By Hoda Mahmoudi and Janet Khan

Biographical information about the authors can be found below the article.

In October 1911, as the world teetered towards collapse and the prospects of war loomed large, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá delivered a speech in Paris to a group of individuals who were seeking creative solutions to the issues of the day. He spoke about the pragmatic relationship between “true thought” and its application. “If these thoughts never reach the plane of action,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained, “they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds.”1‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Paris Talks. Available at www.bahai.org/r/184033132

In this paper we explore ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s active promotion of the broad vision of peace set out in the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith and examine His contributions to mobilizing widespread support for the practice of peace. The realization of peace, as outlined in the Bahá’í writings and elucidated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, is dependent on spiritual thoughts based on spiritual virtues expressed through human deeds.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Reading of Social Reality

‘Abdu’l-Bahá is a figure unique in religious history. Understanding His critical role is essential to understanding the workings of the Bahá’í Faith – in its past, present, and future.

For forty years ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire, having been exiled as a nine-year-old child, when members of Bahá’u’lláh’s family were expelled from Iran to the Ottoman domains.  Undeterred by the restrictions to His freedom and the challenges of daily life, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá directed His attention to administering the affairs of the growing Bahá’í community and to easing the plight of humanity by actively promoting a vision of a just, united, and peaceful world.

Keenly aware of the events transpiring in the world at large, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá viewed the establishment of universal peace as one of the most critical issues of the day.  His writings and public talks outline the Bahá’í approach to peace and methods for its attainment and explain and illuminate the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. They reflect a profound and sensitive understanding of the state of the world and demonstrate the relevance of the Bahá’í teachings to the alleviation of the human condition. The Bahá’í approach stresses a reliance on the constructive power of religion and on the forces of social and spiritual cohesion as a way to impact the world.2For a detailed discussion of the Bahá’í teachings on peace, see Hoda Mahmoudi and Janet A. Khan. A World  Without War: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Discourse for Global Peace (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing, 2020).

‘Abdu’l-Bahá saw in World War I a harrowing lesson of the human necessity for peace – and of the darkness that can ensue without peace. He knew and wrote extensively that nothing short of the establishment of the spiritual foundations for peace could result in lasting peace and security for humanity. In His written works, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá repeatedly draws our attention to the need for establishing the spiritual prerequisites for peace, requisites which, in turn, remove the barriers to peace, such as racial prejudice, sexism, economic inequalities, sectarianism, and nationalism.

That remarkable time in the history of the world provides the backdrop to the Tablets of the Divine Plan, a series of letters ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed to the Bahá’ís of North America. A study of these letters together with two detailed letters3Tablets to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/188605710 on peace addressed to the Executive Committee of the Central Organization for a Durable Peace at The Hague provides an opportunity to better understand the nature of universal peace as envisioned in the Bahá’í writings, the prerequisites of peace, and how peace can be waged. The Tablets of the Divine Plan set out a systematic strategy aimed at strengthening embryonic Bahá’í communities, founded on the principle of the oneness of humankind, and mobilizing their members to engage in activities associated with spreading the values of peace.  The Tablets to The Hague are examples from among ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s tireless efforts to contribute to the most relevant discourses of His time and to engage like-minded individuals and groups throughout the world in the pursuit of peace.4Mahmoudi and Khan, World Without War.

A Power of Implementation

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s caveat that “the power of thought” depends on “its manifestation in action,”5‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Paris Talks. Available at www.bahai.org/r/361617663 is particularly relevant to the idea of peace.  Consider!  Nearly 20 million men, women and children were killed during the four years of World War I!

‘Abdu’l-Bahá took the principles of global peace revealed by Bahá’u’lláh and shaped them into a practical grand strategy for how to understand, practice, and pursue peace. Among the voluminous writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the fourteen letters of the Tablets of the Divine Plan outlined detailed instructions and systematic actions for the spread of the spiritual teachings of the Bahá’í Faith throughout the world. Their aim was the establishment of growing communities throughout the world that would embody the values of peace, would comprise the diverse populations of the human family, and would contribute to the spiritualization of the planet—a vision that was being promoted as the world was witnessing the horrors and sufferings of the war:

Black darkness is enshrouding all regions… all countries are burning with the flame of dissension…the fire of war and carnage is blazing throughout the East and the West.  Blood is flowing, corpses bestrew the ground, and severed heads are fallen on the dust of the battlefield.6‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/713519310

‘Abdu’l-Bahá called on the recipients of the Tablets to arise and take action, establishing throughout the planet new communities founded on the spiritual principles of love, goodwill, and cooperation among humankind. Through such calls for acts of sacrificial service that arising to spread the divine teachings would entail, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was promoting an antidote to the social and spiritual illnesses that contribute to the conditions of war. He reminded the recipients of His letters of the power of spiritual forces to transform hatred, division, war, and destruction into love, unity, dignity, and the nobility of every human being. “Extinguish this fire,” He wrote, “so that these dense clouds which obscure the horizon may be scattered, the Sun of Reality shine forth with the rays of conciliation, this intense gloom be dispelled and the resplendent light of peace shed its radiance upon all countries.”7‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/577240123

‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained that if we desire peace in the world, we must begin by planting peace in our own hearts. This principle can be found throughout the writings of Bahá’u’lláh:

What is preferable in the sight of God is that the cities of men’s hearts, which are ruled by the hosts of self and passion, should be subdued by the sword of utterance, of wisdom and of understanding. Thus, whoso seeketh to assist God must, before all else, conquer, with the sword of inner meaning and explanation, the city of his own heart and guard it from the remembrance of all save God, and only then set out to subdue the cities of the hearts of others. 8Bahá’u’lláh. The Summons of the Lord of Hosts. Available at www.bahai.org/r/581531547

While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sought to mobilize the Bahá’ís of North America to spread the unifying message of Bahá’u’lláh throughout the world, He also pursued numerous opportunities to introduce into the discourses of His time essential concepts and principles that would help the thinking of His contemporaries to evolve and assist humanity to move towards the realization of peace.

