The first Universal Worship service was held in London on Saturday, May 7, 1921, at 35 Tregunter Road. A report from that time (by E.A. Mitchell) described the scene.
One is invited into the room on the first floor. As the door opens one’s eyes first catch sight of a lighted candle, and the smoke of burning incense upon an improvised altar. . . The prayers themselves are the most comprehensive we have ever listened to. They lift the thoughts to things above and turn them on things beneath. They speak of the greatness, the power, the beauty, the all-pervadingness of God, also of His Messengers, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Abraham, Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and ‘those whose names are unknown.’ . . . We hold our breath, realizing it to be a moment of profound significance. . .And when the little company disperses to pass into the London night, the thought in one’s mind is that there has just been planted a tiny seed, which shall one day spring up into a great tree whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations.
The prayers used in the Universal Worship service were heard then for the first time. Sophia Green was ordained as the first Cherag by Inayat Khan, the founder of the Universal Worship, and 6 others were received into what was then called the Universal Church of All. Each person present placed an unlit candle on the altar, adding seven to make up the eight candles of the service.
From its modest beginning, the Universal Worship has continued to grow. Now, services are being done in many parts of the world, in many different religious communities. To take a special example, on May 7, 2011, on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Universal Worship, simultaneous Universal Worship services were performed at the exact time of first service in London in over seventy locations around the world (see map).
Because it seeks no converts, nor enforces any doctrines, the Universal Worship continues to spread the message of the underlying unity of religion. The Universal Worship has participated in several Parliaments of the World’s Religions, most recently in 2004 (Barcelona), and 2015 (Salt Lake City).
Temples dedicated to the Universal Worship, called Universels, have been built globally. In 1969, the first Universel ( Universel Murad Hassil ), designed by the Dutch architect S.J. van Embden, was built at Katwijk an Zee, Holland, on a place in the dunes where in 1922 Inayat Khan reported a deep spiritual experience. This location was also the site of an ancient temple to Apollo, and of the first encampment of St. Willibrordus, who brought Christianity to the Dutch lowlands.
As part of a dedication of the cornerstone for the Universel in Suresnes, the late Pir Vilayat Khan was appointed Head of the Confraternity on September 13, 1926. The Confraternity of the Message was instituted as a commitment to unite daily in the prayers of the Universal Worship, in order to build a spiritual accommodation for the message of love, harmony and beauty. Membership in the Confraternity is offered to those who pledge a commitment to the recitation of the prayers.
The Universal Worship service is flexible. It can be very simple, offered in a home. Or it can be a large production, as were the Cosmic Celebrations performed to thousands of people in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London and Chamonix in the period between 1974 and 1983 (see Linden, S.B., “The Cosmic Celebration,” in C. Shrader (ed.) Ritual Theatre: The Power of Dramatic Ritual in Personal Development Groups and Clinical Practice. Philadelphia: Kingsley, 2012). Whatever the material manifestation, the Universal Worship seeks to convey the unity of purpose underlying the particularities of each religion.