3. World Fellowship Through Religion: The 1936 Congress

A Wider Vision: A History of the World Congress of Faiths, 1936 - 1996
by Marcus Braybrooke

3. World Fellowship Through Religion: The 1936 Congress

Formal preparations for the World Congress of Faiths began on 16th November 1934 - exactly four years before I was born.

Younghusband had no illusions about the size and complexity of the task. 'Make the creation of a world fellowship a great adventure, a most difficult and heroic task requiring all the manliness, courage, skill, equanimity of any great military or exploring adventure', he jotted down in his notebook on Christmas day 1934 (1). This notebook, in which Younghusband wrote down ideas as they came to him and in which he planned out meetings, illuminates the more official records contained in the minutes of various committee meetings.

The minutes of the first meeting make clear the link with the World Fellowship of Faiths, which had arranged the Second World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1933. At the first meeting the short title 'International Congress of Faiths' was adopted. Subsequently it was suggested that this be changed (12.7.35) to World Congress of Faiths, with the subtitle 'Fellowship Through Religion'. After conversation with Mr Das Gupta, one of the organizers of the 1933 Chicago gathering, it was agreed that the title of the Congress be 'The World Congress of Faiths, being the Second International Congress of the World Fellowship of Faiths'.

The name 'World Congress of Faiths' has survived, - an alternative at the time was 'The All Faiths Fellowship'. It has sometimes been felt to be misleading and suggestions have been made to change it. Despite Younghusband's hopes, WCF is not really a world body, but rather a British-based organization, although readership of its journal, World Faiths Encounter, is scattered across the world. 'Congress of World Faiths' might be better. For a time the subtitle 'The Inter-Faith Fellowship' was given prominence on the notepaper. The use of initials, WCF, can hide precision of meaning. The name has survived, partly because it is known in various reference books and partly because human inertia has avoided the legal efforts necessary to change a name and a constitution. Not that anyone has come up with a more compelling name.

The first meeting of the Executive took steps to establish a National Council. It was also soon agreed that all who contributed £1 should be considered members of the Congress. It was also decided to establish an International Council.

The original plan was to have the first part of the Congress in London and then to move to Oxford, where the conference would become residential. In fact, it was to be a non-residential conference in London. By early 1935, it had been agreed that the Congress should be in July 1936.

At the meeting of the National Council on February 27th 1935, Younghusband explained that three main ideas were to be taken over from the Second Chicago World Parliament of Religions.

'1. Working for World Fellowship;

2. Welcoming the necessary differences among fellows in any fellowship;

3. Uniting the inspiration of all Faiths upon the Solution of man's present problems' (2).

At the same meeting, Younghusband also explained the Executive's proposal that the subject should be 'World Fellowship Through Religion'. He also introduced a statement, which still has a contemporary resonance, of the hindrances and aids to the achievment of fellowship:


a. Fear, suspicion, hatred and other forms of spiritual instability which lead to wars between nations and conflicts between individuals.

b. Nationalism in excess or defeat.

c. Racial antagonism and Race Domination.

d. Religious Differentiation.

e. Class Domination.

f. Poverty.

g. Ignorance.

Aids to the Achievment of Fellowship:

a. Education (Literary, Scientific, Philosophic or Religious)

b. Improved economic conditions.

c. Drama, Music or other forms of art.

d. Examples of saintly and heroic lives held up for emulation.

e. Prayer.

f. Concentrated Meditation on the Supremely perfect things in life.

g. Sharing spiritual experiences

h. Common pursuit of Truth, common enjoyment of beauty, common worship of

a God common to all mankind. Common deeds of Charity (3).

The minutes for the meeting on April 4th, illustrate the varying reactions of the Anglican clergy to the proposal. The Chairman reported on an interview which he had had with the Archbishop of Canterbury and read the letter which he had received. This explained that the Archbishop was unable to accept an invitation to be President of the Congress. As the next item of business, however, Younghusband announced that the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral would be glad to welcome members of the Congress to a service there.

I have not been able to find the Archbishop's letter. The Lambeth Palace archives, however, contain correspondence from Buckingham Palace asking Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang's advice. The first letter asked how the Archbishop thought King Edward VIII should reply to Sir Francis Younghusband's request that he should preside at the opening session of the Congress. Lang in his reply to Commander Campbell said that he had told Younghusband that he personally could not take part in the Congress 'for the reason that this might be taken to imply that I thought Christianity was only one of many religions in spite of being as I believed the true religion based upon Divine Revelation'. Although, as the Archbishop admitted, some respectable Church of England clergy had given the Congress their sanction, he concluded that 'I am disposed to think His Royal Highness might well decline the invitation' (4).

