Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa



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.

Corresponding author
Yale University, Department of History, 320 York St, New Haven, CT 06511, USA
Hide All

This article has evolved from a working paper first composed in 2010. Special thanks to Margaret L. Anderson, John Connelly, Gene Zubovich, Tehila Sasson, Udi Greenberg, Samuel Moyn, and the anonymous readers for their helpful commentary.

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Mark Mazower , ‘The strange triumph of human rights, 1933–1950’, Historical Journal, 47 (2004), pp. 379–98

Johannes Morsink , The universal declaration of human rights: origins, drafting, and intent (Philadelphia, PA, 1999)

Michael G. Thompson , For God and globe: Christian internationalism in the United States between the Great War and the Cold War (Ithaca, NY, 2015)

Mark T. Edwards , The right of the Protestant Left: God's totalitarianism (New York, NY, 2012)

Mark Philip Bradley , ‘American vernaculars: the United States and the global human rights imagination’, Diplomatic History, 38 (2014), pp. 121

Michelle Bratain , ‘Race, racism, and antiracism: UNESCO and the politics of presenting science to the postwar public’, American Historical Review, 112 (2007), pp. 1386–413

Barbara L. Keys , Reclaiming American virtue: the human rights revolution of the 1970s (Cambridge, MA, 2014)

Rüdiger Graf , ‘Either–or: the narrative of “crisis” in Weimar Germany and in historiography’, Central European History, 43 (2010), pp. 592615

John Webster , ‘Introducing Barth’, in John Webster , ed., The Cambridge companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 116

Mark J. McInroy , ‘Karl Barth and personalist philosophy: a critical appropriation’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 64 (2011), pp. 4563

Gary J. Dorrien , ‘The Barthian revolt: Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and the legacy of liberal theology’, in Kantian reason and Hegelian spirit: the idealistic logic of modern theology (Malden, MA, 2012), pp. 454529

Borden Parker Bowne , Personalism (Boston, MA, and New York, NY, 1908)

Heather A. Warren , ‘The shift from character to personality in mainline Protestant thought, 1935–1945’, Church History, 67 (1998), pp. 537–55

Sydney E. Ahlstrom , ‘Continental influence on American Christian thought since World War I’, Church History, 27 (1958), pp. 256–72

Edwin E. Aubrey , ‘The Oxford conference, 1937’, Journal of Religion, 17 (1937), pp. 379–96

James Chappel , ‘The Catholic origins of totalitarianism theory in interwar Europe’, Modern Intellectual History, 8 (2011), pp. 561–90

Keith Clements , ed., The Moot papers: faith, freedom and society, 1938–1947 (London, 2010)

Emil Brunner , ‘The new Barth: observations on Karl Barth's Doctrine of Man’, trans. John C. Campbell , Scottish Journal of Theology, 4 (1951), pp. 123–35

Charles Malik , ‘Human rights and religious liberty’, Ecumenical Review, 1 (1949), pp. 404–9

Chandran Devanesen , ‘Post-Amsterdam thoughts from a younger church’, Ecumenical Review, 1 (1949), pp. 142–9

The church and international law’, Ecumenical Review, 3 (1950), pp. 6476

Hugh McLeod , The religious crisis of the 1960s (Oxford, 2007)

Mark Greif , The age of the crisis of man: thought and fiction in America, 1933–1973 (Princeton, NJ, 2015), p. 8

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 15
Total number of PDF views: 85 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 564 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 24th November 2016 - 24th September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.