Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Handout 2: Voices from the Parliament

Though their numbers were modest compared to other denominations, the Unitarians and the Universalists were each well represented at the Parliament. Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones was the Executive Secretary to the General Committee responsible for organizing the Parliament, and Augusta Jane Chapin, the second woman ordained to the Universalist ministry, also served on the Committee. Men and women of both faiths presented papers on a wide range of topics. As part of the Parliament, both the Unitarians and the Universalists also held denominational meetings attended by laypeople and clergy from around the country.

Here are some voices of Unitarian and Universalist women and men heard at the Parliament or soon after.

Augusta Jane Chapin (1836-1905), spoke at both the opening and closing ceremonies. This is from her presentation on Opening Day:

Welcome. I am strangely moved as I stand upon this platform and attempt to realize what it means that you all are here from so many lands representing so many and widely different phases of religious thought and life and what it means that I am here in the midst of all this unique assemblage to represent womanhood and woman's part of it all... The World's first Parliament of Religions could not have been called sooner and have gathered the religionists of all these lands together. We had to wait for the hour to strike, until the steamship, the railway and the telegraph had brought men together, leveled their walls of separation and made them acquainted with each other; until scholars had broken the way through the pathless wilderness of ignorance, superstition and falsehood and compelled them to respect each other's honesty, devotion and intelligence. A hundred years ago the world was not ready for this parliament. Fifty years ago it could not have been convened, and had it been called but a single generation ago, one-half of the religious world could not have been directly represented... Few indeed, were they a quarter of a century ago who talked about the Divine Fatherhood and Human Brotherhood, and fewer still were they who realized the practical religious power of these conceptions.

Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944), an African American Unitarian and social reform activist, was a member of All Souls Church (Unitarian) in Chicago. She spoke at the World's Parliament of Religions on "The Condition of the American Negro:"

In nothing do the American people so contradict the spirit of their institutions, the high sentiments of their civilization, and the maxims of their religion as they do in denying to our men and women the full rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The colored people have appealed to every source of power and authority for reliefs, but in vain... It is a monstrous thing that nearly one-half of the so-called evangelical churches of this country repudiate and haughtily deny fellowship to every Christian lady and gentleman happening to be of African descent... The golden rule of fellowship taught in the Christian Bible becomes in practice the iron rule of race hatred... The hope of the negro and other dark races in America depends upon how far the white Christians can assimilate their own religion.

In addition to his role in organizing the Parliament, Jenkin Lloyd Jones (1843-1914), was part of an effort to continue the work begun by the Parliament the following year at the First American Congress of Liberal Religious Societies. Jones subscribed to the belief that the key to religious unity was not theology, but the ethical and spiritual impulses found in all peoples:

Believing as we do that the Parliament was more than... a spiritual sensation, we must take to heart the prophecy we find in it. We think it pointed to the possibility to unite men of diverse races and faiths in an actual fellowship, in working organizations, potent, inspiring, in short the Parliament of Religions predicted a movement that will undertake a new church in the world... the glimmering lights of the future guide us. We go to build the church of the twentieth century — open temples of reason, holy shrines of helpfulness, confessionals where the soul will not be afraid to confess its ignorance.

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), the Unitarian author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," writer, reformer, and peace advocate, addressed the Parliament in a talk titled "What Is Religion?"

Now, it seems to me very important that from this parliament should go forth a fundamental agreement as to what is religion and as to what is not religion. I need not stand here to repeat any definition of what religion is. I think you will all say that it is aspiration, the pursuit of the divine in the human; the sacrifice of everything to duty for the sake of God and of humanity and of our own individual dignity. What is it that passes for religion? In some countries magic passes for religion, and that is one thing I wish, in view particularly of the ethnic faiths, could be made very prominent — that religion is not magic...

I think nothing is religion which puts one individual absolutely above others, and surely nothing is religion which puts one sex above another. Religion is primarily our relation to the Supreme—to God himself. It is for Him to judge; it is for Him to say where we belong—who is highest and who is not; of that we know nothing... Any religion which sacrifices women to the brutality of men is no religion.

From this parliament let some valorous, new, strong, and courageous influence go forth, and let us have here an agreement of all faiths for one good end, for one good thing — really for the glory of God, really for the salvation of humanity from all that is low and animal and unworthy and undivine.

Joseph Henry Allen (1820-1898), a former editor of the Unitarian Review, wrote commentary about the Parliament's effect in his 1895 article "The Alleged Sympathy of Religions:"

It is quite possible, no doubt, by the powerful solvent of metaphysics, to reduce the intellectual elements of these warring faiths into some colorless compromise which we might call a 'universal' or 'absolute' religion... But history tells us much of the conflicts of religions, little of their sympathy... The great success of our Parliament is not to be had by merging the great faiths of humanity in what at best would only be a flavorless neutral compound; but rather in showing how they may best flourish, independently, side by side.

John White Chadwick (1840-1904), a Unitarian minister, reflected on the Parliament in his article "Universal Religion," published in 1894:

We have been far afield in quest of a universal religion, and we have come back with empty hands... Would Christianity be better for the Mohammedan, the Brahman, the Buddhist than the religions to which they adhere?... Let their absolute values be what they may, relatively, to the peoples who acknowledge them and believe in them, they are doubtless the best religions possible because they have come into existence in answer to their special needs.