Abstract This article provides the first significant scholarly treatment of “The Conference on Some Living Religions within the British Empire,” which took place between September 22 and October 2, 1924, in conjunction with the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. An unprecedented event in Britain’s history, the conference brought numerous scholars and “holy men of the Empire” to London. As a catalyst for the modern study of religion, the conference merits comparison to the better-known Parliament of the World’s Religions that met in Chicago in 1893. Based on extensive archival research in the United Kingdom and on contemporary newspaper reportage, the article argues that knowledge of this conference helps redress general inattention to the history of interreligious dialogue. What is more, it contributes to the rich literature on “religion and empire” that has emerged in recent years, not least in the pages of JAAR. Finally, it argues that an analysis of this conference partly confirms and partly contests “orientalism” as a helpful category for understanding Western engagement with non-Western religions and cultures. In ten days the whole field of religion has been roughly traversed. —Tyssul Davis, 1924 DESPITE THE WIDESPREAD practice of and importance attributed to interreligious dialogue today, knowledge of its history remains sparse. To be sure, some key turning points are well known, such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in conjunction with Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, or the Catholic Church’s embrace of interreligious dialogue in Nostra aetate, one of the key declarations of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) (Seager 1995; O’Collins 2013). Still, many other interreligious initiatives and endeavors languish in historical obscurity, known dimly if at all. This article places a spotlight on one major event that ought to command our attention: “The Conference on Some Living Religions within the British Empire,” which took place between September 22 and October 3, 1924, in London in conjunction with the British Empire Exhibition, among the last of the great imperial exhibitions before the Empire’s demise following World War II. Taking place under the auspices of London’s School of Oriental Studies (SOS) and the British Sociological Society, the conference was held at the Imperial Institute in London’s South Kensington district.1 It brought representatives from all the major religions of the British Empire to London—excluding Christianity and Judaism because of their presumed familiarity—to expound before a general British audience the chief tenets and practices of their respective faiths. For many present, it was their first time to hear directly from a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Parsi, among other religious voices. In what follows, I sketch the historical context of the conference and its genesis before discussing what actually took place. I conclude by discussing its significance and legacy, exploring where it might fit in the broader terrain of modern intellectual and religious history. Four principal arguments accompany my account. First, the conference makes a fascinating case study for the emergent subfield of “religion and empire,” which has focused attention on how imperial elites throughout history have understood and managed religious groups differing in outlook and often far away from imperial “centers” such as London, and, conversely, on how religious groups at the margins have understood and dealt with the “center” (Gascoigne 2008).2 Second, the conference partly confirms and partly contests Edward Said’s well-known thesis about “orientalism”: that colonizers’ knowledge of the colonized regularly served as an instrument of control and domination. In this case, while the British organizers of the conference certainly possessed “positional superiority” vis-à-vis those invited to speak, it is also true that they took steps to understand the other qua other and not strictly through the lenses of preconceived notions about religious and racial hierarchies (Said 1979; Shils 1975).3 This is seen most clearly in the decision taken to invite figures who could speak not only about but from a particular religious standpoint. It is also apparent in the organizers’ decision to avert religious controversy by dispensing with discussion after each presentation, so that the presenters themselves might have the final word. This decision created the necessary space for some speakers to assert, uncontested, a measure of protest or “cultural resistance” against their colonized situation.4 Third, I shall argue that despite some organizers’ wishes that “religion” (idealistically and generally understood) might foster imperial cohesion, the conference in fact called attention to the inherent difficulty of managing what had become after World War I “a huge and extremely variegated Empire” (Darwin 1999, 33).5 Finally, I shall argue that this conference, while scantly remembered today, has played an important role in shaping assumptions about and practices of interreligious dialogue in the twentieth century and beyond. As such, knowledge of the conference contributes not only to our understanding of the past but also to our ability to think well and wisely about the ongoing necessity and difficulty of interreligious dialogue. THE BRITISH EMPIRE EXHIBITION, 1924–1925 On April 23, 1924, the feast day of St. George, King George V opened the British Empire Exhibition with a speech to a crowd of around 100,000 at Wembley Stadium on the northern outskirts of London. Later that evening the BBC broadcast the speech to the entire country—an unprecedented event, the first time many Britons heard the voice of their monarch (Potter 2012, 14). In the speech, the King made clear his hope that the exhibition would contribute to British citizens’ knowledge of their empire, and that it would make all parts of the empire feel knit together as a “family of nations.” A month later, as the exhibition got underway, an “Empire Thanksgiving Service” took place, during which the Bishop of London offered “thanksgiving for the Empire Builders of the past” and enjoined “the Empire Builders of the Present and of the Future ... [to] work together to further God’s peace on earth” (Empire Thanksgiving Service 1925, 24).6 The Exhibition of 1924–1925 came as the latest in a series of world fairs and international exhibitions that harkened back to London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Subsequent fairs had taken place in Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, Chicago, and St. Louis. But if similar in some respects to these, the Exhibition of 1924 had its own distinctive features. It was international, to be sure, but only by virtue of showcasing the British Empire; British colonies alone were invited to participate, not other nations as had been the case in 1851 (Greenhalgh 1988, 61). Seen in this light, the exhibition might be interpreted both as an effort to project imperial grandeur and a plea for imperial cohesion in an age when European empires had witnessed the rise of anticolonial opposition, both in the colonies themselves and among domestic critics of Empire (Hughes 2008; Darwin 1980; Mitchell, 1992). The “Wembley Exhibition,” as it came to be called, also stood out for its sheer grandiosity. Covering over 200 acres, the exhibition bore witness to a massive and costly undertaking. It featured commercial, technological, medicinal, and environmental displays; pavilions showcasing colonial territories; a huge stadium (“Empire Stadium”) built at Wembley for the occasion; “palaces” of industry and engineering; numerous restaurants and cafes; an artificial lake; and even an amusement park filled with “thrilling and laughter-raising contrivances” (Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to London 1924; see also Mackenzie 1999, 213–14). In late July and August of 1924, organizers staged an epic “Pageant of Empire,” which took three days for a visitor to take in in its entirety. It had a cast of 15,000 people, 300 horses, 500 donkeys, 730 camels, 72 monkeys, 1000 doves, 7 elephants, 3 bears, and a macaw (The Scotsman 1924). The pageant amounted to a sweeping, rose-colored tour of the empire’s history, including scenes such as “The Days of Queen Elizabeth, 1588” and “Missionary Enterprises, Livingstone and Stanley, 1871,” and musical scores such as Sir Edward Elgar’s “The Crown of India” (The Pageant of Empire: Souvenir Volume 1924). An estimated 27 million people attended the exhibition. The official guide claimed that visitors would learn more about the empire in a few days than they might in months of travel in the colonies themselves. Stressing the educational benefits for the young and workers in particular, exhibition organizers had sent promotional material to employers, trade unions, municipalities, teachers, and school boards. “An