The Historical Background of the World Council of Churches

Places, Dates and Persons

It is said that there are 888,803,000 Christians in the world, of which 537,533,000 are Roman Catholics, 214–133,000 are Protestants, and 137,137,000 are Eastern Orthodox. In the United States 62,543,000 are listed as Protestants, 42,105,000 as Roman Catholics, and 2,820,000 as Eastern Orthodox. It is estimated that there are more than 270 different religious groups in the United States, exclusive of “the more ephemeral sects!”1

The dividedness and brokenness of the Church has always been a source of grief and regret for many Christians, who see this as a contradiction of their profession of “a holy catholic church.” Out of this has arisen the ecumenical movement, of which the World Council of Christian Churches is the most significant expression on the nonRoman Catholic side. This movement is not limited to Protestantism, however, for its goal is the “establishment of religious unity among all Christians.”2 At New Delhi (see Rev. Roger Greenway’s article, “World Council of Churches at New Delhi, India,“ TORCH AND TRUMPET, January, 1962) Roman Catholic observers were present, and to the recently announced Vatican Council, Protestant and Orthodox church observers are to be invited.3

Although its roots can be traced back to 18th and 19th century developments, the ecumenical movement is mainly a 20th century phenomenon which seeks the reunion of the Christian Church. In the narrower sense the ecumenical movement concentrates about the World Council of Christian Churches and its related organizations (its opponent organizations being The International Council of Churches, The National Association of Evangelicals). In a broader sense the ecumenical movement includes every effort designed to bring about ecclesiastical unity (such as the Church Unity Conclave conducted in all Catholic churches throughout the world, to be held from January 18 to 25, 1962, during which Catholics will pray for the unity of all Christians).

From these observations it is easy to see that the World Council of Churches organization highlights the enormous significance of the ecumenical movement in our day. Under its impetus three Lutheran communions have merged to form the 2,200,000 member American Lutheran Church, and four others have united to form a 3,000,000 member American Lutheran Church. The Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church have come together to form the Un,i!ed Church of Christ. And the United Presbyterian Church in the V. S. A. (Northern Presbyterians) is the result of union between the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the United Presbyterian Church of North America.

Church merger is now more than a dream—it is a hard reality and a powerful force in our world and our time. It will be a most difficult movement to resist, for its influence is great even now, and its tolerance for objectors is not likely to be equal to its determination to represent all of Protestantism or even all of Christianity in and to the world.


C. Vander Waal in his incisive review of the ecumenical movement4 finds the answer to this question in the apostasy of the 17th and 18th centuries, and no doubt his case is very strong. Restricting ourselves more narrowly to that which has led to the formation of the World Council of Churches as such, we are perhaps best served to begin with the international youth organizations (YMCA–1855, YWCA–1872 ), which brought together the spiritual and ecclesiastical leaders of the future in an international and inter-denominational situation, and with the urge to church union brought about by the embarrassment caused by ecclesiastical division on the mission fields of the world.

Before 1795 no organization existed which bound Christians together across denominational lines.5 In that year the London Missionary Society was founded, in which members of the established Churches of England and Scotland united with Methodists and Independents. The same concern for evangelism brought Christians together in the publication and distribution of the Bible. The British and Foreign Bible Society was formed by Anglicans, Free Churchmen, and Quakers in 1804. By 1816 this society had spread to Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and the United States.6 The evangelism of young people, especially by way of the Sunday School, led to the formation of the American Sunday School Union in 1824, and to the first World Sunday School Convention (London, 1889). The present “World Council of Christian Education” continues the movement which started then. Another significant factor in the history of the movement toward unity is the Evangelical Alliance formed in London in 1846 by 800 leaders from many different countries. This was an alliance of individuals only, whose avowed object was “to confess the reality of the one Church, not to create it.” I think it is important to note the following comment which Paul Griswold Macy makes regarding the decline of this Alliance:

A stiff doctrinal basis also contributed to its decline but it left a permanent mark, in the institution of the Universal Week of Prayer, still observed, as in 1846, during the first week of January.7

The leadership for the 20th century ecumenical activity was furnished largely by the youth movements of the last half of the 19th century. In 1895 the World Student Christian Federation brought together existing organizations in Great Britain, the United States, the Scandinavian countries, and Germany. Here is the place to mention John R. Mott, who served as general secretary of the World Student Christian Federation for 25 years, and then as its president for many more. It is interesting to note that Dr. Mott’s conversion while at college is traced back to the work of Dwight L. Moody.8


It is easy to understand that the question of church unity is bound to be raised in those countries where foreign missions are established. The appearance of missionaries from different communions with different doctrines, and different patterns of worship and government, is certain to cause the mission subject to wonder just what this thing called Church might really be. This leads to embarrassment, of course, and out of this situation missionaries have often applied pressure on the home base to adopt more lenient ways of thinking find doing so far as “other churches” are concerned. Dr. J. A. Mackay’s statement at Amsterdam in 1948 has become a motto: “The Ecumenical Church is a child of the Missionary movement.”