Indeed, in His letters to the Central Organization for a Durable Peace, written in 1919 and 1920 after the war’s conclusion, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gently but unequivocally challenged His audience to broaden its conception of peace. Specifically, in His first letter, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explored “many teachings which supplemented and supported that of universal peace,” such as the “independent investigation of reality,” “the oneness of the world of humanity,” and “the equality of women and men.” Some other related teachings of Bahá’u’lláh that were explained by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá included the following: “that religion must be the cause of fellowship and love,” “that religion must be in conformity with science and reason,” “that religious, racial, political, economic and patriotic prejudices destroy the edifice of humanity,” and “that although material civilization is one of the means for the progress of the world of mankind, yet until it becomes combined with Divine civilization, the desired result, which is the felicity of mankind, will not be attained.”9‘Abdu’l-Bahá. First Tablet to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/551373700 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá then reiterated His point, stating:

These manifold principles, which constitute the greatest basis for the felicity of mankind and are of the bounties of the Merciful, must be added to the matter of universal peace and combined with it, so that results may accrue. 10‘Abdu’l-Bahá. First Tablet to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/376814060

In the Second Tablet to the Hague, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá observed that for peace to be realized in the world, it would not be enough that people were simply informed about the horrors of war. “Today the benefits of universal peace are recognized amongst the people, and likewise the harmful effects of war are clear and manifest to all,” wrote ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

But in this matter, knowledge alone is far from sufficient: A power of implementation is needed to establish it throughout the world.… It is our firm belief that the power of implementation in this great endeavour is the penetrating influence of the Word of God and the confirmations of the Holy Spirit.11‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Second Tablet to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/705335105

Abdu’l-Bahá asserted that it is through this power of implementation that “the compelling power of conscience can be awakened, so that this lofty ideal may be translated from the realm of thought into that of reality.” “It is clear and evident,” He explained, “that the execution of this mighty endeavour is impossible through ordinary human feelings but requireth the powerful sentiments of the heart to transform its potential into reality.” 12‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Second Tablet to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/705335105

Spiritual Foundations of Peace

Understanding ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s approach to peace also demands we understand Bahá’u’lláh’s direct engagement with the world and His doctrinal declarations concerning the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u’lláh’s writings describe a “progressive revelation” of religion in which individual religions arise to meet the need of their times. Bahá’u’lláh stated that particular religions were entrusted with a message and a spirit that “best meet the requirements of the age in which” that religion appeared.13Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/757983498 In this context, religions are viewed as the gradual unfolding of one religion that is being renewed from age to age. The variations in the teachings of these religions are attributable to a world that is constantly changing and needing spiritual renewal and spiritual principles. Because “ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions,” then, as a new religion takes shape, new sets of laws and principles are revealed to humanity and new spiritual beliefs must always emerge.14‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace.  Available at www.bahai.org/r/841894042

Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation calls on individuals to internalize spiritual principles and express them through actions.  He proclaimed “to the world the solidarity of nations and the oneness of humankind.”15‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace.  Available at www.bahai.org/r/955162073 He described “a human race conscious of its own oneness.”16Bahá’í International Community, Who is Writing the Future? (New York: Office of Public Information, 1999), V.2. Complex concepts such as human oneness and the global order were transformed from utopian ideals to spiritual commands of the highest order; the Bahá’í writings unfold and clarify how such commands might be fulfilled. Bahá’u’lláh’s vision also details the need for the construction of a World Order, an order comprising administrative institutions at the local, regional, national, and international levels. Such institutions, among other things, serve as channels for the application of spiritual principles. As the institutions evolve over decades and centuries, a new world order will eventually produce the conditions conducive to global peace. Yet, even as the Bahá’í writings envision a long-term process of global transformation and maturation of the human race, they also assert that change will also arise from individual and collective efforts at the grassroots of society. In exploring the creative Word and learning to apply it to their individual and collective lives, individuals are spiritually transformed from the inside-out, and they contribute to the transformation of communities, institutions, and society at large.

In describing the Bahá’í Faith’s strong prohibition on waging war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, stated that Bahá’u’lláh “abrogated contention and conflict, and even rejected undue insistence. He exhorted us instead to ‘consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.’ He ordained that we be loving friends and well-wishers of all peoples and religions and enjoined upon us to demonstrate the highest virtues in our dealings with the kindreds of the earth….What a heavy burden was all that enmity and rancour, all that recourse to sword and spear!” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote of the impact of war on humanity. “Conversely, what joy, what gladness is imparted by loving-kindness!”17‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Light of the World. Available at www.bahai.org/r/408465671

‘Abdu’l-Bahá viewed peace as a central facet of the work of the Bahá’í Faith. There was no separating peace from the Bahá’í Faith, nor was there any separation between the  Faith and peace. Peace was both medium and message, and the Bahá’í Faith itself was the vehicle for establishing peace. He explained, in His Second Tablet to the Hague, that the followers of Bahá’u’lláh were actively engaged in the establishment of peace, because their

desire for peace is not derived merely from the intellect: It is a matter of religious belief and one of the eternal foundations of the Faith of God. That is why we strive with all our might and, forsaking our own advantage, rest, and comfort, forgo the pursuit of our own affairs; devote ourselves to the mighty cause of peace; and consider it to be the very foundation of the Divine religions, a service to His Kingdom, the source of eternal life, and the greatest means of admittance into the heavenly realm.”18‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/749353064

Strategic Plan for the Achievement of Peace

‘Abdu’l-Bahá dedicated His life to the advancement of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh and to the establishment of universal peace. His peace activities in the West include many talks given in Europe and North America. He had close contact with civic leaders and social activists and participated in the 1912 Lake Mohonk Conference on Peace and Arbitration in upstate New York attended by over 180 prominent people from the United States and other countries. He addressed a variety of American women’s organizations, gave presentations at universities and colleges, spoke in Chicago at the NAACP’s annual conference, and gave lectures at churches and synagogues.

