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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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Yale University, Department of History, 320 York St, New Haven, CT 06511,
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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.

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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.

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
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