The World’s Religious Debt to America
September 26, 1893 – World’s Parliament of Religions, Hall of Columbus, Word’s Congress Auxiliary Building, Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
The world’s religious debt to America is defined in one word. Opportunity. The liberty men had known only as a distant ideal had now reached the stage of practical experiment.
It is true if we try to estimate this debt in less abstract terms we shall find we have made a special contribution of no mean degree in both men and ideas. We have had our theologians of national and world-wide fame, men of the highest learning their age afforded, of consecrated lives and broad understanding. But each of these stands for a fresh and stronger utterance of a principle or method of thought already well understood, rather than for any original discovery. The discovery of America did not so much mark the era of hlgher discoveries in the realm of ideas as it pro vided a chance for the application of these ideas. The conditions were new, the experiment of self-government was new, under which all the lesser experiments in religious faith and practice were carried on; but the thing to be tried, the ideal to be tested, that was well understood. They knew what they wanted, those stanch and daring ancestors of ours. “As the pilgrims landed,” says Bancroft, “their institutions were already perfected. Democratic liberty and Christian worship at once existed in America.”
It would be hard to say when or where the gift of liberty was first bestowed on man. Prof. John Fiske, in his Discovery of America, shows how after repeated experiments and failures, each leading to the final triumph, no one standing for that triumph alone, this discovery was, in his own words, “not a single event but a gradual process.” Still more are the moral achievements of mankind “gradual processes,” not “single events.” To say therefore that America’s contribution to the race lies less in knowledge of the principle of liberty than in the opportunity to test and apply this principle, is to say enough. Whatever the religious consciousness of man had gained in belief or conviction was ours to begin with. This adult stage of thought in which our national life began deprived us of many of those poetic and picturesque elements which belong to earlier forms of thought. The faith of the new world, being Protestant, aggressively and dogmatically Protestant at times, felt itself obliged to dispense with the large body of stored and storied literature gathered by mother church, and thus impoverished itself in the effective presentation of the truths it held so dear. It has been well said that the Puritan ideal was allied to the Israelitish ; in both we find the same stern insistence on practical righteousness as a fundamental requirement of the religious life. Personal integrity, this was the root of the Puritan ideal in public and private life, one which this nation must continue to observe if it would prosper, which will prove its sure loss and destruction to ignore.
Hand in hand the two ideals of heavenly birth, freedom and goodness, have led the steps of man down the tortuous path of theological experiment and trial out under the blue open of a pure and natural religion. Where except under republican rule can the experiment so well be tried of a personal religion, based on no authority but that of the truth, finding its sanction in the human heart, demonstrating itself in deeds of practical helpfulness and good will ? If the world’s religious debt to America lies in this thought of opportunity or religion applied, it is a debt the future will disclose more than the past has disclosed it. If ours is the opportunity, ours is still more the obligation. Privilege does not go without responsibility; where much is bestowed much is required.
Source: Woolley, Celia Parker, “The World’s Religious Debt to America,” in The World’s Parliament of Religions, An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World’s First Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, (Chicago: The Parliamentary Publishing Co.), 1893, pp. 1268-1269.