In the middle of June, the Palace again asked for the Archbishop's advice. This time the question was whether The King should accept a telegram of loyal greetings and send a reply. Lang, this time, was more amenable. 'The Christian religion', he wrote, 'while having much in common with other great world religions, is unique in that it is based on a specific Divine revelation'. Nonetheless, those attending the Congress were people of 'the highest respectability'. Lang, therefore, thought that if the King was sent a telegram, there was 'no reason why His Majesty should not send a reply in a guarded form'. The message, preserved in the WCF archives, expresses thanks for the greetings of the Congress and continues, 'I earnestly hope that the deliberations of the Congress may help to strengthen the spirit of peace and good-will on which the well-being of mankind depends' (5).

The Lambeth archive also contains a pamphlet, World Fellowship Through Religion, written by Rev O Younghusband, a cousin of Sir Francis, which asks why no bishop of the Church of England attended the Congress. For Sir Francis too it remained a puzzle and a disappointment that so few leading members of the Church of England gave the Congress their backing. The only Anglicans on the Council in 1939 were the Deans of St Paul's and of Canterbury, Canon Raven, Dr Major and Archdeacon Townshend.

The office of the preparatory committee was established at Bedford Square, in the offices of the Society for the Study of Religions. Much of the detailed office work was done by Miss Beatrix Holmes, whom Younghusband described as 'the maid-of-all-work of the WCF'. Arthur Jackman was appointed as 'organising secretary', at a salary of £350 per annum. Jackman had close links with the Theosophical Society. In earlier days, Younghusband had been critical of Theosophy, which he described as a doctrine for 'neurotic and partially educated ladies'. Jackman was to play an important part in the life of WCF until the late forties. It seems that he and Younghusband did not always agree - indeed Younghusband wrote of himself being 'constantly hindered' by Jackman and the Executive Committee. Patrick French also observes that there was a split between idealists and the groupies: the leading public supporters like Gilbert Murray and Herbert Samuel had an inter-faith agenda, but many of the office volunteers were simply fans of Younghusband. Personally he was devoted to the aim of religious fellowship, yet craved the praise and support of his admirers. As he wrote to Helen, his wife, 'It is quite wonderful what appreciation I am getting - far better than any peerages and things' (6).

George Bernard Shaw's response to Younghusband’s request for support is worth recording. Shaw admitted that he 'had found in the East a quality of religion which is lacking in these islands', but he doubted the practicality of uniting 'men of burning faith'. He believed all potential members should be asked a number of questions, including: '1.On what public grounds would you shoot your next door neighbour, excluding those already recognised by our criminal court?' Shaw believed that talk of faith and love and unity was all very well, but that spiritual types were 'extraordinarily quarrelsome' 'Get them round a table to agree on a basic manifesto or spend half a crown of public money, and most of them will make frantic scenes and dash out of the room after hurling their resignations at you' (7). I recall Lady Norman saying after one WCF Executive meeting that if you want an unholy row join a religious committee!

The Congress.

The Congress was held at University College, London, from July 3rd to 18th, 1936. The Congress was not residential and this restricted the social intercourse between participants. Discussion was encouraged and was carried on in good humour. The chairmen and leaders of debate were carefully chosen.

Younghusband persuaded a galaxy of distinguished scholars to speak. It is interesting that the speakers, for the most part, were scholars rather than religious leaders.

The first speaker was Yusuf Ali, Principal of the Islamic College at Lahore and a translator of the Qur'an into English. He spoke of the revolution in communications which was making the world one, but he was equally aware of the deep divisions in the world. He then spoke of his own friendships with members of different religions. 'Thus you will see that, individually, many of us have actually felt and experienced the fellowship of faiths. Why can we not bring it about on a larger scale and in a more organised way? ... The office of Religion is to bind us together in the bonds of a common humanity' (7).

