Interfaith and Ecumenical Family of Organizations

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1 Interfaith and Ecumenical Family of Organizations





Interfaith Groups

Christian Ecumenical Organizations


Amid the variety of long-term trends noticeable in the religious life of Western culture since the sixteenth-century Reformation, the move toward religious diversity has been most evident. With the breakup of the Roman Catholic dominance of religious expression and the assumption of control in large areas of Europe by Anglican, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches, not only was Roman Catholic hegemony limited, but the loose control at the boundaries of the newly established communities invited further diversity and disruption of what unity remained. At the same time that Europe was expanding across the Atlantic into a new world, ideas supportive of broad freedoms of religious expression were circulating among settlers who had already cut major social ties to the homeland.

Through the nineteenth century, Europe continued its expansionist ways. The leading nations established colonies in Africa, the South Seas, the mainland of Asia, and the Middle East. The United States and Canada pushed their ambitions for territorial expansion across North America. Everywhere the Europeans and Americans went, they found new and diverse religions, radically different from the beliefs and practices of the Christianity and Judaism with which they were most familiar. A few scholars began to study these new faiths and to share their findings first with colleagues back home, and then as the century came to an end, with the public at large. A small but significant minority of these early students of the world’s religions found in these newly discovered faiths what had been lacking in their own religious upbringing, and they became the first modern Western converts to Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the major Protestant churches of Europe and North America were gearing up for a worldwide missionary endeavor that would literally carry them to every country of the world, to many areas that had yet to be mapped. Through the last decades of the century, books, from superficial travelogues to scholarly texts, would document what the missionaries found. From this time forward, the theological task would include the incorporation of knowledge of the presence of many different religions outside of the Abrahamic lineage (i.e., neither Judaism, Christianity, nor Islam). Eastern intellectual leaders would confront the learned centers of the West with the subtleties of Indian philosophy, the Buddhist parallels to Christianity, and the imperial power behind Shintoism.

While there were many shades of opinion, two essential approaches emerged that would dominate the Western religious community’s response to the ever-increasing levels of religious pluralism through the twentieth century. One group of leaders saw in the existence of the world’s different religions an opportunity, if not a moral imperative, to learn and understand. Each of these leaders possessed an appreciation for the accomplishments, ethical integrity, and spiritual life of at least one of the world’s religious communities and could by analogy extend that appreciation to the other communities. In the beginning of the twentieth century, almost all westerners saw Christianity as superior to other religions; they also could not deny the many likenesses each of the different faiths shared with one another and with Christianity. Such an approach undergirded the organization and furtherance of interfaith activities.

A second group of leaders saw the existence of the world’s different religions as a challenge to their Christian faith. Foreign lands dominated by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and other smaller (in number of adherents) faiths led these leaders first to create and then back the international missionary enterprise. However, the reaffirmation of Christianity’s superiority and uniqueness accompanying the missionary enterprise also highlighted the scandal of Christianity’s many divisions, especially when a heated debate from home was carried to the mission field and became focused in the rival recruitment activities of two mission stations in the same community. Christian leaders were spurred to cooperative and coordinated activity by the necessity of presenting a united front on the mission field (which in the nineteenth century included the American West) and making the most of their missionary dollars.

Those who saw the world primarily as a target for evangelism tended to move toward Christian ecumenical endeavors. While many arguments based in abstract theological ideals could and would be made for Christians to put aside their sectarian differences, to find their oneness in their common affirmation of the same Christ, and to cooperate in what all saw as important endeavors, the argument from the missionary field would remain dominant for many decades.


Unitarian James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888), while a professor at Harvard Divinity School, pioneered the study of what he termed comparative theology. As

Interfaith and Ecumenical Family Chronology
1846At a conference held in London, some 800 people from 52 churches in eight countries launch modern ecumenical movement by forming the Evangelical Alliance.
1893A generation of the study of the world’s religion in the West leads to the gathering of representatives from around the globe in Chicago for the first World’s Parliament of Religions.
1908Most of the larger Protestant churches join in the formation of the Federal Council of Churches.
1910Edinburgh Missionary Conference initiates new effort at international ecumenical cooperation.
1914Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie gives two million dollars for the work of the Church Peace Union which is to include Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish leadership.
1920Preparatory Conference on Faith and Order meets in Geneva.
1921John R. Mott is named chairman of the International Missionary Council.
1925Conference on Life and Work gathers in Stockholm, Sweden.
1927The first international Conference on Faith and Order meets at Lausanne, Switzerland.
1930The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work meets at Chexbres, Switzerland.
1934An early attempt by African American Christians to raise their level of cooperation results in the formation of the National Fraternal Council of Negro Churches. Its work led to the formation of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
1937Second World Conference on Faith and Order.
1941Separatist fundamentalists found American Council of Christian Churches.
1942Moderate fundamentalists (who had come to be known as Evangelicals) form National Association of Evangelicals.
1944Canadian Council of Churches founded.
1947America and Canadian Lutheran churches join in formation of the Lutheran World Fellowship which immediate turns its attention to the rebuilding of post-war Europe. First World Pentecostal Conference gathers in Zurich, Switzerland.
1948Representatives of 147 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches form the World Council of Churches with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
1950National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. supersedes the Federal Council of Churches.
1951Evangelicals establish the World Evangelical Fellowship.
 World Methodist Council formed to continue work of the Ecumenical Methodist conference.
1957The World Conference of All Religions organized by Jain Master H. H. Acharya Sushil Kumarji Maharaj meets in Delhi and leads to the founding of the World Fellowship of Religions.
1960Pope John XXIII forms Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity to administer a new effort to dialogue with the Christian churches not in communion with Rome.
1962–65Second Vatican Council creates new opportunities within Catholicism for ecumenical and interfaith relationships. Protestants attend as official observers.
1970A decade of work for peace led to the first World Conference on Peace in Kyoto and the organization of the World Conference on Religion and Peace as a continuing organization.
 The International Congregational Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches unite to form the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (Presbyterian and Congregational).
1973Conversations between Lutheran and Reformed churches aimed at reaching enough agreement to allow formal communion and pulpit fellowship culminates in the formation of the Leuenberg Church fellowship.
1988Pope John Paul II recognizes accomplishments of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity by renaming it the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
1993The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions hosts the centennial celebration of the first Parliament.
1990Episcopal bishop William E. Swing leads in formation of United Religions Initiative.
1997The National Holiness Association, originally formed in 1867 as the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness, changes its name to Christian Holiness Partnership.
1999Parliament of the World’s Religions gathers in Cape Town, South Africa.
2001World Pentecostal Conference meets in Los Angeles in anticipation of the centennial of the Azusa Street revival that launched the movement in 1906.
2004Some 8,900 people attend the third Parliament of the World’s Religions gathering in Barcelona, Spain.
2006Pentecostals gather in Los Angeles to celebrate the centennial of the Apostolic Faith Mission established on Azusa Street and the resultant revival that launched their global movement.
2009Parliament of the World’s Religions to gather in Melbourne, Australia.

defined by him, the field’s first problem was “analytical, being to distinguish each religion from the rest.” He compared different religions to see wherein they agreed and wherein they differed. But the next problem, he added, “is synthetical, and considers the adaptation of each system to every other, to determine its place, use, and value, in reference to universal or absolute religion” (Ten Great Religions [1868] 1895). As information about different religions filtered back to the West, the early students of world religion began the task of sketching out the upward evolutionary trend they discerned in religious life and thought. This trend led directly to the crown and pinnacle of Christianity in its liberal Protestant form. Tying all of the religions together was an ideal and absolute religion to which any particular faith more or less conformed and by which it could be measured.