adequate knowledge of the Empire is for the modern boy or girl an essential part of citizenship,” as one government circular put it (“Circular Letter to Local Education and Governing Bodies” 1924). Many schools, along with churches and civic groups, avidly participated. A ten-month international tour, begun in 1922 and headed by Major Ernst Belcher accompanied by Agatha Christie and her husband, sought to awaken global interest in the exhibition (Christie 2012). The idea for some kind of exhibition had first been proposed in the early 1900s by the British Empire League. In 1913, the Scottish-born, former Canadian High Commissioner, Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, revived the idea and sought to secure allies and funding (“British Empire Exhibition” 1923). The outbreak of war in 1914 delayed planning, but after the war it resumed, boosted by a postwar imperative to restore national pride and promote knowledge of the empire, which had grown due to territories granted Britain in the Paris Peace Conference (1919). In 1919, the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, became president of the committee, and the government of Prime Minister David Lloyd George secured official recognition and financial support, and enjoined the Colonial Office to invite all parts of the empire to participate (Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to London 1924). Of the 58 territories making up the empire, 56 participated, some more extensively than others. According to the official guide, the aim of the exhibition was to stimulate trade, to strengthen the bonds that bind the Mother Country to her Sister States and Daughter Nations, to bring all into closer touch the one with the other, to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground, and to learn to know each other. It is a Family Party, to which every part of the Empire is invited, and at which every part of the Empire is represented. (The British Empire Exhibition 1924, 13) For such a grand occasion, the Imperial Studies Committee of the Royal Colonial Institute produced a massive twelve-volume work, The British Empire: A Survey (1924). For both native Britons and guests, the exhibition offered much food for thought about the nature of the British Empire. A character in P. G. Wodehouse’s short story “The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy,” which has the exhibition as one of its settings, summarized the moonstruck experience of many visitors, describing it as “the most supremely absorbing and educational collection of objects, both animate and inanimate, gathered from the four corners of the Empire that has ever been assembled in England’s history” (Wodehouse 1958, 121). At the same time, the exhibition attracted critics, who saw it as little more than a spectacle of imperial propaganda and bread-and-circuses entertainment for the masses (Mackenzie 1999, 215). While the initial impetus behind the exhibition was to showcase industrial and agricultural production and promote trade among the colonies, familiarizing visitors with the cultural diversity of the empire emerged as another goal. This emphasis took many forms such as an exhibition on Indian art, a model of Solomon’s temple and the tabernacle in the pavilion of Palestine, and a large-scale replica of a Buddhist monastery in the pavilion of Burma (Heath 1925; see also “British Empire Exhibition” 1924, 73–74, 88). Conferences and lectures were to be another means of transmitting knowledge about colonies’ cultures. Toward this end, a planning memorandum had expressed “[the] hope to arrange, in connection with the Exhibition, a series of inter-imperial conferences for the consideration of problems of mutual interest as well as lectures of a more popular character” (“British Empire Exhibition” 1924). As knowledge about the exhibition’s aims was disseminated in the early 1920s, various individuals and institutions stepped forward with suggestions and ideas. And one of these took the form of the Conference on Some Living Religions within the Empire. The idea for the conference was first hatched in a letter from the theosophist, socialist, and Quaker-sympathizer William Loftus Hare (1868– 1943) to Sir Denison Ross (1871–1940), the accomplished, globetrotting director of the recently founded SOS in London (Hare 1925, 3). Coincidently, the SOS had recently formed a committee to “to deal with the question of making the School better known by means of the Empire Exhibition” (SOAS Archives 1923–1924, 6). Ross therefore responded positively to Hare, suggesting that such a conference could succeed if religious controversy was avoided and if “the spokesman of each religion should be one who professed such religion” (Hare 1925, 1).7 Also keen to procure what he called “native expositors” of religions, Hare concurred and thereafter he contacted the Empire Exhibition’s organizers to start setting things in motion (Hare 1924, 711). Ross and Hare also established a twelve-person Executive Committee to proceed with planning and to issue invitations.8 They were assisted in this capacity by Mabel M. Sharples, who along with Hare served as the conference’s secretaries. Key members of the Executive Committee included Victor Branford, founder of the Sociological Society, which cosponsored the conference; Caroline Rhys Davids, an expert on Buddhism and the Pali language; Sir Thomas Arnold, a leading authority on Islam; and Sir Francis Younghusband, a British army officer, traveler, and spiritual writer, who later served as President of the Royal Geographical Society. Younghusband’s involvement before, during, and after the conference, as we shall see, proved especially significant (Hare 1925, 4). The first of twelve committee meetings took place on October 12, 1923 at the SOS in London (Hare 1924, 709–11). During these meetings, many important observations were articulated and decisions made. First, planners saw their conference in continuity with the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, which had also taken place in the context of a major world exhibition. Second, they recognized that the impetus for such a conference owed a significant debt to the comparative study of religion or the “science of religion,” which had emerged as a field of study in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under the leadership of figures such as Friedrich Max Müller and Albert Réville, and in international “Congresses of Religion” that had taken place in Paris (1900), Basel (1904), Oxford (1908), and Leiden (1912).9 At the same time, they did not see their conference as primarily academic in nature, but more generally informative to the British people and, again, with a unique focus on hearing from “native expositors” (Hare 1925, 8–14). As Hare later expressed their aim: “Our duty was to be informative to the British people who are mostly professing Christians as to the nature and influence of the living sister religions of the Empire” (Hare 1924, 710). For this reason, they decided to exclude both Christianity and Judaism from the conference, since presumably most attendees would have more familiarity with these two faiths. Internecine rancor among Protestant denominations also recommended to them the exclusion of Christianity. Fourth, they decided not only to treat ancient religions but also “modern movements” that had developed within them. Fifth, they created space after all for a more “scientific” component to the conference, but these presentations were intended to come only after representatives of the various religions had spoken. Hence the schedule of the conference came to have two parts: (1) presentations “on the Oriental Religions of the Empire and various Modern Movements arising out of them” and (2) presentations “on the Psychology and Sociology of Religion.”10 Sixth, they decided to hold their conference not on the Wembley Exhibition grounds, but in London, where they thought the atmosphere conduced better to their goals. Toward this end, they secured the large Upper West Room at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington.11 Finally, the committee recognized, accurately, the historic nature of their undertaking: never on British soil had such an interreligious event taken place, and, as such, they felt it would supply a “spiritual” counter-weight to the overtly economic and industrial emphases that had been the hallmark of imperial exhibitions past and present. Soon communiqués and invitations were sent out to figures of notable religious stature throughout the empire: to Hong Kong, Singapore, Iraq, Palestine, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and, not least, India, from which many key invitees hailed. Speakers sought out included representatives of Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Buddhism, African “tribal religions,” and more. In some cases, the committee did not secure the speaker they desired, but more often than not