Parliament of Religions, 1893

Parliament of ReligionsThe World’s Parliament of Religions convened in Chicago as part of the 1893 World's Fair. Its goal was to bring together world religious leaders on common ground. The event introduced many Americans to the world’s religions. However, some critiqued the Parliament for its strongly Christian terminology and themes, the relative absence of African American Christian groups, and relegation of Native Americans to the Midway on the fairgrounds.

The late 19th century produced a distinctive solution to the growing awareness of religious diversity and the problems it posed, both in America and the world. That solution was an all-embracing universalism that envisioned a coming together of the great religions of the world. In 1893, a remarkable event took place in Chicago expressing this spirit: the World’s Parliament of Religions. The Parliament was planned as part of the Chicago World’s Fair, or World’s Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Organizers called this major interreligious conclave “the morning star of the 20th century.”

America’s technological triumphs—engines, telephones, and electric lights—were on display in the “White City” built to house the huge fair. World congresses were held on medicine, engineering, and women’s progress. Yet these were overshadowed by the Parliament, where Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Unitarians, and adherents of the Shinto and Zoroastrian traditions met together for the first time in modern history.

The event’s chairman, Presbyterian minister John Henry Barrows, noted the Exposition planners’ skepticism: “Many felt that Religion was an element of perpetual discord, which should not be thrust in amid the magnificent harmonies of a fraternal assembly of nations. On the other hand, it was felt that the tendencies of modern civilization were toward unity. Some came to feel that a Parliament of Religions was the necessity of the age.”

Ten thousand invitations were sent out, not just throughout America but around the world. When responses returned they voiced approval and excitement as well as disapproval and suspicion, some hinting at the kind of exclusivism that would arise again in so many religious traditions in the late 20th century. The Sultan of Turkey, Abdul Hamid II, refused the invitation; his reasoning, whether active disapproval or sheer lack of interest, is unclear. The Archbishop of Canterbury declined to attend because, as he put it, “the Christian religion is the only true religion.” But a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville was more optimistic: “Let an honest effort be made to get at the facts of religious experience, and the truth of God will take care of itself.”

As the Parliament began that September, a replica of the Liberty Bell rang out ten times, once for each of the major religious traditions represented. At the opening session the Reverend Barrows proclaimed, “We are met together today as men, children of one God. We are not here as Baptists and Buddhists, Catholics and Confucians, Parsees and Presbyterians, Methodists and Moslems; we are here as members of a Parliament of Religions, over which flies no sectarian flag.”

The predominant spirit of the three-week event was a kind of welcoming universalism or inclusivism on the part of the Western, mostly Christian, hosts. From every religion, however, speakers optimistically affirmed the universal principles that surely would undergird all faiths. The word “universalism” tolled like a bell through the halls of the Parliament. The world stood on the technological brink of a global civilization, and the hope for the universal in matters of the spirit was just beginning to be voiced. For example, many Reform Jews saw the social and religious vision of Judaism as the ethical leavening for all humanity. Chicago rabbi Emil Hirsch titled his talk “Elements of a Universal Religion,” and declared: “National affinities and memories, however potent for good, and though more spiritual than racial bonds, are still too narrow to serve as foundation stones for the temple of all humanity. The day of national religions is past. The God of the universe speaks to all mankind.”

It was the first time that many Americans had ever heard Hindus or Buddhists speak in their own voices on behalf of their own faith. Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu, confirmed the vision of universal convergence that had captured the imagination of the planners. Their self-understanding was confirmed, mirrored back to themselves in the presence of this exotic swami from the East who was one of the most popular speakers at the Parliament. One journalist wrote of him: “Vivekananda’s address before the Parliament was broad as the heavens above us, embracing the best in all religions, as the ultimate universal religion—charity to all mankind, good works for the love of God, not for fear of punishment or hope of reward.”

