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The Conference at Stockholm

by Lynn Harold Hough

Lynn Harold Hough, Methodist clergyman and contributing editor to the Christian Century, attended the World Missionary Conference in Stockholm in 1925. This first hand report appeared in the Christian Century, September 24, 1925. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


"Christianity is the name of a number of different religions," says the cynic. And indeed there are times when the differences between the groups within the Christian Church seem quite as great as those which divide the groups outside. There are men who believe that Christianity is an immutable body of absolute truth. There are those who believe that Christianity is a growing and evolving organism. There are men who believe that Christianity is essentially a mystic fellowship of the soul with God. There are those who believe that Christianity is essentially a productive social passion. There are those who believe that Christianity is a lovely ritual, an organism of sacraments, the essential and perfect vehicle of the divine grace. There are those who believe that Christianity is essentially a voice, a flashing of inspired thought from mind to mind, a perpetuation of the fire of prophecy. Can these and all the others meet in some deep and understanding unity of spirit? Can the contradictions be forgotten in the presence of the living Lord? Can the many religious groups stand together as one religion in the face of the need of the world? The reply to all these questions is that in a measure at least all of these things have been done in this year of grace 1925 at the beautiful city of Stockholm, when seven hundred delegates from all about the world met to consider the problems of life and work which confront the Christian Church.

It was a gathering full of the pageantry which captures the eye. The stately processional in the cathedral, the brilliant reception by the king and the queen in the royal palace, the fairly glittering banquet when about twenty-five hundred people were guests of the city of Stockholm in the magnificent town hall -- these and many another event gave a kind of purple richness to the conference. All that grace and dignity and graciousness could do to give the gathering a noble setting was done by the king, the people and the city. It was rather remarkable to see the crown prince at almost every session of the conference listening intently to all the addresses. The patriarchs from oriental churches gave a touch of remote and baffling color to the scene. And as the days wore on they seemed more and more at home with their brethren of the West. The requiem service in memory of the Russian patriarch Tikhon was a grave and memorable ritual set all about words of wise and gracious appreciation of a brave spirit.

The three languages used were English, French and German. In the case of many of the addresses copies in two of these languages were scattered through the assembly while the speaker used the third. In other cases a translator gave a brief summary. It was all done with great skill, and the daily paper Life and Work kept the delegates in close contact with every detail of the program. Reports of commissions which had been considering the great themes of the conference were ready for the perusal of all.

If you looked out from the speakers’ platform, to the right sat a group of Germans. At the front were the Orientals. Back of them from right to left were the Americans and the British, and to the far left the French and other Europeans. The galleries held spectators whose forms, leaning forward, would indicate moments of tense interest and dramatic quality.

Such moments indeed there were. To be sure, matters of Faith and Order were carefully ruled out, but every question regarding the practical application of Christianity came in for frank and free discussion. And there was no attempt to disguise those disagreements which emerged as the discussions wore on. God’s purposes for the world, economic and industrial problems, social and moral problems, international relations, Christian education and plans and methods of co-operation were all discussed from almost every conceivable point of view. At the king’s formal opening of the conference in the royal palace there was a hint of the fashion in which varied attitudes were meeting. His Majesty in a few wise and thoughtful words had opened the assembly. The patriarch and pope of Alexandria in a brief address in graceful French quoted the apostle Peter as placing the king in the world "first after God" (la première place après Dieu). It was rather a relief when Dr. Brown followed with words of appreciation for "Your Majesty’s welcome on behalf of the people of Sweden." No finer act of courtesy characterized the whole gathering than the sentence in the Lord Bishop of Winchester’s address to the king: "We represent the free churches, the Presbyterian churches and the Anglican communion both in Britain and in the various parts of our empire." That placing of the free churches first by an Anglican prelate will not be forgotten. And here it must be said that the opening sermon by the Bishop of Winchester in the cathedral was a noble and fearless call for that deep and fruitful change of mind which would enable the church to face its responsibilities in the world.

