From the 1920s through the 1940s, European and Anglo-American Protestants perceived a crisis of humanity. While trying to determine religion's role in a secular age, church leaders redefined the human being as a theological person in community with others and in partnership with God. This new anthropology contributed to a personalist conception of human rights that rivalled Catholic and secular conceptions. Alongside such innovations in post-liberal theology, ecumenical Protestants organized a series of meetings to unite the world churches. Their conference at Oxford in July 1937 led to the creation of the World Council of Churches. Thus, Protestants of the transwar era supplied the two main ingredients of any human rights regime: a universalist commitment to defending individual human beings regardless of race, nationality, or class and a global institutional framework for enacting that commitment. Through the story of Protestant thinkers and activists, this article recasts the history of human rights as part of a larger history of critical reappraisals of humanity. Understanding why human rights came into prominence at various twentieth-century moments may require abandoning ‘rights talk’ for human talk, or, a comparative history of radical anthropologies and their relationship to broader socio-economic, political, and cultural crises.
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