!. Beginnings

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

!. Beginnings


1. Beginnings.

. . . I dream’d

That stone by stone I rear’d a sacred fane,

A temple, neither Pagod, Mosque nor Church,

But loftier, simpler, always open-door'd,

To every breath from heaven, and Truth and Peace

And Love and Justice came and dwelt therein.(1).

The dream that the religions of the world might become one in spirit or at least forgo prejudice and hostility and work together for a happier world is an ancient one.

One attempt to realize this vision is the World Congress of Faiths, of which this book is the story. The World Congress of Faiths, however, is built on earlier efforts to translate this dream into a reality.


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. This inspired a (Second) Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1933, which was organized by the Fellowship of Faiths. A second root was the Religions of Empire Conference, held in London in 1924 - sometimes called a Congress of Religions - in connection with the British Empire Exhibition. A third root was the unusual spiritual experiences enjoyed by Francis Younghusband in a long and varied career.

Religions of Empire Conference.

British society has been transformed in the sixty 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.

Queen Victoria, in a proclamation issued in 1858, after the Indian Mutiny, outlined the imperial policy of respect for all religions:

'Firmly relying ourselves on the truth of Christianity and acknowledging with gratitude the solace of religion, we disclaim alike the right and the desire to impose our convictions on any of our subjects. We declare it to be our royal will and pleasure that none be in anywise favoured, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their religion, faith or observances, but that all shall enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law; and we do strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under us that they abstain from all interference with the religious belief or worship of any of our subjects on pain of our highest displeasure' (2).

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 (3). 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' (4). 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 (5).

The Religions of Empire Conference clearly illustrates the importance to the Empire, in some people's minds, of mutual understanding between members of different religions. Ramsey MacDonald, the Prime Minister, sent a message to the conference, saying, 'Many religions and many creeds live in amity within our Empire, each by their different way leading our peoples onward toward some ultimate light. I welcome cordially the objects of the conference and the knowledge which surely it spreads amongst us that our peoples, in the aspiration of the Spirit, "walk not back to back, but with an unity of track"' (6). 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 organizing committee was chaired by Sir Denison Ross, the Director of the School of Oriental Studies in London, who was an expert on Oriental languages and joint author of The Heart of Asia. He insisted that the 'spokesman of each religion should be one who professed such religion'(7). This gave a distinctive character to the conference and was to be copied at the World Congress of Faiths in 1936. At the Conference, Sir Denison explained that 'Up to the present if you want to know about Buddhism or Mohammedanism (the term used throughout the conference) you inevitably went to a European authority for knowledge. You may have read deeply in these religions and yet never heard a native explain the tenets of his belief and what they mean to him and the life of his people. At this conference the believer himself will lecture on his own religion' (8). European scholars took the chair at different sessions, but were not the main speakers.

The speakers, who travelled to London from different parts of the world, were all of a high calibre. The Buddhist speakers, for example, were Dr de Silva and Mr G.P. Malalasekera, who later became a Vice-President of WCF, who both came from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Shoson Miyamoto who came from Japan. Speakers included a Parsee (Zoroastrian), a Jain, a Sikh, Hindus, including both a member of the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj. There was a Sunni Muslim and also a Shi'ite Muslim speaker. The person who attracted greatest press attention was His Holiness Khalifa-Tul-Masih, who was head of the Ahmadiyya movement in India. On arrival at Victoria Station, as he got out of the boat train, he prayed on the platform and his call 'Allah-o-Akbur' echoed round the station. He spoke good English and gave various newspaper interviews. Whilst in Britain, he laid the foundation stone for the first Mosque to be built in London, at Southfields. The Baha'i representatives also attracted attention and there was considerable interest in this 'new' religion. It was originally hoped that Shoghi Effendi, the head of the religion, would himself come to London. In the event, he sent a paper which was read for him. The grandson of Abdul Baha, however, Ruhi Afnan did come. Mr St Barbe Baker, who was later to found 'The Men of the Trees' and was also to become a Vice-President of WCF, spoke about the religion of East Africa.

The conference, as the Evening News put it, was for 'The Queer Religions of the Empire' (9). There were no speakers for Judaism nor Christianity. This was a deliberate decision because the organizers 'considered that their function was chiefly to familiarize those attending the lectures with the religions of the Empire relatively little known in Britain' (10)'.

There was no public discussion. Sir Denison Ross had insisted that the Congress should not take 'a controversial form' (11). All speakers from the platform were accorded an equal status. They were not allowed to introduce matters that were religiously or politically controversial. All papers had to be submitted to the committee in advance.