From the first address by "Seine Magnifizenz der Landesbischof von Sachsen" (Dr. Ihmels) it was evident that the German delegation represented what to the Anglo-Saxon groups was a strange and baffling point of view. There was moral vigor and spiritual depth, and often the very greatest intellectual subtlety and dialectical ability in these German addresses. But the sense of social Christianity as men have dreamed of it and worked for it in England and America since the days of Maurice and Kingsley, of Josiah Strong and Walter Rauschenbusch was entirely absent. It was as if the original inwardness of the Lutheran position, driven to even profounder depths by the pain and passion and tragedy following the war, had become the defining element of the Christian faith to these men and women. They could speak with astounding insight of the life within. They stood with what seemed at times a bitterly cynical anger in the presence of the sanctions of an interpretation essentially social. That the sword had deeply entered their souls was evident enough. Even when a gallant Frenchman with a gift for the sort of passionate oratory which reaches the heart stretched his hands toward the German group and cried, "We want to love you," there was not a movement of applause from the Teutonic section. Now and then a flaming word torn from the heart of some German speaker revealed the intenseness of his loyalty to the lost cause, and one began to understand a little the temper which in extreme cases believes that the whole matter of the rights and wrongs of the war must yet be investigated but that only Germans possess the scientific qualities of mind necessary for an adequate investigation.

That there was a minority in the German delegation we learned to be true, but the delegation always acted as a unit and the minority did not find a voice. But the spiritual temper of the conference was such that it was not anger which this group aroused. Even the one tense moment, when a speaker authoritatively stated that if certain things were done the German delegation must leave the conference, passed safely. The psychology of a defeated nation is always a tale of sad and baffled inward turning, and the conference never forgot that these men and women, so many of them with somber faces and all of them with such sad and bitter and baffled thoughts, were brothers and sisters who must receive the fullest consideration, the most gracious and understanding sympathy. Perhaps some members of the English group went farthest in the attempt to enter into the very meaning of the experience of the German group. And in individual cases there resulted a deep and hearty fellowship full of promise for the future.

The French group was characterized by a bright and winged clarity of speech. There was often a sympathy for groups outside the immediate circle of organized Christianity which expressed itself with an almost lyric eagerness. Oratory of a very high and authentic quality characterized some of the French utterances. But all the while in the background there was a lurking fear, a sense of the need of "security," a sense of living where earthquakes shake the ground, which made one feel how full of danger is a future built upon the life of peoples in whose hearts anxious suspicion dwells. One evening at Skansen a distinguished member of the French delegation dined with a little group of us. As we looked out over the water with the fascination of gay bright lights playing upon our eyes, he talked with complete and disarming frankness. He admitted the presence of a military group in France. It was evident that with his simple and sincere purpose of good will this was a party to be repudiated. But all the while we felt that the word "security" was a deep and abiding watchword with him. World-wide good will? Yes, surely. But first of all security for torn and bleeding France. One went back to the great conference thinking deep and serious thoughts. How can these suspicions be quieted? How can peace really be brought to the minds and hearts of men?

The British group carried itself with great urbanity. There was constant intercourse between its leaders and members of the American group. It became clear that the great debt which the British are facing so heroically was weighing most heavily upon the men who were so ready to meet as intimate friends their American associates. Perhaps it would be putting the matter too strongly to say that there was an unexpressed bitterness. But one did come to the end of long and intimate conversations with the feeling that there are matters of fact which need most careful consideration as we come to the heartiest understanding with our British friends. Once and again the statement was made, in groups which were discussing these matters informally, that the whole amount borrowed by Britain from the United States had been used not by Britain but by her allies, so that the debt under which she is staggering is entirely a debt incurred for other nations. If my memory serves me, this is essentially the statement made by Lord Balfour a little while ago and almost summarily contradicted by a high official at Washington. It ought not to be too hard to get at the facts, and no one would welcome them, in whichever direction they weigh, more than our British friends.

Of course all this is incidental in respect of the larger matter that no British Christian leader really understands the aloofness of the United States in an hour when the world is staggering under an almost unbearable burden, and when the matter is put in this fashion the memory that Britain adopted just such an attitude of aloofness after the Napoleonic wars does not really constitute a defense of our position. Whatever can be said from the standpoint of the give-and-take of cool and cynical diplomacy, it can scarcely be urged that at this point we are on Christian ground. But these things cannot be said in any deep way to have interfered with the fellowship of British and American delegates. No end of the most intimate sort of friendships cross lines which separate the English-speaking peoples. Personally I was never happier at Stockholm than when off for a walk with some English friend, and the very proof of the depth and reality of the friendship was that it stood the test of the frankest sort of talk.