Such a perspective fit in nicely with the positive evolutionary thought of the day with its intense faith in human progress. As Clarke further noted of his intellectual discipline, the study of comparative religion “shows the relation of each particular religion to human civilization and observes

how each religion of the world is a step in the progress of humanity. It shows that both the positive and negative side of a religion make it a preparation for a higher religion, and that the universal religion must root itself in the decaying soil of partial religions. Christianity was superior to the other religions as it was a post-tribal faith capable of serving all humankind and an ever-evolving faith as shown by the appearance of Protestantism out of Catholicism (or Papal religion).”

While one would be hard pressed to defend Clarke’s position today, it was shared by his scholarly colleagues and by many liberal religious leaders. It also supported the first great interfaith effort, the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in the fall of 1893. The parliament actually grew out of another event, the Columbian Exposition, a massive celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. As congresses were created to give expression to each area of human knowledge, the question of religion arose, and in 1891 Presbyterian minister John Henry Barrows (1847–1902) was chosen to chair a committee to consider the question of the appropriateness of a congress of religion.

Barrows’s committee quickly reached a consensus that such a congress was a worthy enterprise and that it should consist of representatives of all of the world’s major religions. In reaching that decision, the committee set off a debate over the form that such a meeting could have and the relationship of different religions to each other implicit in such a gathering. It was the hope of the committee in issuing a call for cooperation in the holding of such a congress that it would be an expression of mutual respect and not sow any additional seeds of discord (as many who opposed the idea feared).

Once the conference was set, representatives of many different Christian churches and all of the major non-Christian religious groups chose to participate, but for a variety of very different reasons. The more idealistic groups believed that in coming together to talk about the overriding concerns of the era, the great truths that they believed permeated all religions would come to the fore and point to a direction for the uplifting of humankind and the solving of its major problems. Many of the smaller groups saw the parliament as a platform from which they could state their case to a large audience. Some of the Eastern religions seized the opportunity to refute what they considered to be misrepresentations of them in Christian literature. In the end, some joined in simply to avoid being left out.

The World’s Parliament of Religions was a magnificently staged production; the building presently housing the Art Institute of Chicago was constructed especially for its sessions. It opened to a full house of 4,000 in the main hall on September 11, 1893, and continued for 17 days. While each of the represented religions had ample opportunity to sing its own praises (and a number of groups held special sessions for adherents), the program of the parliament centered upon the discussion of various social issues, from the status and role of women to the imperative for religions to assist the rise of African Americans. Crime, labor relations, international arbitration, and general social reform received the attention of a cadre of presenters.

Interestingly enough, the stars of the parliament were not the famous preachers and orators of the day, but two virtual unknowns: British Theosophical leader Annie Besant (1847–1933) and Indian teacher Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902). Besant, well-known in England for her oratorical skills, received an enthusiastic response for her talk to the Theosophists’ denominational congress. Whenever Swami Vivekananda spoke, the large hall had to be used to accommodate the crowd that flocked to hear the charismatic young teacher who so articulately and vigorously defended his homeland and his Hindu faith.

The parliament’s planners were unable to predict the major consequences of their establishing the series of meetings. The gathering became an unprecedented opportunity for representatives of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam to present their teachings to a virgin audience. Capable speakers from each community, to the surprise of their audience, demonstrated that their religion was sophisticated enough to stand beside anything the West had to offer, and a few members of the audience decided that these new foreign faiths offered a valid alternative to the Christianity or Judaism in which they had been raised. Plans emerged to follow up on what they had heard at the parliament. Swami Vivekananda stayed in the United States to teach, and he eventually organized the first Hindu center in the country, the Vedanta Society of New York. Muslim leader Alexander Russell Webb (1846–1916) also moved to New York City, where he opened the first mosque in the country and midwifed the emergence of the Muslim community. Buddhists had already established a presence in the United States; though generally confined to ethnic communities in California during the gold rush, Buddhists now made arrangements not only to accept Western converts, but to actively offer their faith to westerners.

The primary motivating force behind the World’s Parliament of Religions—liberal Protestant leaders like James Freeman Clarke—believed in the moral and ideological superiority of Christianity as the particular religious expression that most closely approached their ideal of a universal and absolute religion. This view did not fare as well at the congress as other perspectives, but following the congress, they were able to institutionalize their program of promoting liberal Protestantism when Caroline E. Haskell endowed the Barrows Lectures through the University of Chicago. The lectures were named in honor of John Henry Barrows, the university’s professor who served as president of the parliament. The endowment called for a set of lectures to be given annually in Calcutta, India, and other cities in India as appropriate, on the relationship of Christianity to other religions. In this manner, the case for Christianity could be regularly presented before an audience of educated Hindus with the hope that they would come to see the convincing claims of the Christian faith. Barrows himself delivered the first set of lectures, collectively titled “Christianity, the World Religion.” The series continued for several years, but there was no report of any converts, especially among influential Indians, from the presentations.

Possibly the most substantial fruit of the parliament was the more formal organization of the most liberal wing of American religion into a cooperative organization, the American Congress of Liberal Religious Societies. Even before the establishment of the congress, Unitarian and Universalist church leaders, primarily in the Midwest, had been cooperating in the production of a Chicago-based periodical, Unity. The parliament inspired them to take the additional step of creating a national organization that would bring together not only liberal Christians but Reform Jews, Ethical Culturists, and other liberal religious voices for cooperative endeavors. Some 200 people attended the organizational meeting in 1894 at Chicago’s prominent Sinai Temple, the Reform Jewish synagogue on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The new American Congress of Liberal Religious Societies emerged around the ideal of what it termed “undogmatic” religion. The congress looked for the organization of nonsectarian churches and societies based upon absolute religious liberty. Members included not only churches and synagogues belonging to older denominations (including one Quaker congregation), but several new independent churches, such as Jenken Lloyd Jones’s All Souls Church in Chicago. The congress went through several name changes, emerging in 1900 as simply the Congress of Religion.

Changes in the religious alignment of the major supporters of the Congress of Religion made it increasingly obsolete after the turn of the century. But in the meantime, Unitarian leaders in New England (where liberal religion actually enjoyed its greatest strength) founded a cooperative organization with the ponderous name of International Congress of Unitarian and other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers. This congress drew support from the center of both the Unitarian and Universalist movements, as opposed to the older Congress of Religion, which had claimed the most liberal and radical religionists among its key supporters. At its meeting in Boston in 1907, the International Congress proposed the formation of a national federation of religious liberals, somewhat like the newly formed Federal Council of Churches (see below) then in the process of formation, and among the major Protestant organizations. Thus, as the Congress of Religion faded, the new Federation of Religious Liberals of America arose to take its place.

The federation was unburdened by the “nonsectarian” language of the older congress and did not threaten established denominational interests. Using the Federal Council of Churches model, leaders avoided the antidenominational activity of calling for the formation of independent unaligned congregations. Approximately 1,000 attended the first gathering in Philadelphia in 1909. Its establishment orientation was clearly demonstrated in 1913, when the entire social program of the Federal Council of Churches was adopted as its own. The organization’s National Council met regularly until the early 1930s, when it fell victim to the Great Depression.