The second speaker was Dr D T Suzuki, whose master had attended the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions. Suzuki was Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Otani University, Kyoto, and his books on Zen Buddhism were widely read in the West. His was a scholarly talk about ignorance and karma, with a careful explanation of the meaning of Sunyata or 'Emptiness'. His closing remarks, in the face of the rise of Fascism in many parts of the world, including his own country, were almost despairing. 'If it is impossible for us, advocating the various faiths of the world, to stem the tide even when we know where it is finally tending, the only thing we can do is to preserve a little corner somewhere on earth, east or west, where our faiths can be safely guarded from utter destruction. When all the turmoils are over ... we may begin to think seriously of the folly we have so senselessly been given up to, and seek the little corner we have saved for this purpose'. 'That at present no nations are willing to have a world religious conference', he added, 'positively demonstrates the truth that our Karma-hindrance still weighs on us too heavily (8).'

Another Buddhist, Professor Malalasekera, from Ceylon, outlined the Buddha's teaching on the Four Noble Truths. He suggested that the promotion of fellowship depended on our own personal growth.

Professor Nicolas Berdiaeff, (as his name is spelt in the Proceedings although Nicolai Berdyaev may be the more familar spelling) an eminent philosopher, echoed Suzuki's sense of impending doom. Berdiaeff had suffered several terms of imprisonment after the Russian Revolution and was exiled from Russia in 1922. 'We live in a cruel, inhuman epoch, when hatred and dissension are rife among nations, states and social classes', he began. Religion had itself been a major cause of discord and dissension. 'Religious fanaticism is one of the most serious deformations of human nature.' In such a divided world, the spiritual integration of Europe and the world was essential. He then argued from Christian sources for co-operation with members of other religions. 'Certain Catholic theologians', he said, 'make a distinction between the soul and the body of the Church; they consider as the body those who formally belong to the organisation of the Church... and they include in the soul those who, without being members of the Church, direct their thoughts towards God and the divine, towards truth and goodness.' Good Hindus and Buddhists belong to the true Church (9). A view which foreshadows both the generosity and condescension of talk of 'anonymous Christians'.

Stressing Christianity's commitment to a true humanism, Berdiaeff called on the Christian conscience to demand a radical change in the relations between the peoples of the world. In face of hostility and hatred in the world, 'it is the duty of the religions to struggle for the brotherhood of man, for the unity of mankind' and 'for the dignity of all human beings as children of God' . Such unity, he suggested, will not come by intellectual nor doctrinal agreement, but out of real spiritual experience of brotherhood and charity.

The two best known Hindu speakers were Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Dr S N Das Gupta, author of a History of Indian Philosophy. Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was about to take up the Spalding Chair of Eastern Religion and Ethics at Oxford and was to be a future President of India. Dr Radhakrishnan studied for a time at Madras Christian College.When I went there as a student, my professor, Dr C T K Chari, arranged with his brother Mr C T Venugopal for me to be received by Dr Radhakrishnan, who was then President of India, at Raj Bhavan. I still recall the President's graciousness and that he walked with us to the door. Later, I was to invite him to become Patron of the World Congress of Faiths, which he accepted. In the early days of WCF, he served on the committee. Radhakrishnan did much to popularize Vedanta in the West and wrote with great elegance. It took Western students some time to realize the enormous variety of Hinduism and to discover that not all Hindus shared Radhakrishnan's Idealist philosphy.

Radhakrishnan had a great sense of the need for spiritual unity to match the growing physical unity of the world. 'Those who believe in humanity and in the power of the spirit to realise ideals must prepare the minds of men for the new world order'. Religions, however, had failed, being often a cause of division rather than a force for unity. The mistake had been to claim finality for certain creeds and doctrines. Spiritual experience goes beyond human descriptions of it. 'When the finite man enters the Divine presence, he discards all images and enters naked, Alone with the Alone... The Supreme ... is grasped as the central reality in the moments of our deepest life and experience'. This view has been widely influential amongst members of WCF, especially in its early days. The claim is that religious differences are at a cultural and intellectual level, whereas the experience of the divine is essentially the same. In this way Absolutist and Personal concepts of the Ultimate are reconciled. Yet, Radhakrishnan argued, human beings cannot dispense with symbols and create a purely spiritual religion (11).

The Congress, he said, did not ask anyone to change their religion. Each had a contribution to make. What was needed was spiritual evolution and a recognition of spiritual unity.