they did.12 They were especially gratified by the acceptance of Mirza Basheer-ud-Din Mahmood Ahmad (1889–1965), the spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyya Movement within Islam in northern India (more about this later) (Manchester Guardian 1924a). That invitations were sent to “modern movements” within older religious traditions proved gratifying to a number of invitees. After receiving an invitation, for example, Shoghi Effendi, the leader of the Bah,a’i movement, wrote from its headquarters in Haifa, Palestine, to his co-religionists in the United States: “I feel that the opportunities now offered to the Bah,a’i world should not be missed, as this chance, if properly utilized, might arouse and stimulate interest among the enlightened public.” Accordingly, someone “qualified” should be tapped “to produce a befitting statement on the unique history of the Movement as well as its lofty principles” (Effendi 1924). In the end, two “qualified” figures presented on Bahái: Mountford Mills of Canada and Ruhi Afnan, Effendi’s cousin, who traveled to London from Palestine (Hare 1925, 320–25; Hare 1924, 735–37).13 Besides Bahá’i, Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj—both reform movements within Hinduism—rounded out the “modern movements” represented at the conference (Clark 2006, 40, 64–65; Kopf 1979). COURSE OF THE CONFERENCE By late summer of 1924 the scene was set for the conference to open on September 22. As news of the conference trickled out, it became one of the most widely anticipated events of the exhibition (Times of India 1924b). Prior to opening day, newspapers regularly waxed enthusiastic about its significance, calling the conference an “unusual event,” a “unique gathering,” and even “one of the most spectacular gatherings ever held in London.”14 Or, to quote more fully, and typically, from the Yorkshire Observer (August 30, 1924): One of the most curious conferences of recent years will be held at the Imperial Institute next month. It will be a conference on living religions within the Empire, but curiously enough neither Christianity nor Judaism will be included. The promoters say they wish to concentrate on the lesser-known religions: Moslems, Buddhists, Parsees, Tavists [sic], Hindoos, and Brahmins will be present, as well as representatives of such little-known religious movement as Bahaism, which spread rapidly in Persia about a century ago. The three great branches of the Islamic faith—the Sunnis, Shiahs and the Ahmadia—will have representatives, and so will the Sufist sect.. . . Sr. Francis Younghusband, the well-known traveler, who has a probably unique knowledge of the affairs of the East, will open the conference. (Yorkshire Observer 1924) Following a press release by the conference’s organizing committee, several newspapers printed the full schedule of the event (see, e.g., AMUS 1924). Many journalists assayed to comment more specifically on the conference’s significance. Under the headline “Queer Religions of Empire,” the Evening News, for example, connected the conference with the economic thrust of the Empire Exhibition as a whole: “If we are to get into touch with the producers of crops, minerals, and manufactures of the distant parts of the British Empire, it is necessary for us at home to know something of their hopes, fears, and religions. These form, in fact, the spring of thought and conduct of these citizens of the Empire” (Evening News 1924c). The Daily Mirror emphasized the educational value of the conference: “Such an opportunity to learn about the religions of the East has never before been given to theological students in this country” (DailyMirror 1924). The Inquirer seconded this sentiment, noting that British citizens tended to have “abysmal ignorance . . . about the world religions” (Inquirer 1924a). Several newspapers claimed that such a conference would not be possible were it not for the Crown’s policy of religious neutrality toward the colonies: “Under the tolerant flag of the British Empire,” the Glasgow Herald opined, “there are not persecuted sects, and it is not surprising, therefore, that there should gather at the hospitable heart of the Empire [London] representatives of [the world’s religions]” (Glasgow Herald 1924). As the “holy men of the Empire” arrived in London, news coverage intensified. No figure aroused more curiosity than the aforementioned Mirza Basheer-ud-Din, Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and the second successor of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908), who in the late nineteenth century claimed to be the Mahdi, the messianic renewer of Islam in the end times according to some Islamic traditions—a claim, then and now, widely disputed by other Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia.15 From its starting point in Qadian, Punjab (northern India), the Ahmadiyya movement had spread rapidly, claiming roughly 500,000 followers by 1924. Its fascination for the British public was at least twofold: the movement expressed intense loyalty to the Raj and in the person of Mirza Basheer-ud-Din one had the opportunity to witness in the flesh someone claiming quasi-divine status. Reporters followed Mirza Basheer-ud-Din’s every move. After a long journey from India, he arrived in London with twelve companions on August 21, 1924 and was greeted by Sr. Francis Younghusband among others. As the Evening News reported: “Travelers at Victoria Station got a surprise when a party of green-turbaned foreigners headed by an imposing figure stepped straight from the Continental express and opened prayer on the platform. The long-drawn tenor cry of ‘Allah-o-Akbur!’ (Great is Allah) followed and they moved off” (Evening News 1924b). The company visited London’s Ludgate Circus, where they offered a prayer in fulfillment of a prophecy that they should pray at “Bab-ul-lud”—an Arabic name remarkably similar to the London Gate of Lud. Prior to the conference, the company also traveled to Brighton to pay respects at the Memorial to Britain’s Fallen Comrades-in-Arms from India during World War I. Furthermore, their august leader laid the foundation stone for London’s first mosque, Fazl Mosque, in Southfields, which an Ahmadiyya community has occupied until the present (Manchester Guardian 1925). During many meetings with London’s dignitaries, Mirza Basheer-ud-Din rarely failed to remind his interlocutors that Muslims formed one of the largest bodies in the empire and he made scant effort to hide his proselytizing mission (South London Times 1924). “I intend to observe conditions,” he told one reporter, “[to] see how we can best set about converting Western people to Islam.. . . It is our belief that if the Christian .. . was to concentrate all his mind upon trying to discover the true religion, just as we do from our birth, he would be gradually led to our creeds by his own reasoning” (Evening News 1924a). For such reasons, Sir Denison Ross and others presumably had sought to eliminate “religious controversy” from the conference—a point that Ross reiterated in an article for the Morning Post that appeared on the conference’s opening day, September 22, 1924. In it, Ross sought to underscore several distinctive features of the conference. First, he made clear that the event “is purely an Empire gathering” and that he and others had sought to align its goals with those of the Empire Exhibition as a whole, which concretely meant “familiaris[ing] people in this country with less well-known religions [of the Empire].” Second, he emphasized the limitation of understanding religions from a “purely academic standpoint”; instead, “the only way to arrive at a true appreciation of any religion is to hear it personally expounded by one who believes in it.” At the same time, he conveyed that the planning committee had sought speakers with a “dual capacity,” who “not only believe in their religion, but who have made an intimate study of it.” Third, he stated that, while the history and teachings of a religion might be sketched by speakers, the focus of the conference would be on “applications of various religions to every day life.” Fourth, he reminded the public that in addition to lectures on the major religions of the Empire, minor ones and “modern movements,” such as the Ahmidiyya or Bahá’i, would be treated as well and, finally, that the conference would conclude with several lectures on the “psychology and sociology” of religion; but this more academic part would only come after hearing “from the lips of those who profess” a particular religion. “The Conference,” he concluded in an optimistic key, “should do something to spread the knowledge of the religions of the Empire. I hope that it will do more. I hope that it will serve to illustrate that many widely held ideas and beliefs are a common possession” (Ross 1924).16 Preceded by a brief orchestral concert, the conference officially opened at 2:30 p.m. on the afternoon of September 22 (Hare 1925, 511; AMUS 1924). Given the high-profile nature of the event, Ross, who chaired the opening lecture, had felt it appropriate to send a telegraphed greeting to King George V, whose ministers quickly replied, bestowing a royal blessing on the event. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, contacted prior to the event, also sent a brief communique′ that was read aloud. “I am glad to have this opportunity,” it began, to send a word of greeting to [this conference] ... Many religions and many creeds live in amity within our Empire, each by their different way leading our peoples toward some ultimate light. I welcome cordially the objects of this Conference and the knowledge which it spreads amongst us that our peoples, in the aspirations of the Spirit, “walk not back to back but with a unity of track.” (quoted in Hare 1925, 5–6) A reporter for the Daily Mail vividly captured the lecture hall’s atmosphere on opening day by focusing on the women in the audience: “Many women were present—English and Indian. The latter wore flowing saris of purple and gold or of crimson and deep sea blue. Diamonds flashed from their hair and pearls gleamed in the bangles on their arms” (Daily Mail 1924). Or, as Hare described the opening gathering: “The fez, the turban, the kaftan, the golden coat from India and the quiet robe from Arabia were symbols of variety [in the hall]” (Hare 1924, 713). As indicated earlier, Sir Francis Younghusband gave the opening speech. A larger-than-life figure, Younghusband has been aptly described as “the last great imperial adventurer.” Born in India and educated in Britain, he rose quickly in the ranks of the British army and traveled extensively in the Far East, where he became a master of “the Great Game,” that is, Britain and Russia’s tense rivalry for influence in central Asia. In 1903, the Viceroy to India, Lord Curzon, tapped Younghusband to lead Britain’s controversial expedition into Tibet (Neuhaus 2012; Stewart 2009; Verrier 1991). Later, Younghusband chaired the Mount Everest Committee that supported George Mallory’s effort to ascend the fabled mountain. When returning from Tibet in 1904, Younghusband experienced a religious epiphany. While gazing at the Himalayas on a cloudless day, as he later recounted, he found himself overcome by “untellable joy. The whole world was ablaze with the same ineffable bliss that was burning within me.” Extrapolating from the experience, he became convinced “of the essential goodness of the world. I was convinced past all refutation that men were good at heart, that all the evil in them was superficial ... in short, that men at heart are divine” (quoted in French 1995, 252). Extrapolating still further, he arrived at the view that all religions were humankind’s inchoate attempts to express the divinity that permeated all things, human consciousness in particular. As such, all religions should be esteemed, even venerated, and they should come into closer conversation with one another. In theological terms, Younghusband articulated a sweeping universalism, convinced that all religious paths ultimately led to the same transcendent vistas if by different routes. They also had a similar moral message, he felt. Later in life, he expressed such views in a number of general-audience books with titles such as The Living Universe and Vital Religion: A Brotherhood of Faith (Younghusband 1933, 1940). In his opening address, Younghusband articulated his developing views, tying them to the particular aims of the religions conference and the larger objectives of the Empire Exhibition. Of all the addresses at the conference, his is arguably the most significant for defining the purpose of interreligious dialogue. Several aspects of it, therefore, merit highlighting. Although he praised “the material development of the British Empire” on display at Wembley and the neutrality of the Crown toward the Empire’s various religions, he indicated that these things, in themselves, were insufficient, because far greater attention ought to be spent on the Empire’s “spiritual development.” In fact, he startled the audience by claiming “that the ultimate basis upon with the British Empire should stand must be religion: not political constitutions nor economic agreements. These are only the bones and anatomy, not the spirit which makes and is the man, and which should make and be the Empire.” Aware that critics might wonder if religion sowed more seeds of discord than concord, Younghusband answered: “My reply would be that an instrument, which, if carelessly used is exceedingly dangerous, may, if properly used, be superlatively effective” (Hare 1925, 17–18).17 Eager to make clear that he was no idle pedant, Younghusband insisted that his convictions did not rest on “abstruse study in the library but of years of work in the field—work among Hindus, Muhammadans, and Buddhists, as well as among my own countrymen.” Even patriotism could not hold the Empire together, he claimed, aware of the many tensions and conflicts throughout the colonies. Rather, religion, rightly understood—that is, a mutual recognition by colonies and mother country alike “of the realness of the spiritual world”—should help the empire “hold firmly together.” This would also promote greater solidarity among the different religious groups within the empire as represented before him at the conference (Hare 1925, 17). But rightly understanding religion required a revolution in thinking about it. In Younghusband’s estimation, patience should not be granted to those convinced that they were “wholly and exclusively right” in religious matters. One must rather uphold a generous universalism and hold to the conviction that all religions pointed ultimately to a higher harmony (Hare 1925, 18). This view he enjoined the conference attendees, and the empire as a whole, to adopt. As he more fully expressed it: “[The] exclusive attitude is not the attitude we would wish to see adopted at this conference. We may each of us hold that out own religion is more completely perfect than any other. But even then, we may recognize that God reveals himself in many ways, and that to the followers of other religions than our own may have been revealed much that may be of value to us.” Religious differences will perhaps always be present, he conceded, “but we need never lose our faith that all the time there may be an underlying unity and overarching harmony which may reconcile them all, if only we could reach it” (Hare 1925, 19). Since Younghusband would later play a leading role in 1936 in establishing the World Congress of Faiths (more about it later), it is noteworthy that already in 1924 he envisioned the religions conference as the first step toward future ones, in which his views might find more expansive development. “[T]his conference,” he concluded his speech, “will vivify interest in religion and declare its value. But later conferences may perhaps go further,” leading those gathered into a “deeper truth,” in which interlocutors would discuss together “the great ultimate problems of life—the nature of the world we live in, our relation to it, the aims we ought to have in view and the way to reach our aims.” He admitted that these were also questions for philosophy and science, but “primarily and elementally” they were “religious” in nature and he therefore praised those gathered for advancing the “sacred cause of religion” (Hare 1925, 24–25). Younghusband’s claims dominated news coverage of the conference’s first day. The Times of India summed up his aim as suggesting that “the ultimate basis of the British Empire must be religion which used in the right way, might work for good, not dreamt of” (Times of India 1924a). Hailing the conference as “the first of its kind in this country,” the Manchester Guardian appeared impressed at Younghusband’s “reverent wonder” for religion. A unity based on such reverence might in fact be more of a necessity than luxury, the Guardian continued, summarizing a frequent point made by the conference’s organizers, for “in the British Empire there are more Mohammedans than Christians, and at least twice as many Hindus as Mohammedans. That there are also many Buddhists, and very many millions of adherents of primitive religions.” Only time would bear out Younghusband’s aspirations, the Guardian averred, since at present “men of different faiths were still unaccustomed to discussing among themselves one another’s religious beliefs. As they became accustomed to do that, might not future conferences frankly discuss religious truth itself?” (Manchester Guardian 1924b). Once Younghusband ceded the lectern, a host of “native expositors” followed him. Because of its numerical preponderance in the empire, Hinduism was heard from first in a lecture by Pandit Shyam Shanker of the Indian holy city of Benares (Varanasi), who spoke on “Orthodox Hinduism or San^atana Dharma.” Another paper, “The Religious Aspect of Hindu