In the meantime, the international body (which, following a series of name changes, finally emerged as the International Congress of Religious Liberals) had its ups and downs, especially through the period following World War I (1914–1918). In 1930 the weakening organization was superseded by the International Association for the Promotion of Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom, with a secretariat located in Amsterdam. World War II (1937–1945) again disrupted the organization, and the headquarters returned to the United States. More recently, it revived as the International Association for Religious Freedom and reestablished its European presence with a secretariat in Frankfurt, Germany. It is currently the oldest international interfaith organization in existence, and in the last generation has built a vital program focused in its triennial congresses.

The devastation of World War I gave birth to visionaries who saw the role that a unified world religious community could play in the postwar recovery. Among them were such very different people as Charles Frederick Weller (1870– 1957) and Jane Addams (1860–1935) in Chicago, Francis Younghusband (1863–1942) in England, and the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda (1863–1939) in Gujarat, India. Their vision merged with the aspirations of others, and in 1924 led three American groups—the League of Neighbors, the Union of East and West, and the Fellowship of Faiths—to unite their efforts in the formation of what would become the World Fellowship of Faiths. Beginning in 1925, the new fellowship held an initial meeting in New York City, followed by additional gatherings across the United States, in London, and in India. Affiliated meetings soon took place across Europe and into the West Indies.

As news was received that a world’s fair would be held in Chicago in 1933, suggestions for a meeting analogous to the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions began circulating and plans for a gathering of a World Fellowship of Faiths got underway. Two important steps beyond the parliament of 1893 were suggested for the 1933 event: First, greater emphasis would be placed upon religious communities applying their faith to solving human problems with a resulting de-emphasis upon their simply restating their positions on various issues. Second, the term faiths, rather than religions, would be used so that fellowship leaders would understood that their conversation was not limited to members of formally organized religions; all types of spiritual consciousness and conviction would be included in the dialogue established by the fellowship.

In the end, the fellowship moved faster than the world’s fair, and thus, in the summer of 1933, 83 sessions of the World Fellowship of Faiths were convened in an effort that surpassed the original parliament in both size and scope. More than 250 key religious and secular leaders from around the world participated, from Methodist bishop Francis McConnell (1971–1953), who served as national chairman of the 1933 gathering, to Professor John Dewey (1859–1952), a humanist, to Duke Kwei Nyamikye Kuntu of the Gold Coast, a leader of the Ashanti African religion. Following the meeting, Charles Frederick Weller collected the papers and published them in a massive volume.

Out of the 1933 meeting, Francis Younghusband took the lead and a second congress was held in London in 1936. Earlier in his life, while in Tibet in 1903, Younghusband had a mystical experience of what he described as “a mighty joy-giving power” that was at work in the world. His religious experience also led him to a belief in the mystical sense of the unity of all people. He saw in his interfaith work the task of making religious leaders aware of the mystical unity that transcended their religious differences. Among his early attempts at spreading his message, apart from his several books, was an address he gave to the Religions of the Empire Conference, a more scholarly informational meeting held in London in 1924.

Younghusband used his aristocratic connections to bring a set of speakers to the 1936 congress that were as eminent as those assembled by Francis McConnell three years previously. Younghusband also did some innovative programming by setting up dialogues and discussions between the participants as part of the program. Previously, such events had simply consisted of paper presentations without the public interaction that held the possibility of open conflict. In Younghusband’s presence, such potentially disastrous discussions were carried out in an atmosphere of respect and even good humor.

The contacts leading up to the 1936 meeting nurtured the new consensus reached by the interfaith leadership in the mid-1930s concerning the insufficiency of religious tolerance as an ideal. Tolerance carried the notion of condescension, with the more powerful, established Western religions acting graciously toward what they viewed as their inferior religious counterparts in the rest of the world; while better than religious persecution and suppression, it was inadequate for reaching the goals of the fellowship. Thus leaders began to give vocal support to ideals of mutual appreciation, of each participant in the dialogue being able to honor the faith of others. As the implications of this position were slowly understood, people engaged in dialogue with the adoption of an attitude of listening and openness to others as they spoke out of their faith commitments. This view would come to dominate interfaith dialogue, and on occasion involved a radical and personal shift in perspective by people of deep religious commitment who also engaged in such dialogue over a period of time.

Immediately after the 1936 meeting, a continuation committee with Younghusband as chairman was established. Annual congresses were held for the next three years, but were cut short due to the outbreak of World War II and Younghusband’s death in 1942. The fellowship continued in the decades after the war, and has done a monumental job in the United Kingdom of keeping alive the interfaith vision. After the war, the fellowship responded to the full resistance of a Christian movement that arose in war-torn Europe and was unwilling to consider interfaith concerns in the midst of its own intrafaith enthusiasms. However, slowly, the fellowship’s work has born fruit, as England’s own religious diversity has been recognized.


World War II disrupted most of the fragile interfaith ties that had been built during the 1920s and 1930s. By the time the world recovered, many of the leaders active in the prewar interfaith movement had retired from the scene, and the war itself released forces that were to reorder political and social relationships internationally. Colonialism’s days were numbered. Beginning with the loss of colonies by the losing countries in the war, and the move toward Indian independence, the entire colonial system began to be dismantled. For religions, this change meant a significant shift in power relationships between the religious leaders of the colonial powers and the religious leaders of once-conquered nations. Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims around the world tolerated no implications of second-class status in dialogues that were to take place with their European and North American counterparts.

Along with the political shifts came the formation of the United Nations and the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The very existence of such a body gave status to the different religions that dominated the member nations of the United Nations. The declaration specifically empowered those religions in its statement that read, “Every one has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The Universal Declaration largely embodied the understanding of the secular state inherent in Western thought, which suggested that in the eyes of the state, all religions are equal and that the state is not to choose among them so much as to protect the right of each to exist in the larger social community. In such a situation, religion relinquishes its use of the state’s coercive power to spread its message.

Increasingly, with the independence of India, the changes wrought by the Chinese revolution, the travel privileges afforded residents of the British Commonwealth, and the new openness to immigration expressed by the United States after 1965, representatives of and adherents to the world’s religions moved to the West and established worshipping communities. And, like the Christian missionaries of the nineteenth century, they moved to gather converts from among those who had been born and raised in Europe and the Americas. As those communities grew, related institutions such as colleges, seminaries, monasteries, and publishing houses slowly appeared. Building interfaith relationships was no longer necessarily tied to international travel and global gatherings. Any of the world’s urban centers was now home to the spectrum of the world’s religions.

At least in the West, interfaith activity and contact dipped to its lowest point since before 1893 in the decade immediately after World War II. Amid other pressing recovery needs, interfaith activity tended to be pushed aside. When it did reemerge in strength, it did so in the service of a vital human interest—world peace. Occasioned by the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war, Dr. Dana McLean Greeley (1908–1986), Methodist bishop John Wesley Lord (1902–1989), Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath (1902–1973), and Bishop (later Cardinal) John Joseph Wright (1909–1979) met to discuss the possibility of creating an international structure involving religious leaders working for peace. An initial conference to this end was held in New York City in 1964, and a National Inter-Religious Conference on Peace was held two year later in Washington, D.C. Early in 1967, Homer Jack (1916–1993) and an associate made a world tour to test the waters on convening an international conference. The positive reception they encountered led to the formation of the first International Inter-Religious Symposium on Peace in New Delhi, India, in 1968, by which time many of the American delegates were deeply involved in the anti–Vietnam War (1957–1975) protest movement.