'Fellowship of faiths which implies appreciation of other faiths is no easy indulgence of error and weakness or lazy indifference to the issues involved. It is not the intellectual's taste for moderation or the highbrow's dislike for dogma. It is not the politician's love for compromise or being all things to all men, nor is it simply a negative freedom from antipathies. It is understanding, insight, full trust in the basic reality which feeds all faiths and its power to lead us to the truth. It believes in the deeper religion of the Spirit which will be adequate for all people, vital enough to strike deep roots, powerful to unify each individual in himself and bind us all together by the realisation of our common condition and common goal.'(11)

As a student at Madras Christian College, in my attempt to study Hindu philosophy, I relied on both Dr Radhakrishnan's writings and also Professor S N Das Gupta's History of Indian Philosophy. I also had the privilege in Lucknow of meeting some of those who had worked closely with Das Gupta. I have on my shelves a little book of his on The Fundamentals of Indian Art. I was interested then to find he began by talking about art and its relationship to religion. Both point to the spiritual reality of human nature. Art, Das Gupta said, encourages sympathy with other people and with nature, just as religion should. World Fellowship Through Religion would come, he argued, by spiritual awakening.

All forms of Hindu religion mean a spiritual awakening of the nature in man through an internal transformation of personality, just as art in its varied forms means the creative transformation of a sensuous content for the revelation of the spirit in nature and man. The fellowship of man and the awakening of the spirit are thus the two poles that have determined all religious movements in India' (12).

Another Hindu speaker at the Congress was Professor Mahendra Nath Sircar of Calcutta. He stressed the value of silence in the spiritual life. Other speakers at the Congress included G Ranjee Shahani, Walter Johannes Stein, Editor of 'The Present Age', and the novelist Jean Schlumberger. Professor Marcault of the University of Grenoble stressed the importance of education. A paper by Professor Haldane, written shortly before his death, on ‘Science and Religion,’ was also read.

One of the Jewish speakers Professor J.L.Magnes, President of the Hebrew University, asked whether it was possible to make fellowship in times of war. ‘What could we do during the coming war?’ He questioned religions' readiness to endorse war and called for a fellowship of those who believe no war is righteous, even though they participate in what they think to be a necessary war. 'I regret that in what I have said there is no high note of hope, but only the prospect of dull resistance. In a spirit of deep pessimism I have merely talked of preparing a lowly fellowship of the spirit for use during the coming war' (13).

Shoghi Effendi, the Head of the Baha'is, sent a paper that was read for him. This outlined Baha'u'llah's Ground Plan of World Fellowship. Baha'u'llah taught that religions at heart are one. He recognized that all religious teachers were prophets of God. It was through religion, Shoghi Effendi argued, that humanity will be rescued from dissension and united in a fellowship of hearts.

Islam's emphasis on tolerance and respect for other faiths was described in a careful exposition by Sir Abdul Qadir, a High Court Judge and a Member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India. Islam, he pointed out, means 'Peace'. He tried to dispel misunderstandings of Jihad, which is often translated 'Holy War'. Another Muslim was Sheikh Mohammed Mustapha Al-Maraghi, Rector of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and Ex-Grand Cadi of the Sudan. He stressed that fellowship among men of religion has to precede universal fellowship. He suggested creating a body to cleanse religious consciousness of hatred and jealousy and to strengthen religious awareness, especially amongst the intellectual classes. Professor Louis Massignon, a scholar on Islam from the Sorbonne, also read a paper. Another speaker was Sirdar Mohan Singh, from the Punjab. Mr S I Hsiung gave a talk on the teachings of Confucius.

Christian speakers were Dr J.S Whale, President of Cheshunt College, Cambridge and Rev P.T.R.Kirk, who was Director of the Industrial Christian Fellowship.Whale spoke about aspects of modern life and its challenge to religion - with, in parenthesis, a side swipe at syncretism. Kirk concentrated on the economic barriers to peace.

Many of the published papers are of a high quality. Of greatest interest, perhaps, is the different attitudes which they display towards the relationship of religions to each other. On the one hand, Rev P T R Kirk claimed that Christianity must be accepted by the whole of mankind and Mr Moulvri A R Dard made a similar claim for the Ahmadiyya community. By contrast, the paper prepared by Professor Haldane included this passage:

Many Christians entertain the ideal of converting non-Christian peoples to Christianity. I think that a much higher ideal is to understand and enter into sympathy with the religions which exist in other countries and to use this understanding and sympathy as a basis for higher religion' (14).

Several speakers, such as the Chief Rabbi and Canon Barry, stressed the differences between religions, whereas Ranjee G Shani said the differences were trivial. 'Jesus and Buddha, Shakespeare and Ramakrishna - are in essence "members one of another"'(15).

