Held as part of the World Columbian Exposition on the shores of Lake Michigan, the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions marks the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Today, the 1893 Parliament is recognized as the birthplace of the worldwide interfaith movement.
The World’s Parliament of Religions was the centerpiece and the most remarkable of the many congresses that were held as part of the Exposition. To prepare for the event, a steering committee was composed of sixteen Christian and Jewish leaders throughout the world. The Parliament brought together some four hundred men and women representing forty-one denominations and religious traditions. It lasted for seventeen days in September of 1893. Of all the congresses, the Parliament of Religions was by far the most popular with the public and the press. Audiences of four thousand or more attended each of the daily sessions.
The 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions was inaugurated on September 11 at the Permanent Memorial Art Palace, now known as the Art Institute of Chicago.
“The solemn charge which the Parliament preaches to all true believers is a return to the primitive unity of the world…The results may be far off, but they are certain.”
-John Henry Barrows, 1893
In 1893, the world turned its attention to Chicago when the city hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition. During the Exposition, congresses were held in the areas of government, jurisprudence, finance, science, literature, and religion “to bring about a real fraternity of nations and unite the enlightened people of the whole earth in a general cooperation for the attainment of the great ends for which humanity is organized.”
The Parliament was the first formal public meeting of representatives of the major religions in the history of the world. It has been called a watershed event in American history. It saw the assertion of Catholicism and Judaism as mainstream American religions, and it recognized both African Americans and women as religious leaders. An unprecedented number of 19 women spoke at this Parliament from various spiritual backgrounds. It marked the beginning of interfaith dialogue in the modern world.
Non-Western religions also have recognized its importance. Several, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, trace their beginnings in the West to their participation in the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. A captivating Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, addressed 5,000 assembled delegates, greeting them with the words, “Sisters and brothers of America!” His declaration introduced Hinduism to America. Buddhist, Jain, and Muslim speakers were also present at the gathering.
As one contemporary described the event, “It was, perhaps, the most important religious gathering which has ever assembled.” According to another, the Parliament marked, “a new era in the evolution of religious life for the world.”
The first Parliament left Chicago with both a legacy of interfaith dialogue and an unfinished agenda for greater cooperation and understanding which lies at the heart of the mission of our organization.
In the spring of 1891, the General Committee on Religious Congresses of the World’s Congress Auxiliary was appointed by President Charles C. Bonney…Urged to provide plans for religious meetings in connection with the World’s Fair, the Committee at once perceived that the religious world, in its historic developments, and not any one section of that world, should be invited to make some representation. The spirit of most generous brotherhood moved them in giving out their invitations and making their arrangements for the Parliament of Religions.
The objects proposed for the Parliament of Religions were such, it would seem, as to win the approval of all broad-minded men. They were as follows:
… After these more than two years of toilsome preparation, it was not without anxiety, but at the same time with high hope and faith, that the day and hour were awaited which were to witness the inauguration of the Parliament of Religions.
“Long before the appointed hour the building swarmed with delegates and visitors, and the Hall of Columbus was crowded with four thousand eager listeners from all parts of the country and foreign lands. At lo o’clock there marched down the aisle arm in arm, the representatives of a dozen world faiths, beneath the waving flags of many nations, and amid the enthusiastic cheering of the vast audience.”
…It will be impossible to describe and adequately interpret to those who were not there, the great meetings with which the Parliament concluded. The final gathering was altogether worthy of what has been deemed the most significant and important conference ever held.
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