The language of the universal was wielded eloquently by the Christian participants as well. Some presumed, however, that the Parliament “over which flies no sectarian flag,” was convened in a spacious but clearly Christian tent. Christians claimed universality for Christianity, while listening with earnestness to the witness of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. It became clear that even Barrows’ conception of the “universal” was but a larger and more expansive Christianity. Barrows recalled with satisfaction how all the representatives of the great historic religions recited the Lord’s Prayer together daily. “The Christian spirit,” he wrote, “pervaded the conference from the first day to the last. Christ’s prayer was used daily. His name was always spoken with reverence. His doctrine was preached by a hundred Christians and by lips other than Christian. The Parliament ended at Calvary.”

There were many voices at the Parliament that stressed not the universals, but the real differences between and within religions. Their voices made clear the difficult tasks that lay ahead and forecast the complex challenges that religious diversity would pose for the 20th century. The Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala asked the audience in a large lecture hall, “How many of you have read the life of the Buddha?” When only five raised a hand, he scolded, “Five only! 475 millions of people accept our religion of love and hope. You call yourselves a nation—a great nation—and yet you do not know the history of this great teacher. How dare you judge us!” One of the Buddhists from Japan was equally challenging, pointing to the anti-Japanese feeling he had met in America and deploring the signs that read “No Japanese is allowed to enter here.” “If such be the Christian ethics,” he said, “We are perfectly satisfied to be heathen.”

Of the major speakers only two were African Americans. Frederick Douglass called the “White City” created for the event a “whitened sepulchre” for blacks. Fannie Barrier Williams declared, “It is a monstrous thing that nearly one-half of the so-called evangelical churches of this country repudiate and haughtily deny fellowship to every Christian lady and gentleman happening to be of African descent.” She challenged Christians to take seriously their own religion.

Among the women who spoke was the first ordained as a minister in America, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, who declared, “Women are needed in the pulpit as imperatively and for the same reason they are needed in the world—because they are women.” And Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had been working on the Women’s Bible, called for a religion that would preach the dignity of all human beings. A new world, she said, would have to build its house with the cellar first, and that meant justice for the poorest.

Finally, despite sentiments of universal fellowship expressed at the Parliament, there were no Native Americans present except as curiosities displayed on the fair's Midway. For many visitors, these Indians were as exotic as Vivekananda. But no native elder or chief was invited to speak at the Parliament. Native American lifeways were not yet seen as a spiritual perspective. Just three years earlier Chief Sitting Bull had been arrested and killed, the Ghost Dance had been suppressed, and 350 Sioux had been massacred at Wounded Knee Creek.

As the Parliament concluded, many felt that the universalist vision should be sustained. One of the Unitarian conveners suggested that the representatives of the world’s traditions convene again in 1900 “on the banks of the Ganges in the ancient city of Benares.” This was not to be, but there was a meeting in Boston in 1900 of a new group: the International Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers. It came to include a few Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and reformist Hindus. Its agenda of international congresses addressed the question of justice for women and the expansion of narrow patriotism to a wider human loyalty. From this seed grew the International Association for Religious Freedom. Two world wars would impede the progress of organized interreligious efforts such as this one, but the wars would, at the same time, underline the importance of interreligious efforts.

When the original Parliament had concluded, the Reverend Barrows reflected: “Religion, like the white light of heaven, had been broken into many-colored fragments by the prisms of men. One of the objects of the Parliament of Religions has been to change this many-colored radiance back into the white light of heavenly truth.” When the centennial of the 1893 Parliament convened in 1993, the religious face of America had changed radically. By this time, America itself had become a truly multi-religious country and the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish organizers were residents of a very different Chicago.

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The Reverend John Henry Barrows: The Invitation

Held in 1893 in Chicago at the time of the great Columbian Exposition, the World’s Parliament of Religions brought people of widely different religious traditions together for the first time on American soil. Parliament Chairman John Henry Barrows recalls the planning, the vision, and the 10,000 letters of invitation sent out around the world:

Early in June, 1891, the General Committee sent out to the world a Preliminary Address. They called attention to the creative and regulative power of Religion as a factor in human development. They expressed a desire for the cooperation of the representatives of all the great historical faiths; they believed that the time was ripe for new manifestations of human fraternity.

