The World's Columbian Exposition, a spectacular and exuberant world's fair, was held in Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1893 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in North America. The architecture alone, Daniel Burnham's "White City," was unlike any other temporary construction, its grandiose neoclassical architecture arrayed amidst lagoons, fountains, monumental statuary and acres of buildings. As a part of the Exposition, which drew thousands of visitors in the single season it was open, several "Congresses" were held on specific topics and issues. Perhaps the most impressive of these meetings was the World's Parliament of Religions, held for 17 days in September, 1893. No event of its kind, bringing together thousands of representatives of the great historic religions of the world, had ever been attempted. So central was religion to the Exposition that these words were featured on the grand Peristyle, at the heart of the complex:
Toleration In Religion Is The Best Fruit Of The Last Four Centuries.
Planning for the Parliament began three years before the actual event. A 16-person General Committee was charged with settling on a mission and program, inviting participants, and hosting the event. Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones served as the Committee's Executive Secretary.
As a percentage, Christian Protestants dominated the Parliament, both as speakers and attendees. Yet there was, from the beginning, an intentional effort to include representation from the world's major religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Jainism. (There was no inclusion of indigenous religions, as these were considered "primitive," and represented at the Exposition, if at all, in the anthropological displays. Neither was the newest of American religions, Mormonism, represented.)
From the beginning, people who participated in or attended the Parliament had different, and sometimes opposing, purposes and expectations. Some, especially those interested in the field of comparative religions, hoped that one result would be an increased interest in the study of religions. Others aimed to demonstrate the supremacy of one (their) religion above another, or to clarify the public's misunderstandings of (their) religion. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who did not participate in the Parliament, wrote to the committee that his disapproval rested on "the fact that the Christian religion is the one religion. I do not understand how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their position and claims."
The General Committee, which included representation from different sects and faiths, tried to lay a foundation that promoted an environment of openness and possibility, but there were no existing models of interfaith conversation or cooperation to guide them. Here are a few of the objectives the committee stated in 1891:
- To show men, in the most impressive way, what and how many important truths the various religions hold in common.
- To promote and deepen the spirit of human brotherhood among religious men of diverse faiths, through friendly conference and mutual understanding, while not seeking to foster the temper of indifferentism, and not striving to achieve any formal and outward unity.
- To set forth, by those most competent to speak, what are deemed the important distinctive truths held and taught by each Religion, and by the various branches of Christendom.
- To inquire what light each Religion has afforded, or may afford, to the other religions of the world.
A review of the 216 presentations made during the Parliament's 17 days and the subsequent commentary reveals great diversity. That participants from different faith traditions would interpret the Parliament in different ways was understandable, perhaps inescapable, given the tensions that attach to any multi-faith effort, even today: How are competing religious claims to truth mediated? Is there an evolutionary progression in religion (and is Christianity the pinnacle of that process)? Can the adherents of religions learn truths from one another in a way that does not presume conversion? Is the identification of those things that religions hold in common the first step towards a universal religion? The answers to these questions had profound implications for white, Protestant Americans in 1893, who were being challenged by ever-growing numbers of immigrants who practiced Catholicism, Judaism, and other faiths. They also had implications for the Protestant denominations' mission work overseas. These words from John Henry Barrows, the General Committee's chairperson, illustrate what must have sometimes seemed a chasm between the Parliament's objectives and its participants. He reflects on his understanding of the ultimate influence of the Parliament:
The Parliament has shown that Christianity is still the great quickener of humanity, that it is now educating those who do not accept its doctrines, that there is no teacher to be compared with Christ, and no Saviour excepting Christ ... The non-Christian world may give us valuable criticism and confirm spiritual truths and make excellent suggestion as to Christian improvement, but it has nothing to add to the Christian creed.
The sense of religious superiority reflected in Barrows' words was not shared by all at the Parliament. One of the most popular speakers, Swami Vivekananda, reflected that "every religion is only evolving a God out of the material man; and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why then are there so many contradictions? The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the different circumstances of different natures."
World's fairs serve at least two purposes. One, they hold a mirror to the present moment, showing the state of the "world," albeit often in idealized ways. But world's fairs also portend, if not help set, the future course of progress. The World's Parliament of Religions did indeed serve both purposes. It offered a panoramic view of the vast diversity of existing religions and their beliefs and practices. It also laid groundwork for an emerging ecumenical, and eventually pluralistic, religious America.