A PARLIAMENT OF WORLD RELIGIONS
Monday, July 7, 1989
Location - FNCA 1989
In 1889, after intense competition and extensive debate, the United States Congress voted that Chicago
should be the site of a World's Columbian Exposition in 1892. It was to celebrate the four hundredth
anniversary of Columbus' discovery, and was to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of the
The mood was one of apparently unbridled optimism. Today, we think of ourselves as having turned a
major corner with the harnessing of atomic energy, but this is something we read about rather than
experience directly. At that time, the great leap forward had been the harnessing of electricity, and
this was directly accessible to many ordinary individuals. People had the experience of pressing a
switch and seeing a light go on, and they had this experience for the very first time. It was light
without fire, a miracle without precedent.
That was not all. The nation had exploded westward, and a vast system of railroads was making it
possible for goods and people to travel on a scale never before known. The entire resources of the
better part of a continent were available, with an apparently limitless wealth. America was no longer
a dark continent. In a single century, she had achieved a level of prosperity and productivity that it
had taken Europe almost a millennium to achieve. She was the land of freedom, equality, and
opportunity, and the energetic and talented from across the Atlantic were drawn to her.
Chicago was a particularly fitting site for a celebration of this achievement. In 1871, most of the
city had been destroyed in a disastrous fire. The rebuilding had been remarkable, and the result was
perhaps the most completely modern city on earth. Daniel Hudson Burnham, the Swedenborgian architect,
had drawn plans for the city, incorporating principles of spiritual organization gleaned from
Swedenborg's writings. The city stood at the gateway to the West, at a point where rail and water
transport met and interchanged. Cattle and grain from the plains and iron ore from the mountains were
equally available, and apparently inexhaustible.
Burnham was given the task of overseeing the planning and construction of facilities for the
Exposition, and from all reports did a remarkable job. In keeping with the mood of the times, he chose
a kind of modified classical style of architecture, and the result had an elegance that rivalled the
palaces of the Continent. When the whole was illuminated by electric lights at night, it was like
nothing anyone had ever seen. It was "The White City," a place of enchantment.
It was through no fault of Burnham's that the Exposition did not take place until 1893. The delay
became necessary when major European nations needed more time to prepare and ship their displays. But
it did open in 1893, and after a slightly sluggish start, became the national event of the summer.
While Chicago itself was a thoroughly modern city, with its own share of Edwardian elegance, most of
the surrounding area was distinctly rural. It cost relatively little to attend, and the appeal of this
wonderland to folk who had never seen anything but a farm must have been powerful indeed.
But I need to back up to 1889 again, to the action of Congress in selecting the site. When that was
announced, in prompted an idea in the mind of a Chicago lawyer, Charles Bonney. Bonney was a highly
respected man, author of definitive books on railway and insurance law, founder of a Law and Order
League to combat the problem of teenage alcohol abuse, active in the improvement of public education,
and active also in guarding public resources against abuse by private speculators. Had he not been a
Democrat, he would very probably have wound up on the Supreme Court. As it was, he had presided over
the Illinois Bar Association, and had been Vice-president of the American Bar Association.
Since his boyhood, he had been interested in the various religions of the world, and when in his teens
he moved from Hamilton, New York to Peoria, Illinois, he discovered the Swedenborgian church. After
some two years of study and thought, he joined, finding it to combine Christianity with a universal
outlook, an appreciation for the good in all religions.
Swedenborgianism shared in the optimism of the times. Especially in our urban churches, there were
devoted members of unquestioned eminence. In Chicago, for example, there was Jonathan Young Scammon,
virtually the founder of the city, and its leading railroad magnate. It was a small but prestigious
organization, intellectually challenging and supremely sure of itself. It was the church of the
future, prosperous and growing.
This was the setting in which Charles Bonney had his idea, the idea for other "Parliaments" to be held
in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition. It was not adequate, in his judgment, to celebrate
merely our material accomplishments, stunning as they might be. We should also and especially
celebrate our progress in the realms of the human mind and spirit--in the arts, in law, in medicine,
and especially in religion.
He was ideally placed to advocate this proposal, and when he first published it in October of 1889, it
was enthusiastically received. A considerable organizational structure was built up to arrange for
these gatherings. Bonney had the oversight of the entire project, delegating to a Presbyterian
minister, John Henry Barrows, the particular supervision of the World's Parliament of Religions.
