might be understood” (2001, 123-4). The importance of culture and ethnicity was replaced by “religion” as a new central category. Consequently, the decision of which religion could reasonably be included in or excluded from the group of “ten great world religions” had put aside the categories of culture and ethnicity. By using such a conception the Parliament excluded all Native Americans and included African Americans insofar as they were converted Christians (125).

The discovery of America by Columbus, which became the raison d'etre of the celebratory Exposition, ironically, had become the beginning of Spanish colonialism on the Indian lands. In this sense, the presence of various Native American groups in this Columbian Exposition and their underrepresentation in the World's Parliament of Religions had magnified this irony. In the Fair, they consented to be set up in “mock villages” or exhibited within the exhibition of American anthropologists without their own display as other social groups had. I agree with Burris that this fact reveals the leitmotifs that dominated all aspects of the Fair, i.e., “the evolutionary hierarchy of cultures” (110) and “colonial illusions” (123-4). Richard Hughes Seager rightly concludes,

The Columbian celebration claimed to be the World’s Columbian Exposition, not simply white America’s, and it sought to represent the entire globe in a single, unified vision. People of other colors, creeds, and ethnic traditions were not excluded, but their inclusion was based on precarious grounds which, as in the case of American blacks, placed them in a position clearly subordinate to the progressive, allegedly universal vision of the Greco-Roman, Christian White City. (1986, 51; italics mine)

As far as the issue of religion was concerned, it seemed that the evolutionary motif was more dominant than that of the colonial motif, but the result was the same, namely, the confidence in the supremacy of one religion over others. Yet, the official statements seemed to be careful in avoiding this attitude. For example, the General Committee formulated ten objects of the Parliament that were possibly written in the 1891 Preliminary Address (Barrows 1893a, 18):

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 must 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.

These officially stated objects seemed to avoid any attempt to prove the supremacy of one particular religion over others. The emphasis was placed more on searching for religious commonalities and building of “human brotherhood” [sic!], through which the world's religions could make the world a better place. Neither did the Parliament aim to establish a universal religion or “any formal and outward unity.” Interestingly, the importance of the comparative study of religions in order to maintain “mutual good understanding” among religious traditions was also introduced here. The statements also recommended the necessity for presenting religions as accurately as possible by those who were “competent” and “authoritative.”

However, these “objective” statements did not reflect the real diverse attitudes that we find in writings and speeches throughout the Parliament. Donald H. Bishop eloquently discusses three common attitudes towards other religions occurred in the 1893 Parliament: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism (Bishop 1969; cf. Williams 1993). Due to the space limit, I only give brief comments on and examples of exclusivism and pluralism and discuss longer the inclusivist attitude that was commonly found in the Parliament. The exclusivist attitude took places either in the offensive or amicable type. William C. Wilkinson, for instance, proudly proclaimed in his presentation,

Men need to be saved from false religion; they are in no way of being saved by false religion. Such, at least, is the teaching of Christianity. The attitude, therefore, of Christianity towards religions other than itself is an attitude of universal, absolute, eternal, unappeasable hostility ... (in Barrows 1893b, 1249)

With regard to pluralism, its common version in the Parliament was the one that emphasized more the peaceful coexistence of religions. Any superiority claim of one religion over others was rejected because “the differences between religions are mainly in externals” (Bishop 1969, 72). The best example of this attitude could be found in Bonney's opening speech,

As the finite can never fully comprehend the infinite, nor perfectly express its own view of the divine, it necessarily follows that individual opinions of the divine nature and attributes will differ. But, properly understood, these varieties of view are not causes of discord and strife, but rather incentives to deeper interest and examination, Necessarily God reveals himself differently to a child than to a man; to a philosopher than to one who cannot read. Each must see God with the eyes of his own soul. Each must behold him through the colored glasses of his own nature. Each one must receive him according to his own capacity of reception. (Barrows 1893a, 68)

Regarding the inclusivist attitude, a careful investigation needs to be done. By inclusivism I mean a certain attitude toward other religions based on an underlying assumption that one's religion is superior, yet this assumption is expressed in openness toward other religions. In terms of the superior attitude, an inclusivist would agree with exclusivists, but they disagree in the way other religions are treated. While the value of other religious beliefs are undermined in exclusivism, they are respected by the inclusivists, exactly because those beliefs could be possibly included in or subordinated to the terms defined by the inclusivists without sacrificing their own religious superiority. Once foreign religions have been subordinated to the superior religion, they become “more fascinating than threatening—as objects to be played with in a game where the rules [have] been stacked against them” (Burris 2001, 127).

In the 1893 Parliament, interestingly, this attitude received its justification from the evolutionary interpretation of religious plurality. The invitation sent to the world's religious leaders said, “ 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” (Barrows 1893a, 10; italics mine). Barrows, who in his opening address spoke about “a spiritual root to all human progress,” seemingly, drafted this statement (75).