Philosophy,” written by Pandit D. K. Laddu of Poona City (Pune), was in the works, and although it was not read, it was included in the post-conference publication. Making known India’s ancient traditions of religious pluralism and accommodation, Shanker warmly embraced the aims of the conference: “The age of religious disputes or controversies is happily drawing to its close in the civilized world, and I am sure the spirit engendered by this Conference will stimulate friendly religious discussions and hasten the end of religious ... bigotry and fanaticism” (Hare 1925, 32). Islam followed Hinduism. In fact, the entire second day of the conference was devoted to Islam. Guests heard “The Basic Principles of Islam” by Al-Haj Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, Imam of the Mosque in Woking, Surrey18; “The Spirit of Islam” by Mustafa Khan of Lahore; “The Shi’ah Branch of Islam” by Sheikh Kadhim el Dojaily of Baghdad; “The Ahmadiyya Movement” by Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-Din of Qadian, India; and “Sufism” by Hafiz Raushan Ali of Ranmal, Punjab Hare 1925, 47).19 Before the lectures began, the mufti of the Woking mosque chanted passages from the Qur’an, leaving a strong impression on those gathered. Conspicuously, a number of Hindu guests, present on the conference’s opening day, did not attend the lectures on Islam—a fact that led one newspaper to editorialize skeptically: “It would not appear from this that we are all quite so ready as Sir Francis Younghusband supposes to hear one another’s creeds exploited [sic] as parallel ways of approach to a common object” (Manchester Guardian 1924c). In subsequent days, guests heard presentations on Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, the Sikh religion, and Taoism.20 Presentations on traditional Asian religions were followed by ones on “modern movements” within them as well as by ones on various so-called “primitive religions” found in the empire. With respect to the former, four lectures were given in all, including ones on the Hindu reform movements of “Brahma Samaj” (by N. E. Sen), “Arya Samaj” (by S. N. Pherwani of Shikarpur), “The Baha’i Cause” (by Mountford Mills of Canada), and “The Baha’i Influence on Life” (by Ruhi Afnan of Haifa). For the latter, suitable “native expositors” were often lacking and Western scholars were sought for guidance, those who came from geographical locations where a particular religion was practiced and had long experience of directly observing it.21 As indicated earlier, the conference concluded with several lectures on “the psychology and sociology of religions”—described later by Hare as “the scientific section of the conference” (Hare 1925, 403). For the most part, native British scholars gave these presentations. Younghusband approached the lectern again to speak on “Man and Nature.” His talk was followed by ones on “The Naturalist’s Approach to Religion (by J. Arthur Thomson), “Primitive Occupations: Their Ideals and Temptations” (by Victor Branford), “Holy Ways and Holy Places” (by H. J. Fleure), “The Idea of the Sacred City” (by Rachel Annand Taylor, the only woman to speak), “Religion and the Life of Civilisation” (by the noted Catholic scholar Christopher Dawson), “The Ideal Man” (by William Loftus Hare), and, finally, “Religion and the Chart of Life” (by Patrick Geddes). While the conference was in session, no less than three official receptions were held: one at the Imperial Institute arranged by Lady Aaron Ron, a second at the Ritz hotel hosted by Mirza Basheer-ud-Din, and yet another at the Claridge Hotel and arranged by Sara Louisa (Lady) Bloomfield, an early British follower of Bahà’i (Hare 1924, 759). London had not quite witnessed a social scene like this before. Although the “scientific” presentations are not without interest, the lectures by “native expositors” more insistently merit attention. To be sure, in many cases these were quite predictable, offering straightforward introductions to various traditions. But here and there they provide fascinating glimpses into the postwar, imperial milieu of their construction. What is more, several speakers used the platform to offer apologias for their beliefs or to rebut Western criticisms, while others, echoing Younghusband, sought to wax eloquent about the general of significance of “religion” in imperial and human affairs. And some even ventured to criticize European colonialism, the British variety in particular. It is especially in native expositors’ efforts to voice criticisms—without the ability of the audience to respond—that we see the hermeneutical limitations of “orientalism” to apprehend what was taking place; the format of the conference gave to the speakers a degree of agency to identify themselves and, whether intentionally or not, subtly to destabilize customary power relations. The postwar period had witnessed worldwide discussion about the promotion of peace and avoidance of war in the future—a discussion that took short-lived institutional embodiment in the League of Nations (Pederson 2015, 107ff.). Not surprisingly, therefore, a number of speakers sought to address the topic of peace, proposing resources from their respective faiths for its promotion. Speaking of Baha’i, for example, Ruhi Afnan criticized the “spirit of nationalism” that had led to the “great world war” before extolling “the spirit of international brotherhood” that Baha’i sought to encourage (Hare 1925, 322–24). Afnan’s co-religionist, Mountford Mills, pointed out that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (the successor of Bahá’u’lláh, Bahà’i’s founder) already in the late nineteenth century had advocated for a “world federation” and “international tribunal” remarkably similar to the League of Nations (Hare 1925, 316). Similarly, Mustafa Khan emphasized in his lecture on “the Spirit of Islam” that Allah was “the Sustainer, not of a particular nation or community, but of all humanity.” “The cosmopolitan conception of God as the universal Father of humanity,” he elaborated, “is a potent factor to cement the brotherly relation of different nations of the world, and thus to bring these apparently heterogeneous elements of humanity into a harmonious whole” (Hare 1925, 87). Wilmot Arthur de Silva, furthermore, speaking on Buddhism in Ceylon, extolled the strife-reducing potential of Buddhism, which as a cultural force, he felt, served as an antidote to “civilizations that [have] exalted wealth, power and dominion” (Hare 1925, 156). He did not mention Europe directly here, but the implication was clear enough. While a number of speakers expressed a measure of gratitude for the British Empire, others, as indicated, voiced criticism—some subtly, some not so subtly. After lamenting the influence of the Portuguese and Dutch empires in Ceylon, de Silva, who is considered a forerunner of the Sri Lankan independence movement, deplored the work of Christian missionaries under the British flag; those who had converted he called “government Christians” before declaring such missionary efforts a “marked failure” in light of the resilience of Buddhism (Hare 1925, 158).22 Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera, also speaking about Buddhism in Ceylon, offered a blistering critique of education there under British rule: In the high schools, where English forms the sole medium of instruction, the system has been slavishly based on the high schools of England.... Our boys are taught of the Black Prince and Henry VIII and his six wives without a word being told them about the exploits of their own kings and heroes; they are told about Luther and Wolsey, and not one word about their own scholars and reformers…. They are made familiar with a glowing descriptions of robin redbreast, but they are not told a thing about their own song-bird, the kokila. (Hare 1925, 172) Few criticisms were this blunt, but sporadically among the lectures others cropped up, as in the Taoist Hsü Ti-Shan’s claim that Empire always implies “authority, force and pressure” while the goal of the Taoist was to escape from such things and “submit one’s self to nature” (Hare 1925, 249). Of all the religions represented at the conference, Islam appeared to elicit the most skepticism from the British populace due to its long confrontation with the West at Europe’s borders and because of its status as a rival “missionary religion” to Christianity. Those speaking on Islam seemed aware of the challenge and sought to controvert Western criticism. Rebutting frequent charges of Islam’s intellectual backwardness, for example, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din called attention to past Islamic achievements in science, proclaiming Muslims “as the forerunners of the workers in modern sciences, [which had] ... brought forth modern civilization” (Hare 1925, 84). In a similarly defensive register, Mirza Basheer-ud-Din sought to put the best possible glosses on polygamy and jihad—two