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Pluralism and the American Mainstream: The View from the World's Parliament of Religions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Richard Hughes Seager
Harvard University


The Examiner reported that throughout the day hundreds of would-be spectators and scalpers charging three and four dollars for tickets gathered on Chicago's downtown streets. The evening plenary session was repeated twice; each time “three thousand men and women were on their feet waving handkerchiefs, clapping hands, and cheering.” Julia Ward Howe “kissed her hand in benediction of the Parliament”; the “Jewish rabbi and the Catholic Bishop asked God's blessing upon its work which is now a part of history.” Christian and Hebrew, Buddhist and Moslem, the Examiner announced, all “spoke for a universal religion, advocated it in fact, and fervently hoped for some such … happy consummation as the outcome of this great and historic gathering.”

Research Article
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1989

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1 Francisco, SanExaminer (28 September 1893) 2. The World's Parliament of Religions was convened in Chicago, Illinois from 11 to 28 September 1893. Held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition, the Parliament was considered by many to be the most sublime expression of ‘the Columbian spirit,’ a boldly optimistic and celebratory mood that seized the nation on the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World. A Chicago committee is currently working on plans for a centennial to be held in 1993.Google Scholar

2 Müller, F. Max, “The Real Significance of the Parliament of Religions,” Arena 61 (December 1894) 14.Google Scholar

3 Candlin, George, “Results and Mission of the Parliament of Religions,” Biblical World n.s. 5 (1895) 373Google Scholar. For Latas, see Barrows, John Henry, ed., The World's Parliament of Religions: An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World's Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the World's Columbian Exposition (2 vols.; Chicago: Parliament Publishing Co., 1893) 1Google Scholar. 358. For Ashmore, see Pierson, A. T., “The Parliament of Religions: A Review,” Missionary Review of the World n.s. 7 (December 1894) 891–92Google Scholar. For contrasting “new and larger Pentecost” citations, see Barrows, World's Parliament, 1. 509; 2. 1338, 1346.

4 Kitagawa, Joseph, “The World's Parliament of Religions and Its Legacy” (Eleventh John Nuveen Lecture; Chicago: University of Chicago Divinity School, 1983) 1.Google Scholar

5 The Barrows volumes are presented as the “official” collection of Parliament papers. Other somewhat shorter collections also exist, including, Houghton, Walter R., ed., Neely's History of the Parliament of Religions at the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: F. T. Neely, 1893)Google Scholar, and Hanson, J. W., ed., The World's Congress of Religions: The Addresses and Papers Delivered before the Parliament (Chicago: W. B. Conkey, 1894).Google Scholar

6 Moore, R. Laurence, “Protestant Unity and the American Mission—The Historiography of a Desire,” in idem, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 321.Google Scholar

7 An excellent reflection on the historiographic changes at this time can be found in Bucher, Glenn, “Options for American Religious History,” TToday 33 (1976) 178–88Google Scholar. Of particular interest is Bucher's observation that from Sydney Ahlstrom's point of view, starting as he did with the Puritan experience in old and New England, the 1960s represented the beginnings of a post-Puritan era in American religious history. For Sidney Mead, however, for whom the fulcrum of American religious history was the eighteenth century, the 1960s represented the natural fulfillment of the ideals of the Enlightenment. In this context, the Parliament can be seen either as a harbinger of Ahlstrom's collapse or of Mead's fulfillment. Given the fact that the Parliament was an international rather than a strictly national event, it seems more accurate to see it as a part of the spread of the Enlightenment both in the U.S. and overseas—what William McNeil called the “onset of global cosmopolitanism”—than to confine it within the strictures of American Protestant categories. McNeil, William, A World History (London: Oxford University Press, 1979) 413–20.Google Scholar

8 Kitagawa, Joseph M., “Humanistic and Theological History of Religions With Special Reference to the North American Scene,” in Slater, Peter and Wiebe, Donald, eds., Traditions in Contact and Change: Selected Proceedings of the XIVth Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983) 560. I use the term “comparativist” in full knowledge of the fact that many in the field prefer the phrase “historian of religions.” In the American field, many historians who no longer think of themselves as “church historians” often call themselves “historians of religion,” but do not mean to imply by this that they follow the methods of Religionswissenschaft. To avoid undue confusion, I use “Americanist” to refer to those who study religion in the United States and “comparativist” to denote those who study the religions of the world in a more or less comparative framework of understanding.Google Scholar

9 Jordan, Louis Henry, Comparative Religion: Its Genesis and Growth (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1905) 198, 392–93.Google Scholar