Humanity, though sundered by oceans and languages and widely diverse forms of Religion, was one in need if not altogether in hope.

The Address reviewed the fact that the literatures of the great historic faiths were more and more studied in the spirit of candor and brotherhood. Disclaiming any purpose to create a temple of indifferentism, the Committee urged that a friendly conference of eminent men, strong in their personal convictions, would be useful in showing what are the supreme truths, and what light Religion affords to the great problems of the time.

The Committee said:

“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.”

[From Rev. John Henry Barrows, ed., The World’s Parliament of Religions, vol. 1 (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company, 1893), 10.]

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.]

Swami Vivekananda

Vivekananda was an educated Bengali and a disciple of Ramakrishna, one of the great nineteenth century mystics and spiritual teachers of India. His brief remarks at the opening session set the tone for his many addresses during the Parliament.

I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of the millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects…I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered into our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings.

As the different streams
having their sources in different places
all mingle their water in the sea,
So, O Lord, the different paths which men take
through different tendencies,
various though they appear, crooked or straight,
all lead to Thee.

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world, of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me.”

Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendent, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

[From Rev. John Henry Barrows, ed., The World’s Parliament of Religions, vol. 1 (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company, 1893), 102.]

Hirai Ryuge Kinzo

Hirai Ryuge Kinzo was a Buddhist from Japan who spoke of “The Real Position of Japan toward Christianity.” His extended remarks express a strong critique of U.S. treaty relations with Japan, the behavior of some Christian missionaries in Japan, and the prejudice against Japanese in America.

This Parliament of Religions is the realization of a long-cherished dream, and its aim is to finally establish religious affinity all over the world. As I believe it my duty to try to remove any obstacle that might prevent the completion of this ultimate purpose, and to caution against an impediment toward the fulfillment of this grand desire, I wish to show to this assembly a vigorous obstacle which is ignored generally, but which really is in the way and prevents our progress towards this destiny, or at least offers a great hindrance to the promulgation of Christianity. I may perhaps find similar cases everywhere; but partly because the space of this paper does not allow a long dissertation, and partly because I belong to the nationality of Japan, this presentation of my observations refers only to my country.

There are very few countries in the world so misunderstood as Japan. Among innumerable unfair judgments, the religious thought of our countrymen is especially misrepresented, and the whole nation is condemned as heathen. Be they heathen, pagan, or something else, it is a fact that from the beginning of our history, Japan has received all teachings with open mind; and also that the instructions which came from outside have commingled with the native religion with entire harmony, as is seen by so many temples built in the name of truth with a mixed appellation of Buddhism and Shintoism; as is seen by the affinity among the teachers of Confucianism and Taoism or other isms and the Buddhist and Shinto priests; as is seen by an individual Japanese who pays his or her respects to all teachings mentioned above; as is seen by the peculiar construction of the Japanese houses, which have generally two rooms, one for a miniature Buddhist temple and the other for a small Shinto shrine, before which the family study the respective Scriptures; as is seen by the popular ode:

Wake noboru
Fumoto no michi wa
Ooke redo,
Onaji takane no
Tsuki wo miru Kana,

which translated means, “Though there are many roads at the foot of the mountain, yet, if the top is reached, the same moon is seen,” and other similar ones and mottoes, which will be cited from the mouth of an ignorant country old woman, when she decides the case of bigoted religious contention among young girls. In reality Synthetic religion, or Entitism, is the Japanese specialty, and I will not hesitate to call it Japanism.