Yet for all His courageous activities, and all the efforts of the Bahá’ís, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was greatly saddened by the world’s apparent indifference to Bahá’u’lláh’s call for global peace and to the efforts He Himself had made in the course of His travels.  Shoghi Effendi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s grandson and His appointed successor, wrote: “Agony filled His soul at the spectacle of human slaughter precipitated through humanity’s failure to respond to the summons He had issued, or to heed the warnings He had given.”19Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. Available at www.bahai.org/r/986414751

Given the turbulent condition of the world and the dangers facing humankind, He devised a detailed strategic plan to address the situation and to assign responsibility for its implementation. His plan, devised in 1916 to 1917 and set out in fourteen letters, known collectively as the Tablets of the Divine Plan, was entrusted to the members of the Bahá’í community in the United States and Canada. The pivotal goal of the Tablets of the Divine Plan is directly associated with the long-range process that will lead to the achievement of peace in the world as envisaged in Bahá’u’lláh’s writings.

Designated as “the chosen trustees and principal executors of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Divine Plan,”20Shoghi Effendi. This Decisive Hour. Available at www.bahai.org/r/194317153 the North American Bahá’ís were called upon to assume a prominent role in taking the message of Bahá’u’lláh to all the countries of the world and for effecting the transformation in values necessary for the emergence of a world order characterized by justice, unity, and peace.  This great human resource – the body of willing believers in the West – was notable for its enthusiasm, determination, and deep commitment to Bahá’u’lláh’s vision for change. These communities were ideal incubators for the processes of peace.

At the time the messages of the Tablets of the Divine Plan were being written, North American Bahá’ís comprised but a small percentage of the total Bahá’ís in the world (though many had met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1912). Commenting on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s choice of the North American Bahá’ís and the link between World War I and the Tablets of the Divine Plan, Shoghi Effendi indicated that the Divine Plan “was prompted by the contact established by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself, in the course of His historic journey, with the entire body of His followers throughout the United States and Canada. It was conceived, soon after that contact was established, in the midst of what was then held to be one of the most devastating crises in human history.”21Shoghi Effendi. This Decisive Hour. Available at www.bahai.org/r/257510249 Shoghi Effendi offered further comment concerning the historic bond between ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the North American community: “This is the community,” he reminded us,

which, ever since it was called into being through the creative energies released by the proclamation of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, was nursed in the lap of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s unfailing solicitude, and was trained by Him to discharge its unique mission through the revelation of innumerable Tablets, through the instructions issued to returning pilgrims, through the despatch of special messengers, through His own travels at a later date, across the North American continent, through the emphasis laid by Him on the institution of the Covenant in the course of those travels, and finally through His mandate embodied in the Tablets of the Divine Plan.22Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. Available at www.bahai.org/r/256927469

It is clear that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was aware of the potential capacity of the North American Bahá’ís to carry out the task with which they had been entrusted.  His extensive travels in North America afforded the opportunity to assess, at first hand, the spiritual, social, and political environment of the continent and to appreciate the freedoms – intellectual, artistic, political, and, particularly, the religious freedom—inherent in North American society. And it is also apparent that He understood the spiritual possibilities of the West and the desire of women and men to seek a fuller expression of all things – of themselves, of their society, of the world.

Significance of the Tablets of the Divine Plan

As described above, the Tablets of the Divine Plan constitute the charter for the propagation of the Bahá’í Faith and outline ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s plan for the spiritual regeneration of the world. The letters therein set out the prerequisites for peace and assign responsibility to the North American believers “to plant the banner of His Father’s Faith . . . in all the continents, the countries and islands of the globe.”23Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. Available at www.bahai.org/r/552193552 They focus on the work of promulgating and implementing Bahá’u’lláh’s salutary message of unity, justice, and peace in a systematic and orderly manner. They represent a strategic intervention put in place by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to ensure the ongoing and systematic dissemination of the values of peace and the promotion of activities associated with moral and social advancement. They describe a spiritually based approach to peace that is pragmatic, long-term, flexible, and durable.

In those darkest days of World War I, the means of communication between ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Palestine (then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire) and the community of His followers around the world were disrupted and, for a period, severed. The first eight Tablets were written in the spring of 1916, and the second group was penned during the spring of 1917. The first group did not arrive in North America until the fall of 1916, while the delivery of the remaining Tablets was delayed until after the cessation of hostilities.24Amin Banani. Foreword to Tablets of the Divine Plan. (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1993), xxi.

The Great War of 1914-1918 rocked the very foundations of society and dramatically changed the shape of the world. The historian Margaret MacMillan provides a telling summary of the impact of the War:

Four years of war shook forever the supreme self-confidence that had carried Europe to world dominance. After the western front Europeans could no longer talk of a civilizing mission to the world. The war toppled governments, humbled the mighty and overturned whole societies. In Russia the revolutions of 1917 replaced tsarism, with what no one yet knew. At the end of the war Austria-Hungary vanished, leaving a great hole at the centre of Europe. The Ottoman empire, with its vast holdings in the Middle East and its bit of Europe, was almost done. Imperial Germany was now a republic. Old nations—Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia—came out of history to live again and new nations—Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia—struggled to be born.25Margaret MacMillan. Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World. (London: John Murray, 2001), 2.