10 Kitagawa, “Humanistic and Theological History,” 553–63.

11 Comparativists whose major concern is with classical expressions of great traditions have often had difficulty in adequately conceptualizing the complex and ambiguous terrain presented by religion in the modern period. Joachim Wach, for instance, went to great lengths to distinguish the criteria of real as opposed to what he called modern “pseudo-religions”; Wach, Joachim, The Comparative Study of Religion (ed. Kitagawa, Joseph M.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1958) 2758Google Scholar. Kitagawa seems to have maintained this stance in his Nuveen Lecture, when he suggested that in the West the Renaissance gave birth to “a pseudo-religion of secularized salvation” in the form of faith in human progress and civilization (“World's Parliament of Religions,” 2). Elsewhere (“Humanistic and Theological History,” 563) Kitagawa argued that comparativists must develop categories of analysis through the study of “classical forms of religions in which religious manifestations are more clearly discernible than in the ambiguities of modern and less-known pre-civilized situations.” For historians whose field of study is the modern period, however, a priori definitions of real and pseudo-religion based on classical examples obfuscate much of what is important in the modern period: the diverse forms of religious experience outside traditional churches; politically tinged religious expressions such as “nationalism” and “civil religion”; and the emergence of syncretistic forms of religions that are in part by-products of the East/West encounter. It is highly suggestive that Kitagawa understood both the modern and primitive situations to defy the clarity of classical definitions of religion. The “worldview analysis” of Ninian Smart offers a more productive approach to religious history in the modern period. See, e.g., Smart, Ninian, Religion and the We stern Mind (Albany: Suny Press, 1987).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 The numerous studies of selected episodes in the East/West encounter do not constitute a coherent field of study, but considerable and varied attention has been given to the historical construction of the highly ambiguous East/West dichotomy. See, e.g., Hay, Stephen N., Asian Ideas of East and West: Tagore and His Critics in Japan, China, and India (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Said, Edward W., Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978)Google Scholar; Turner, Bryan S., Marx and the End of Orientalism (London: Allen & Unwin, 1978)Google Scholar; and Nandy, Ashis, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).Google Scholar

13 Bucher, “Options,” 185–88; Ahlstrom, Sydney, “The Problem of the History of Religion in America,” CH 3 (1970) 230–33.Google Scholar

14 For an early call for the use of the methodologies of history of religions in the study of American religion, see Brauer, Jerald C., “Changing Perspectives on Religion in America,” in idem, ed., Reinterpretation in American Church History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968) 128Google Scholar. Brauer urged church historians to begin to utilize the insights of the history of religions school, but he considered it prudent for them to limit their attention to Christianity, effectively gutting the comparative dimension to the history of religions project. Cf. his perspective to Kitagawa's, who considered the history of religions school to have as its scope nothing less than “thinking about the religious history of the human race” (Kitagawa, “Humanistic and Theological History,” 561). For recent studies that have utilized interpretive perspectives from the history of religions school in treatments of standard American church history topics, see Shipps, Jan, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985),Google Scholar and Bozeman, Theodore Dwight, To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism (Chapel Hill: The Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA/University of North Carolina Press, 1988)Google Scholar. In a very different vein, Charles Long has reflected on the broader contours of American civilization, particularly the black experience, with interpretive perspectives derived from phenomenology and linguistic theory. Long, Charles H., Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986).Google Scholar

15 One historian working on both Asian and American materials in a history of religions vein is Ellwood, Robert S. Jr; see his Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973)Google Scholar; Alternative Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)Google Scholar; The Eagle and the Rising Sun: Americans and the New Religions of Japan (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974)Google Scholar; and Japanese Religion: A Cultural Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985)Google Scholar. Somewhat different is the work of Prebish, Charles, Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit Pratimoksa Sutras of the Mahasamghikas and Mulasarvastivadins (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975)Google Scholar, and American Buddhism (North Scituate, MA: Duxbury, 1979).Google Scholar

16 Ahlstrom, Sydney, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972)Google Scholar; and Albanese, Catherine, America: Religion and Religions (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1981).Google Scholar

17 Historiographic change has of course continued, particularly as as result of the prominence of a new generation of evangelicals among church historians. For a current historiographic and methodological reflection, see Lotz, David W., “A Changing Historiography: From Church History to Religious History,” in idem, ed., Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America 1935–1985 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989). Lotz notes the radical religious plurality of contemporary American religion (“a veritable supermarket of faiths,” 333), but his real concern is with a “new style church history” that is both historical-critical and theological, which he describes as “the history of the communal handing on down—the traditioning—of the Christian gospel” as it occurs in preaching, sacraments, worship, missions, catechesis, and biblical exegesis of the “church catholic” (337–39). Lotz's vision is at once creative and stimulating, but, given the recent emphasis on pluralism, somewhat reactionary. His emphasis on a “church catholic,” while recognizing “diversity-in-unity,” suggests both an ecumenical spirit and an implicit return to a fundamental emphasis on Christian unity, presumably on evangelical terms.Google Scholar