…You send your missionaries to Japan, and they advise us to be moral and believe Christianity. We like to be moral, we know that Christianity is good; and we are very thankful for this kindness. But at the same time our people are rather perplexed and very much in doubt about their advice. For when we think that the treaty stipulated in the time of feudalism, when we were yet in our youth, is still clung to by the powerful nations of Christendom; when we find that every year a good many Western vessels of seal fishery are smuggled into our seas; when legal cases are always decided by the foreign authorities in Japan unfavorably to us; when some years ago a Japanese was not allowed to enter a university on the Pacific coast of America because of his being of a different race; when a few months ago the school board in San Francisco enacted a regulation that no Japanese should be allowed to enter the public school there; when last year the Japanese were driven out in wholesale from one of the territories of the United States; when our business men in San Francisco were compelled by some union not to employ the Japanese assistants or laborers, but the Americans; when there are some in the same city who speak on the platform against those of us who are already here; when there are many men who go in procession hoisting lanterns marked “Japs must go”; when the Japanese in the Hawaiian Islands were deprived of their suffrage; when we see some Western people in Japan who erect before the entrance of their houses a special post upon which is the notice, “No Japanese is allowed to enter here”—just like a board upon which is written, “No dogs allowed”; when we are in such a situation, notwithstanding the kindness of the Western nations from one point of view, who send their missionaries to us, that we unintelligent heathens are embarrassed and hesitate to swallow the sweet and warm liquid of the heaven of Christianity, will not be unreasonable.

If such be the Christian ethics—well, we are perfectly satisfied to be heathen. If any person should claim that there are many people in Japan who speak and write against Christianity, I am not a hypocrite, and I will frankly state that I was the first in my country who ever publicly attacked Christianity; no, not real Christianity, but false Christianity—the wrongs done toward us by the people of Christendom. If any reprove the Japanese because they have had strong antiChristian societies, I will honestly declare that I was the first in Japan who ever organized a society against Christianity—no, not against real Christianity, but to protect ourselves from false Christianity and the injustice which we received from the people of Christendom.

Do not think that I took such a stand on account of my being a Buddhist, for this was my position many years before I entered the Buddhist Temple. But at the same time I will proudly state that if any one discussed the affinity of all religions before the public under the title of Synthetic Religion, it was I. I say this to you because I do not wish to be understood as a bigoted Buddhist sectarian. Really there is no sectarian in my country. Our people well know what abstract truth is in Christianity, and we, or at least I, do not care about the names if I speak from the point of teaching. Whether Buddhism is called Christianity or Christianity is named Buddhism, whether we are called Confucianists or Shintoists, we are not particular; but we are very particular about the truth taught and its consistent application. Whether Christ saves us or drives us into hell, or whether Gautama Buddha was a real person or there was never such a man, is not a matter of consideration to us; but the consistency of doctrine and conduct is the point on which we put the greatest importance.

Therefore, unless the inconsistency which we observe is removed, and especially the unjust treaty by which we are curtailed is revised upon an equitable basis, our people will never cast away their prejudice about Christianity in spite of the eloquent orator who speaks its truth from the pulpit. We are very often called barbarians, and I have heard and read that the Japanese are stubborn and cannot understand the truth of the Bible. I will admit that this is true in some sense, for though they admire the eloquence of the orator and wonder at his courage, though they approve his logical argument, yet they are very stubborn, and will not join Christianity as long as they think that it is Western morality to preach one thing and practice another.

But I know this is not the morality of the civilized West, and I have the firm belief in the highest humanity and noblest generosity of the Occidental nations toward us. Especially as to the American nation, I know their sympathy and integrity. I know their sympathy by their emancipation of the colored people from slavery. I know their integrity by the patriotic spirit which established the independence of the United States of America. And I feel sure that the circumstances which made the American people declare independence are in some sense comparable to the present state of my country. I cannot restrain my thrilling emotion and sympathetic tears whenever I read in the Declaration of Independence the passages: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…

If any religion urges the injustice of humanity, I will oppose it, as I ever have opposed it, with my blood and soul. I will be the bitterest dissenter from Christianity or I will be the warmest admirer of its Gospels. To the promoters of this Parliament and the ladies and gentlemen of the world who are assembled here, I pronounce that your aim is the realization of the religious union not nominally, but practically. We, the forty million souls of Japan, standing firmly and persistently upon the basis of international justice, await still further manifestations as to the morality of Christianity.

