Interfaith cooperation was in evidence over a century ago, at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (also known as the World's Fair) in 1893. The Fair was the world's first major theme park, offering the first Ferris wheel rides, and introducing popular treats such as Juicy Fruit(R) gum and Cracker Jack(R) caramel-coated popcorn. The World's Fair also inspired another first: an unprecedented gathering of leaders from religious traditions all over the world, in part organized by Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones. From the very beginning, Unitarian Universalists have been at the forefront of interfaith cooperation.
Before he organized the Parliament, Jenkin Lloyd Jones was simply a minister with a conviction that there was an underlying unity among all religions. Trusting in his vision, he rented a hall on the south side of Chicago where he shared his dream: "With your help and cooperation, we will start here a new church, to be the Church of All Souls." Jones' son Richard continued the legacy by founding All Souls Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, currently the largest Unitarian Universalist congregation in the United States.
The Chicago Church of All Souls provided social services to the surrounding community. Jones also developed interfaith relationships with other local, liberal religious leaders to assist in this work. When the World's Fair was held in Chicago in 1893, Jones saw the opportunity to convene a parallel event with religious leaders from all over the world, called the World's Parliament of Religion. Though the Parliament almost overwhelmed the planners, Jones's vision and inspirational sermons helped sustain their enthusiasm.
A spirit of novelty and curiosity infused the event. Most American Protestants had never before encountered non-Christian religions, so the pageantry of the waving national flags and the stunning appearance of many of the participants was a sensation. An official history showed over a hundred photographs of places of worship in lands far from the United States and people clothed in ways unfamiliar to many Americans, such as "the eloquent monk Vivekananda of Bombay, clad in gorgeous red apparel, his bronzed face surmounted with a huge turban of yellow.
With his characteristic confidence, Jones described the event in his own book, A Chorus of Faith: "It was plain to see that the priests and preachers on the platform of Columbus Hall were having an exceedingly good time. The soul had escaped its conventional fetters, laid aside its ecclesiastical trumpery and had gone out to play in the open fields of God. The spirits of men and women were out walking on the hilltops of human nature. They were having a good time because they had all escaped barriers and fetters peculiar to them... The Parliament, if it has proved nothing else, has proved what a splendid thing human nature is to build a religious fellowship upon."
Representatives explained their own religious beliefs and discussed topics of social concern. The first ordained Universalist woman minister, Olympia Brown, spoke on "Crime and its Remedy." A diverse panel representing Eastern religions discussed "How Can the Methods of Christian Missionaries Be Improved?"
At the conclusion of the Parliament, Charles Bonney, President of the Columbian Exposition, proclaimed, "From now on, the great religions of the world will make war no longer on each other, and instead on the giant ills that afflict humankind."
Though Jones believed in a unity among religions, the Parliament's success did not depend on participants sharing that belief. Instead it rested on members of diverse traditions knowing their differences, but still committing to work together.This incredible vision, that people of different beliefs, practices, and perspectives could come together to solve the ills of the world, underlies interfaith work today.
A reconvened Parliament of the World's Religions began to meet, at its one hundred year anniversary. Since then, a Parliament of the World's Religions has been held every five years. At the 2009 Parliament in Australia, over 6,000 people shared the vision of interfaith cooperation, including a panel of Unitarian Universalists who shared stories affirming our seventh Principle, "The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."
Unitarian Universalists continue to be natural leaders in interfaith cooperation.