18 Jordan, Comparative Religion, 198, 392–93. Persons, Stow, Free Religion: An American Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947) 97Google Scholar. Subsequent treatments that link the Parliament to Unitarianism include Lavan, Spencer, Unitarians in India: A Study in Encounter and Response (Boston: Beacon, 1977)Google Scholar. Lavan, however, mistook Presbyterian John Henry Barrows, the Parliament's chairman, for Samuel J. Barrows, the editor of the Unitarian Christian Register. See also Graham, Thomas, “Jenkin Lloyd Jones and the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893,” Association for Liberal Religious Studies: Collegium Proceedings 1 (1979) 6281.Google Scholar

19 Carter, Paul A., The Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971) 199221.Google Scholar

20 Jackson, Carl T., The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981) 243–61.Google Scholar

21 Fields, Rick, How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (Boulder: Shambala, 1980) 119–29.Google Scholar

22 Braybrooke, Marcus, Inter-Faith Organizations, 1893–1979: An Historical Directory (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1980) 8, 7.Google Scholar

23 Hutchison, William R., Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) 105–9.Google Scholar

24 Bosch, David J., “The Church in Dialogue: From Self-Delusion to Vulnerability,” Missiology: An International Review 16 (1988) 131–47.Google Scholar

25 Marty, Martin E., Modern American Religion, vol. 1: The Irony of It All (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) 1731.Google Scholar

26 Kitagawa, “World's Parliament of Religions,” 1–13.

27 Herberg, Will, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955) 227.Google Scholar

28 For issues in Catholicism at this time, see Dolan, Jay P., The American Catholic Experience (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985) 303–20. Part of my research design was to assemble papers scattered throughout Barrows's collection into “delegations” from major groups—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and the various Asian religions—in order to get a more comprehensive picture of the concerns of different traditions. In addition to papers by individuals cited in text, see papers by Semmes, Donnelly, and Gmeiner in Barrows, World's Parliament.Google Scholar

29 For issues in Judaism at this time, see Karp, Abraham J., Haven and Home: A History of the Jews in America (New York: Schocken, 1985) 84110.Google Scholar

30 In addition to papers by individuals cited in text, see papers by Spencer, Hultin, Blackwell, and Sunderland in Barrows, World's Parliament.

31 Murray, John Courtney, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1960) 1822.Google Scholar

32 In addition to papers by individuals cited in text, see papers by Terry, Munger, Haweis, Pratt, Tomlin, and Sunderland in Barrows, World's Parliament.

33 B. W. Arnett and D. A. Payne, bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal church, were present. Payne was on the platform at opening day ceremonies; Arnett made a brief address on the twelfth day of the Parliament, the thirty-first anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Fannie Barrier Williams, a black woman and Chicago Unitarian, delivered an address on the role churches could play to advance the American Negro.

34 For Schaff, see Barrows, World's Parliament, 1. 1192–1201; Bacon, Leonard Woolsey, A History of American Christianity (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1897) 417–19Google Scholar; Little, Charles, “The Chicago Parliament of Religions,” Methodist Review 76 (March 1894) 213–17.Google Scholar

35 Bacon, History, 418.

36 Little, “The Chicago Parliament,” 212.

37 Bonney, Charles Carroll, quoted in Report of the President to the Board of Directors, Appendix A (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1898) 326.Google Scholar

38 For examples of Asian criticisms, see Barrows, World's Parliament, 1. 432–39; 144–50; 767–812; 2. 1012–14; 1283. Asian delegates were more outspoken during the years immediately after the Parliament; see, e.g., “Christian Missions: A Triangular Debate Before the Nineteenth Century Club of New York,” Monist 5 (January 1895) 264–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Telang, Purushotam Rao, “Christian Missions as Seen by a Brahman,” Forum 18 (September 1894/February 1895) 481–89.Google Scholar

39 Mozoomdar's, P. C.The Oriental Christ (Boston: George Ellis, 1883)Google Scholar was a popular devotional text with Boston Unitarians in the 1880s. His presentation of the spirit of Christ in “The World's Religious Debt to Asia” is indicative of an understanding of Jesus current in the Brahmo-Samaj at this time that seems to have informed modernist Buddhists and Hindus alike. See Barrows, World's Parliament, 2. 1083–91. See also Bose, Churesh Chunder, The Life of Protap Chunder Mozoomdar (2 vols.; Calcutta: Nababidhan Trust, 1940) 2. 185200.Google Scholar

40 Barrows, World's Parliament, 2. 906–9, 975–77; 1. 318–27.

41 Chicago Tribune (17 September 1893) 1.Google Scholar

42 In addition to papers by individuals cited in text, see paper in Barrows, World's Parliament, 1. 345–51 and 2. 1226–29 for the reform view of the Brahmo-Samaj.