[From Rev. John Henry Barrows, ed., The World’s Parliament of Religions, vol. 1 (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company, 1893), 444-50.]

Mohammed Webb

Mohammed (Alexander Russell) Webb was a New Englander who had been a diplomat in Indonesia, where he embraced Islam. His remarks speak to what he felt to be the prejudice of many Americans toward the Islamic faith.

I wish I could express to you the gratification I feel at being able to appear before you today, and that I could impress upon your minds the feelings of millions of Mussulmans in India, Turkey, and Egypt, who are looking to this Parliament of Religions with the deepest, the fondest hope. There is not a Mussulman on earth who does not believe that ultimately Islam will be the universal faith. It may surprise you to know that five times a day, regularly, year in and year out, from every Mussulman’s heart goes forth the sentiment we have just sung–“Nearer my God to Thee.”

…With the gentlemen who first spoke, I am an American of the Americans. I carried with me for years the same errors that thousands of Americans carry with them today. Those errors have grown into history, false history has influenced your opinion of Islam. It influenced my opinion of Islam and when I began, ten years ago, to study the Oriental religions, I threw Islam aside as altogether too corrupt for consideration.

But when I came to go beneath the surface, to know who and what the prophet of Arabia was, I changed my belief very materially, and I am proud to say that I am now a Mussulman.

I have not returned to the United States to make you all Mussulmans in spite of yourselves; I never intended to do it in the world. I do not propose to take a sword in one hand and the Koran in the other and go through the world killing every man who does not say, La illaha illala Mohammund resoul Allah—“There is no God but one and Mohammed is the prophet of God.” But I have faith in the American intellect, in the American intelligence, and in the American love of fair play, and will defy any intelligent man to understand Islam and not love it.

…Now, let us see what the word “Islam” means. It is the most expressive word in existence for a religion. It means simply and literally resignation to the will of God. It means aspiration to God. The Moslem system is designed to cultivate all that is purest and noblest and grandest in the human character. Some people say Islam is impossible in a high state of civilization. Now, that is the result of ignorance. Look at Spain in the eighth century, when it was the center of all the arts and sciences, when Christian Europe went to Moslem Spain to learn all that there was worth knowing–languages, arts, all the new discoveries were to be found in Moslem Spain and in Moslem Spain alone. There was no civilization in the world as high as that of Moslem Spain.

…The Moslem brotherhood stands upon a perfect equality, recognizing only the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. The Emir, who leads in prayer, preaches no sermon. He goes to the mosque every day at noon and reads two chapters from the holy Koran. He descends to the floor upon a perfect level with the hundreds, or thousands, of worshipers, and the prayer goes on, he simply leading it. The whole system is calculated to inculcate that idea of perfect brotherhood.

The subject is so broad that I can only touch upon it. There is so much unfamiliar to Americans and Englishmen in Islam that I regret exceedingly I have not more time to speak of it. A man said to me in New York the other day: “Must I give up Jesus and the Bible if I become a Mohammedan?” No, no? There is no Mussulman on earth who does not recognize the inspiration of Jesus. The system is one that has been taught by Moses, by Abraham, by Jesus, by Mohammed, by every inspired man the world has ever known. You need not give up Jesus, but assert your manhood. Go to God.

…A gentleman asked me if we had organized a mission in New York. I told him yes, but not in the ordinary sense; that we simply wanted people to study Islam and know what it was. The day of blind belief has passed away. Intelligent humanity wants a reason for every belief, and I say that spirit is commendable and should be encouraged wherever it goes, and that is one of the prominent features of the spirit of Islam…No man is expected to believe anything that is not in perfect harmony with his reason and common sense.