frequent targets of Western disapprobation. The former corresponded better to “the demands of nature,” he claimed, even if it should also be understood as a “heavy burden which a man is sometimes compelled to carry out and is not a device for indulgence” (Hare 1925, 119–20). Jihad, he opined, does not give Muslims a license for violence, but only allows them to defend their faith against those intent on destroying it: “It permits the Moslems to fight only those people who fight them with the object of destroying Islam .. . and they are permitted to carry on the war only so long as the enemy continues” (Hare 1925, 118–29). Mirza Basheer-udDin also defended Islam’s looser strictures on divorce, arguing that critics “fail to realize that the temperaments of the husband and wife may, in some cases, chance to be so entirely incompatible that to compel them to live together would amount to an attempt to reconcile fire and water, which is bound to result in the destruction of both” (Hare 1925, 120). After parrying such criticisms, Mirza Basheer-ud-Din pivoted sharply into an apologetic register: “Such and all similar criticisms ... [of] the teachings of Islam are the result of ignorance or a lack of understanding, for the teachings of Islam, are, more than those of any other religion, based on considerations of mercy and of wisdom, and offer a complete and perfect solution of the needs and problems of every age” (Hare 1925, 120–21). He was not alone; others campaigned for the correctness of their outlook. Zoroastrianism, according to its sole expositor, Dastur Sardar Kaikobad Adarbad Dastur Noshirwan, shone “more brightly” than other religions and it deserved to be considered the “Universal Religion” (Hare 1925, 214, 216). Praising the fastidious nature of Jainist ethics, Rai Bahadur Jagmander Lal Jaini asserted that “it may be said that Jainist morality begins at a point where in most other religions it may seem to end.” He also emphasized Jainism’s durability and resilience as a religion: “The greatest proof of my position is this, that whereas most of the ancient religions born in India have been extinguished, assimilated or expelled by the other religions, Jainism has survived all shocks and attacks, political or otherwise, since at least from 1000 BC” (Hare 1925, 230). Representing the Hindu reform movement, Brahmo Samaj, N. C. Sen argued that the movement’s founder, Ram Mohan Roy, sought only “to promote the universal worship of the One Supreme Creator, the Common Father of Mankind” and gather all other religions into its capacious bosom. “This catholic idea, while it led him to embrace all creeds and sects in his comprehensive scheme of faith and worship, precluded the possibility of being classified with any particular religious denomination” (Hare 1925, 279).23 Similarly, both speakers on Bahà’i implicitly argued for the superiority of their faith over others because, as Mountford Mills claimed, it constituted what was “fundamental and true in all religions alike” and therefore responded best “to the new and greater religious possibilities of this age” (Hare 1925, 308–9). Although speakers frequently and proudly called attention to the antiquity of their faiths, none wanted to come across as passé or ill adapted to the present. The striking modernity on display at the exhibition at large, moreover, prompted practically all speakers to defend the abiding relevance of their perspectives in the contemporary world. In doing so, we might see them positioned into a defensive register by the regnant orientalist assumptions of the age. According to Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, for instance, Islamic theology had anticipated both modern democracy and socialism. The latter was anticipated in Islam’s injunction of universal alms-giving to the needy while the former could be seen in Islam’s view that all were created equal before God. In his own words: “[Islam] demolishes all man-made barriers such as descent, race, colour and wealth. . . . Thus Islam brought to man for the first time the best form of democracy in all its ramifications” (Hare 1925, 83). Similarly, Rai Bahadur Jagmander Lal Jain made the case for the compatibility of Jainism and “modern civilization.” “In trade and commerce,” he claimed, “[Jains] almost top the list [among religions of India]. There is not a district or town in which Jains . . . do not take a leading position as landed proprietors, bankers, merchants, lawyers, and in other honourable professions. . . . [I]n large cities they have their associations, conferences, [and] . . . other usual institutions of modern civilization. Their community takes an interest in all modern movements, and they are very enterprising” (Hare 1925, 230). As reform movements within Hinduism, both Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj, according to their respective expositors, had successfully begun to bring Hinduism into fruitful dialogue with the modern world. Comparing Ram Mohan Roy (the Bengali founder of Brahmo Samaj who, incidentally, coined the English word “Hinduism”) to the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, N. C. Sen explained that Brahmo Samaj sought to sweep away accumulated falsehoods from the past and present to humanity a purified new religious dispensation. Tellingly, he drew an analogy from modern chemistry: “[Brahmo Samaj] is the wonderful solvent which fuses all dispensations into a new chemical compound. It is the mighty absorbent which absorbs all that is true and good and beautiful in the objective world” (Hare 1925, 290). Not to be outdone, S. N. Pherwani compared Arya Samaj’s founder, Dayanand Saraswati, to Luther, who, not unlike the Saxon reformer, sought to return Hinduism to its sacred Scriptures (the Vedas) and thereby “to strengthen [it] ... from within, by ridding it of some of its superstitious and degenerate elements, as well as the tyranny of priestcraft and a caste system by birth instead of by worth and works.” Thus purified, Arya Samaj, he held, sought open dialogue with modernity: “Arya Samaj welcomes rationalism, fosters ... the spirit of open discussion, and only limits it by the authority of revealed scriptures. It thus fits in with the present revolutionary epoch of the age of reason and free inquiry” (Hare 1925, 302–3). Finally, many speakers recognized the historic nature of their joint undertaking, seizing on this fact to extoll the virtues of “East and West” coming together and the desirability for greater interreligious conversation and cooperation in the future. Quoting his father, Keshab Chandra Sen (1838–1884), N. C. Sen, for instance, expressed deep satisfaction with the conference, asserting that “the true Kingdom of God will not be realized—indeed, can never be realized—unless the East and the West are joined together” (Hare 1925, 288). Mirza Basheer-ud-Din, likewise, expressed his delight at the gathering, exclaiming on the final day that “Kipling is mistaken. The East is East, and the West is West, but the twain have met today” (Near East 1924). In a similar vein, Mountford Mills saw the conference as the practical realization of Baha’i’s own aims: “For this conference, both in character and method, expressed that ideal of religious unity so indelibly impressed upon all members of the Baha’i Cause, and its [the conference’s] very existence, under these conditions of impressive dignity and far-reaching influence, appears to us as the fulfilment of a glorious and long-cherished hope” (Hare 1925, 304.) “Whatever the final intellectual residuum left in the minds of the members of the conference,” the conference secretary William Loftus Hare later added, “there can be no doubt that on its personal and emotional side it was a very great success” (Hare 1924, 758). CONCLUSION: THE CONFERENCE’S LEGACY The conference officially ended on October 3, 1924. Two papers rounded out the roster of speakers—one given by the sociologist Victor Branford, the other by the Unitarian minister J. Tyssul Davis. In stirring and superlative language, both expressed the view that something epochal had taken place. Branford thanked all the speakers before offering a brief analysis of their joint efforts. In his view, the “crippling defect of contemporary civilization” was a cleft between the world of intellect and science, on the one hand, and the world of emotion and feeling, on the other. By bringing both native expositors (feeling) and scholars (intellect) together, the conference, in his interpretation, had sought to bridge this divide and thereby bring a measure of “unity” and “vision” to modern life. Religion needed science and science needed religion, in short, and this he summed up as the “synthetic approach to religion” (Hare 1925, 511–14). Branford expanded on these sentiments in a booklet published shortly after the conference under the title Living Religions: A Plea for the Larger Modernism (Branford 1924). “In ten days the whole field of religions