Yet there was some controversy, partly about Younghusband's opening speech. In it, he said that 'God revealed himself in many ways, and to the followers of other religions than our own may have been revealed much of value to us' (12). He denied preaching the equality of religions, accepting that there would always be clashes of opinion and different ways of worship. Yet he believed that all would feel actuated by a common impulse. His remarks strayed a little beyond the avowed aim of only giving information about religions and he would have liked discussion about religious truth itself. Yet providing sympathetic and accurate information, in the place of prejudicial ignorance, does itself indicate a respect for another religion. Younghusband's comments drew critical comment in some church papers. As the Record put it, 'Christianity is not a competing religion among many others. It is the one and only true religion'(13).

Following the Religions of Empire Conference, Sir Denison Ross and others formed The Society for Promoting the Study of Religions. In the years prior to the meeting of the World Congress of Faiths in 1936, Sir Denison was its Chairman and Sir Francis was Chairman of the Executive. Offices were opened at 17 Bedford Square. It was there that some years later the preparatory committee for the World Congress of Faiths was to meet and there also that for some years WCF was to have its office.


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 was largely forgotten, have recently again 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 (14). 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.

The 1933 Parliament, which is still a forgotten event, was initiated by Charles Weller and Mr Das Gupta. Weller, a social worker, in 1918, started the League of Neighbours, which, in his words was intended to help alien groups such as negroes and foreign born citizens relate to American life. Das Gupta had come in 1908 from India to England, where he found little understanding of Indian culture. To help remedy this, he organized The Union of East and West, which staged a number of plays about Indian life. In 1920, Das Gupta decided to accompany Rabindranath Tagore to the United States. Das Gupta stayed on in the USA and started his Union of East and West there. Early in the 1920s he met Weller. Together they decided to merge the League of Neighbours and the Union of East and West to create The Fellowship of Faiths. This arranged, in several cities, meetings at which a member of one faith paid tribute to another faith. The Fellowship also for a while published a journal called Appreciation.

In May 1929, the Fellowship of Faiths arranged a meeting in Chicago on 'Peace and Brotherhood as Taught by the World's Living Faiths'. This event revived memories of the city's 1893 World's Parliament of Religions. The suggestion was made that a second parliament should be held to coincide with the Second World Fair, which was already being planned for 1933 to mark a 'century of progress'.

At the 1933 Parliament, which Younghusband attended, twenty seven gatherings were held in Chicago, with a massive total attendance of 44,000 people. Some Preliminary meetings were also held in New York. Indeed from November 1932 to May 1933, preparations centred on the New York office. The national chairman was Bishop Francis J McConnell of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Some three hundred people agreed to serve on the national committee of what had now become The World Fellowship of Faiths. Weller and Das Gupta were the General Executives. The World Fellowship of Faiths described itself as 'a movement not a machine; a sense of expanding activities, rather than an established institution, an inspiration more than an achievement. It has never sought to develop a new religion or unite divergent faiths on the basis of a least common denominator of their convictions. Instead, it believes that the desired and necessary human realization of the all-embracing spiritual Oneness of the Good Life Universal must be accompanied by the appreciation (brotherly love) for all the individualities, all the differentiations of function, by which true unity is enriched ' (15).

Bishop McConnell claimed that the 1933 Parliament was an advance on the 1893 Parliament, although in my view he is not entirely fair to the latter. 'The first difference', he said, 'is that instead of a comparative parade of rival religions, all faiths are challenged to manifest or apply their religion by helping to solve the urgent problems which impede man's progress. The second difference is that the word "faiths" is understood to include, not only all religions, but all types of spiritual consciousness or convictions which are determining the actual lives of significant groups of people. Educational, philanthropic, social, economic, national and political "faiths" are thus included. The effort is to help mankind to develop a new spiritual dynamic, competent to master and reform the world' (16). At the time the word 'faith' was used in a wider sense than 'religion', although today sometimes the two terms are used as synonyms.

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' (17).

Younghusband seems to have been encouraged by the organizers to arrange the World Fellowship of Faiths' second international congress in London. Mr Das Gupta returned to Britain and regularly attended meetings of the Preparatory Committee for the London Congress. He soon discovered that Younghusband was used to being in charge. Indeed one minute records that Younghusband explained that the usual practice for an international body was that whilst the general principles were adhered to, the organization was the responsibility of the national committee. This certainly was the practice until after the Second World War of the International Association for the History of Religions. It is only quite recently that air travel has made possible genuinely international planning committees.

The World Congress of Faiths of 1936 did indeed maintain the objects of the World Fellowship of Faiths. The name of the Fellowship's International President, HH The Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda, is shown on the literature. Subsequently, the World Congress of Faiths Continuation Movement was established and WCF became an independent body. It is evident from the minutes that this caused some friction and ill feeling.