…In closing, I want to say this: that there is no system that has been so willfully and persistently misrepresented as Islam, both by writers of so-called history and by the newspaper press. There is no character in the whole range of history so little, so imperfectly understood as Mohammed. I feel that Americans, as a rule, are disposed to go to the bottom facts, and to ascertain really what Mohammed was and what he did, and when they have done so I feel that we shall have a universal system which will elevate our social system at least to the position where it belongs. I thank you.

[From Rev. John Henry Barrows, ed., The World’s Parliament of Religions, vol. 2 (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company, 1893), 989-96.]

Rabbi Emil Hirsch

The most vocal Jews at the Parliament were leaders of the emerging liberal Reform tradition, such as Kaufmann Kohler and Emil C. Hirsch, a Chicago rabbi, who addressed the “Elements of a Universal Religion.”

The domain of religion is co-extensive with the confines of humanity…Man alone in the wide sweep of creation builds altars. And wherever man may tent there also will curve upward the burning incense of his sacrifice, or the sweeter savor of his aspirations after the better, the diviner, light. However rude the form of society in which he moves, or however refined and complex the social organism, religion never fails to be among the determining forces one of the most potent. It, under all types of social architecture, will be active as one of the decisive influences rounding out individual life, and lifting it into significance for and under the swifter and stronger current of the social relations. Climatic and historical accidents may modify, and do, the action of this all-pervading energy. But under every sky it is vital, and under all temporary conjunctures it is quick…A society without religion has nowhere yet been discovered. Religion may then, in very truth, be said to be the universal distinction of man.

Still the universal religion has as yet not been evolved in the procession of the suns. It is one of the blessings yet to come. There are now even known to men and revered by them great religious systems which pretend to universality. And who would deny that Buddhism, Christianity, and the faith of Islam present many of the characteristic elements of the universal faith? In its ideas and ideals the religion of the prophets, notably as enlarged by those of the Babylonian exile, also deserves to be numbered among the proclamations of a wider outlook and a higher up look. These systems are no longer ethnic. . . They have advanced far on the road leading to the ideal goal; and modern man, in his quest for the elements of the still broader universal faith, will never again retrace his steps to go back to the mile-posts these have left behind on their climb up the heights. The three great religions have emancipated themselves from the bondage of racial tests and national divisions. Race and nationality cannot circumscribe the fellowship of the larger communion of the faithful, a communion destined to embrace in one covenant all the children of man.

Race is accidental, not essential, in manhood. Color is indeed only skin deep. No caste or tribe, even were we to concede the absolute purity of the blood flowing in the arteries, an assumption which could in no case be verified by the actual facts of the case, can lay claim to superior sanctity. None is nearer the heart of God than another…Ezra, with his insistence that citizenship in God’s people is dependent on Abrahamic pedigree, and, therefore, on the superior sanctity which by very birth the seed of the patriarch enjoys as Zea Kodesh, does not voice the broader and truer views of those that would prophesy of the universal faith. Indeed, the apostles of Christianity after Paul, the Pundits of Buddhism, the Imams of Islam, and last, though not least, the rabbis of modern Judaism, have abandoned the narrow to serve as foundation stones for the temple of all humanity.

The day of national religions is past. The God of the universe speaks to all mankind. He is not the God of Israel alone, not that of Moab, of Egypt, Greece, or America. He is not domiciled in Palestine. The Jordan devout may be baptized unto His service and redemption. “Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Whither flee from Thy presence?” exclaims the old Hebrew bard. And before his wandering gaze unrolled itself the awful certainty that the heavenly divisions of morning and night were obliterated in the all-embracing sweep of divine law and love. If the wide expanses of the skies and the abysses of the deep cannot shut out from the divine presence, can the pigmy barriers erected by man and preserved by political intrigues and national pride dam in the mighty stream of divine love? The Prophet of Islam repeats the old Hebrew singer’s joy when he says: “The East is God’s and the West is His,” as indeed the apostle true to the spirit of the prophetic message of Messianic Judaism refused to tolerate the line of cleavage marked by language or national affinity. Greek and Jew are invited by Him to citizenship of kingdom come.

