Writing in Come recently, Mrs. Matsu Crawford, a retired Southern Presbyterian missionary, attacked Chicago’s Ecumenical Institute as “a revolutionary center with a religious front.” In September, a Christian Century article charged it with promulgating “a new and inflexible fundamentalism in liberal guise.” Conservatives and liberals alike are asking, What is the Ecumenical Institute and what does it do?

The institute was founded in 1954 in Evanston, Illinois, following the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches there. Intended as a place where scholars of various denominations could pursue “ecumenical studies,” it opened its doors in 1958 under the direction of German theologian Walter Leibrecht, who had been Paul Tillich’s assistant at Harvard. Noted theological personalities like the late Episcopal scholar Theodore O. Wedel and Swedish Lutheran Anders Nygren, author of the well-known Eros and Agape, came to the institute as “ecumenical scholars.”

But by mid-1961, according to former E.I. board member Richard Philbrick, religion editor of the Chicago Tribune, it was becoming obvious that there was not enough money available from foundations or churches to support the institute’s program. Leibrecht resigned, and in late 1961 the institute vacated its Evanston headquarters, the former Mormon Stake House.

Next, the Church Federation of Greater Chicago took the E.I. under its wings and moved it to the old campus of Bethany Seminary in a deteriorating area of Chicago’s west side. The Reverend Joseph Wesley Matthews, then 51, an Asbury College alumnus and former professor of ethics at Perkins School of Theology, became director. The emphasis was ...

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