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THE BEGINNING

1. Beginnings

There are several roots from which the World Congress of Faiths (WCF) was to grow. One was the World’s Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1893. A second root was the Religions of Empire Conference, held in London in 1924. A third root was the unusual spiritual experiences of Francis Younghusband.

Religions of Empire Conference.

British society has been transformed in the sixty-five years during which the World Congress of Faiths has been in existence. In 1936, London was the centre of an Empire, which included people of many races and religions. Some thirty years later, Britain itself was starting to become multi-ethnic and multi-faith.

It was during the period of Empire that a number of people in Britain began to become interested in religions other than Christianity. A considerable number of British people lived and worked in different parts of the Empire. Many took little interest in the ‘natives’, but some learned a lot about the languages, cultures and religions of the people amongst whom they lived. Interest was also aroused amongst supporters of the missionary work of the Church. Some Christians regarded other religions as the sphere of darkness, but some missionaries made careful studies of the religions of Asia (1). Missionaries on furlough spoke to a large number of congregations, many of whom gave money to support missionary work. Both the imperial and missionary interest were often from a vantage point of assumed superiority - but at least there was an interest.

The imperial context is also relevant because Francis Younghusband, who was to found WCF, has been described as ‘the last great imperial adventurer’ (2). Indeed, in his opening address at the Religions of Empire Conference, Younghusband claimed that the ultimate basis on which the Empire would stand was religion. Indians, he said, respected Queen Victoria, because she stood for religion (3).

The Religions of Empire Conference, which was held in connection with the British Empire Exhibition, clearly illustrated the importance to the Empire, in some people’s minds, of mutual understanding between members of different religions. Publicity for the conference made much of the fact that Christians were in a minority in the Empire. They accounted for about one sixth of the Empire’s population. Of the Empire’s 460 million people, about 210 million were Hindus, about 100 million were Muslims and about 12 million were Buddhists.

The Conference was sponsored by the School of Oriental Studies and the Sociological Society. The Chairman, Sir Denison Ross, insisted that the ‘spokesman of each religion should be one who professed such religion’(4). This gave a distinctive character to the conference and was to be copied at the World Congress of Faiths in 1936. European scholars took the chair at different sessions, but were not the main speakers.

Following the Religions of Empire Conference, Sir Denison Ross, Sir Francis Younghusband and others formed The Society for Promoting the Study of Religions. It was in its offices that some years later the preparatory committee for the World Congress of Faiths was to meet.

The World Fellowship of Faiths.

In some of the preparatory literature, the World Congress of Faiths was billed as the Second International Congress of the World Fellowship of Faiths. The World Fellowship of Faiths First International Congress was itself also called a Second Parliament of Religions. The Second Parliament, held in Chicago in 1933, was in conscious imitation of the World’s Parliament of Religions held at Chicago forty years before - so one root of WCF leads back to that landmark event.

Memories of the 1893 Parliament, which for many years were largely forgotten, have recently been revived by celebration of its centenary. As part of the World Fair held in Chicago to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of America by Christopher Columbus, a World’s Parliament of Religions was held, at the suggestion of Charles Bonney. The invitation to members of all major religions to participate made the event significant. The 1893 Parliament, which I have described in Pilgrimage of Hope is widely regarded as the beginning of the interfaith movement, although no continuing body was established (5). The organization now known as the International Association for Religious Freedom, was formed in 1900, although at that time it drew most of its support from Unitarians and Universalists and was only in embryonic form an interfaith organization. The International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) held its first Congress in Paris in 1901. This was devoted to the scientific and historical study of religions and at the time was for European scholars in this field.

At the 1933 Parliament - still a forgotten event - twenty seven gatherings were held in Chicago, with a massive total attendance of 44,000 people. Sir Francis Younghusband, in an address to the Parliament, stressed that ‘the spirit of active good-will had now to be applied on a far larger - on a world wide - scale. Out of the very agony of war and out of the despair of economic problems we have, of set design, to make good come. Otherwise, we shall be no worthy agents of the World Spirit’ (6).

Younghusband seems to have been encouraged by the organizers to arrange the World Fellowship of Faiths’ second international congress in London. The World Congress of Faiths of 1936 did indeed maintain the objects of the World Fellowship of Faiths and the name of the Fellowship’s International President, HH The Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda, was shown on the literature. Subsequently, when after the 1936 Congress, the World Congress of Faiths Continuation Movement was established, WCF became an independent body.

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