Commemorating 130 Years of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

By: Rebekah Coffman
Aug 08 2023
Parliament from the book

Next week, Chicago welcomes the convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions at McCormick Place from August 14–18, 2023. CHM curator of religion and community history Rebekah Coffman writes about the event’s origins and its legacy as the genesis of the interfaith movement.

Cover page, Neely’s history of the Parliament of religions and religious congresses at the World’s Columbian Exposition / compiled from original manuscripts and stenographic reports. Edited by a corps of able writers. BL21.W8 N4

Throughout the run of the fair, more than 200 individual Congresses were held with nineteen departments represented. Just a sample of the covered topics include women’s progress, commerce and finance, art, government, medicine, and religion. The congresses were organized by Charles C. Bonney, a Chicago judge and author, who, in addition to legal writings, contributed several publications about the world’s fair congresses.

Perhaps the best known today, the Parliament of the World’s Religions was one such congress. Convened from September 11 to 27, 1893, the PWR is regarded today as the origin of the modern interfaith movement. Chicago-based Presbyterian minister Rev. John Henry Barrows served as chairman and, following the Parliament, compiled the event’s proceedings into a two-volume account through his Christian-centered lens.

Invitations to attend were sent globally. While some religious representatives were enthusiastically interested, others were cautiously apprehensive, and some abstained from attending altogether for reasons of belief. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury declined attending, saying “the difficulties I myself feel are not questions of distance and convenience, but rest on the fact that the Christian religion is the one religion.”

Ten different religions were represented through presenting papers or speeches, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some of the event’s representatives and speakers included Swami Vivekananda (from India representing Hinduism), Anagarika Dharmapala (from Sri Lanka representing Buddhism), Virchand Gandhi (from India representing Jainism), Soyen Shaku (from Japan representing Zen Buddhism), Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb (from New York representing Islam), Henry Jessup (from the US, living in Lebanon, representing Presbyterianism), Pung Quang Yu (from China representing Confucianism), A. G. Bonet-Mary (from France representing Protestantism), Frederick Douglass (from Chicago representing the African Methodist Episcopal Church), Fannie Barrier Williams (from Chicago representing Unitarian Universalism), Antoinette Blackwell (from New York/New Jersey representing Unitarian Universalism), and Emil Hirsch (from Chicago representing Reform Judaism).

The Art Institute of Chicago, designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, at South Michigan Avenue and Adams Street, Chicago, 1892. CHM, ICHi-085800

As the PWR opened on the morning of September 11, 1893, a reproduction of the Liberty Bell ran ten times in symbolic honor of the ten traditions present. Representatives marched to the Hall of Columbus in the WCE’s Memorial Art Palace, today home to the Art Institute of Chicago, where a series of welcoming remarks and religious treatises were read.

Over the seventeen days of the parliament, speakers from across traditions and nations were given a platform to share about belief and the place of religion through their own lens. Swami Vivekananda (1863‒1902), founder of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission and the official representative of Hinduism at the PWR, gave an opening speech calling for global tolerance and an end to religious discrimination, saying:

Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth . . . But their time has come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.