The Tablets captured the mood of the day—the complex fusion of anxiety and despair, the burning desire to end a war more brutal than any the world had ever known, and a desire for a new approach to peaceful existence. Addressing this heartfelt yearning, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offered a contrasting vision of how the world might be if it lived in harmony:

 This world-consuming war has set such a conflagration to the hearts that no word can describe it. In all the countries of the world the longing for universal peace is taking possession of men. There is not a soul who does not yearn for concord and peace. A most wonderful state of receptivity is being realized. This is through the consummate wisdom of God, so that capacity may be created, the standard of the oneness of the world of humanity be upraised, and the fundamental of universal peace and the divine principles be promoted in the East and the West.26‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/500285326

In another Tablet, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reflected on the impact of World War I on humankind and offered a context for understanding the “wisdom of this war”:

In short, after this universal war, the people have obtained extraordinary capacity to hearken to the divine teachings, for the wisdom of this war is this: That it may become proven to all that the fire of war is world-consuming, whereas the rays of peace are world-enlightening. One is death, the other is life; this is extinction, that is immortality; one is the most great calamity, the other is the most great bounty; this is darkness, that is light; this is eternal humiliation and that is everlasting glory; one is the destroyer of the foundation of man, the other is the founder of the prosperity of the human race.27‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/828798977

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s response to war, as set out in the Tablets of the Divine Plan, went far beyond providing an alternative vision.  He called for constructive mobilization consistent with the local situation. For example, tapping into peoples’ receptivity to new ideas resulting from the sufferings associated with war, He directed the Bahá’ís to take steps to spread Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, and He set out other concrete actions that could be immediately taken. These activities aimed not only to enlarge the Bahá’í community but were considered essential to spreading the values of peace in the wider society.  To this end, He invited “a number of souls” to “arise and act in accordance with the aforesaid conditions, and hasten to all parts of the world.…Thus in a short space of time, most wonderful results will be produced, the banner of universal peace will be waving on the apex of the world and the lights of the oneness of the world of humanity may illumine the universe.”28‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/998358260

The Tablets of the Divine Plan underlined the contribution of religion to individual and social development. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stated:

Consider how the religions of God served the world of humanity! How the religion of Torah became conducive to the glory and honor and progress of the Israelitish nation! How the breaths of the Holy Spirit of His Holiness Christ created affinity and unity between divergent communities and quarreling families! How the sacred power of His Holiness Muḥammad became the means of uniting and harmonizing the contentious tribes and the different clans of Peninsular Arabia—to such an extent that one thousand tribes were welded into one tribe; strife and discord were done away with; all of them unitedly and with one accord strove in advancing the cause of culture and civilization, and thus were freed from the lowest degree of degradation, soaring toward the height of everlasting glory!29‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/191427232

Within this context, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirmed that the Bahá’í community’s historic mission was at heart a spiritual enterprise, and He illustrated the capacity of the community to unite peoples of different background.  He wrote:

Consider! The people of the East and the West were in the utmost strangeness. Now to what a high degree they are acquainted with each other and united together! How far are the inhabitants of Persia from the remotest countries of America! And now observe how great has been the influence of the heavenly power, for the distance of thousands of miles has become identical with one step! How various nations that have had no relations or similarity with each other are now united and agreed through this divine potency! Indeed to God belongs power in the past and in the future! And verily God is powerful over all things!30‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/205096335

The community-building activities initiated by the Bahá’ís at the behest of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the diversity of the Faith’s emerging community constitute a powerful means to engage the interest and attract the collaboration of like-minded people who are also committed to the cause of enduring social change and are willing to work for the creation of a culture of peace.

The vision of the Tablets of the Divine Plan is a vision that regards all human beings as being responsible for the advancement of civilization. The Bahá’í Faith looks to ensure such advancement is possible by highlighting the pathways of unity. To initiate the processes of individual and social transformation, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá calls on his followers to embrace a series of tasks – in a sense, to get to work – so that they might

occupy themselves with the diffusion of the divine exhortations and advices, guide the souls and promote the oneness of the world of humanity. They must play the melody of international conciliation with such power that every deaf one may attain hearing, every extinct person may be set aglow, every dead one may obtain new life and every indifferent soul may find ecstasy. It is certain that such will be the consummation.31‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/258989901

Humankind is asked to flee “all ignorant prejudices” and work for the good of all. In the West, individuals are charged to commit to “the promulgation of the divine principles so that the oneness of the world of humanity may pitch her canopy in the apex of America and all the nations of the world may follow the divine policy.”32‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/785288640

The great changes described in the Tablets will evolve slowly. For though the Tablets call for a time when “the mirror of the earth may become the mirror of the Kingdom, reflecting the ideal virtues of heaven,”33‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/904315062 translating this poetic vision into a concrete plan will take time. But this delay is not cause for slowing the activities of peace, rather the scale of change demands a systematic approach to peace.34‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Ibid 3.3 For instance, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá lists countries by name and specifies the order in which tasks are to be completed.35‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan.  Ibid., ¶6.11, ¶6.4, and ¶6.7.

But along with all His specificity, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also describes a lofty vision meant to inspire. He calls upon His followers to become “heavenly farmers and scatter pure seeds in the prepared soil,” promises that “throughout the coming centuries and cycles many harvests will be gathered,” and asks followers to “consider the work of former generations. During the lifetime of Jesus Christ, the believing, firm souls were few and numbered, but the heavenly blessings descended so plentifully that in a number of years countless souls entered beneath the shadow of the Gospel.”36‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/434173994

Looking Ahead

Written just over a century ago during one of humanity’s darkest hours, the Tablets of the Divine Plan “set in motion processes designed to bring about, in due course, the spiritual transformation of the planet.”37Universal House of Justice. From a letter to the Bahá’ís of the World dated 21 March 2009. Available at www.bahai.org/r/288100650 These letters continue to guide Bahá’ís as they pursue the current Divine Plan under the authority of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing council of the Bahá’í Faith, and they serve as an inspiration to many others who study them. In fourteen letters, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá laid out a charter for the teaching, building, and communal activities that define the Bahá’í theatre of action. While its long-term vision encompasses all humanity, the Divine Plan’s execution is tied to the Bahá’í community’s spiritual evolution and the development of its administrative institutions. It is also tied to humanity’s receptivity and willingness to pursue peace.