43 Ibid., 1.450.

44 Ibid., 1.779.

45 Braybrooke, Inter-Faith Organizations, 8.

46 Carus, Paul, “The World's Parliament Extension,” Monist 5 (April 1895) 346–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jones, Jenkin Lloyd, “The Parliament's Challenge to the Unitarians,” Unity 32 (January 1894) 306–7.Google Scholar

47 Abbott, Lyman, “Lesson from the Parliament of Religions,” in Weems, Charles, ed., Christian Thought (New York: Wilbur Ketcham, 18931894) 220–23Google Scholar; letter from George Candlin to Charles Bonney quoted in ‘‘The Parliament of Religions,’ Chinese Recorder 25 (January 1894) 36.Google Scholar

48 For the Presbyterian Journal, see press notices reprinted in Christian Register 72 (September 1893) 617–18Google Scholar; Pierson, “Columbian Exposition,” 9; Little, “Chicago Parliament,” 208–9; Chicago Tribune (24 September 1893) 12.Google Scholar

49 Trumbull, M. M., “The Parliament of Religions,” Monist 5 (April 1894) 333–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Allen, Joseph Henry, “The Alleged Sympathy of Religions,” New World 4 (June 1895) 319–21Google Scholar; Chadwick, John White, “Universal Religion,” New World 3 (September 1894) 411–16.Google Scholar

50 Almost immediately upon its discovery, religious pluralism was seen by some commentators as a social problem. Among the earliest was Robert Bellah, the first theoretician of civil religion (The Broken Covenant [New York: Seabury, 1975])Google Scholar. For a more recent but equally influential discussion, see Neuhaus, Richard John, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986)Google Scholar. Neuhaus described pluralism as a “legalized secular distortion of Judeo-Christian concern for the marginal,” lamented the fact that pluralism tends to undercut dogmatic claims, and correctly pointed to the fact that the meaning of pluralism is in flux in contemporary usage (144–49). As social commentators and political and moral theologians, Bellah and Neuhaus quite rightly see the challenges presented by pluralism to social and moral consensus. The role of social critic, however, seems somewhat inappropriate to the historian of religions whose major concern is with the analysis and description of the varied forms of human religiosity.

51 Ahlstrom, Religious History, 1037–54. Ahlstrom discussed eastern religion in the United States under the heading “Piety for the Age of Aquarius,” lumping together theosophical movements, occultism, and Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bahai. While this is not an inaccurate portrayal of the kaleidoscopic interests of the largely white counter-culture in the 1960s, it does little service to the burgeoning of Asian religions in the United States. Charles Prebish (American Buddhism, 39) makes a better point when he notes that in the case of Buddhism, “by the close of the decade of the 1960s America had virtually the full range of Buddhist traditions and sects arrive on its soil.” Asian religion in immigrant communities is a related but different question. For an excellent treatment of the Japanese Buddhist experience on the west coast, see Tuck, Donald R., Buddhist Churches of America: Jodo Shinshu (Studies in American Religion 38; Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1987)Google Scholar. For religion among recent Indian and Pakistani immigrants, see Williams, Raymond Brady, Religions of Immigrants from India and Pakistan: New Threads in the American Tapestry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).Google Scholar

52 For a stark contrast between the more popular reaches of these two movements, cf. the interpretatins of American religious history implicit in Ferguson, Marilyn, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980)Google Scholar; and Hunt, Dave, America: The Sorcerer's New Apprentice: The Rise of New Age Shamanism (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988)Google Scholar. Catherine Albanese, reviewing the attempt by sociologists Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney to chart a new emerging center in American religion, noted that fundamentalists and New Agers, for all their differences, share many characteristics of a “species of mysticism” that may be typical of an emerging American “ethnos.” Albanese's attempt to characterize American religion in terms of a national style or ethnicity may be more helpful in coming to understand what unites a plural America than attempts to chart a demographic center. Albanese, Catherine, “Religion and the American Experience: A Century After,” CH 57 (1988) 337–51.Google Scholar

53 David Tracy has recently discussed both the challenge and the opportunity presented by pluralism in all its complexity. Although writing as a theologian, Tracy hits the right beat for a new wave of studies of American pluralism, one more informed by the comparativist's concern for the human experience of the sacred than those older studies which were an outgrowth of the mainstream and fringe model of American religious history; see Tracy, David, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, and Hope (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987).Google Scholar

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