The beginning of the ecumenical movement is said to be the council of missionary leaders which met in EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND in 1910. Unlike all previous world gatherings of missionary forces which anyone interested was privileged to attend, this conference was composed of delegates appointed by the missionary boards of the churches. Out of this came a “continuation committee,” which chose Dr. Mott as chairman. In 1921 the committee became organized as the International Missionary Council, which Matt served for thirty-two years as chairman.

Jerusalem – 1928, Madras Tambaram – 1935, Whitby – 1947, Willingen – 1952, Ghana – 1958, and finally New Delhi – 1961 are the high spots on the missionary cooperation ecumenical line. At Jerusalem the Eastern Orthodox Church took more active participation, as did churches from the mission fields. Also, at Jerusalem a set of conditions was drafted setting forth the standard according to which a church might be said to be “living and indigenous”—without any reference to Scripture or any specific Christian teaching whatsoever!

The 1938 meeting of the International Missionary Council was held at Tambaram, not far from Madras in India. Here we see the mounting influence of delegates from the younger churches of the mission fields, the total number of these delegates equalling the number from the home bases.9 Not only paganism, but Communism, National Socialism in Germany and Italy, and the imperialistic religion of Japan challenged the attention of the Council.

Whitby, Ontario, in Canada was the scene for the first enlarged meeting of the Committee of the International Missionary Council to meet since Tambaram. Whitby reviewed the post-war scene to discover that the churches on the mission fields had not suffered too much on account of the war, and that the younger churches were eager to have the “partnership in obedience” motto recognized. This meant greater autonomy for these churches, of course, since they desired the cooperation of missionaries from abroad, but rejected the previous role of the missionary as a sort of sponsor for the new church.

In 1952 the J. M. C. met in Willingen, a small German village, again as an enlarged committee, and with special reference to the hardships which the churches in China, Korea, and Colombia were experiencing. About six years later the I.M.C. met in the new African republic of Chana, and faced this most important question: Was it desirable for the Council to seek full integration with the World Council of Churches? Close cooperation and association had been in effect for as many years as the World Council was organized (1948). “The fact that the I. M. C. is a council of councils, i. e., national groups of missionary societies, and the W. C. C. is a council of Churches did not seem to many to be a sufficient warrant for remaining separate bodies.”10 At New Delhi a few months ago the third Assembly of the W. C. C. on its first day’s meeting voted to merge the I. M. C. and the W. C. C. TIME commented on this fact as follows:

This merger finally unites the three elements with which the ecumenical movement began. At a historic meeting in 1910 of the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh, elements of Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox Christianity began to meet and work in parallel. One stream, known as “Life and Work” and concerned with the social aspects of the churches, met in Geneva in 1920, in Stockholm in 1925, and at Oxford in 1937. The second, known as “Faith and Order” and dealing with theology and liturgy, met in Geneva in 1920, in Lausanne in 1927, and Edinburgh in 1937. The two streams flowed together in Utrecht in 1938 and agreed to unite in the World Council of Churches a decade later in Amsterdam.11


Geneva – 1920, stands for the preparatory effort which led to the 1,000-delegate, 19-25 Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work in Stockholm. Here the objective was consideration of and action upon the urgent social questions of the day. Stockholm witnessed much disagreement among its delegates on the matters at issue, but out of it a continuing organization was established, which, four years later, would become the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work. An American, Dr. Frederick Lynch, is reported to have said something like this at the dose of this conference:

We have laid the foundations for a temple, which shall rise as a mountain. We have begun to build a city of God, upon whose streets we, the people of the present, shall never walk, but through which our children shall go hand in hand and ann in arm, knowing no more of division between the peoples. There shall then be one people and one church!12

One hundred nineteen churches from 45 nations met at Oxford in 1937,called by the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work. “Church, Community, and State” was the theme, in line with which the alarming secularism evidenced by an exaggerated nationalism, imperialism, fascism, and atheistic communism was discussed. This is regarded as a very significant Conference, whose final pronouncements constitute “a veritable charter of the life and work of the Churches in this generation.”13 Typical of the pacifistic strain running throughout the history of the ecumenical movement is this sentence:

War is a particular demonstration of the power of sin in this world and a defiance of the righteousness of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and him crucified.14

I believe that the “Life and Work” stream of the ecumenical movement reveals the far-reaching significance of this huge effort to unite the churches. Questions that will require consideration here are such as these: Has the World Council of Churches in this area adopted a truly Biblical standard of analysis and evaluation with respect to the problems of society? To what extent is it informed by the Social Gospel of the modernist? What is the real significance of the shift from the American, optimistic emphasis (rooted in modernism) to the seemingly more sober emphasis of the dialectical neo-orthodox (Barthians) of the continental churches?


Bishop Charles Brent of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America is the great figure whose influence led to the rise of the “Faith and Order” stream of the ecumenical movement. Upon leaving Edinburgh, 1910, he proposed to his own Church that a conference be called “following the general method of the World Missionary Conference, to be participated in by representatives of all Christian bodies throughout the world which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as Cod and Saviour, for the consideration of questions pertaining to the Faith and Order of the Church of Christ.”15

Geneva – 1920 is the first preliminary gathering in this respect which led to concrete results. There it was decided to appoint a continuing committee. It was not until Lausanne – 1927 that the first world conference of the churches met to discuss the nature of the Church and its ministry, especially the points which had set its “branches” at variance. Lausanne revealed that the differences were pronounced, but, again, a Continuation Committee was formed with Bishop Brent as the first chairman. So this “stream” in the ecumenical movement gained momentum.

Edinburgh – 1937 saw the Second World Conference on Faith and Order with 414 official delegates from 122 churches in 43 countries. At Edinburgh the passion for oneness in the Church came to expression in an “Affirmation of Unity,” adopted unanimously by the Second World Conference on Faith and Order, and subsequently put to wide use among the churches. Since we are attempting to gain a quick impression of the history of this movement, we might wen include this affirmation as a sample of ecumenical thought. It reads:

We are one in faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. We are one in allegiance to Him as Head of the Church, and as King of kings and Lord of lords. We are one in acknowledging that this allegiance takes precedence of any other allegiance that may make claims upon us.

This unity does not consist in the agreement of our minds or the consent of our wills. It is founded in Jesus Christ Himself, Who lived, died, and rose again to bring us to the Father, and Who through the Holy Spirit dwells in His Church. We are one because we are all the objects of the love and grace of God, and called by Him to witness in all the world to His glorious gospel.

Our unity is of heart and spirit. We are divided in the outward forms of our life in Christ, because we understand differently His will for His Church. We believe, however, that a deeper understanding will lead us towards a united apprehension of the truth as it is in Jesus.

We humbly acknowledge that our divisions are contrary to the will of Christ, and we pray God in His mercy to shorten the days of our separation, and to guide us by His Spirit into fulness of unity.

We are thankful that during recent years we have been drawn together; prejudices have been overcome, misunderstandings removed, and real, if limited, progress has been made towards our goal of a common mind.

In this Conference we may gratefully claim that the Spirit of God has made us willing to learn from one another, and has given us a fuller vision of the truth and enriched our spiritual experience.

We have lifted up our hearts together in prayer; we have sung the same hymns; together we have read the same Holy Scriptures. We recognize in one another, across the barriers of our separation, a common Christian outlook and a common standard of values. We are therefore assured of a unity deeper than our divisions.

We are convinced that our unity of spirit and aim must be embodied in a way that will make it manifest to the world, though we do not yet clearly see what outward form it should take.

We believe that every sincere attempt to cooperate in the concerns of the Kingdom of God draws the several communions together in increased mutual understanding and good will. We call upon our fellow-Christians of all communions to practice such co-operation; to consider patiently occasions of disunion that they may be overcome; to be ready to learn from those who differ from them; to seek to remove those obstacles to the furtherance of the gospel in the non-Christian world which arise from our divisions; and constantly to pray for that unity which we believe to be our Lord’s will for His Church.

We desire also declare to all men everywhere our assurance that Christ is the one hope of unity for the world in face of the distractions and dissensions of this present time. We know that our witness is weakened by our divisions. Yet we are one in Christ and in the fellowship of His Spirit. We pray that everywhere in a world divided and perplexed, men may turn to Jesus Christ our Lord, Who makes us one in spite of our divisions; that He may bind in one those who by many worldly claims are set at variance; and that the world may at last find peace and unity in Him; to Whom be the glory for ever.16

Much could be said about this affirmation, particularly about what is omitted; but evaluations will come later.