In the conference itself differences of position between the groups of delegates of various communions and nations came to sharp expression, oddly enough first in respect of the matter of birth control. It was an American who in a keen and passionate address threw down the gauntlet in favor of this reform. And there was something strangely naïve about the reply of the lady from Germany who with obvious and hearty sincerity declared that girls should be brought up to think of bringing children into the world with joyous anticipation and to trust the good Lord for the future of the children when they had come. It is to be feared that the wife of a drunkard looking forward to another arrival in a home already bitterly pinched by poverty would not find much comfort in these glowing words.

The second matter of open difference had to do with prohibition. And here one must refer to the strange and difficult address of Lord Salveson. As a distinguished jurist, as a representative of that British fair play which is colloquially expressed in the splendid word "cricket," one felt that one had a right to expect not only the frank and honest expression of the attitude of a man who did not believe in prohibition, but a certain noble courtesy toward those whose position he was attacking, and a certain special care not to misstate their attitude or any matters with respect to their action. Very reluctantly one is driven to say that his address was an expression of temperament rather than the statement of a poised and careful mind, and that his misstatements in respect of matters of fact were particularly baffling in a man who holds the high and demanding position of a judge. It is not strange that a group of Americans issued a protest not against his lordship’s position but in respect of the misstatements which his address contained.

In respect of the matter of the attitude of the church toward war there was of course a deep and honest difference of opinion. And there was a clear and unhesitating expression of this difference. The hatred of war was definite and perhaps one may say universal. But opinion varied from the absolutist position to the view that war is a necessity in the present situation in the life of the world. The very discussion, however, cleared the air and the net result was surely to give propulsion to all those forces set in battle array against war itself.

The really remarkable thing about the conference was just that with these and other differences of opinion fellowship was never broken. The message sent out at last was inevitably a sort of "common for all" which by no means reflects the moral and spiritual altitudes reached by the conference. The message represents a point from which we will move forward. The noblest individual utterances represent the heights to which we must climb.

The sense of the underprivileged, of the lot of the poor, of the need of social and economic readjustment, of the yeast moving with insurgent power in the life of youth, of the physical basis for full living in adequate housing, of the necessity of steady employment and at a wage which leaves a margin for recreation and culture, the sense of the world as an organism and the commanding hope of humanity as a vast fraternity of good will -- a league of friendly minds -- moved in and out of the thought of the conference, found a place in its conscience, and at last for many became a shining and alluring ideal to whose realization there must be given a supreme consecration and a passionate loyalty.

Individual men made superb contributions. The Archbishop of Upsala was indefatigable in his labors. Dr. Henry Atkinson embodied the genius of efficient organization and hearty good will. Dr. Adams Brown was a quiet influence making for amity between international groups. Bishop Brent struck a deep chord which vibrated through the whole conference. Principal Garvie was all the while touching varied groups with a kindly intellectual sympathy which had its own secrets of power. Dr. Worth Tippy made his influence felt in a far-reaching way in the consideration of economic problems in committee and before the conference. Pasteur Wilfred Monod put a passionate social and religious sympathy into the very heart of the conference at its beginning. Men like Dr. S. Parkes Cadman and Dean Shailer Mathews made their presence and influence felt in manifold ways. And so one might go on and on.

The informal meeting of groups which crossed the national lines was one of the happiest features of the conference. And the presence of capable and able religious journalists like Mr. Porritt of the Christian World and Dr. Lynch of Christian Work, and of understanding interpreters like Edward Shillito of London, who is to edit the volume which will report the conference, meant an enriching of the life of the gathering as well as a profoundly understanding setting forth of its activities through the religious press.

Of course there were some personal actions which one is sorry to remember. The American who wrote to Stockholm suggesting that he be entertained by the crown prince scarcely represented our best tradition. But altogether the gathering was swept by too large a purpose and too noble a passion for the frequent emergence of these unlovely personal attitudes. Sometimes a moment of lofty intellectual perspective was reached, as when Dr. Carnegie Simpson brought the discipline of a highly articulated mind to the analysis of the meaning of personality. So in informal discussion, in public address and debate, in the work of committee and commission, the delegates met together day after day. And all the while the meaning of a Christendom organized for justice and fraternity, for the piety which enfranchises the individual and liberates society, was unfolding before their eyes. Men at the conference often thought and spoke of Nicaea. It is not impossible that in a millennium and a half men may think and speak of Stockholm.


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