has been roughly traversed,” J. Tyssul Davis began his remarks before launching into highly idealistic language—reminiscent of Younghusband’s opening lecture—about the ultimate oneness of all religions. Ignoring the countless divergences of opinion expressed at the conference, Davis opined: “Every student of comparative religion knows that the same truths are taught in the great religions, that the fundamental principles are the same. This conference has again brought that out” (Hare 1925, 516). In his final words, he took still further flight: The great prophets and founders of religion are not rivals. In all things of the spirit they speak the same language, they strike the same note. All the Christs, Buddhas, the Muhammads, the Gurus, the Rishis, the Avatars belong to the human family, and are the common possession of humanity.. . . To some of us it seems that the hour has struck when [all] religious devotees ... shall work together in concord and harmony, in speech and act, in mind and heart, to win the world for Righteousness, Peace, for Fellowship and Brotherly Love—to win the world for God. (Hare 1925, 518–19) Davis expanded on these thoughts in a short booklet, A League of Religions, written shortly after the conference (Davis 1926). Press coverage after the conclusion of the conference almost invariably noted the historic nature of what had taken place, even if reactions widely varied. In an approving tone, a reporter for the Inquirer asked “what good will this conference achieve? It will make the exclusiveness of the Western faiths a mockery and a derision…. Beneath darker skin, and through uncouth tongues, the same passion for the living God flames eagerly” (Inquirer 1924b). In more descriptive language, the Morning Post editorialized that “those present had had an opportunity of hearing what men of other faiths believed from their own lips, and the Conference seemed to obear witness [to] a spirit of broad-mindedness and tolerance which had made it possible for men professing the most divergent creeds to give each other a hearing” (Morning Post 1924). But some, particularly among Christian outlets, voiced disappointment, either because of the omission of Christian points of view during the conference, the lack of discussion following individual lectures, and/or because of a perceived ideology behind the endeavor that seemed to relativize all religious points of view. Writing for the Catholic Times, one Catholic observer charged that Younghusband in particular yearned for a “new religion” made up of “vague Christianity and educated paganism.” “This kind of talk [at the conference],” the writer continued, “is practically a denial that Christianity is God’s revealed religion, and that Christ Our Lord was God bringing God’s truth to mankind” (Catholic Times 1924). Writing in The Christian, another observer noted that the key result of the conference was to help Christians realize the “magnitude of the task” before them, since only one-sixth of the people of the Empire were Christians. “The hope was expressed that the conference would ‘serve to illustrate that many widely-held ideas and beliefs are a common possession,’” this observer continued, before offering a rebuttal: “We, on the other hand, are confident that thousands who have followed the proceedings will be more satisfied of the unique and triumphant power of the Gospel of Christ and, therefore, be emboldened to carry out the work of the Master’s Commission” (The Christian 1924). Spurred to action by the various reactions to the conference, Younghusband in the pages of the Guardian offered his own gloss on what had happened. “The main impression one got from listening to paper after paper,” he assayed, “was that, if there was an extraordinary variety of religious belief in the British Empire, there was also a tremendous earnestness in seeking after God. And there was in each paper an absolute conviction that governing the world was a Great Spiritual Power for which different names were given, but Who ruled the world for good, and expected men to be their best. Religion is evidently a vital force in the Empire” (Younghusband 1924). And if “the conference does no other good,” he concluded, “it at least gave intense spiritual satisfaction to those who took part in it.. .. And possibly it also disposed each to show a kindlier consideration for the beliefs of others” (Younghusband 1924). Since 1924, the phenomenon of interreligious or interfaith dialogue has expanded dramatically in the West and across the globe (Swidler 1990). The Living Religions within the Empire Conference, like Chicago’s Parliament of World’s Religions (1893) before it, represented both a harbinger and catalyst of things to come. The latter parliament is well known; the former, regrettably, is not. With the benefit of hindsight, what, then, are we finally to make of this gathering in London in the twilight decades of the British Empire? Permit me to conclude with four observations. First, the influence of the conference manifested itself concretely rather quickly, in 1930, in the founding of a new scholarly society. Ever since the conclusion of the conference, Sir Denison Ross and others felt that the work of the conference should be ongoing, not episodic, and they regretted that no organization existed in Britain for the study of religion per se apart from a confessional standpoint. He and others—including conference participants Thomas Arnold, William Loftus Hare, C. Rhys Davis, and, not least, Younghusband—therefore established in 1930 the Society for Promoting the Study of Religions. Ross explained the rationale for the society to a news reporter in February of that year: “Many who wish to know more of the attitude of mind of men of other faiths do not know to whom to turn or what to turn to, for information, and the proposed society .. . should meet a real need” (The Observer 1930). With its offices located at 17 Bedford Square, the Society soon published a journal—Religions: Journal of Transactions of the Society for Promoting the Study of Religions—that ran from 1931 to 1953 (Braybrooke 1996, 11). Both the society and the journal owed their existence to the 1924 conference; they were, as Ross put it in the inaugural issue of the journal, “the direct outcome of that notable Conference [in 1924], for it was found in almost all countries that had contributed adherents that there were people who were intensely interested in the study of Religions, and [had] sympathetic appreciation of other people’s faiths” (Ross 1931, v). But scholarship about religion, some society members began to ask themselves in the 1930s, could not substitute for the type of in-the-flesh, interreligious conversation that had taken place in 1924. Soon plans were in the works for something grander. Fortuitously, these plans intersected with the fortieth anniversary reunion meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago in 1933. With a small delegation, Younghusband attended and delivered a paper, in which he called for “a spirit of good-will” among all religions to recognize their common essence and work together toward a common global good (Braybrooke 1996, 15).24 Returning to London, Younghusband immediately set about launching an ongoing, interreligious forum of dialogue and interaction. After several twists and turns, this took shape in 1936 as the World Fellowship of Faiths (later renamed the World Congress of Faiths), which is still in existence today—the oldest international body dedicated to interreligious dialogue (French 1995, 344ff.). “The WCF,” as its website proclaims, “has been leading the way in building a community of individuals who want to create and enjoy the benefits of interfaith dialogue since 1936: in the early days its slogan was ‘Faith Meeting Faith: a rich resource for life’, and this still holds true.” At its first meeting in London in 1936, Younghusband and others gave clear indication that were it not for the conference in 1924 those gathered would likely not have come together. Reprising many points of his 1924 speech, Younghusband proclaimed in 1936 that all religions should strive for a “Higher Power”—a “Reality which would transcend them and with which fellows could commune one with another” (Millard 1936, 9).25 Second, it is not difficult to read the 1924 conference as an “orientalist” undertaking, cut from the same cloth as the works of scholarship analyzed by Edward Said and his many disciples. As should be clear, many tell-tale binaries of orientalist discourse were present in the assumptions behind and in structures of the conference, that is, “the West” (or at least Great Britain) as enlightened, progressive, and modern, and outfitted intellectually and materially to understand and maintain power over “the East,” which often came across no doubt as exotic, irrational, religious, and backward.26 But, again, there are limits to this approach. By giving imperial subjects an international