President Charles Carroll Bonney: The Opening Address

Bonney was a Chicago lawyer actively involved in the planning of the Parliament and President of “The World’s Congress Auxiliary.”

Worshipers of God and lovers of man, Let us rejoice that we have lived to see this glorious day; let us give thanks to the eternal God, whose mercy endureth forever, that we are permitted to take part in the solemn and majestic event of a World’s Congress of Religions. The importance of this event, its influence on the future relations of the various races of men, cannot be too highly esteemed.

If this Congress shall faithfully execute the duties with which it has been charged, it will become a joy of the whole earth, and stand in human history like a new Mount Zion, crowned with glory and marking the actual beginning of a new epoch of brotherhood and peace.

For when the religious faiths of the world recognize each other as brothers, children of one Father, whom all profess to love and serve, then, and not till then, will the nations of the earth yield to the spirit of concord and learn war no more.

It is inspiring to think that in every part of the world many of the worthiest of mankind, who would gladly join us here if that were in their power, this day lift their hearts to the Supreme Being in earnest prayer for the harmony and success of this Congress. To them our own hearts speak in love and sympathy of this impressive and prophetic scene.

In this Congress the word “Religion” means the love and worship of God and the love and service of man. We believe the scripture that “of a truth God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of him.” We come together in mutual confidence and respect, without the least surrender or compromise of anything which we respectively believe to be truth or duty, with the hope that mutual acquaintance and a free and sincere interchange of views on the great questions of eternal life and human conduct will be mutually beneficial.

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 that 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. The fraternal union of the religions of the world will come when each seeks truly to know how God has revealed himself in the other, and remembers the inexorable law that with what judgment it judges it shall itself be judged.

The religious faiths of the world have most seriously misunderstood and misjudged each other from the use of the words in meanings radically different from those which they were intended to bear, and from a disregard of the distinctions between appearances and facts; between signs and symbols and the things signified and represented. Such errors it is hoped that this Congress will do much to correct and to render hereafter impossible.

He who believes that God has revealed himself more fully in his religion than in any other, cannot do otherwise than desire to bring that religion to the knowledge of all men, with an abiding conviction that the God who gave it will preserve, protect and advance it in every expedient way. And hence he will welcome every just opportunity to come into fraternal relations with men of other creeds, that they may see in his upright life the evidence of the truth and beauty of his faith, and be thereby led to learn it, and be helped heavenward by it.

When it pleased God to give me the idea of the World’s Conference of 1893, there came with that idea a profound conviction that their crowning glory should be a fraternal conference of the world’s religions. Accordingly, the original announcement of the World’s Congress scheme, which was sent by the government of the United States to all other nations, contained among other great things to be considered, “The Grounds for Fraternal Union in the Religions of different Peoples.”

At first the proposal of a World’s Congress of Religions seemed to many wholly impracticable. It was said that the religions had never met but in conflict, and that a different result could not be expected now. A committee of organization was, nevertheless, appointed to make the necessary different religious bodies. Rev. Dr. John Henry Barrows was made Chairman. With what marvelous ability and fidelity he has performed the great work committed to his hands this Congress is a sufficient witness.

The preliminary address of the Committee, prepared by him and sent throughout the world, elicited the most gratifying responses, and proved that the proposed Congress was not only practicable, but, also, that it was most earnestly demanded by the needs of the present age. The religious leaders of many lands, hungering and thirsting for a larger righteousness, gave the proposal their benediction, and promised the Congress their active cooperation and support.

[From Rev. John Henry Barrows, ed., The World’s Parliament of Religions, vol. 1 (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company, 1893), 67-70.]