History of The Episcopal Church and the United Nations

Photo credit: UN photo

The information below is based in part on research by The Archives of The Episcopal Church and highlights selected UN-related activities of The Episcopal Church and individual Episcopalians, paired with archival documents illustrating the events.

For more information or to add to this historical timeline, contact Lynnaia Main.

Support for the United Nations since the beginning
According to Archives, “The Episcopal Church has strongly supported the United Nations since before its inception, advocating for its creation in the 1940s, promoting its human rights, environmental, disarmament and peace-keeping initiatives from 1948 forward.”

The Episcopal Church and the Founding of the United Nations
From at least 1942 forward, Episcopalians welcomed the creation of the wartime United Nations body and subsequently advocated strongly for the formation of a permanent, international body to improve worldwide collaboration and stability.

1942: A February 1942 editorial published in The Living Church commented “What a thrill there is in that phrase – ‘the United Nations’!” and noted the potential for the new body to support cooperation not just during the war but into the reconstruction period. [1]

1943: The General Convention’s Joint Commission on Social Reconstruction (JCSR) submitted to the Convention an expansive, visionary report [2] that championed the creation of a permanent, collaborative, “International Authority” empowered to deal with international matters that could not be resolved by national or regional groups. The Commission noted that the existing United Nations, formed during wartime out of necessity, constituted the “nucleus” of such an authority and urged the creation of a Central Council of the United Nations “‘as an organ for cooperative action’ in prosecuting the war and in preparing for and organizing the peace.” The Commission further commented “The United Nations must remain a permanent body, ultimately reaching towards universality by the inclusion of neutral and enemy states.”
The JCSR’s report received wide attention for the scope of its vision and recommendations. Newsweek, in its coverage of the 1943 General Convention, commented “A remarkable report on social reconstruction was adopted by both houses almost without debate. It contained two emphases for which the entire convention was notable: equality of opportunity for all races, and all-out support by the church of an international postwar order.” [3] The report itself was distributed in pamphlet form by the National Council under the title “A Better World for All Peoples“.[4]

1945: A January 1945 press release by the JCSR continued the Commission’s advocacy for a permanent United Nations by outlining the Commission’s positive view of the Dumbarton Oaks Proposals, commending the Proposals to their fellow Churchmen for study and urging that as citizens they “support the basic principles and machinery outlined in the proposals.”[5]

1946: The Official Acts of the Presiding Bishop published in the 1946 Journal of the General Convention report that on March 6, 1945, he signed a statement “calling for united prayer and intercession with the opening of the San Francisco Conference” that was published jointly by the Federal Council of churches and the Foreign Missions Conference [6] and on August 26, 1946 he signed a “joint expression of representative Americans welcoming representatives of member nations meeting in the General Assembly of the United Nations”[7].

The Episcopal Church and the Declaration of Human Rights

1949: The 1949 General Convention recognized and praised the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, saying the Convention looked forward to additional international agreements in the field of human rights. It also went further, by directing the Church’s Department of Christian Social Relations to prepare study materials on the Declaration for use by Church groups and urging every congregation in the Episcopal Church to consider it in relation to its own community setting. The Convention also expressed its support of the International Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide and urged the United States Senate and President to immediately approve and ratify it [8].

Individual Episcopalians and the United Nations
Individual Episcopalians have been involved with the United Nations since before its inception, and a number of them have filled substantial roles. Among the earliest individuals was Bishop William Scarlett of the Diocese of Missouri, a longtime proponent of Church engagement with social causes who chaired the General Convention’s Joint Commission on Social Reconstruction. Bishop Scarlett served on and later chaired the Federal Council of Churches Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, which was one of the first organizations to call for the creation of a United Nations organization. This experience undoubtedly informed his leadership of the JCSR.

In the course of the Joint Commission’s work, Bishop Scarlett worked with Eleanor Roosevelt, an Episcopal church member and First Lady of the United States, who later chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights. When in 1946 the JCSR prepared a book relating Christian principles to key social situations of the time (including the United Nations) Mrs. Roosevelt contributed a chapter on minority issues [9]. Christianity Takes a Stand: An Approach to the Issues of Today was prepared by the JCSR during its second triennium of work and published in 1946.

Ongoing General Convention support

In the decades since the establishment of the United Nations, nearly every session of the Church’s General Convention has included resolutions relating to the United Nations. In many cases, the resolutions support new or ongoing UN initiatives or actions, such as those relating to human rights, disarmament, care of the environment, efforts to end hunger and discrimination, and peacekeeping. Others either highlight to the United Nations special concerns of the church or urge the United States to take certain actions relating to the UN, such as ratifying UN conventions. In subsequent years, the General Convention advocated on behalf of other UN conventions relating to human rights, such as those on genocide, slavery, forced labor, and the political rights of women and regularly urged ratification by the United States.

Grassroots action and institutionalized relationships

1995: Anglican/Episcopal women attend Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing) and subsequent annual meetings of UN Commission on the Status of Women

2014: Episcopal Church granted UN Economic and Social Council special consultative status

2017: Episcopal Church granted observer organization status with UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Episcopalian Representatives (Ambassadors) to the United Nations
A significant number of U.S. Ambassadors to the United Nations have been Episcopal lay people and clergy. This list, which may well be incomplete, includes the first Ambassador, Edward Reilly Stettinius, Jr. (1946), Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (1953-1960), George Herbert Walker Bush (1971-1973), Madeleine Korbel Albright (1993-1997), and the Rev. John Claggett Danforth (2004-2005).

For more information about how to engage with the United Nations and The Episcopal Church’s ministry with the United Nations, visit The Episcopal Church and the United Nations webpage. You can also follow Episcopal UN social media on FacebookTwitter and via the hashtag #EpiscopalUN. Also visit the United Nations webpage for more information on its range of activities.

[1]   The Living Church, February 11, 1942, pp. 14-15.

[2]   Journal of the General Convention, 1943, Appendix XXIII, pp. 464-470.

[3]   Newsweek, October 18, 1943, p. 104.

[4]   A Better World for All Peoples, National Council, The Episcopal Church, 1944.

[5]   William Scarlett Papers, Commission on Social reconstruction press release, January 8, 1945.

[6]   Journal of the General Convention, 1946, Official Acts of the Presiding Bishop, p. 24.

[7]   Journal of the General Convention, 1946, Official Acts of the Presiding Bishop, p. 30.

[8]   Journal of the General Convention, 1949, pp. 352-353.

[9]   Journal of the General Convention, 1946, JCSR report, Appendix 37, pp. 584-585.

Ms. Lynnaia Main

Episcopal Church Representative to the United Nations

The Rev. David Copley

Director of Global Partnerships and Mission Personnel

The Rev. Cn. Dr.
Chuck Robertson

Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Ministry Beyond The Episcopal Church

Ms. Lynnaia Main

Episcopal Church Representative to the United Nations