The work of the conference in New Delhi was continued two years later by an international conference on peace held in Kyoto, Japan, at which more than 300 delegates from some 40 countries established the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP). Since that time, the WCRP has held world assemblies every five years, spawned numerous national and local affiliate groups to advocate the organization’s peace concerns, and developed a variety of social programs, especially some responding to the needs of refugees of war.

The WCRP has had a vital international program with concern focused on a single issue: peace. The other type of successful interfaith organization has been built around a very different kind of focus: the dialogue between two (or on occasion, three) religions aimed at resolving problems between the differing communities or responding to the mutual threats faced by the communities. During the twentieth century, the most fruitful of such dialogues were carried out between Jewish and Christian leaders. While wandering broadly through religious, social, and political issues common to the two groups, the bedrock of the conversation has been the elimination of anti-Semitism and, by extension, the eradication of all forms of ethnic, racial, and religious prejudice.

No interfaith activity has commanded the time and energy that characterizes the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and efforts were only increased as the severe damage done to the Jewish community during the Nazi Holocaust became more generally known. The statement on the Jews by the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), followed by similar statements from various Protestant church bodies, created new openings around which dialogue could proceed.

Beginning with initial organizations in the 1920s, today the cause of Christian-Jewish understanding is served by a set of organizations that function from the international and national levels to local congregations. Through the last half of the twentieth century, the Middle Eastern situation continued to boil, even as Muslims developed a significant presence in North America and the United Kingdom. In the shifting context, three-party dialogues between Christians, Jews, and Muslims have emerged, though they have not yet had the measurable impact on public consciousness that the Christian-Jewish dialogues have generated.


The approaching centennial of the original World’s Parliament of Religions occasioned reflection by the leaders of the religious community in Chicago, some of whom began early in the 1980s to suggest that an appropriate moment was approaching to consider what had occurred as a result of the forces released at the first parliament, and to initiate a new effort at interfaith dialogue and activity. Twenty years of immigration had transformed the religious outlines of the Chicago metropolitan area, which by then was home to substantial communities of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, with smaller assemblies of Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Ismaili, and Shintoists. The North American headquarters of the Baha’is was located there, and the area had congregations of most of the world’s new religions.

In spite of a slow start and at times doubts as to whether the meeting would actually be held, the Centennial Parliament of the World’s Religions was finally convened with more than 6,000 in attendance. The Parliament drew speakers as establishment-oriented as a Roman Catholic cardinal, as questionable as a Neopagan priestess, and as controversial as African-American leader Louis Farrakhan. The attendees adopted a lengthy ethical statement, and various continuing efforts have been initiated.

It is yet to be seen what may grow out of the 1993 parliament, but initially, even in the planning (led by the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim communities) and later in observing the participants, a distinct difference between 1893 and 1993 was evident. Non-Christian groups not present at the 1893 gathering saw the parliament as a time to assert their presence in the West, and the newer religions seized the opportunity to inform the older religious community of their desire to be recognized and to participate as partners in any ongoing dialogue.

Paralleling the efforts of the new parliament, a second continuing effort at interfaith dialogue emerged as part of the global activities of Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon (b. 1920) to unite the world’s people. Moon, founder and leader of the controversial Unification Church, encouraged the formation of the Global Congress of the World’s Religions—originally suggested by a professor at the Unification Seminary—and poured a considerable amount of the church’s resources into bringing religious leaders from around the world into both regional meetings and occasional large international gatherings. In 1985 the Global Congress was superseded by the Assembly of the World’s Religions. The congress and assembly provided the most stable continuing international interreligious dialogue from the 1960s to the 1990s, but they were hampered by the boycotting of their meetings by many key religious figures who rejected any association with Moon.

Both the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions and the activities of the Assembly of the World’s Religions point to the overwhelming problem faced by those who would engage in interfaith dialogue. Such activity is usually done without the backing of the community of faith of the participants and often by people who do not have the ear of the decision-making leadership of their own faith community. Such interfaith gatherings have no direct impact upon the larger religious community, and accomplishments must be measured in other terms—in the insights, discoveries, and agreements reached by participants who then return to the larger religious community to exercise leadership informed by their interfaith experience. Slowly, a community of people deeply committed to their own faith and traditions, and also committed to the “appreciation” of the faith and spiritual wisdom of people of other faiths, has emerged, and a global context, at least in principle, in which dialogue can be nurtured has been set in place.

The new efforts at interfaith dialogue in the 1990s pioneered by the Unification Church and the new Parliament of the World’s Religions were followed up by two additional efforts: the United Religions Initiative and more recently the World Council of Religious Leaders. The United Religious Initiative, founded with the backing of Episcopal bishop William Swing, bishop of San Francisco from 1979 to 2006, has dedicated its efforts to the ending of violence and the promotion of peace. It had developed as a grassroots organization and has spread through the formation of cooperation circles that by 2002 numbered 170 based in more than 60 countries. The World Council of Religious Leaders grew out of the Millennium World Peace Summit, a gathering of religious leaders held at the United Nations in August 2000. It held its first meeting in June 2002 in Bangkok, Thailand. Both organizations are still in the process of solidifying their organizational structure, and neither has been active long enough to have a list of accomplishments. The new World Council, including as it does the administrative leaders of many large religious bodies, has great potential, but has yet to demonstrate that it can overcome the entrenched interests of its constituent communities.

Following its initial meeting in Chicago, the leadership of the Parliament of the World’s Religions formed the Council of the Parliament of the World’s Religions as a permanent continuing structure to plan and administer future gatherings, which it was agreed would be held every five years. Successful events were held in Cape Town, South Africa (1999), and Barcelona, Spain (2004), and a fourth gathering is planned for Melbourne, Australia, in 2009.


The growth of Islam in the West in general and North America in particular had through the 1990s generated calls for greater Christian-Muslim dialogue to parallel the very active Christian-Jewish dialogue that by consensus was dubbed a great success. There were even some voices calling for a Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogue. All of the developments relative to the Muslim community were called into question and then immediately gained great urgency with the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. As an environment of fear and hostility developed with the war in Afghanistan and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by U.S. Armed Forces, religious leaders began an intensive effort at Christian-Muslim dialogue. A variety of dialogues continue at both national and local levels, though their impact is yet to be felt.


In the West, the splitting of the Christian movement into warring factions had become a constant element of Christian life to which accommodation had to be made. The churches in the easternmost nations, Syria and beyond, followed what, from the standpoint of the Western churches, were heretical paths. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism went their separate ways at the end of the first Christian millennium. Then the West was traumatized in the sixteenth century by the splitting of Christian Europe into Roman, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed territories, with bothersome Anabaptists popping up in various unexpected locations. Still, depending upon where one stood to look around, the number of factions immediately available was limited. Even the threat of Lutheranism and Anglicanism seemed to pale for papal authorities in light of the incursions of Muslim Turkish forces up the Danube Valley beyond Budapest to the gates of Vienna.

The number of actual religious competitors (i.e., different churches) remained small until the seventeenth century, when Pietism and Puritanism sent shock waves through Protestantism, and the rise of deism and free thought challenged the whole Christian enterprise as then constituted. Numerous new movements began to appear, some harshly suppressed, but most finding havens of tolerance, even if they had to flee across the Atlantic to the New World.