This was not to be a Parliament in the strictest sense, with individuals coming as official
representatives of their religious institutions. It was not to be a decision-making body, or to set as
its goal the drafting of statements or policies. It was to be a forum in which the major religions of
the world could present their best in a spirit of mutual appreciation; and Bonney was confident that
at heart they did stand for the same essential values, the values most concisely represented in the
Not everyone agreed. In fact, this was a distinctly controversial idea. This was the era of one of the
most aggressive missionary expansions of Protestantism, when substantial sums of money were being
raised to bring the light of the Gospel to the backward, benighted, and unfortunately damned heathen.
It was self-evident to many that our prosperity and technological progress were the fruits of
Protestant Christian enlightenment. Europe was past its peak, even decadent, and suspiciously inclined
to Catholicism. Africa and the Far East were simply primitive, and had nothing to offer but idolatry
and superstition. It is not surprising that some regarded the Parliament as the work of Satan himself.
Barrows' own church was less than enthusiastic about his involvement, and many bodies declined to
sponsor their members' attendance.
Letters went from Barrows all over the globe, and wherever they came, they struck sparks. Nothing like
this had ever been attempted before. Some responses were full of enthusiasm, some, as I have
mentioned, were distinctly hostile, and some were cautious to the point of suspicion. One Buddhist
from the Far East wrote in retrospect that when the invitation first came, he thought it was just one
more trick to lure him into a situation where he would be at a disadvantage, and put him under
pressure to convert. He finally decided to come, though not in any official capacity, and was quite
astonished at the actual nature of the Parliament.
Bonney himself was not unaware of the risk that more militant Christians would defeat the purpose of
the Parliament, and took an ingenious step to counter it. He provided for separate denominational
gatherings to be held concurrently, giving every church a chance to proclaim its own message as
insistently as it wished and to attract as many listeners as it could. There is some evidence that the
Christian denominations wound up putting their sectarian energies into competing with each other, and
the more hard-line message was a secondary theme at best in the Parliament itself.
It is intriguing that while the other parliaments, concerned with law, medicine, and the like,
attracted little attention, the religious parliament was a sensation. The newspaper coverage was
constant, and spread well beyond Chicago itself. On the opening day, the assemblage of dignitaries,
all in their native garb, was evidently spectacular. And as these dignitaries gave their
presentations, any illusions that these were backward and benighted heathen were summarily dispelled.
These were educated and articulate people, who could speak from a foundation of centuries of tradition
and thought. They were completely alert to contemporary science. Above all, they were serene and
radiant presences, with a strong personal appeal. Bonney himself may have been surprised at the
clarity of "the presence of the Divine in all religions" when it moved from the realm of theological
premise to that of immediate experience.
If he was surprised, he seems also to have been delighted. After the Parliament was over, he, together
with another Chicagoan named Paul Carus, tried for a time to keep the movement going. The initial
enthusiasm was strong enough that there were articles about "The Next Parliament of Religions" almost
before the echoes of the first had died, but nothing came of them. Part of the reason is surely that
the American Christians had anticipated that the Parliament would be a triumph for them: indeed, some
tried to represent it as a triumph after it was over. They could hardly be expected to support a
movement that promised to undermine their exclusive claims to the means of salvation, and while they
might try to convince their own followers that Christianity had won the day, they could scarcely have
been unaware that they had been on dangerous ground.
As a result, the public stir over the Parliament did not last long, and it might seem that it had
little effect. In a slightly more subtle way, though, it accelerated a process that has a major
influence in our own times. The Hindu community in this country traces its beginning to the 1893
event, for example. The Swami Vivekananda who spoke for Hinduism was immensely popular, and was swept
into lecture tours that carried him from coast to coast. Buddhism make its first American convert as a
result of the Parliament, and gradually became a significant presence.
But perhaps most important are two more elusive changes. The first has already been mentioned--that
the stereotype of the heathen as benighted and superstitious idolaters was dealt a severe blow. The
second is that the Eastern religions in particular discovered that there was, in some quarters at
least, a hunger for spirituality that traditional Christianity was not filling. For the first time,
they began to see America as a potential missionary field.
