For seventeen days in September of 1893, Chicago welcomed religious delegations from all over the world to its World's Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the first ever World's Fair, known then as the Columbian Exposition. Commemorating its centenary anniversary, Open Court Press has recently published The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World's Parliament of Religions, 1893, (edited by Richard Hughes Seager, Open Court Publishing Company, La Salle, IL, 1993, 520 pages, photos, isbn 0-8126-9223-3 paper $28.95, isbn 0-8126-9222-5 cloth $59.95) which contains 60 representative addresses chosen from the 194 papers submitted. The editorial remarks are a helpful bridge for the modern reader, giving historical and philosophical context to some of the seemingly outdated world views presented.
The Parliament was to be an opportunity for representatives of different faiths to tell the world of their traditions and, in fact, was to become an important stimulus to the field of comparative religions which at that time was a minuscule department found in only a few universities. Charles Carroll Bonney, president and chief architect of what was called the World's Congress Auxiliary, opened the symposium with warm words of welcome. He explained his vision "to unite all Religion against all irreligion . . . to present to the world . . . the substantial unity of many religions" (p. 5). (See also "The Brotherhood of Religions,'' Sunrise, Oct/Nov 1992, pp. 1-4.)
But as seventy-eight percent of the speakers were Christian, the discussion and appreciation of religion were couched in monotheistic terms for the majority of the conference and for over 300 pages of the book. More than three-fourths of the speeches were about what God desires, how he works, what our proper relation to him is, and how we measure up to his decrees. Speakers explored questions of truth, doctrine and dogma, social responsibility, the supremacy of the Pope, the immaculate conception, science and religion, the place of women in religion, and the difference between sectarianism and denominationalism. The idea of unity and reunion of Christendom was examined, and some speakers looked ahead to the day when they hoped one religion would unite all mankind. Christophore Jibara, Archimandrite of the Orthodox Church of Syria, optimistically suggested "that a committee should be selected from the great religions to investigate the dogmas and to make a full and perfect comparison, and approving the true one and announcing it to the people" (p. 198).
Others, however, believed the one universal religion had already been revealed: "Christianity is the only possible universal religion, as it is certainly the only complete and God-given revelation" (p. 319); or "There is not a Mussulman on earth who does not believe that ultimately Islam will be the universal faith" (p. 270).
Though few women were represented at the Congress, they and the Oriental speakers were the most colorful of all the presenters. Fannie Barrier Williams gave a stirring and sobering presentation titled, "What Can Religion Further Do to Advance the Condition of the American Negro?" in which she reminded her audience that the introduction of Christianity to the Negro race was through the un-Christianlike practice of slavery. "The hope of the Negro and other dark races in America depends upon how far the white Christians can assimilate their own religion" (p. 149).
Another woman who stirred the audience was Julia Ward Howe. The Chicago Herald (Sep 27, 1893) reported an incident in which she courageously took the podium after Professor William C. Wilkinson had
said in substance that the attitude of Christianity toward the many other religions is an attitude of absolute eternal, unappeasable hostility; while toward all men everywhere its attitude is one of grace, mercy, and peace. . . .
When the professor took his seat the quiet amphitheater was transformed into a bedlam. . . . There was but one person in the vast audience who did not applaud. That person was a woman. Julia Ward Howe, author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and who has fought many a battle, valiantly and bravely for the cause of Christ, took the floor. . . . She severely rapped the professor on the knuckles. She took the word "Christianity" back to Christ himself; to the endless fountain of charity, out of which waters, she said, have bubbled a stream of crystal purity, . . . Her words, few as they were and simple, were convincing and the fickle audience, who, but a moment or two ago applauded so vigorously the terse sentences of Professor Wilkinson, now turned completely about, and seldom, if ever, have the huge rafters and girders of Columbus Hall creaked under the pressure of such a storm of applause.
When the meeting broke up at noon and the great audience was just leaving their seats, someone in the hall, it is not known who, touched the keys of the great organ and there floated out on the air the rapturous, swelling notes of the grand old hymn, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . ." — pp. 78-9
While Christian speakers spoke tolerantly of their God of love who watched over the heathen, Oriental speakers presented a more universal perspective. According to the editors, Vivekananda was thought to be the most popular man in the Parliament. Following are two excerpts from his addresses:
The seed is put in the ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth, or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant; it develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth and the water, converts them into plant substance and grows a plant.
Similar is the case with religion. The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the others and yet preserve its individuality and grow according to its own law of growth. — pp. 336-7
It is the same light coming through different colors. . . . But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns; the Lord has declared to the Hindu in his incarnation as Krishna, "I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls. And wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power raising and purifying humanity, know ye that I am there." And what was the result! Through the whole order of Sanscrit philosophy, I challenge anybody to find any such expression as that the Hindu only would be saved and not others. Says Vyas, "We find perfect men even beyond the pale of our caste and creed." — pp. 430-1
Others, such as Virchand A. Gandhi, supported the notion that religion need not depend on a single creator or savior.
God, in the sense of an extra cosmic personal creator, has no place in the Jain philosophy. It distinctly denies such creator as illogical and irrelevant in the general scheme of the universe. But it lays down that there is a subtle essence underlying all substances, conscious as well as unconscious, which becomes an eternal cause of all modifications and is termed God. — p. 373
B. B. Nagarkar of the Brahmo-Somaj declared, "We believe that the prophets of the world — spiritual teachers such as Vyas and Buddha, Moses and Mohammed, Jesus and Zoroaster, all form a homogeneous whole. Each has to teach mankind his own message" (p. 435).
A Theosophical Congress was part of the Parliament of Religions, with ten lecturers who addressed overflow crowds for three days — a special extra session being added by popular demand. One of these lecturers was also a member of the Buddhist delegation and his is the only lecture included in this collection; Buddhist Theosophist Anagarika Dharmapala's talk was entitled, "The World's Debt to Buddha."
The Parliament was a perfect setting within which to display to the world the jewel of universal brotherhood. As W. Q. Judge, then Vice-president of the Theosophical Society, explained: "an impartial study of history, religion, and literature will show the existence from ancient times of a great body of philosophical, scientific and ethical doctrine forming the basis and origin of all similar thought in modern systems." (The World's Parliament of Religions, ed. Rev. John Henry Barrows, The Parliament Publishing Company, Chicago, 1893, 2:1518. Many of the addresses found in the Dawn of Religious Pluralism are full or edited reprints from this collection.)
Regardless of the reference by one speaker to the tomb of the great Emperor Akbar, upon which were chiseled the hundred names of God, most participants knew only one name. Despite the inclusive and universal vision expressed by some — despite their plea to consider the spirit, not the personality, the message not the messenger — the tone of the Parliament was distinctly Christian centered. Still President Bonney spoke of his hope for brotherhood among the religions: "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" (p. 18). John Henry Barrows, Chairman of the World's Congress Auxiliary's Department of Religion, also expressed the hope of those who had organized the Parliament: "to broaden and purify the mental and spiritual vision of men" (p. 26).
This year, from August 28-September 4, there will be another meeting of the world's religions in Chicago, and another opportunity to try to broaden and purify our spiritual vision.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1993; copyright © 1993 Theosophical University Press)