In general it was agreed that the aim of the Congress was not to create one new synthetic religion, but to generate understanding and a sense of unity between the religions of the world. Rabbi Dr. Israel Mattuck, Chairman of the Executive of the World Union for Progessive Judaism, put it like this:

I am not pleading for one religion to include all men. I like diversity. I should no more want a world with one religion than I should want only one coloured rose in my garden. But we can have diversity without enmity and when we do this, I believe, the world will be more ready to receive our message about human unity and human peace' (16).

Several speakers hoped that the world religions could together work for peace and spiritual uplift. Professor Marcault, a French Professor of Psychology, highlighted the important question of what in practice religions can actually do together. It is not easy to find areas of practical cooperation in which to give concrete expression to the desire to work together. 'Peace and fellowship', he said, 'can only be constructive if they are incarnated in some positive religious aim in whose realization all faiths can agree to cooperate, and whose universality maintains them united'(17).

In his foreword to the published papers, Faiths and Fellowship, Sir Francis Younghusband stressed again that the one aim of the Congress was to promote the spirit of fellowship. He ruled out certain misunderstandings. There was no intention of formulating another eclectic religion, nor of seeking the lowest common denominator, nor of appraising the value of existing religions and discussing respective merits and defects. It was not maintained that all religions are the same, nor equally true, nor as good as one another. The hope was to 'intensify that sense of community which is latent in all men' and to awaken a livelier world-consciousness. Sir Francis mentioned that through discussion and reflection, the conception of God grew greater and that by coming closer to each other, members of different religions deepened their own spiritual communion.

The chair was taken by distinguished scholars, such as Sir E Denison Ross and Professor H G Wood or leading figures, such as the Chief Rabbi, the Aga Khan, Dr C E M Joad and Lord Samuel. Two women were asked to chair sessions: Dame Elizabeth Cadbury and Dame Ogilvie Gordon.

In the evenings there were public meetings. There were also devotional times, led by members of different faiths. These included a Jewish service, led by Rabbi Leslie Edgar, and a Coptic service. Members of the Congress were also invited to services at St Paul's Cathedral and at Canterbury Cathedral. The Government provided a reception at Lancaster House and Sir Francis Younghusband hosted one at the Royal Geographical Society.

Press coverage was mixed. Some letters about the Congress were very hostile, with talk of heathen temples and idols. The Inquirer and The Jewish Bulletin gave active support.

In estimating the value of the Congress, the question has to be asked, as it has to be of the subsequent life of the World Congress of Faiths, whether, however worthy, the aims are sufficiently precise. The question of the relation to each other of the world religions is still much debated. The position of the Congress ruled out the view that any one religion had a monopoly of truth. It assumed that despite differences, the world religions have an affinity, and share a recognition of spiritual reality and of ethical values. It is hardly surprising that many adherents of missionary religions opposed the Congress. On the other hand, the Congress ruled out the attempt to create a new synthetic religion. It insisted that differences are important and must be respected. It was therefore criticized both by those who advocated a new unified religion and by those who held that differences are only external and irrelevant.

Is, then, the promotion of a spirit of fellowship and world loyalty a sufficient aim to engender enthusiasm? Clearly it has been for some, but the number of people, even including religious leaders, with a world consciousness and interest, has been small.

How fellowship is understood may vary considerably. It should imply learning to appreciate others whose values and ways of life are different. In a world of prejudice, this is important, but somewhat negative. Fellowship may be concerned with the discovery of areas of ethical agreement and perhaps with taking common action on certain moral issues.

At its deepest level, the search for fellowship becomes a search for truth and flows from communion with the divine. Here it is assumed that the truth is greater than the understanding of any individual or of any one religion and that by sharing together with members of other faiths, each individual will be deepened in his knowledge of truth and usually in his appreciation of his own religious tradition. It seems that Sir Francis Younghusband saw the development of all these aspects of fellowship as part of the work of the Congress, although he was aware of the difficulty of conveying exactly what he meant by fellowship. He perhaps came nearest to expressing his understanding in a talk given soon after the outbreak of war.

When I speak of fellowship I have found subtler and deeper meanings emerge as I study the idea more closely. It is not exactly either friendship, or companionship, or neighbourliness, or co-operation, though these may develop from it. And the sentiment from which it springs is something more than compassion, for compassion concerns itself with unhappiness alone rather than with both happiness and unhappiness. Even sympathy is associated rather with suffering than with enjoyment. At its intensest and highest, fellowship seems to be a communion of spirit greater, deeper, higher, wider, more universal, more fundamental than any of these - than even love' (18).