According to Barrows, “human progress” would objectively reached its culmination through Christianity. As the apex of all religions, Christianity can influence other religions meaningfully, but not vise versa.

The Parliament has shown that Christianity is still the great quickener of humanity, that it is now educating those who do not accept its doctrines, that there is no teacher to be compared with Christ, and no Saviour excepting Christ ... The non-Christian world may give us valuable criticism and confirm scriptural truths and make excellent suggestion as to Christian improvement, but it has nothing to add to the Christian creed” (1893b, 1581; italics mine).

This was the inclusivism par excellence. Other religions are appreciated with an open heart yet, at the same time, being subordinated to the finality of Christian answer. They could be included within the conversation with Christian faith insofar as there is nothing from them that is needed to fulfill Christian system. On the contrary, it is Christian message that could fulfill the lack within other religious systems.

For ones who adopted this position, such as Barrows, there is no tension between seeking universal religious truth and keeping the finality of Christian message, insofar as the affirmation of universal truth do not lead them to the building of a new universal religion, since it would judge Christianity as incomplete so that it should be replaced by the new one. Rather, by “universal truth” it means that the truth in other religions is considered the foreshadowing of the Gospel or the preparatio evangelium. Thus, what is important for Christians in their encounter with people from other faiths is

to find the “points of contact” between Christianity and other religions. Then, we can surely find certain fundamental beliefs in Christianity that cannot be reconciled with other religious systems. Those fundamental beliefs would prove Christian supremacy over other religions. This understanding was very common within Christian missionaries who attended the Parliament, especially those who worked in India (cf. Goodpasture 1993, 404-5).

This is exactly the background of the “silent” debate between Barrows and Vivekananda. An advocate of the Vedantic Hinduism, Swami Vivekananda believed that “every religion is only an evolving a God out of the material man; and the same God is the inspirer of all of them” (in Barrows 1893b, 977). Contradictions among religions for him were only apparent and came from the same truth “adapting itself to the different circumstances of different natures” (977). Vivekananda's ultimate goal was undoubtedly represented in his proposal of a “universal religion,”

which would hold no location in place or time, which would be infinite like God it would preach, whose sun shines upon the followers of Krishna or Christ; saints or sinner alike; which would not be the Brahman or Buddhist, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity would embrace in its infinite arms and formulate a place for every human being, from the lowest groveling man who is scarcely removed in intellectuality from the brute, to the highest mind, towering almost above humanity, and who makes society stand in awe and doubt his human nature. (977)

To be sure, these statements captivated the attention of the American audience who had been influenced by the evolutionary way of thinking. As a different model of “human progress” that every religious people could dream of, it was more intriguing than that of the inclusivist model proposed by Barrows.

What Vivekananda meant by the “universal religion” was not that all religious traditions would be disappeared and replaced by a new and single religion. Rather, it would be an authentic togetherness of all religions, in which “each must assimilate the others and yet preserve its individuality and grow according to its law of growth” (in Barrows 1893a, 170). The necessity to “assimilate the others” was expressed by Vivekananda as the avoidance of the triumph of any one of the religions over others. He stated, “Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid” (in Barrows 1893a, 170).

For Barrows and other inclusivists, Vivekananda's idea was certainly threatening the Christian supremacy. In his “Review and Summary” of the Parliament, Barrows seemed to attack Vivekananda directly,

The idea of evolving a cosmic or universal faith out of the Parliament was not present in the minds of its chief promoters. They believe that the elements of such a religion are already contained in the Christian ideal and the Christian Scripture. They had no thought of attempting to formulate a universal creed. (Barrows 1893b, 1572)

Barrows then continued with a Christian version of the Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” He wrote, “The best religion must come to the front, and the best religion will ultimately survive, because it will contain all that is true in all the faiths” (1572).

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers

Significant Legacies of the Parliament

Richard H. Seager, one of a few experts on the 1983 Parliament, illustrates the Parliament as a brief storm that was “quickly banished from our collective memory” (1993, 214). Seager is not entirely wrong if we remember that two decades thereafter the world’s optimism for global unity was wiped out with the emergence of the First World War. Nevertheless, we can still note several developments that have become the legacies of the Parliament, both blooming during the two decades after the Parliament and reemerging a century later.

First, it is important to highlight that the Parliament supplied—although not initiated—“a strong stimulus for the wide acceptance of the study of comparative religion” in America, especially in the academic life (Kitagawa 1987, 364). The presence of the religious others—“living forces of religions other than Christianity” in Braybrooke's words (1980, 8)—with their fascinating beliefs and practices before the American Christian audience has raised the awareness of the value of religious plurality. Moreover, the flood of immigrants entering the USA during those times has made “religious plurality” and “multiculturalism” two characteristics of the twentieth century America. The study of comparative religion, which was tainted by the inclusivist view of Christian supremacy held by Barrows and others, has slowly been objectified within its academic environment and neutralized from any religious bias. However, Kitagawa points out that in the 1930s “the sudden decline of comparative religion was accelerated by the impact of neoorthodox theology, the depression and the impending war” (1987, 366). We should wait for its reemergence in the second half of the late twentieth century, with the 1993 Parliament as its apex.