Today, Bahá’ís throughout the world are actively engaged in the application of the Divine Plan through a long-term process of community building inspired by the principle of the oneness of humankind. Embracing an outward-looking orientation, Bahá’ís maintain that to systematically advance a material and spiritual global civilization, the contributions of innumerable individuals, groups, and organizations is required for generations to come. The process of community building that is finding expression in Bahá’í localities throughout the world is open to all peoples regardless of race, gender, nationality, or religion.

In these communities, Bahá’ís aspire to develop patterns of life and social structures based on Bahá’u’lláh’s principles. Throughout the process they are learning how to strengthen community life based on spiritual principles including the prerequisites for the establishment of global peace as identified in the Bahá’í writings. The Plan, in both urban and rural settings, is comprised of an educational process where children, youth, and adults explore spiritual concepts, gain capacity, and apply them to their own distinct social environment. As individuals participate in this ongoing process of community building, they draw insights from science and religion’s spiritual teachings toward gaining new knowledge and insights.

The acquisition of new knowledge is continually applied to nurturing a community environment that is free from prejudice of race, class, religion, nationality, and strives to achieve the full equality of women in all the affairs of the community as well as the society at large. A natural outcome of this transformative learning process of spiritual and material education is involvement in the life of society. In this regard, Bahá’ís are engaged in two interconnected areas of action: social action and participation in the prevalent discourses of society. Social action involves the application of spiritual principles to social problems in order to advance material progress in diverse settings. Second, in diverse settings, Bahá’í institutions and agencies, in addition to individuals and organizations, whether academic or professional, or at national and international forums, also participate in important discourses prevalent in society with the goal of exploring the solutions to social problems and contributing to the advancement of society. Aware of the complex challenges that lie ahead of them in this work, Bahá’ís are working jointly with others, convinced of the unique role that religion offers in the construction of a spiritual global order.38For more detailed information please refer to message dated 18 January 2019 from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World. Available at www.bahai.org/r/537332008 ; Riḍván 2021 message from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World. Available at wwww.bahai.org/r/750707520

Stressing the vital significance of striving to enhance the learning processes associated with the implementation of peace, a recent message addressed to Bahá’ís and their collaborators, observed that

none who are conscious of the condition of the world can refrain from giving their utmost endeavour… The devoted efforts that you and your like-minded collaborators are making to build communities founded on spiritual principles, to apply those principles for the betterment of your societies, and to offer the insights arising—these are the surest ways you can hasten the fulfillment of the promise of world peace.39Universal House of Justice. From a message to the Bahá’ís of the World dated 18 January 2019. Available at www.bahai.org/r/276724432

The Divine Plan continues to unfold over the decades as the collective capacity of the Bahá’í community grows in tandem with the world’s openness to change. Implementation of the Plan continues and will continue so that the world might achieve “the advent of that Golden Age which must witness the proclamation of the Most Great Peace and the unfoldment of that world civilization which is the offspring and primary purpose of that Peace.”40Shoghi Effendi. Citadel of Faith: Messages to America, 1947-1957. Available at www.bahai.org/r/688620126

 

About the Authors:

Janet Khan is the author or co-author of a number of books on the history and teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, including A World Without War, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Discourse for Global Peace, Call to Apostleship, Reflections on the Tablets of the Divine Plan (2016), Heritage of Light, The Spiritual Destiny of America (2009), Prophet’s Daughter, The Life and Legacy of Bahíyyih Khánum, Outstanding Heroine of the Bahá’í Faith (2005), and Advancement of Women, A Bahá’í Perspective (1998).

Hoda Mahmoudi holds the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is co-author with Dr. Janet Khan of A World Without War: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Discourse on Global Peace (2020). She is also co-editor of Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Human Dignity and Human Rights (2019), Children and Globalization: Multidisciplinary Perspective (2019), and The Changing Ethos of Human Rights (2020).

By Reed Breneman

Reed M. Breneman is a community college professor in North Carolina. He received his M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the American University of Beirut.

By 1914, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was well known in many parts of the globe for His life of service to humanity. In the Holy Land, where He had lived most of His adult life, He was revered for His service to the poor and needy in the community and for His engagement in the discourses of the day with local and regional dignitaries. His lengthy sojourns in Egypt before and after His historic visits to Europe and North America also attracted considerable attention, earning Him even more admirers from all walks of life. His travels in the West, from which He had only recently returned in early 1914, have been particularly well-documented; in both formal and informal settings and to diverse audiences, His explications of the Teachings of His Father, Bahá’u’lláh, in the context of the urgent promotion of global peace, made Him a unique Figure on the world stage. In the war years, He would win widespread acclaim for helping to avert a famine in His home region of Haifa and ‘Akká. And for many around the world, the example of His life and His voluminous Writings were and continue to be sources of guidance and elucidation.

However, rather less well known today is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s sustained promotion of modern education in the Middle East. Perhaps most striking in this regard is how, over a period of several years, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá encouraged and nurtured a group of Bahá’í students in Beirut to pursue higher education in a way that was coherent with the students’ identities as Bahá’ís.


‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Holy Land, c. 1920. Credit: Bahá'í Media Bank, available at https://media.bahai.org/detail/1781734/

Among ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s many visitors in early 1914 was Howard Bliss, the president of the Syrian Protestant College (SPC), an institution with which ʻAbdu’l-Bahá had maintained a longstanding relationship and at which a group of Bahá’í students had become an established presence by the time of Bliss’s visit that February.1H.M Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh (Oxford: George Ronald, 1973), 405. Bliss, an American who had grown up on the campus of the college in Beirut (his father, Daniel Bliss, was the college’s first president) and who spoke fluent Arabic, was visiting, in part, to arrange for the Bahá’í students to spend their upcoming spring break in Haifa in the vicinity of the Shrines of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb, affording them an opportunity to meet and learn from ʻAbdu’l-Bahá. But the conversation between ʻAbdu’l-Bahá and Bliss extended to topics of pressing concern for the former. Much as He had done on numerous occasions during His travels, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá encouraged Bliss to foster in his students “principles” such as the “oneness of the world of humanity,” among others, so that their education could be directed toward “universal peace.”2Star of the West 9, no. 9 (20 August 1918): 98, http://sotwbnewsinfo.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/sotw/searchable_pdfs/SotW_Vol-01%20(Mar%201910)-Vol-10%20(Mar%201919).pdf  See also “Zeine on Modern Education,” Al-Kulliyah, Winter 1973, 15, American University of Beirut/Library Archives.

Bliss’s receptivity to ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s remarks and encouragement was evident in a speech Bliss gave just ten days later. On 25 February, in a meeting with a group of students that was representative of the school’s rich diversity, Bliss urged it to include the “establishing of universal peace” as one of its “missions.”3Al-Kulliyah, March 1914, No. 5, 151, American University of Beirut/Library Archives ʻAbdu’l-Bahá and Bliss’s exchange, indeed, was emblematic of the larger conversation the Bahá’í community and the college had been having for several years, a conversation centering on the college’s self-styled “experiment in religious association” to which the Bahá’í students had been striving to contribute.


Howard Bliss. Credit: “Howard Bliss Photo Collection,” AUB Libraries Online Exhibits, accessed October 22, 2021, http://online-exhibit.aub.edu.lb/items/show/158.

ʻAbdu’l-Bahá and Modern Education

The Syrian Protestant College was founded in 1866 and formally renamed the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1920. Long before any Bahá’í students had enrolled there, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá in an 1875 treatise known today as The Secret of Divine Civilization4Available at www.bahai.org/r/093729958 encouraged the establishing of modern schools in His native Persia, advocating for the “extension of education, the development of useful arts and sciences, the promotion of industry and technology.” 5‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/568414401 Education, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserted, should uplift individuals for the ultimate purpose of benefiting society. Over the following decades, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was instrumental in the establishment of dozens of schools throughout His native land; notably, these schools, including many for girls, welcomed students of all faiths.6See Soli Shahvar, The Forgotten Schools: The Baha’is and Modern Education in Iran, 1899-1934 (London: Taurus Academic Studies, 2009).

‘Abdu’l-Bahá personally supervised such initiatives in His local community in ‘Akká as well. In 1903, for example, about twenty children from the Bahá’í community were assembled for classes in English, Persian, math, and other subjects including practical instruction in trades like carpentry, shoemaking, and tailoring.7Youness Afroukhteh, Memories of Nine Years in ‘Akká, Trans. by Riaz Masrour (Oxford: George Ronald, 2003), 159-60. Many of these students continued their studies at local schools, such as a French one in Haifa.8Riaz Khadem, Shoghi Effendi in Oxford and Earlier (Oxford: George Ronald, 1999), 2. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá encouraged students such as these, including His own grandchildren, to continue their education at colleges and universities, the closest of which was SPC; Shoghi Effendi, His eldest grandson and successor as Head of the Bahá’í Faith, graduated from SPC in 1917.

ʻAbdu’l-Bahá repeatedly qualified his support of such schools with the condition that they attend to the whole student and produce graduates who had progressed not only scientifically but also morally. During his visit to North America in 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke at Columbia and Stanford universities, praising the value of the scientific education they provided while also emphasizing the necessity of “spiritual development…the most important principle [of which] is the oneness of the world of humanity, the unity of mankind, the bond conjoining East and West, the tie of love which blends human hearts.”9‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace:  Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. Available at www.bahai.org/r/650712298

By this time, Bahá’í students from Haifa and ‘Akká, as well as Persia, Egypt, and Beirut, had attended SPC for about a decade, in increasing numbers over the previous few years. There were no comparable institutions in their own countries, and attending universities in Europe or America was not yet practical for most. As SPC became a popular choice, the prospect of joining an existing group of Bahá’í students was an additional attraction. A sizable group of students as well attended the Université Saint-Joseph (USJ), also in Beirut. Together, they constituted a single coherent group, meeting together, visiting each other, and collaborating, for example, in the activities of the “Society of the Bahá’í Students of Beirut,” which was formed in 1906.10Zeine N. Zeine, “The Program of the Society of Bahá’í Students of Beirut 1929-1930” (unpublished report, n.d.) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself visited SPC during at least one of his visits to Beirut in 1880 and 1887.11Necati Alkan, “Midhat Pasha and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in ‘Akka: the Historical Background of the Tablet of the Land of Bā,” Baha’i Studies Review 13 (2005): 6-7, https://bahai-library.com/pdf/a/alkan_midhat_pasha_abdulbaha.pdf

