In 1893, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, many women and men were invited to address an event called the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Mrs. Laura Ormiston Chant was among those invited to participate. She was a Unitarian laywoman active in the temperance and women’s rights movements and other social reforms.
The address was printed in Neely’s History of the Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893. The prefatory paragraph is from Neely’s.
Summary: Duty of God to Man Inquired
She was greeted with a great outburst of applause as she stepped forward, the audience thus evidencing that it had been waiting to hear this popular English woman and speaker.
Duty of God to Man Inquired
Dear Friends: After listening long enough to the science of religion, probably, as this is the last word this morning, it may be a little relief to run off or leave the science of religion to take care of itself for awhile and take a few thoughts on religion independent of its science. That religion will hold the world at last which makes men most good and most happy. Whatever there has been in this old past of the faiths that have made men more good and more happy, that lives with us to-day, and helps on the progressiveness of all that we have learned since. We have learned that religion, whatever the science of it may be, is the principle of spiritual growth. We have learned that to be religious is to be alive.
The more religion you have, the more full of life and truth you are, and the more able to give life to all those with whom you come in contact. That religion which helps us to the most bravery in dealing with human souls, that is the religion that will hold the world. That which makes you or me the most brave in days of failure or defeat is that religion which is bound to conquer in the end, by whatever name you call it. And believe me, and my belief is on all fours with that of most of you here, that religion which to-day goes most bravely to the worst of all evils, goes with its splendid optimism into the darkest corners of the earth, that is the religion of to-day, under whatever name you call it.
We are obliged to admit that the difference between the dead forms of religion and the living forms to-day, is that the dead forms of religion deal with those who least need it, while the living forms of religion deal with those who need it most. Consequently, to-day — and it is one of the most glorious comforts of the progress that we are making — the real religiousness of our life, whether of the individual, the nation, or of the world at large, is that we will not accept sin, sorrow, pain, misery, and failure as eternal, or even temporary, longer than our love can let them be. And out of that has grown the feeling that has hardly taken on a name as yet — it has taken on a very practical name to those who hold it — out of that has grown a feeling which will not admit that God may do what it is wrong for man to do as an individual.
It is a strange turning around in the idea of our relationship to God that to-day, for the first time in the whole world’s history, we are, asking what is God’s duty to us. To-day, for the first time in the world’s history, we are certain that God’s duty to us will be performed. For ages man asked, what was his duty to God? That was the first part of his progress; but to-day you and I are asking, what is God’s duty to us? And Oh, God be thanked that it is so. If I can throw the whole of my being into the arms of God and be certain He will do His duty by me, that duty will first of all be to succeed in me; it will not be to fail in me. And I can come to Him through all my blunders and sins and with my eyes full of tears, and catch the rainbow light of His love upon those tears of mine, certain He will do His duty by me and that He will succeed in me at the last.
Again, we have listened this morning to these profoundly interesting, scholarly papers, and perhaps it is almost too frank of me to say that we have been thinking what marvelous intellectual jugglers these theologians are. I dare say that some of you have come to think this morning, after all, what is this about? It is mostly about words. Words in all sorts of languages, words that almost dislocate the jaw in trying to pronounce, words that almost daze the brain in trying to think out what their meaning is; but it is words for all that. Underneath is poor humanity coming, coming, coming slowly along the path of progress, nearer, up to the light for which Goethe prayed. And we are nearer the light in proportion as our religion has made us more and more lovely, more and more beautiful, more and more tender, more true, and more safe to deal with.
After all there is a line of demarkation to-day between people whom it is safe to be with and those who are unsafe. Our religion has become a very national thing, for we are asking to be able to so deal with people as to bring them over into the lines of the safe. But with those who have been educated in the schools of the Master who taught no creed and who belonged to no denomination, but who was universal in his teachings and in his love of mankind, as the children of God we believe that He taught us that it was blessed, it was happy to be pure in heart, to be merciful, to be humble, to be a peacemaker, to be all those things which help mankind to be happiest and best.
And, therefore, we are beginning to understand that a system of theology that did not take and does not take into itself all that literature has given and all that art is pouring forth, all that the heart of man is yearning after, would be insufficient to-day; and the consequence is that in and outside the churches the religiousness of the world is calling for art to take her place as an exponent of religion; for nature to take her part as the great educator of men in all those feelings that are most religious as regards God. In fact, that I and you, when we want to do best for that criminal, or that outcast, or that hard one, we will learn it not by going to schoolmasters and books, but by going right into the solitudes of the mountains and of the lakes which our Father has made, and learn of His marvels in the wild flower arid the song of the birds, and come back to our brother and say, “Is not this human soul of more value than many sparrows?”
If God so clothed the mountains, heaths, and meadows of the world, shall He not clothe these human souls with a beauty that transcends Solomon in all his glory, with a joy unspeakable and full of glory? It is the deepening, the heightening, the broadening of that that is to be the outcome of this most wonderful parliament. Is it not that the Day of Pentecost has come back to us once again? Do we not hear them all speak with the tongue wherein we were born, this tongue of prayer, that we may know each other and go up and be more likely to get nearer to Him as the ages roll on? This parliament will be far-reaching. There is no limit in the world to what these parliaments will mean in the impetus given to the deepening of religious life. It will be so much easier for you and me, in the years to come, to bow our heads with reverence when we catch the sound of the Moslem’s prayer. It will be so much easier for you and me, in the days to come, to picture God, our Father, answering the prayer of the Japanese in the Jap’s own language. It will be so much easier for you and me to understand that God has no creed whatever, that mankind is His child and shall be one with Him one day and live with Him forever.
And, in conclusion, we have some of us made a great mistake in not seizing all and every Means of being educated in the religiousness of our daily conduct. I believe — even though it sounds commonplace to say it, but I do believe — with all due deference to our dear brothers the theologians, that this Parliament of Religions will have taught them some of the courtesies that it would have been well it they had had years ago. I think it will have taught them that you can never convince your adversary by hurling an argument like a brickbat at his head. It will have taught all of us to have the good manners to listen in silence to what we do not approve.
It will have taught us that after all it is not the words that are the things, but it is the soul behind the words; and the soul there is behind this great Parliament of Religions to-day is this newer humility, which makes me feel that I am not the custodian of all or every truth that has been given to the world. That God, my Father, has made religious truth like the facets of the diamond — one facet reflecting one color and another another color, and it is not for me to dare to say that the particular color that my eye rests upon is the only one that the world ought to see. Thank God for these different voices that have been speaking to us this morning. Thank God, out from the mummies of Egypt, out from the mosques of Syria, there have come to you and me this morning that which shall send us back to our homes more religious, in the deepest sense of the word, than we were before, and therefore better able to take up this great work of religion to the redeeming of the world out of darkness into light, out of sorrow into happiness, out of sin and misery into the righteousness that abideth forever.
There is one voice speaking to us this morning which was laid down in the close of one of his poems, those words of Shelley in that magnificent poem, “Prometheus Unbound.” It will stand for every language and tongue to-day for the embodiment of the outcome of religious feeling in you and me:
To forgive wrongs darker than death and night;
To suffer woes that hope thinks infinite;
To love and bear; to hope, till hope creates
From her own wrecks, the thing she contemplates.
Never to change, nor falter, nor repent.
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, brave, and joyous, beautiful, and free;
This is alone life, love, empire, and victory.