As Christendom splintered, counter-voices calling for the unity of the Christian movement arose, along with theologies that affirmed the unity of the church, even in the face of the obvious administrative factionalism. These voices, however, expressed the minority point of view. Even into the twentieth century, it was often difficult for Protestants and Catholics to put aside the bitter events of the Reformation era and to forgive each other for the excesses and deaths in the religious wars and persecutions. Open hostilities ceased, only to be replaced with the harshest of polemics. And even among the various Protestant groups, harsh rhetoric could be heard as each proclaimed its superiority to rivals and championed its peculiar insight into the gospel message.

In the nineteenth century, with the major Reformation and Puritan Protestant groups gaining solid organizational power and stabilizing their position in the larger society, Protestant leaders began to think in terms of some kind of understanding that might lead to their engagement in cooperative endeavors in the face of common goals and tasks. Much of that commonality came from the opportunity for global expansion, as Europeans began their explorations of the rest of the world and as North Americans moved across the continent to claim it and settle it for the United States and Canada.

The churches’ responses to the forces operating on them at the beginning of the nineteenth century can be seen in the Plan of Union of 1801 and the emergence of the Disciples of Christ movement. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, westward migration was seen as a major theme in American life, and it was obvious to the leaders of the two largest Protestant churches of New England that they were expending much energy in taking their quarrel over church polity into the newly opened territories west of the Appalachian Mountains. Hence, in 1801, they worked out an agreement by which they cut their competition in the American West and divided the rest of the world into exclusive missionary areas. The plan worked for more than a generation, until the Congregationalists perceived that it gave the Presbyterians a distinct advantage in the west, and pulled out in 1852.

The Disciples of Christ was a new denomination that arose in the American West, partially in response to the sectarian bickering between the various Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches. The Disciples of Christ refused to accept a “denominational” name, though its doctrine was largely a Baptist-Calvinist theology, including the Baptist free-church perspective that eschewed any sacraments (in favor of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and radically limited any organization above the congregational level. While opposing sectarianism, the founders failed to perceive that sectarianism or denominationalism was the form of religious life in a free secular society. Where the physical coercion of the state did not operate, religious debate never resolved issues, and only made each party more resolute in its position. In such a setting, the nonsectarian ideal became simply another sectarian perspective held by the group denominated as the Disciples of Christ.

Thus it was that a more realistic attempt to unite Christians across denominational lines, to present a common front, to work on mutual tasks that could be done most effectively by cooperation, and to avoid denominational bickering emerged in the early nineteenth century with the suggestion of the formation of an international alliance of Protestant (or Evangelical) churches. The original suggestion seems to have come from several European church leaders, but four Americans quickly emerged as champions of the cause: Leonard W. Bacon (1802–1881), Robert Baird (1798–1863), William Patton (1798–1879), and Samuel Schumacher. Their initial efforts culminated in the formation in 1839 of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Unity, one of a variety of voluntary societies supported primarily by the Congregationalists and the older Lutheran and Reformed churches in nineteenth-century America. The effectiveness of the organization, however, was hampered by the divisions that were then occurring in the larger Protestant bodies due to the slavery crisis.

In the midst of the conflicting tensions of organization breakups and calls for union, British leaders issued a call for a conference in London in August 1846 for the purpose of forming an international Evangelical Alliance. Given the participation of leaders from the Church of England, the new alliance had to handle the question of denominationalism carefully. The alliance structured itself as a coalition of individual Christians, not denominations, and made clear that no intentions of creating a new super church or world church administratively existed.

The conference was able to reach some agreement on essential beliefs, and affirmed common Christian doctrines of the authority of the Bible, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, and future life in heaven and hell. In distinction from Roman Catholicism, general assent was given to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It was also obvious that Roman Catholicism was seen as the major presence to which some response was necessary. The conference struggled with the issue of making defining affirmations, but in such a way as to not override the equally important belief in the right of private judgment on the reading and interpretation of scripture. Issues of predestination, election, and free will (the issues that divided Anglicans and Methodists from Presbyterians and Congregationalists) were avoided entirely. Unitarians and Universalists (nontrinitarians) were defined as outside the Evangelical camp.

The conference considered two plans for its governance. One plan would have had the British firmly in control, with various national affiliates. However, a more acceptable plan for governing the proposed alliance offered a confederation model established around six national units. Each national unit would be the equal of the others and would carry out its program and send delegates to an international conference that would gather periodically. The adoption of this plan, however, floundered on the subsequent controversy that arose over American slavery and the unwillingness of the Europeans to enter into any union with slaveholders. While some progress toward an international alliance was reached, in the end it fell apart as the Americans withdrew.

As a result of the London meeting, an international Evangelical Alliance continued to exist in the weakest sense, and meetings were held regularly in Europe through the remainder of the century. Britain dominated the movement and on a more practical level took the lead in spreading the Evangelical gospel worldwide. Meanwhile, the American delegates returned home and in 1846 formed an Evangelical Alliance for the United States, but it soon disbanded as the Civil War (1861–1865) approached. It was reorganized after the war in 1867, though strength was initially concentrated in the northern urban centers. The life of the alliance in America was placed in the hands of theologian Philip Schaff (1819–1893), businessman William E. Dodge (1805–1883), and general secretary Josiah Strong (1847–1916). Emphasis was placed on social work, organization at the community level, and evangelism of the unchurched.

The alliance era, both nationally and internationally, forms the first chapter in the modern ecumenical movement. The work of the prospering alliance was continually under-cut, however, in the face of denominational growth programs that led to increasing competition for members by denominations, and in the regular emergence of new denominations that were often bitter foes of the group from which they had just departed. The alliance’s most noticeable continuing contribution to American religious culture was the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. During the late nineteenth century, however, the alliance had significant success in promoting religious liberty and protecting Protestant missionaries from oppressive governments around the world.

Also competing with the world Evangelical movement was the movement by various denominational families to pull together and reaffirm their common roots. The first were the Anglicans, who in 1865 called the initial Lambeth Conference at the Church of England’s headquarters, Lambeth Palace in London. While initially dealing with internal issues of the national bodies in communion with the Church of England, it expanded its program to provide a focus for defining relationships with likeminded churches around the world and to set policy on the nature of such relationships.

Reformed and Presbyterian churches held an initial gathering of what was called the Alliance of Reformed Churches throughout the World Holding the Presbyterian System in 1873. Three years later, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church issued the call for what eventually evolved into the first Methodist Ecumenical Conference in London in 1881. That conference met every decade for more than half a century until it was superseded by the present World Methodist Council. In 1889 the Old Catholic Churches of Europe formed the Union of Utrecht. Following the suggestion of Canadian Congregationalists in 1885, an International Congregational Council assembled in London in 1891. The Baptist World Alliance grew out of the gathering of Baptists from 23 countries in London in 1905.

These denominational family structures outwardly cooperated fully with the pandenominational organizations and generally saw themselves as an extension and expression of such ecumenical work. However, at the practical level, these family groups presented additional competition for the time and resources of individuals and churches for ecumenical endeavors. As calls for church union arose in the pandenominational organizations, the practical effect was the union of members of the denominational families. Unions across denominational lines were the rarest of occurrences in American Christianity, and in fact were only effective in countries where Protestant Christians were a distinct and somewhat beleaguered minority.