In fact, the unbridled optimism I mentioned at the outset of this talk rested on very shaky
foundations. The Exposition gave the Chicago economy a temporary boost, but it was a time of general
depression. Over the closing ceremonies hung the pall of the recent murder of Chicago's mayor. Once
the Exposition closed, the homeless moved in--the elegant buildings were all temporary--and within a
year a fire broke out and destroyed the whole compound. In general, immigrant labor was exploited, and
restive to the point of violence. Bonney found it necessary to labor against the political corruption
of the jury system. The racism of the Exposition itself was, by modern standards, blatant. Leading to
the White City was a broad mall called the Midway Plaisance. One started at the far end with the
primitive cultures, and worked one's way up the ladder of civilization, with such groups as the Irish
and the Slavs still outside the charmed circle. I have mentioned the problem of alcohol abuse, which
was serious, and suggested the exploitation of natural resources. It was all very well for our
overseas missionaries to portray America as a total triumph, but the visitor did not have to travel
very far to see what lay behind the facade.
From the perspective offered by a century's distance, we may be able to appreciate the optimism of
those times without being misled by it. The combination of freedom of individual initiative and
abundance of resources was a potent one. Not all Horatio Alger stories were fiction, by any means.
There was apparently reason to believe that the problems were incidental, and could be solved, that
they were not intrinsic to the system. Only as our population has become more dense and as our
resources have become increasingly strained is it becoming clear that "individual initiative" may be
simply a cosmetic name for selfishness. The Eastern concept of selflessness has its own distinctive
problems, and the Eastern lands cannot claim to be models of justice, but there is a value to seeing
ourselves through their eyes. We have much to learn as well as much to offer, and hindsight is not
surprised that individuals like Vivekananda made the impression they did.
In a way, if we want to look for the roots of present day interest in Eastern religions, we should
certainly look at 1893, and we should be aware that the World's Parliament of Religions was prompted
by the Swedenborgian principle that the Divine is effectively present in all religions--in less
abstract terms, that Gentiles are just as welcome in heaven as Christians.
But I want to spend the balance of this particular presentation talking about a very specific result
of the 1893 Parliament, a result that touches us very directly indeed. At the Tarrytown symposium on
science and spirituality, I was approached by a Dr. Moore from Chicago, who asked me whether I was
aware of a Parliament of Religions being planned for 1993. To make a long story short, the Hindu
Society in Chicago traces its beginnings to the 1893 event, and one of its members, Swami
Sarveshananda, had taken the initiative toward a centennial observance. He is quite aware of Charles
Bonney's crucial role, and determined that the Swedenborgians should not only be involved in the
present effort, but should receive some long overdue recognition for their past contribution.
Circumstances, the Swedenborg School of Religion, the Swedenborg Foundation, Convention, and the
Chicago Society have enabled me to become involved with the Program Planning Committee, and I have
made several trips to Chicago during the past church year, with more in the offing. I have also agreed
to do what research I could on Charles Bonney for a paper to be delivered at a colloquium scheduled
for the fall of 1990 on Persons of the 1893 Parliament.
There is a lively awareness that we cannot duplicate the event of a century ago. There is a
determination to have the event address issues of our own times, and specifically to be constructive
in relation to societal problems in Chicago. This latter goal is quite appropriate in view of the
religious makeup of the city. There are substantial and active Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian and Muslim
communities as well as the more expected Christian and Jewish ones. On one of my trips, my taxi driver
from the airport was a Muslim who was ready to burn his cab and go to Israel as soon as the Holy War
started, which was a vivid reminder that world and local issues are ultimately inseparable.
The question of course remains how to address such issues effectively, and that is where I have the
greatest hope that our church can again make a distinctive contribution.
First of all, I want us to guard against regarding it as a missionary opportunity in any self-seeking
way. This was the risk against which Bonney took such ingenious measures, and it is an aspect of our
tradition in which we can rejoice. In large measure, the most potent and beneficial effects of the
1893 Parliament stemmed from its integrity, from the focus on sharing rather than on converting, and
we must at all costs stand for that integrity. We must want to be understood, both in regard to the
ideals of our theology and to the inadequacy of our institutions in embodying those ideals.
Let me explain that last remark, briefly. The same Buddhist who was afraid that the initial invitation
was a trick came to the conclusion that the Christians really wanted to learn about Buddhism because
their own religion was so clearly inadequate. He pointed to the failure of Christians to live
Christian lives as evidence of this. If we claim that our institutions are adequate representations of
our ideals, the effect will be not so much to gain admiration for our institutions as to call our
ideals into question. We must really want to be understood.
