Liberal Family: Intrafaith Organizations

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Liberal Family: Intrafaith Organizations


Congress of Religion


The Congress of Religion was founded in 1895 in Chicago, Illinois, as the American Congress of Liberal Religious Societies. It was a direct outgrowth of the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions held two years previously in Chicago. The congress provided a meeting ground for liberal leaders among Reform Jews, Unitarians, Universalists, Ethical Culturalists, and others in more conservative denominations who were beginning to feel the changes in thought brought about by the new science, critiques of denominationalism, biblical criticism, and a faith in progress.

A moving force in the organization was Unitarian minister Jenken Lloyd Jones, who had for some years published a periodical, Unity, and had led in the planning of the Unitarian participation at the parliament. The idea of a congress of religious liberals had first been broached during the planning for that gathering.

Some 200 attended the first meeting of the congress in 1895. Many members expressed concern about the group's name– American Congress of Liberal Religious Societies–and it became a topic of consideration for the next several meetings. It was finally changed in 1900 to simply Congress of Religion, which dispelled any suggestion that it was a delegated congress or looking toward the formation of a new denomination.

The congress met for the first time in the deep South in 1897 in Nashville, Tennessee. By the early twentieth century, the need for the congress seemed to have faded. Most of the Jewish members joined the American Ethical Union. National meetings were discontinued, and only a few state meetings persisted, primarily in the Midwest. Unity was published into the early 1920s but survived on its own merit, not in connection to the congress. By 1909, the thrust of the congress would be picked up in the East in the National Federation of Religious Liberals.


Miller, Russell E. The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870-1970. Boston, MA: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985.


International Association for Religious Freedom

5 Dover St., Ste. 303
New Bedford, MA 02740

Alternate Address: International Secretariat, 2 Market St., Oxford 0X1 3FF, UK.

The International Association for Religious Freedom was organized in 1900 in Boston, Massachusetts, as the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers. Known through much of the early twentieth century as the International Council of Religious Liberals, it is the oldest of the several currently existing international interfaith organizations. The original organizers assembled in Boston from around the world for the purpose of attending the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the American Unitarian Association. Prominent in the formation of the council was Samuel A. Eliot, the president of the American Unitarian Association, and in attendance was Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, the first of the numerous Indian spiritual teachers who would migrate to the United States through the new century.

The following year, the first international congress was held in London, England. The council continued to meet until gatherings were interrupted by World War I. After the war, the council resumed meeting into the 1930s, but it seemed to have served its purpose and did not regain the enthusiasm from the pre-war years. Thus it was that the initiative was revived in England and then the Netherlands, where it was reorganized as the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom. Its headquarters returned to the United States briefly before settling permanently in Germany. In the post-World War II global climate, it has attracted an interfaith coalition from across Europe and Asia, as well as North America. Periodically, the Triennial World Congress returns to the United States, where regional conferences are also held. The U.S. chapter meets annually in conjunction with the Unitarian Universalist Association's general assembly.

Membership: Membership from North America includes the American Humanist Association, Canadian Unitarian Council, Fellowship of Religious Humanists, Meadville Theological Seminary, Thomas Starr King School for Religious Leadership, Unitarian Universalist Association, Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. There are additional chapters in Bangladesh, Germany, Great Britain, India, Japan, and the Netherlands.

Periodicals: IARF World.


Bowie, W. Copeland. Liberal Religious Thought at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century: Addresses and Papers at the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers, Held at London, May 1901. London: Philip Green, 1901.

Miller, Russell E. The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870-1970. Boston, MA: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985.


International Humanist and Ethical Union

℅ IHEU Secretariat
47 Theobald's Rd.
London WC1X 8SP, England

The International Humanist and Ethical Union is a worldwide association of humanists founded in 1952 at a conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Among the seven founding members were the American Ethical Union and the American Humanist Association. The congress was organized as part of an attempt to offer to the public an alternative to religions based on revelation and on totalitarian political systems. Humanism was seen as a system built around the conviction of respect for humans as spiritual and moral beings. In an original statement adopted in 1952, the union defined humanism as a way that was democratic, ethical, and aimed at the maximum possible fulfillment through creative and ethical living. It affirmed the use of science creatively and demanded the alignment of concern for personal liberty and social responsibility.