Astute observers of the Protestant Christian community at the beginning of the twentieth century could see looming signs of radical change and the prospect of trouble ahead. Intense debates were moving forward on issues that had embedded themselves into the religious community—the new sciences of biology and geology were challenging biblical authority just as the new insights of the historical (higher or destructive) criticism of the Bible were coming out of Germany. The social gospel was suggesting a marked redirection of church life away from evangelism toward social planning and the building of a more just society. Immigration was beginning to reshape city life. Ever-increasing knowledge of world religions on the one hand and a growing atheist movement on the other were challenging the theological framework of traditional Christianity.

However, few were prepared at the turn of the century to see in these forces the rationale for radically altering church life. In fact, the larger Protestant denominations were enjoying an era of growth and had just come to see themselves as functionally constituting America’s established religions in a country with no official establishment. Over against the religions of the world, over against a Roman Catholic Church (by this time by far the largest single church body in the United States), and over against the still significant number of unchurched citizens, the Protestant churches reigned supreme in the religious community.

Through the decade following the Civil War, the Evangelical Alliance had been the primary organizational expression of that Protestant establishment, but with the passing of its initial core of powerful leadership in the 1890s, the alliance was left a shell of its former self. In its stead, a new prophet arose in the person of Elias B. Sanford (1843–1932). A Congregationalist with Methodist roots, Sanford proposed the formation of a delegated Federal Council of Churches. It would go beyond the Evangelical Alliance, an organization of individual members, but would stay away from ideas aimed at creating a single super church or amalgamation with the Roman Catholics.

The Federal Council would allow the Protestant churches to speak with a united voice on those many issues in which they in fact had agreement and to exert greater influence on the moral climate and social conditions of the day. Without initially adopting the social gospel perspective, the council did represent a positive response to the demands for more attention to the social context than had previously been given by the churches. At the time of the council’s formation, it adopted a revised form of the social statement adopted a few years earlier by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Rather than develop the full program that some might expect, the Federal Council chose instead to nurture a variety of other independent ecumenical groups that had already established hegemony over particular areas of concern.

The formation in 1908 of the Federal Council of Churches in the United States coincided with the need felt by Christians internationally to provide for more coordinated activity on the mission field. Working in areas where Christianity was a new religion and where the Christian community was small and represented an intrusion into a traditional culture, missionaries felt drawn to fellowship with their colleagues from other churches. In such settings, denominational particularities inherited by them from another century faded in importance and a more common witness to the faith emerged. Missionaries became the new champions of the notion that the division of Christianity into warring factions was the great hindrance to their work. These divisions were of even less concern to recent converts who saw the European and American churches importing a foreign history into their countries that not only did not help new converts become better Christians but actively slowed their progress.

John R. Mott (1865–1955), a Methodist layman with a strong sense of Christian unity and missionary zeal, organized a delegated conference with official representatives from the different missionary societies, both independent and denominationally affiliated. Out of this conference came a new organization in 1921, the International Missionary Council, which provided a continuing opportunity for ecumenical relationships to grow.

The Edinburgh Missionary Conference, which met in 1910, supplied some impetus for the formation of a sister movement to begin the discussion of the relationships of Christians to fellow Christians of other denominations. In the years following Edinburgh, proposals were made to begin conferences discussing issues of what was then termed “faith and order.” Though slowed by the outbreak of World War I, the first international Conference on Faith and Order convened in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1927. It too established a body to insure that deliberations were pursued on an ongoing basis, the Continuation Committee, and agreed to meet again a decade later. The International Missionary Council, and the Continuation Committee on Faith and Order, spawned an international ecumenical discussion of immense importance both for the consensus it slowly built, at least among liberal Protestants, and the relationships it created among the leaders of various denominations. Their work would be carried on through World War II and the new era signaled by the 1948 formation of the World Council of Churches.

Back in the United States, the major churches were slowly becoming battlegrounds as fundamentalists, the more conservative branch of the church, and the modernists, the more liberal branch, divided into two camps. The modernists were defined by their embracing of many of the new elements of twentieth-century society: the critical approach to the biblical text, the progressive view of human society undergirded by the belief in evolution, a desire to reorganize society into a more just social order, and the understanding that other religions had some truth in them. Each of these ideas carried immense potential for affecting the life of the Christian church from the highest international office to the local congregation. Collectively, modernists tended to undermine biblical authority, challenge traditional understandings of sin and grace, and focus upon social and political issues rather than membership recruitment and evangelism. They carried great intellectual appeal and gradually came to dominate many of the leading seminaries.

As World War I, a decidedly uniting factor in churches, came to an end, fundamentalist and conservative voices were raised against the growing visible presence of modernists in key denominational positions, especially the denominational staff, mission boards, and seminary faculties. The debate heated to a boiling point through the 1920s, especially in the northern Presbyterian and Baptist churches. By the early 1930s, it was evident to the fundamentalists that they had delayed too long and had lost control of the denominational apparatus and the seminaries (where the great majority of future leaders would be trained). Thus a series of schisms began to occur in which many of the conservative leaders resigned and formed a series of new denominations with such names as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church, the Conservative Baptist Association, and the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.

As the schisms occurred, fundamentalists were divided into three distinct camps. Many of the fundamentalists refused to participate in the schisms and remained in the older denominations. They became the core of continuing conservative caucuses in most of the large liberal Protestant bodies. Those who did split divided primarily over the issue of separatism. Some fundamentalists argued for complete separation from modernists and from those who associate with modernists (i.e., the fundamentalists who remained in the larger denominations). Others simply withdrew from what they felt had become an apostate denomination but kept ties to individuals inside those denominations whom they knew otherwise to be sound doctrinally. As World War II began, the separatist fundamentalists became a group unto themselves, while the nonseparatists and those still within the denominations made common cause and became the core of a new movement, Evangelicalism.


Through the 1940s, forces unleashed during the first half of the century would coalesce, organize, and reorganize to produce the essential ecumenical establishment as it exists at present. The United States would exert tremendous leverage on the world scene as the nation that came out of the war not only victorious, but among the least damaged. It would lead in the postwar reconstruction efforts and its churches would play a prominent role. There would also be the attempt to carry the issues that split the American church in the 1930s to the rest of the world and, in effect, impose the divisions on Christians.

In 1941 the separationists among the fundamentalists, now largely confined to several relatively small denominations, organized the American Council of Christian Churches. It had as its standard of membership the agreement on a very conservative Protestant theological position and opposition to all forms of liberalism as represented by the Federal Council of Churches. As relations with the Soviet Union soured and the Cold War began, the organization was articulate in the cause of anticommunism.

The American Council found capable leadership in the person of Carl McIntire (1906–2002), a Presbyterian leader who had aligned himself with the conservative J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) at Princeton, but then split with Machen over premillennialism and separatism. A talented speaker, McIntire pastored a large congregation in Collinswood, New Jersey, and for many decades hosted a national radio show, The Twentieth-Century Reformation Hour.

Having built a viable American organization, as news of the impending organization of the World Council of Churches spread, McIntire mustered what international support he could and formed the International Council of Christian Churches. The International Council chose Amsterdam in 1948 as its place and time of organization, the exact spot chosen by the World Council of Churches. The confusion that ensued among reporters who little understood, in many cases, the difference between the two organizations, gave the International Council an immediate boost, and it would frequently be accused of attempting to disrupt the World Council by deliberately creating confusion and spreading the false image that it represented a much larger constituency than it actually did.

