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Foundational Beginnings

The 20th century was a time of crisis and decision for the Church. Social upheaval and unprecedented political conflict forced a reevaluation of the purpose of the Christian faith and its advocates. After all, this century, Rev. Joseph Wesley Mathews said, experienced both worldwide economic depression and the Second World War within years of each other. “In the midst of that,” Mathews said, “man could no longer avoid an awareness that our civilization was in deep trouble.” 


The Ecumenical Institute was born out of a spiritual response to this time of change in the postwar era. In 1954, the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches created the Evanston Institute for Ecumenical Studies to serve as a counterpart to similar organizations like in Chateau de Bossey, Switzerland or the House Church Movement in England–except that this one would work without formal ties to the Council. Under its first director, German-born theologian Dr. Walter Leibrecht, the Institute began devising programs, conferences, and research projects geared toward “the enhancement of the vocation and commitment of the laity,” as well as attracting both church and non-church leaders towards vocational seminars and other discussion groups. 


Furthermore, the Council intended that the new Institute serve as a center that would address problems related to “Christ the Hope of the World” and the broader socio-political world, and devise solutions to them. Toward this effort, the Institute supported graduate-level research that was published and disseminated to churches, congregations, and other institutions of higher education. These efforts fell in line with the Institute’s founding “purposes”: providing information about the ecumenical movement, training men and women church leaders, and engagement with research in its related concerns. (EI STATEMENT OF PURPOSES, 1960)


The Institute occasionally collaborated with the Church Federation of Chicago. A lingering issue to Dr. Leibrecht and the board of the Institute, however, was the question of how to pursue its experimental research while also better relating to the formal structures of the Church and the network of churches in the Chicago-land area. The answer to this dilemma came in the form of the Institute’s merger with the Federation to become the Ecumenical Institute in 1962, one capable of tapping into this network and financially supporting the Institute’s budget and operations. This networking was a natural extension of the Institute’s mission to relate its work “to the many and varied pioneering experiments conducted within church and civic organization” and its focus on “ecumenicity in secular and religious life in America.” 


At the same time, the Institute concerned itself with what it has called the “urban revolution”–that is, dominating socio-political trends it identified in urban locales at the time. As a 1965 publication by the Institute put it, its staff saw this revolution as “ a shift in attitudes rather than as something geographical or confined only to big cities.”