In 1966 the union issued a more definitive statement on what it saw as its unitive position, ethical humanism. It affirmed the primal concern for taking responsibility for human life in the world. Humanist morality acknowledges human interdependency and the need for human beings to respect one another. The union saw human progress being made as freedom of choice was extended and saw justice coming in the realization of equality.

The union maintains open lines of communication with the United Nations, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the Council of Europe.

Membership: Among the full members of the union are the American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, and Council for Secular Humanism. Extra-ordinary members include the Humanist Society of Canada and North American Committee for Humanism. Cooperating groups include the American Rationalist Association, Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal, and Unitarian Universalist Association.

Periodicals: International Humanist, ℅ Don Page, ed., RR 1, Smith Falls, ON K7A 5B8 Canada.


National Federation of Religious Liberals


The National Federation of Religious Liberals was formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1908 by a coalition of Unitarians, Universalists, Reform Jews, liberal Quakers, Ethical Culturalists, and a few members of some mainline Christian denominations. The organization picked up the thrust of the Congress of Religion, which had operated primarily in the Midwest in the 1890s, and could be seen as a national expression of the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers (later the International Council of Religious Liberals). The International Council held its second American meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1907, and the National Federation was in large part an attempt to consolidate the gains and good feeling generated by it.

The purpose of the federation was "… to promote the religious life by united testimony for sincerity, freedom, and progress in religion, by social service, and with a fellowship of spirit beyond the lines of sect and creed." Those who participated represented the most liberal wing of the religious community who had become positively influenced by science, committed to a social ethic of reform, and had little use for the confines of denominational strictures.

The first gathering of the federation was held in 1909 in Philadelphia. Many who had formerly supported the Congress of Religion (which still had a formal existence) attended and became active in the federation's work. In 1913, following some communication with the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, which represented the more liberal wing of Protestant Christianity, the federation adopted the council's social program as its own. The federation continued to meet biannually until 1932. Along the way it absorbed the MidSouthern Federation of Religious Liberals, which it had fostered following World War I.

The federation disbanded in 1933. Having lost most of its money at the time of the national bank closing, it was broke. Also, the two groups that supplied the largest amount of support, the Universalists and Unitarians, had adopted a plan by which they organized the Free Church, a cooperative arrangement in which the two churches operated in fellowship while remaining autonomous as to governance and creed. The Free Church idea took most of the winds from the federation's sails.


Miller, Russell E. The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870-1970. Boston, MA: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985.

National Federation of Religious Liberals. Seventh Congress: Program, Proceedings, and Papers. Boston: National Federation of Religious Liberals, 1919.

Wendte, Charles W. The Unity of the Spirit: Proceedings and Papers of the First Congress of the National Federation of Religious Liberals. Boston: National Federation of Religious Liberals, 1909.


North American Committee for Humanism (NACH)/the Humanist Institute

c/o Kristin Steinberg, Administrator
PMB No. 123, 3722 W. 50th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55410-2016

The North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) was founded in 1982 to establish solidarity among the Humanist organizations of the United States and Canada. Its first major project was the establishment of the Humanist Institute, the first school in North America for the training of professional and lay humanist leaders (the equivalent of clergy in other religious groups). In 2000 NACH and the Humanist Institute became one organization with its entire focus on religious training. Under the leadership of its second Dean, Robert Trapp, more than 25 Humanist scholars, serving in a part-time capacity, constitute the faculty.

Class sessions are held in New York and Washington, DC. The program is three years' duration, with sessions occurring on two weekends in the spring and winter and one five-day session in the summer. Students read books and work on projects between the sessions.

NACH/the Humanist Institute has graduated more than 80 professional and lay leaders who work throughout North America in various groups and organizations to further humanist values and ethical standards in their communities. These leaders serve as Ethical Culture Leaders, Humanist Counselors, Unitarian-Universalist ministers, movement executives, and volunteer leaders who serve as officers of fellowships, societies, congregations, and national organizations. Students come from various Humanist groups such as the American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, American Rationalist Association, Council for Secular Humanism, Unitarian-Universalist Humanists, Humanist Association of Canada, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Membership: NACH/the Humanist Institute is supported by several hundred people who contribute to the annual operating fund and to its endowment program.

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Liberal Family: Intrafaith Organizations

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