The church universal must have the Pentecostal gift of the many flaming tongues in it, as the rabbis say was the case at Sinai. God’s revelation must be sounded in every language to every land. But, and this is essential as marking a new advance, the universal religion for all the children of Adam will not palisade its courts by the pointed and forbidding stakes of a creed. Creeds in time to come will be recognized to be indeed cruel barbed wire fences, wounding those who would stray to broader pastures, and hurting others who would come in. Will it for this be a Godless church? Ah, no; it will have much more of God than the churches and synagogues with their dogmatic definitions now possess.

Says Maimonides, greatest thinker of the many Jewish philosophers of the middle ages: “Of God we may merely assert that He is; what He is in Himself we cannot know. ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways.’” This prophetic caution will resound in clear notes in the ears of all who will worship in the days to come at the universal shrine. They will cease their futile efforts to give a definition of Him who cannot be defined in human symbols. They will certainly be astonished at our persistence—in their eyes very blasphemy—to describe by article of faith God, as though He were a fugitive from justice, and a Pinkerton detective should be enabled to capture Him by the identification laid down in the catalogue of His attributes. The religion universal will not presume to regulate God’s government of this world by circumscribing the sphere of His possible salvation and declaring as though He had taken us into His counsel whom He must save and whom He may not save. The universal religion will once more make the God idea a vital principle of human life. It will teach men to find Him in their own heart and to have him with them in whatever they may do. No mortal has seen God’s face, but he who opens his heart to the message will, like Moses on the lonely rock, behold Him pass and hear the solemn proclamation.

…Will there be prayer in the universal religion? Man will worship, but in the beauty of holiness his prayer will be the prelude to his prayerful action. Silence is more reverential and worshipful than a wild torrent of words breathing forth, not adoration but greedy requests for favors to self. Can an unforgiving heart pray “forgive as we forgive?” Can one ask for daily bread when he refuses to break his bread with the hungry? Did not the prayer of the great Master of Nazareth thus teach all men and all ages that prayer must be the stirring to love?

Had not that little waif caught the inspiration of our universal prayer, who, when first taught its sublime phrases, persisted in changing the opening words to “Your Father which is in heaven?” Rebuked time and again by the teacher, he finally broke out: “Well, if it is Our Father, why, I am your brother.” Yea, the gates of prayer in the church to rise will lead to the recognition of the universal brotherhood of men.

Will this new faith have its Bible? It will. It retains the old bibles of mankind, but gives them a new luster by remembering that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” Religion is not a question of literature but of life. God’s revelation is continuous, not contained in tablets of stone or sacred parchment. He speaks to-day yet to those that would hear Him. A book is inspired when it inspires. Religion made the Bible, not the book religion.

And what will be the name of this church? It will be known not by its founders but by its fruits. God replies to him who insists upon knowing His name, “I am He who I am.” The church will be. If any name it will have, it will be “the Church of God,” because it will be the church of man.

When Jacob, so runs an old rabbinical legend, weary and footsore the first night of his sojourn away from home, would lay him down to sleep under the canopy of the star-set skies, all the stones of the field exclaimed: “Take me for thy pillow.” And because all were ready to serve him all were miraculously turned into one stone. This became Beth El, the gate of heaven. So will all religions, because eager to become the pillow of man, dreaming of God and beholding the ladder joining earth to heaven, be transformed into one great rock which the ages cannot move, a foundation stone for the all-embracing temple of humanity united to do God’s will with one accord.

[From Walter R. Houghton, ed., Neely’s History of the Parliament of Religions  (Chicago: Neely Publishing Company, 1894), 816-20.]