The Bahá’í students’ engagement with educational institutions like SPC was very much framed in the terms ʻAbdu’l-Bahá had been setting forth for many years, perspectives inspired by the Teachings of His Father, Bahá’u’lláh. One such Teaching was the harmony of science and religion; as noted, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was calling for education to attend to the building of character as well as the shaping of intellects. This was a matter of intense interest at the college as well. While colleges in America had moved away from direct religious instruction, at SPC, there was still an effort to provide it.12Betty S. Anderson, The American University of Beirut: Arab Nationalism and Liberal Education (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 38. Around the time of ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s first visit, the faculty and missionaries associated with SPC had become sharply divided over just how to reconcile this religious education with the school’s scientific training. This rift had only deepened over the decades even as the younger Bliss had taken the college in increasingly “secular,” or liberal, directions. By 1908, the college’s course catalogue framed its approach in decidedly liberal terms, asserting that the “primary aim” of the curriculum is to “to develop the reasoning faculties of the mind, to lay the foundations of a thorough intellectual training, to free the mind for independent thought.”13Anderson, American University of Beirut, 52. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was supportive of the college’s efforts in this regard. As He Himself recorded in conversation with other visitors a week after Bliss’s visit:

The American College at Beirut is carrying on a sacred mission of education and enlightenment and every lover of higher culture and civilization must wish it a great success…Years ago I went to Beirut, and visited the College in its infancy. From that time on I have praised the liberalism of this institution whenever I found an opportunity.14Earl Redman. Visiting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Vol. 2: The Final Years, 1913-1921 (Oxford: George Ronald, 2021), 24-5.

Yet Bliss and others were intent on maintaining the Christian identity of the college.  Heavily influenced by the Social Gospel and Progressive movements, Bliss’s conception of religious education “melded religion, character, and social service”15Anderson, American University of Beirut, 67. and, in his words, sought to “set so high, so noble, so broad, so ecumenical a type of Christianity before our students” as to inspire their education and future services to society.16Anderson, American University of Beirut, 64.

Howard Bliss presumably had this project in mind when, on 15 February 1914, he asked ʻAbdu’l-Bahá for His thoughts on “ideal” education.17“Zeine,” Al-Kulliyah, 15. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s response set forth “three cardinal principles.” These principles affirm the need for unfettered intellectual inquiry in education; however, they also call for the moral and ethical development of students and their reorientation toward a broadly conceived mission of service to humanity. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s comments were as follows:

In this age the college which is dominated by a denominational spirit is an anomaly, and is engaged in a losing fight. It cannot long withstand the victorious forces of liberalism in education. The universities and colleges of the world must hold fast to three cardinal principles.

First: Whole-hearted service to the cause of education, the unfolding of the mysteries of nature, the extension of the boundaries of pure science, the elimination of the causes of ignorance and social evils, a standard universal system of instruction, and the diffusion of the lights of knowledge and reality.

Second: Service to the cause of morality, raising the moral tone of the students, inspiring them with the sublimest ideals of ethical refinement, teaching them altruism, inculcating in their lives the beauty of holiness and the excellency of virtue and animating them with the excellences and perfections of the religion of God.

Third: Service to the oneness of the world of humanity; so that each student may consciously realize that he is a brother to all mankind, irrespective of religion or race.  The thoughts of universal peace must be instilled into the minds of all scholars, in order that they may become the armies of peace, the real servants of the body politic – the world. God is the Father of all. Mankind are His children. This globe is one home. Nations are the members of one family. The mothers in their homes, the teachers in the schools, the professors in the college, the presidents in the universities, must teach these ideals to the young from the cradle up to the age of manhood.18Star of the West 9, no. 9 (20 August 1918): 98.

ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s vision for education, as expressed above, included an implicit repudiation of social Darwinism, a theory which in the decades between His visit to SPC and His 1914 meeting with its college president had become increasingly popular. Ironically, while conservative thinkers initially rejected Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution, they later embraced its implications for society, when they associated a certain conception of progress as connected with “dominant” races and civilizations, that is, white and European ones.19Norbert Scholz, “Foreign Education and Indigenous Reaction in Late Ottoman Lebanon: Students and Teachers at the Syrian Protestant College” (PhD diss., Georgetown University, 1997), 233. The more liberal wing at the college also conflated its approach to Protestant education with “Americanism.”20Anderson, American University of Beirut, 57. As one commentator has put it, the college was sending the message that only “America and Protestantism had the tools for this progressive future.”21Anderson, American University of Beirut, 89.

ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, however, urged Bliss to encourage his students to see themselves as serving the higher interests of humanity, not the particular ones of race or nation. In October of 1912, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá had implored assembled students, faculty, and staff at Stanford University along much the same lines, explaining that “the law of the survival of the fittest” did not apply to humanity.22‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Promulgation. Available at www.bahai.org/r/055943431 Acceding to such a law would be similar to allowing nature to remain uncultivated and unfruitful. Human progress, then, required education in the “ideal virtues of Divinity,” for humanity is inherently “lofty and noble” and “specialized” to “render service in the cause of human uplift and betterment.”23‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Promulgation. Available at www.bahai.org/r/935144964


Shoghi Effendi, standing in the second row (third from the left) with his class at the Syrian Protestant College (later called American University of Beirut); circa 1914. Credit: The Priceless Pearl, p. 54.

Responding to a Crisis at the College

At the time of Bliss’s visit, a major controversy was raging at the college: the question of mandatory attendance at the school’s religious services. The college’s religious requirements had relaxed over the years and, partly as a result, the school had begun to attract a more diverse student body, not only Christians from various denominations but also more Muslims, Jews, Druze, and Bahá’ís. Spurred on by the Young Turk revolution of 1908 which, among others, advocated for religious freedom and equality, in early 1909, the majority of the Muslim students refused to attend Christian religion services and Bible classes, presenting a petition to the faculty a few days later requesting that such attendance become voluntary.24Stephen B. L Penrose, That They May Have Life: The Story of the American University of Beirut 1866-1941. (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1970; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941) 134-35. In addition to widespread opposition from Jewish students as well, the college also faced opposition from the local Muslim community, the Ottoman authorities, and American diplomats. While making some concessions to the striking students, the college largely withstood the pressure, and the mandate remained until 1915, when an Ottoman law made attendance voluntary. Bliss’s 1914 visit, in fact, was part of a tour of the region in which Bliss engaged with a number of civil and religious leaders in order to defend the college’s approach to religious education.