platform to express their beliefs, conference organizers, wittingly or unwittingly, punctured some orientalist assumptions, as the invitees gave learned accounts of their views, sought to demonstrate their compatibility with the modern world, and in some cases, as we have seen, even leveled harsh criticism against Western colonialism in general and British rule in particular. That many participants spoke eloquently from their traditions about the importance of peace in the shadow of the Great War, moreover, implicitly cast doubts on Europe’s ongoing ability to justify its colonial positions vis-à-vis the rest of the world. In the final analysis, therefore, “orientalism,” while illuminating, cannot serve as the exclusive hermeneutic for understanding the conference. Third, historical retrospection suggests a troubling irony about the conference. As we have seen, it was the hope of some conference organizers, particularly Younghusband, that “religion” (idealistically and rather generally understood) might serve as a kind of glue for empire. To quote Younghusband again: “Religions should be the centre of all interests—the essential element in the Empire’s life” (Hare 1925, 16). But as any student of world history during the 1920s knows, anticolonial nationalist movements, heavily imbued with religious interests, were coming to life and gaining momentum at this time, not least in northern India, from whence some of the conference’s key participants hailed (Gould 2012, 119–44). The furies of violence that would eventually lead to the bloody partition of India and Gandhi’s assassination, suggest then the limitation, if not the sheer obtuseness, of Younghusband’s imperial hopes of pan-imperial fellowship through “religion.” Put differently, far from serving as a glue for empire, religious forces proved to be significant agents of its undoing. The divergence of views at the conference, appeals to peace notwithstanding, suggest then the difficulty, if not the futility, of holding together an empire as far-reaching as Britain’s on the basis of something as protean and productive of social conflict as “religion.”27 Finally, Younghusband and his peers invite criticism in another respect. In both 1924 and 1936, he made the appeal that all religions teach and learn from one another, and thereby draw closer into a greater, higher harmony. This idealistic, universalist vision for interreligious dialogue has been the animating impulse behind the World Congress of Faiths (and that of other institutions) since its inception. On the surface, this seems harmless enough: who could possibly rue the peaceful coexistence of religions seeking a higher harmony? At the same time, given the historical context of its articulation, one should not lose sight of the underlying imperialist habits of thought and possible motivations at hand: an empire replete with peaceful religions—together in search of some vague, higher harmonic essence—is one where imperial control and subordination can be more readily administered. Such a vision—a kind of soft Hobbesianism premised on pan-religious solidarity—might at some level be necessary to motivate and orchestrate interreligious dialogue in the first place, at least in 1924. 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Yorkshire Observer. 1924: “ Conference on Living Religions.” August 30. AMUS, Papers of the World Congress of Faiths, MS 222 826 (30). Younghusband, Francis. 1924. “ Living Religions within the Empire: A Notable Conference,” The Guardian . October 10. AMUS, Papers of the World Congress of Faiths, MS 222 826 (83). ______. 1933. The Living Universe . New York: E. P. Dutton. ______. 1937. A Venture of Faith, Being a Description of the World Congress of Faiths Held in London in 1936 . New York: Dutton. ______. 1940. Vital Religion: A Brotherhood of Faith . London: John Murray. ______. Papers. MSS EUR 197/377, British Library, London. Footnotes 1 The Sociological Society is now defunct, but the School of Oriental Studies continues today as the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). It recently celebrated its centennial anniversary; a brief history of the SOAS can be found at https://www.soas.ac.uk/centenary/. On the Sociological Society, see Halsey 2004, 9ff. 2 See also the various articles on “religion and empire” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71 (March 2003). 3 The 1924 Conference should be understood in light of other efforts to present religions of the East (and their histories) to the West. On this point, see Snodgrass 2003; Masuzawa 2005; Chidester 2014; King 1999a; and Dubuisson 2003. 4 In making this claim, I follow those who have criticized Said for placing too much emphasis on “the passivity of the native.” See King 1999b, 150; and Parry 1992, 34f. 5 On “religion” generally as a modern Western construction, see Talal Assad’s well-known discussion of religion in Asad 1993, 1–54. 6 On the providenialist understanding of the British Empire as articulated here, see Carey 2011. 7 The School of Oriental Studies formally decided to hold the conference under its auspices on January 24, 1924 (SOAS Archives, 1923–1924, 5). In some notes for his autobiography, Ross reflected that he “had taken the idea [for the 1924 conference] from the Congress of Religions which had been held in connection with the Great Exhibition in Chicago [in 1893] with the difference that instead of having experts on other peoples’ religions, each religion should be expounded by some who professed” (SOAS Archives, Ross Collection). 8 Some of the early correspondence of the committee is found at the Archives of the Sociological Society, Keele University. 9 On the emergence of the field of comparative religion and these congresses, see Wheeler-Barclay 2010 and Kitagawa and Strong 1985, 179–214. 10 An early sketch of the conference can be found in a letter from Victor Branford to Denison Ross (Branford 1924). See also Hare 1925, 4. 11 The buildings for the Institute were demolished in 1957. On the early history of the Imperial Institute, see Mackenzie 1987. 12 One key figure, whom they desired but who did not come, was the Indian poet and intellectual Rabindranath Tagore. See Branford, 1924. 13 See also the letter of Bahíyyih Khánum to Raymond C. Simpson, President of the National Spiritual Assembly of England (June 11, 1924), in Effendi 1981, 490. 14 Newspaper clippings about the conference can be found in the Department of Archives and Manuscripts at the University of South Hampton (hereafter AMUS). 15 On the Ahmadiyya notion of the Mahdi and its place in Islamic eschatological thought, see Friedmann 2003, 105ff. 16 A religious skeptic himself, Ross wondered in his private papers about the earliest origins of religion: “Perhaps the consideration of the psychology and sociology of religion ... will be applicable to all religions. There is the absorbing question, for instance, of the origin of religion. Whence did it spring, and at what stage in the ascent of man from his crude ancestors in the forest was religion born?” (SOAS Archives, Ross Collection). 17 The original, hand-written lecture can be found at the British Library (Younghusband Papers). 18 Established in 1889, the Woking Mosque was Britain’s oldest. See British Muslim Heritage. 19 The paper on Shi’ah was read by Sir Thomas Arnold and the one on Sufism was read by Dr. Muhammad Din, a member of the Ahmadiyya delegation. 20 Titles included “The Status and Influence of Buddhism in Ceylon” (by Dr. W. A. de Silva of Colombo), “The Influence of Buddhism on Education in Ceylon” (by G. P. Malaasekera of Colombo), “Mah^ay^ana Buddhism” (by Shoson Miyamoto of Tokyo), “Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Parsis” (by Shams-ul-ulema Dastur Kaikobad Adarbad Noshirvan of Poona [Pune]), “Jainism” (by Rai Bahadur Jamander Lal Jaini of Indore), “Sikh Religion” (by Sardar Kahan Singh of Nabha); and “Taoism” (by Hsu¨ T-Shan of Peking [Beijing]). See Hare 1925, 151ff. 21 Lectures on “primitive religions” included “Some Account of the Maori Beliefs” (by Archdeacon Williams of New Zealand), “Beliefs of Some East African Tribes” (by Richard St. Narbe Baker of “Kenya Colony”), “The Bantu Religious Ideas” (by Albert Thoka of Pietersburg, South Africa), and “Some Aspects of the Religion of the West African Negro” (by L. W. G. Malcolm of Nigeria). See Hare 1925, 275ff. 22 On Silva’s role in the stirrings of Sri Lankan independence, see Dharmadasa 1992, 133ff. 23 On Brahmo Samaj generally, see Dipankar 2006. 24 On the 1933 gathering in Chicago, see Weller 1935. 25 Younghusband wrote his own account of the 1936 conference; see Younghusband 1937. 26 On these binaries applied to religion, see King 1999 and Goulet 2011. 27 On the general role of religious forces in processes of decolonization, see Shipway 2008, 88–99 and Chamedes and Foster 2015, 1–10. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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