In our opinion the “Faith and Order” stream is the most significant of those entering into the ecumenical movement, since it seeks to evaluate the exact points at issue between the several Christian denominations. It is the preoccupation of theologians and Christian thinkers of all kinds with the doctrine of the Church, stimulated in large part by this movement, which has led some to say that we are now living in an Ecclesiological* Age, so far as the current discussion of the Church is concerned. For every Christian this is of greatest importance!


Many of the leaders in the two movements toward unity—“Life and Work” and “Faith and Order”—soon felt that merger of these streams was necessary. We must bear in that unlike the missions movement, these were organizations of churches rather than of individuals. The personnel of these organizations counted many who were active in both, and this was bound to raise the question as to the relationship between the “Life and Work” of the Church and its “Faith and Order.” In dealing with a practical problem of the application of the gospel to some concrete social situation (“Life and Work”) the question would arise, “Is this the business of the Church?” and that would lead to the further question, “What is the Church?” (“Faith and Order”).

In 1935 the representatives of five world-bodies (Faith and Order, Life and Work, International Missionary Council, World Sunday School Association, World Alliance for International Friendship through the Churches) met in Princeton, New Jersey, and determined that an e£fort should be made to set up a world-wide organization of the Churches. A “Committee of Thirty-five” was formed, which proposed to the Oxford and Edinburgh conferences of 1937 that the two separate movements come together to form a World Council of Churches. This was adopted almost unanimously by both conferences. 1910 saw the first movement toward this kind of unity; 1937 marks the merging of the two movements in which the Churches were officially represented.

May 12, 1938, is an important date in the history of the ecumenical movement, for on that day 80 representatives of most denominations except Rome completed plans for the international organizations we know as the World Council of Christian Churches.

The constitution drafted then at Utrecht defines the Council as “a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.”  The constitution declared that the Council was merely a fellowship of the Churches, with authority to act on behalf of constituent Churches only in matters committed to it. The functions of the Council are: (1) to carryon the work of the “Faith and Order” and “Life and Work” movements;

(2) to facilitate common action by the Churches; (3) to encourage cooperation and study; (4) to work for the growth of ecumenical consciousness in the members of all Churches; (5) to secure relations with other ecumenical movements; (6) to call world conferences on specific subjects as occasion may require, such conferences being authorized to put their own findings in print.

The organizational structure of the Council includes the Assembly of 400 members, to meet ordinarily every five years, composed of official representatives of the constituent bodies. A Central Committee of not more than 90 members, chosen from the Assembly, carries on the work of the Council between sessions of the Assembly. It meets ordinarily once per year. Special commissions carryon part of the work of the Council, reporting to the Central Committee and to the Assembly itself. In both the Assembly and the Central Committee it is specified that one-third of the members should be lay persons.


all August 23, 1948, at 10:30 a.m. in the Main Hall of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw the resolution declaring the World Council of Churches to be constituted was passed without dissenting vote. Thus a world organization of Churches with a constituency claimed to total 100,000,000 members was actually established.

Perhaps this is the point at which this sketch of the history of tho Council should close. It would reqUIre a great deal of space to summarize all that was said at Amsterdam, and at Evanston (1954) and New Delhi (1961). Some of this will be covered in future articles in this series.

1. John A. O’Brien, “Can Christian Unite?” Saturday Evening Post, Dec. 23–30, 1961.

2. Ibid.

3. “Summons from Rome,” Time Magazine, Dec. 29, 1961.

4. Antithese of Synthese? (Antithesis or Synthesis), C. Vander Waal, Enschede; J. Boersma, pp. 15ff.

5. Paul Griswold Macy, If It Be of God. St. Louis, MO; Bethany Press, p. 34.

6. Ibid., p. 35.

7. Ibid., p. 36.

8. Ibid., p. 37.

9. Madras Conference Series, Vol. 4, pp. 376–378.

10. Paul Griswold Macy, If It Be of God, p. 143.

11. Dec. 1, 1961, p.61.

12. Adolf Deissmann, Die Stockholmer Weltkirchenconferenz, pp. 711, 712, as quoted by C. Vander Waal, op. cit., p. 87. Translation ours.

13. Paul Griswold Macy, op. cit., p. 54.

14. The Oxford Conference, 1937, Official Report, p. 162.

15. Faith and Order, Proceedings of the World Conference, Lausanne, 1927, pp. vii, viii.

16. Official Report of the Second World Conference on Faith and Order.