The Origins of Interfaith as a Contemporary Movement

Interfaith as a dialogue between people of different religious traditions has been happening ever since people began to identify themselves with a particular type of religious belief and practice. Interfaith as a contemporary or modern movement is understood to have begun with the 1st Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893.

When the parliament opened on 11 September 1893, more than four thousand people crowded into the hall of Columbus. At ten o’clock, representatives of a dozen faiths marched down the aisle, arm in arm. On the platform the central position was taken by Cardinal Gibbons, ‘clad in scarlet robes’…Henry Barrows describes those seated next to the Cardinal. ‘On either side of him were grouped the Oriental delegates, whose many coloured raiment vied with his own in brilliancy. Conspicuous among these followers of Brahma and Buddha and Mohammed was the eloquent monk Vivekananda of Bombay, clad in gorgeous red apparel, his bronze face surmounted with a huge turban of yellow. Beside him in orange and white, sat B.B. Nagarkar of the Brahmo-Samaj and Dharmapala from Ceylon.’ One can sense the organisers’ excitement…that, after all the time and correspondence, people from around the world had assembled in Chicago. Names on papers had begun to become friends. As Barrows said in his opening address, ‘When, a few days ago, I met for the first time the delegates who have come to us from Japan, and shortly after the delegates who have come to us from India, I felt that the arms of human brotherhood had reached almost around the globe.
One of the speakers mentioned above was Swami Vivekananda, who was born in Calcutta, India in 1863. Swamiji’s words at the 1st Parliament of the World’s Religions are now recognised, in the West, as the foundation of the modern interfaith movement. The following addresses he gave to the Parliament may help to explain why: Addresses at the Parliament of Religions

At the end of the parliament there was an air of hopefulness about its future impact. MarcusBraybrooke describes this in Pilgrimage of Hope:

Looking back after a century which has seen the bloodiest of wars and the resurgence of religious extremism and intolerance, it may seem that the dreams of the Chicago World’s Parliament of Religions were as short lived as the euphoria and the buildings of the exposition. (Read more)

Alan Race assesses the impact of the Parliament from a contemporary point of view in the following way, comparing it to the centennial event of the Parliament held in1993:

From the perspective of those involved in organized international movements for interfaith dialogue, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, is being reclaimed as the beginning of ‘the interfaith movement’ in the modern era. (Read more)

For further information, visit the Council for a Parliament of the Word’s Religions website