Eventually, at the end of the 1960s, McIntire had a falling out with a number of his colleagues in the United States and was removed from his position with the American Council of Christian Churches. McIntire, and those who supported him, regrouped as the American Christian Action Council. The split in what was already a small group largely silenced the American Council’s voice as a viable alternative on the national religious scene. In the meantime, the International Council continued, though without the bulk of its American support. It found some strength among older missionary churches that had consistently been more conservative than their European and American parent bodies. Out of the International Council also came a set of denominational family intrafaith groups that paralleled the larger liberal Protestant denominational family structures.

Spurred along by the formation of the American Council, nonseparatist conservative leaders—primarily among Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist Churches—also sought a means of uniting their voices and of creating a structure

Symbols of Major Faiths
Adapted from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Christian Cross
Buddhist (Wheel of Righteousness)
Judaism (Star of David)
Presbyterian Cross
Russian Orthodox Cross
Lutheran Cross
Episcopal Cross
Unitarian Church/Unitarian Universalist Association
United Methodist Church
Aaronic Order Church
Mormon (Angel Moroni)
Native American Church of North America
Serbian Orthodox
Greek Cross
Bahai (9 Pointed Star)
Muslim (Crescent and Star)
Konko-Kyo Faith
Community of Christ
Sufism Reoriented
Tenrikyo Church
Church of World Messianity (Izunome)
United Church of Religious Science
Christian Reformed Church
United Moravian Church
Christian Church
Christian & Missionary Alliance
United Church of Christ
Humanist Emblem of Spirit
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii
Soka Gakkai International—USA
Sikh (Khanda)
Wicca (Pentacle)

that would speak to their unique situation. First, they wanted to speak as conservative Protestants against liberal Protestantism, but they distinguished themselves from the separatist fundamentalists. While some were in new denominations, such as the Orthodox Presbyterians and Conservative Baptists, many, if not the majority, of conservative leaders were still in the larger denominations. They needed a name to distinguish themselves and found it in the term Evangelical, at times using the designation of neo-Evangelical. They needed an organization that would unite both those Evangelicals still in the older denominations and those in the newer Evangelical denominations. They found the solution in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), established in 1942, which provided for membership by denominations, organizations, local congregations, and individuals. Thus a conservative pastor and his congregation, though officially a member of a liberal Protestant denomination, could also affiliate with the NAE.

Conservative leaders who remained within the older denominations had the problem of access to a seminary. Because most of the seminaries had been captured by liberals, they had nowhere to send ministerial candidates who could form a continuing source of conservative leadership for the next generation. They saw the possibility of the Evangelical perspective simply dying out in the older churches. That problem was partially solved by the formation in 1947 of Fuller Theological Seminary, an independent seminary firmly rooted in the traditional Calvinist theology shared by Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. The formation of Fuller, located in Pasadena, California, also served as an announcement that Evangelicals were prepared to continue to confront their liberal counterparts on the academic level.

As the National Association of Evangelicals grew, it had to come to grips with the new alignments within conservative Protestantism as a whole, arguably the most important factor in that reordering being the spectacular success of Pentecostalism in the wake of the charismatic movement of the 1970s. Frequently derided through the first half of the twentieth century, Pentecostals grew to strength by midcentury, founded their own family intrafaith organization, the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America (since 1994 the Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches of North America), and in 1947 began holding the World Pentecostal Conferences. Pentecostals came out of World War II with a distinctly ecumenical stance that found embodiment in the ministry of David DuPlessis (1905–1987), a South African who wandered the world introducing the Pentecostal movement to any and all Christians who would listen. Equally important were organizations like the Full Gospel Businessman’s Fellowship International, which brought lay people of all denominations together in their common experience of the Pentecostal gifts of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals soon found a national hero in Oral Roberts (b. 1918), the first successful televangelist.

As Pentecostals gained a new level of success in the 1970s, and as they sought entrance into the National Association of Evangelicals, all of whose formal entrance and fellowship requirements they fully met, gradually the barriers between Evangelicals from a Calvinist theological background and those from Methodist backgrounds (i.e., Holiness and Pentecostal) began to crumble. The NAE emerged as the voice of this much larger reordered Evangelical movement, and its influence in making public policy (an arena once left entirely to the Federal and National Councils of Churches) steadily grew.


Some of the most important changes to come out of World War II were the cooperative efforts of the American and European churches in the rebuilding of Europe. These efforts provided an agenda by which the interfaith trends that had been projected so strongly prior to the war could be revived and could reach culmination. Ecumenical ideals, left on hold during the war, were revived and took on visible form in the creation of the World Council of Churches. The essential outlines of a plan to bring the various ecumenical groups together into a single international organization had been put together as early as 1937, and a specific proposal for a World Council of Churches was developed over the next year. Only the war stood between the promulgation of that plan and its implementation.

The World Council of Churches was formed in Amsterdam in 1948 and brought together many of the larger churches of North America and Europe. While a modest number of churches from Africa, Asia, and South America were included from the beginning, much of the subsequent history of the Council has been built around its expanding perspective on world Christianity and its gradual incorporation of, especially, Asian and African churches in its membership and leadership.

Through the council, a series of national and regional ecumenical councils were organized. In the United States, the immediate effect of the council’s formation was the added impetus it gave to the creation of a more effective ecumenical body serving the larger denominations. While the Federal Council of Churches had worked for half a century, by the 1940s its manifold limitations were visible to all. In name it was a council of churches, but in fact the logical workload of such an organization was parceled out to more than a dozen specialized agencies. This segregation of concern had hindered American participation in the various discussions that led to the formation of the World Council.

Not least among the factors underlying the cry for a more effective council, however, was the vision projected by a few for a united Protestant church for America. Such a church had come into existence in Canada in 1925. Also, in the years prior to World War II, a number of intrafamily mergers among the Methodist, Lutheran, and Reformed churches seemed a possible preliminary stage for the merger of churches across denominational family lines. The existence of a more effective council of churches would facilitate such mergers.

Thus it came about that a massive reorganization of American ecumenical structures occurred in 1950. The new National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. brought together the older Federal Council with a number of specialized agencies, such as the United Council of Church Women and the International Council of Religious Education, many of which survived as divisions of the National Council. New offices were opened on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.

The National Council of Churches (NCC) has been, for more than half a century, the most important cooperative religious organization functioning in the United States. Representing more than 40 million Christians, it has been effective in providing a united voice for the liberal Christian community. It has been especially effective in providing consultation to legislators in Washington, D.C., on a host of social concerns, such as support for the poor and needy and separation of church and state, to more organizational matters, such as chaplains for the armed services and the federal prison system.

During the years of its existence, the National Council, like the Federal Council before it, has been the center of controversy, especially as it involved itself in controversial social issues, such as the civil rights movement and the Middle East conflict. It took a leading role in reintegrating Eastern Orthodox leadership into the ecumenical scene in the post-Stalinist era, and was deeply involved in peace efforts during the Vietnam War.