Second, along with the emergence of the study of comparative religion, we should point out that the Parliament is usually considered the cradle of interfaith movement, although no specific organization emerged in this event. The formation process of some interfaith bodies ran slowly (though recently quite rapidly) and seemed to be sporadic. The best historical exploration of the interfaith movement since the 1893 Parliament can be found in Braybrooke's works (1980 & 1992).

A third contribution of the Parliament was to the Christian ecumenical movement. According to Diana L. Eck, the Parliament itself “might be seen as one of the first events of ecumenical movement” (1993, xv). Eck is not wrong given the fact that 152 of 194 speakers were Christians (Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic) and that the “Christian flavor” was very obvious through the hymns, prayers and rhetoric during the Parliament. Barrows sometimes also discussed the necessity of Christian unity by employing the image of three concentric circle with “Christian assembly embodying its center; the American religious assembly, including Jews, comprising the next circle; and the religions of the worlds making up the outer circle” (Ziolkowski 1993, 57-8).

Among those who spoke on the subject of Christian unity, Philips Schaff was considered most authoritative (in Barrows 1893b, 1192-1201). While being critical of the organic or corporate model of ecumenism “under one government,” he argued for a federal or confederate union, in which the balance between unity and independence could be maintained. However, the relevance of the Parliament to the ecumenical movement has not been recognized fully until the 1910 Conference of World Mission in Edinburgh. Thereafter, the ecumenical movement has always been dealing with the issues of religious plurality in connection with Christian unity and mission.

Fourth, the Parliament has also influenced Christian missionaries who work abroad in the ways they approach and appreciate people from other religious traditions. They become more sensitive to local cultures and religions. Yet, what is fascinating is that the Parliament has opened the gate widely for the leaders from other religions to do their own missions to the West, especially to America. Among the missionaries from the East several important figures can be mentioned: Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, Swami Vivekananda, Anagarika Dharmapala, and Soyen Shaku. In conclusion, after the Parliament the religious situation in America has been changed forever. Seager describes it beautifully that after the Parliament,

there were many new ways to be religious. One could be saved or self-realized or grow in God consciousness or be self-emptied. And as America itself continued to pursue its messianic mission, it was a nation under a changed God ... other deities had been tucked up in the nation's sacred canopy ... America had gone into the Parliament claiming to be a cosmopolitan nation and had come out having to live up to the claim. There was no going back (1986, 277).

6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Barrows, John H., ed. 1893. The World's Parliament of Religions: An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World's First Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Vol. I. Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company, 1893.

Barrows, John H., ed. 1893. The World's Parliament of Religions: An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World's First Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Vol. II. Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company.

Bishop, Donald H. 1969. “Religious Confrontation, a Case Study: The 1893 Parliament of Religions.” Numen 16 April, 63-76.

Braybrooke, Marcus. 1980. Inter-Faith Organizations, 1893-1979: An Historical Directory. New York & Toronto: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Braybrooke, Marcus. 1992. Stepping Stones to a Global Ethic. London: SCM Press LTD.

Burris, John P. 2001. Exhibiting Religion: Colonialism and Spectacle at International Expositions 1851-1893. Charlottesville & London: University Press of Virginia.

Eck, Diana L. 1993. “Foreword.” In Seager, R. H., ed., xiii-xvii.

Goodpasture, H. Mc. 1993. “The World's Parliament of Religions Revisited: The Missionaries and Early Steps in Public Dialogue.” Missiology: An International Review Vol. XXI, No. 4, October, 403-11.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. 1987. The History of Religions: Understanding Human Experience. AAR Studies in Religion 47. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press.

Müller, Friedrich M. 1993. “The Real Significance of the Parliament of Religions.” In Ziolkowski, 149-62. Reprinted from The Arena 11, no. 61 (December 1894), 1-14.

Seager, R. H. 1986. “The World's Parliament of Religions, Chicago, Illinois, 1893 : America's Religious Coming of Age.” Ph.D. Diss., Harvard University.

Seager, R. H., ed. 1993. The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World's Parliament of Religions, 1893. La Salle, Ill., Open Court.

Williams, Cyril G. 1993. “The World's Parliament of Religions: Chicago 1893 Re-visited.” Faith and Freedom: A Journal of Progressive Religion 14 (Autumn), 79-94.

Ziolkowski, Eric J., ed. 1993. A Museum of Faiths: Histories and Legacies of the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press.

7. Internet Resources

Wikipedia article

Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions

8. Related Topics



Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Joas Adiprasetya (2004).


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