Second, I should like us to communicate Swedenborg's concept of the "distinguishably one." He writes
in Divine Providence that a form is the more perfect as its constituents are distinguishably
different, and yet united. It does seem that our efforts to remedy injustice often take the form of
denying differences, whether between races, religions, or genders. This, according to our theology,
will never bring genuine oneness. It will result in a conformism that will be burdensome to everyone,
requiring individuals to suppress their individuality rather then to rejoice in it and to make their
own unique contributions to the whole.
Closely related to this is an emphatic re-emphasis of the total presence of the Divine in all
religions, and in fact in all individuals. This is asserted clearly and decisively in Divine Love and
Wisdom, and it has important corollaries. It means that any institution that claims to have a corner
on salvation has in effect ceased to worship the universal God, and has substituted a local deity, one
who is effective only within its own limits. If we are indeed to be "the crown of the churches," it
will be because we develop the ability to perceive the presence of God everywhere and at all times.
Universality cannot be asserted: it must be demonstrated. Swedenborg writes that one of the images of
God's infinity is the endless variety of people and things.
Fourth, I should like to communicate the idea that we are indeed making progress as a human race.
This was, as I've noted, an unquestioned assumption in 1893. Two World Wars, a Depression, the
Holocaust in Europe and the genocide in the Far East, plus the threat of nuclear annihilation, have
rendered the idea highly suspect. When I preached on this theme in Wayne last month, a retired
Congregational minister asked me afterwards how I avoided the trap of believing that progress was
automatic or inevitable. Since I had been careful to stress that progress was not inevitable, this
seemed to be a clear indication that even the mention of progress raises warning flags in many
In connection with this, it is absolutely necessary to convey the very Swedenborgian notion that the
most common form of spiritual progress entails facing evils in increasingly deep and subtle forms. As
individuals, we move beyond the rather blatant self-concern of youth, and discover that the roots go
deeper than we had thought. It is not that we are getting worse. Far from it, we are progressing
toward the cause of things. In the same way, the abolition of slavery has led to the discovery that
racism had deeper roots than the economics of the cotton industry, and the civil rights movement has
led to the discovery that its roots go deeper still. I was reminded not too long ago that Helen Keller
believed that once women had the right to vote, wars would be a thing of the past.
This leads to a sixth point, namely that a simple redistribution of power is simply a redistribution
of injustice. The abused child, given only the power of adulthood, becomes the abusive parent. We are
just being made aware of the violations of human rights that are imposed by the native governments of
former colonies in Africa. The roots of injustice are in all hearts--rich and poor, male and female,
black and white, yours and mine. As long as we conceive social issues as being solely or even
primarily issues of the amount and distribution of power, we are conceding defeat. The genuine issues
are issues of the nature and use of power, no matter how much or how little one has. "Whoever is
faithful in that which is least will be faithful also in much."
I would expect and even hope that some of these ideas would be controversial. This is not because I
particularly delight in controversy, but because I should like to see the controversy we are
constantly engaged in moved to deeper and more genuine issues. I should like to see us confront not
"creationism" or "fundamentalism," but the ego issues that make for rigid and unforgiving stances.
William Law has a trenchant denunciation of the self-centeredness to which religious institutions fall
prey, wherein we give first place to those who can defend everything that is ours and condemn
everything that is not.
If Swedenborg is right, then his own writings are not adequate as the sole source of revealed truth
for our world. The infinite divine needs every representation available, every person, every book,
every animal, bird, tree, flower, and rock, and that is still not enough. The deepest truth of the
writings consists not in their pointing to themselves, but in their pointing everywhere.
So the last and perhaps most urgent thought I would hope we can contribute to the 1993 Parliament is
that world unity is not something we have to manufacture out of assorted parts, by some involved
process of theological discussion and compromise. The oneness already exists, because everything
proceeds from the Lord as a one. It is that oneness which sustains us in being, which has thus far
kept us from destroying ourselves. Our task is not to manufacture it, certainly not to impose it by
persuading others to think as we do, but to discover it; and we will achieve world unity when we see
that oneness, the oneness of the Divine, wherever we look.