The vision of a united Protestant church, however, has not been realized. During the 1960s and 1970s, interest in the possibility of such a united church rose to new heights, especially in the wake of Vatican II. One promising plan, popularly called COCU (for Consultation on Church Union), would have brought together nine churches, including the United Methodist Church, several of the African-American Methodist churches, the Episcopal Church, and the United Presbyterian Church. While COCU gained some initial support, it soon experienced difficulties both on sacramental issues (about which the Episcopalians were the least compromising) and from a general lack of broad support among the lay constituencies of participating denominations. Those most interested in the proposed united church were unable to communicate any real benefits it would bring. COCU continues as the Church of Christ Uniting (since 2002), which is attempting to negotiate agreements of full communion between the various participating bodies—an important step of mutual recognition, but not involving any merger. At the same time, the several Methodist bodies that had participated in COCU have joined together in the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union, looking for closer working relationships between the larger Methodist bodies across racial lines.

The failure of COCU vividly demonstrated the trend against religious groups merging across their denominational family lines. During the last century of ecumenical endeavor in the United States, only one such merger has occurred, the 1931 merger of the Christian and Congregational churches (though in fact many of the Christian Church congregations were later lost as they one-by-one pulled out of the merged body).

By the 1980s, few were left to rally liberal Protestants around a vision of a united Protestant church, though officially the COCU plan is still alive. Most members of the National Council see the future as one of cooperative endeavor but not organizational unity. In the meantime, they and their member churches face the problem of eroding support. All of the leading liberal Protestant churches have been steadily losing members since the 1960s and, given the growth of population, even more rapidly losing their relative position in the society. However, given the lack of any other religious coalition with a similarly large constituency, the National Council remains a significant organization in American religious life.

The 1990s saw a major development in Christian ecumenical relations. After a half-century of hostility, the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches began dialogue and searched for common ground for possible cooperation on issues of mutual concern. These efforts became apparent in 1996 when the former president of NAE, Donald Argue, addressed the general assembly of the NCC. Then, in 2000, the NAE voted to drop a rule preventing member organizations from holding joint NAE-NCC membership. While the relationship between the two organizations is warming, it cost the NAE its long-term relationship with the National Religious Broadcasters, which withdrew its support in protest of the liberalizing trend.

The changes in the National Association of Evangelicals signaled not only Evangelical Protestantism’s growth but its desire to claim a position within the mainstream of Christianity in America. The NAE vote in 2000 had immediate repercussions—the following year Evangelical leaders, including Pentecostal representatives, met with liberal Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox leaders to talk about a larger coalition of American Christians than that provided by existing ecumenical organizations. The initial talks led to the 2006 formation of Christian Churches Together in the USA. Initially, 34 denominations affiliated with the new organization, and others joined in the months following. Still others are in the process of considering the new organization. It is yet to be seen if Christian Churches Together will ultimately create a new Christian center in the United States.


The Roman Catholic Church is the largest single religious organization in the world. It is also the largest church body in both the United States and Canada. While twice as many people in America identify themselves as Protestant, they are scattered in hundreds of denominations, the largest being the Southern Baptist Convention, which is less than half the size of the American Roman Catholic Church. Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church has called for the reunion of Christendom but has seen as the norm for that reunion the return of all other churches to a state of communion with the bishop of Rome.

Even the largest of non-Roman Christian churches appears minuscule when compared to the Roman Catholic Church, and until the twentieth century, no church or related group of churches provided what could be thought of as international competition to the Roman Catholic Church. The formation of the World Council of Churches changed that situation. The subsequent making of common cause between many divergent elements of non-Roman Christianity also provided a symbolic point of dialogue between Rome and the thousands of “other” churches scattered around the globe. As negotiations proceeded between the members of the World Council, dialogue could open between the World Council and Rome. Individuals on both sides of that dialogue proposed a variety of means by which agreement on many issues, acknowledgment of each other’s legitimacy, and even some degree of eventual union could be reached.

The first step in that dialogue was greatly influenced by what some see as the fruition of the work of many, and what others see as happenstance (or in theological terms, a miracle, the work of providential grace). It came in the form of a new bishop in Rome, Pope John XXIII (1881–1963), a man many said was elected because no compromise could be reached between the supporters of the “real” candidates for the office. He was initially thought of as an interim pope.

But Pope John XXIII (r. 1958–1963) caught the imagination of a generation with his spirituality, sense of humor, and graciousness. He was loved by Protestants as much as Roman Catholics, and it was he who called the first church council in almost a century, a council that would bring numerous changes to the church internally, among them the rewriting of the rules for Catholic/non-Catholic relationships. By far the most significant statement affecting interreligious relationships was the one denying the guilt of the Jews collectively for the death of Jesus. That statement came to symbolize a new era for all Christians (not just Roman Catholics) assuming responsibility for the persecution of Jews through the centuries, culminating with the Holocaust. It has been the starting point and a large percentage of the substance of all Jewish-Christian dialogue ever since.

The World Council of Churches sent official observers to the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), and their presence undoubtedly affected the final wording of the document that opened a new era in Protestant and Orthodox contact. Harsh language was gone and Roman Catholics everywhere were encouraged to build relationships with the “separated brethren.” Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, ecumenical contacts flourished, an era of good feeling was launched, and a new base of familiarity and trust was erected between Christians and Jews that now provides the foundation for ongoing discussions on a myriad of issues.


During the euphoria that accompanied the flurry of ecumenical contacts during the post–Vatican Council era, few noticed that even as the Christian community was drawing together, the shape of the religious landscape was changing dramatically. Beginning in 1965, large numbers of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus began flowing into the United States. While all three communities had been present in the United States for many decades, the new immigrants turned these once isolated ethnic enclaves into significant participants in the larger religious community. With annual growth in the tens of thousands from both immigration and conversion, the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim presence will play an expanding role in the creation of public policy. Each is now served by organizations analogous to the National Council of Churches.

One cannot fully understand the shifting story of contemporary interfaith and ecumenical relationships without returning to consideration of the Jewish community. Jews have been in America from early in its history, but their numbers grew greatly due to massive immigration between 1880 and 1924, when highly restrictive immigration laws that blocked Jews as well as Asians from entering the country were passed. In the American context, the Jewish community, like the Christian community, experienced both the freedoms of a modern secular society and the pressures from contemporary intellectual concerns; and, also like the Christian churches, the synagogues become divided along linguistic lines and by the extent of their Americanization. By the mid-twentieth century, three major communities were discernible—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—and a number of additional divisions were on the horizon.

Thus, internal pressures, such as the need to speak with a united voice on issues not related to those that divided religious Jews, along with external pressures, such as continuing anti-Semitism and, more recently, the desire to support the state of Israel, led Jewish leaders to develop cooperative structures between congregational and rabbinical associations. The most important of these associations is the Synagogue Council of America, founded in 1926 as the coordinating body for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbinical and congregational organizations. After more than a half-century of cooperation, the Synagogue Council became victim to the deterioration of relationships between the Orthodox segment of the Jewish community (the dominant element almost everywhere except the United States) and non-Orthodox religious Jews. This deterioration was most noticeable in Israel, where Reform and Conservative forms of Judaism were denied legal recognition. The Synagogue Council of American formally disbanded in 1994.

Overall, the trend in Western religion is toward greater organizational splintering and theological diversity. Ecumenical and interfaith organizations will not reverse that trend, but do provide a vital function in reducing the social tension created by the loss of religious consensus. Such organizations create a forum in which different religions can gain knowledge and understanding of each other; a vehicle by which the religious concerns of a select community can be communicated to the society as a whole; an organization in which people with very different religious perspectives can discover their common aspirations and learn to work together for the common good; and a social setting in which people, having been introduced to their neighbors of a different religious background, can discover their common humanity.


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