Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Parliament of Religions

As Ontario finds itself on the final stretch towards electing a new provincial parliament, I thought I'd tell you about a parliament of another kind.

The World's Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World. Unlike previous "World's Fair" it was a good deal more than just an international trade show. There were the usual displays of new inventions as well as industrial and agricultural displays, even a few displays promoting what we today would call the tourism trade. But in addition to this there was a conference held, the like of which, had never been seen before.

Charles C. Bonney (pictured) was a lawyer and a follower of Swedish theologian Emmanual Swedenborg. He felt the Chicago exhibition was a perfect opportunity to bring the world's religions together in an effort to generate a greater understanding of each other. His goal was to see a reduction in religious persecution around the world. His cause was taken up by the renowned liberal clergyman John Henry Barrows, who enthusiastically promoted the event. Barrows however, was not quite the liberal many thought him to be. He later admitted that his primary reason for promoting the event was his conviction that other religious leaders would leave convinced of Christianity's superiority over other theologies.

Many evangelical leaders, such as Dwight L. Moody flatly refused to participate. Their reasons generally fell into one of two categories. On one hand there was a general feeling that the event would quickly degenerate into an attack on Christian missionaries and Christian evangelical practices in general. On the other hand, for many to even hold such a conference required the supposition that all religions were of equal value, which for evangelicals was a fundamentally false assumption.

Despite these objections however, a few Catholics and a smattering of liberal Protestant churches did send representatives. In addition representatives of other religions included a dozen Buddhists, eight Hindus, two Shintoists, a Jain, a Taoist, a couple Muslims, some Confucians, and Zoroastrians.

As the Parliament continued it soon became clear that the evangelicals fears were well founded. The majority of the speeches made by the non-Christian delegates focused on their opposition to Christian missions. Their biggest complaint being the decidedly unchristian manner in which all too many Christian missionaries behaved. Some even pointed out that their own religions had a better track record of living out Christian values day-to-day than did many day-to-day Christians.

One thing happened however that the evangelicals did not predict. Many of the delegates to the conference, notably the Hindus and the Buddhists decided that since they were in America for a time anyway, they may as well stay a while and tour the country. Realizing that there was a great spiritual hunger in America that mainstream Christianity was not meeting, both religions decided to set up shop and soon both a Buddhist Society and a Hindu society were formed. As a result many people began to view Christianity as just one option among many. They also began to seriously look at the other options and made the switch.

Seeing that the fields of North America were "ripe for harvest" many other disciplines began sending teams to the U.S. as well. Famed Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, soon set up America's first Zen monasteries. Americans warmed quickly to the appeal of religious pluralism and leaders such as John Henry Barrows were appalled by the fact the conference had exactly the opposite effect than the one they had been hoping for.

The great 'Parliament of Religions', at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, regarded by many as the birth of religious pluralism in North America, began on September 11th, 1893 - 114 years ago this week.

1. With Absolute Respect: The Swedenborgian Theology of Charles Carrol Bonney, Rev. Dr. George F. Dole, link
2. Swedenborg Foundation - link
3. Articles provided by the Christian History Institute - link
4. Photo Credit: - link

Other events this week in Church History:

September 8, 1636 - Only six years after arriving from England, Massachusetts Puritans found Harvard College, America's first higher learning institution. The college was founded to train future ministers.

September 9, 1087 - William I, Norman "Conqueror" of England in 1066 and the founder of several monasteries, dies.

September 10, 422 - Elevation of Celestine to the office of pope. Among other things Pope St. Celestine I is known for sending St. Patrick to Ireland and for defending the church against the Nestorian "heresy" at the Council of Ephesus.

September 12, 1922 - The American Episcopal church decides to remove the words "to obey" from its wedding service marriage vows.

September 13, 1541 - Three years after city authorities banish him, John Calvin returns to Geneva. While there he spent the rest of his life trying to establish a theocratic society at the request of those same authorities.

September 14, 258 - Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, is beheaded during the persecution under Roman Emperor Valerian.

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