It was in this particular context that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s comments to Bliss about the “cardinal principles” of education were made. While it was clear to many, including ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, that missionary institutions like SPC were in a “losing fight” and the forces of liberalism were in the ascendant, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was unstinting in His support of religious education of a certain type, an education in “service to the cause of morality” and “animating [students] with the excellences and perfections of the religion of God.” As He had explained a year and a half before at Stanford:

Fifty years ago Bahá’u’lláh declared the necessity of peace among the nations and the reality of reconciliation between the religions of the world. He announced that the fundamental basis of all religion is one, that the essence of religion is human fellowship and that the differences in belief which exist are due to dogmatic interpretation and blind imitations which are at variance with the foundations established by the Prophets of God.25‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Promulgation. Available at www.bahai.org/r/819122974

For ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, religion was one, and it was indispensable to the success of any educational enterprise if it encouraged love and unity. However, as He repeatedly made clear, “if religious belief proves to be the cause of discord and dissension, its absence would be preferable.”26‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Promulgation. Available at www.bahai.org/r/819122974 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s vision for religious education, then, was unifying but also demanding; such education had to generate higher levels of unity than that previously attained.

Responding to the well-documented protests of those in the Muslim community, including many reformers, who thought the religious services would have a negative effect on the students, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá remarked, “I am sure the morals of the students will not be corrupted. They will be informed with the contents of the Old and New Testament. What harm is there in this? A church is house of prayer. Let them enter therein and worship God. What wrong is there in this?”27Redman, Visiting, 25. Indeed, He viewed such attendance as a potential benefit to all concerned:

I have no doubt that much good will be accomplished, and many misunderstandings will be removed, if the [Muslims] attend the Churches of the Christians with reverence in their hearts and sincerity in their souls, and likewise the Christians may go [to] Mohammedan Mosques and magnify the Creator of the Universe. Is it not revealed in the Holy Scriptures that ‘My House shall be called of all nations the House of Prayer? All the houses of different names, — Church, Mosque, Synagogue, Pagoda, Temple are no other than the House of Prayers. What is there in a name? Man must attach his heart to God and not to a building. He must love to hear the name of God, no matter from what lips…28Redman, Visiting, 25.

To be clear, His support was not out of sympathy with the college’s longstanding mission, however liberally construed, to convert students to Protestantism, but out of a conviction of the oneness of God and religion, stressing universality and commonality of worship. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s approach bore some commonalities with those of Muslim reformist thinkers and other liberals but differed in key respects. The well-known reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh, whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá met with during His 1887 visit to Beirut, embraced the adoption of modern science for the benefit of Islamic societies; however, he advocated for the development of Muslim schools and criticized the effect on students of attending foreign ones, for it estranged them from their own culture and religion.29Scholz, “Foreign Education,” 95. The modernizer Rashid Rida also pointed to the “corrupting” force of such schools, though conceding that those who had had adequate religious instruction could attend them without any danger of losing faith. Even so, while supportive of the education the college provided, he disapproved of participation in “Christian” services.30Scholz, “Foreign Education,” 99, 187. And though liberal figures (such as Suleyman al-Bustani, Beirut’s parliamentary representative in Istanbul) voiced support for the idea that the younger generation could transcend racial and religious differences and worship together,31Scholz, “Foreign Education,” 188. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s comments explicitly and seriously included the idea of Christians themselves going to mosques to worship as well, a possibility that others would have found difficult to imagine. His was a voice for a kind of radical equality that challenged liberals at the college and reformists in the wider society alike.

During those years, liberals at the college like Bliss had been moving SPC in directions that were increasingly consonant with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s bold vision. Giving up on converting students to Protestantism as the college’s primary goal, Bliss identified the fostering of religious harmony as integral to the college’s mission. As he put it, the “equal treatment for men of all religions” produces “an atmosphere of good will and moral sympathy among men of the most divergent religious belief.”32Annual Report by the President to the Boards of Managers and Trustees, 1915-16, 6-7, American University of Beirut/Library Archives. In response to the 1909 crisis, Bliss had reminded his board of trustees:

We must put ourselves in the place of our non-Christian students,– our Moslems, our Tartars, our Jews, our Druses, our Bahais…We must not dishonor his sense of honor; and we must not feel that the work of the College has fulfilled the mission until these men and their fellow religionists who form a great majority of the Empire’s population are touched and molded by the College influence.33Annual Report, 1908-09, 16.

In 1922 Laurens Hickok Seelye, a member of the AUB faculty, published in The Journal of Religion an article entitled “An Experiment in Religious Association” in which he presented the college’s (now university’s) religious policy as a “radical step” for a “Christian institution.”34Laurens H. Seelye, “An Experiment in Religious Association,” The Journal of Religion 2, no. 3 (May 1922): 303-04. Howard Bliss, he wrote, had redefined the “faith of the missionary,” which was not to “urge upon others conformity, but a gracious invitation…to learn together of the progressing revelation of God.”35Seelye, “Experiment,” 303. Bliss “put into actual missionary achievement the belief of every scientific student of religious experience.”36Seelye, 303. Seelye highlighted as a concrete sign of Bliss’s success the number of Muslims and other non-Christians the college had attracted.37Seelye, 304.  In 1920-1921, they, in fact, outnumbered the Christians by 511 to 490, with 382 Muslims, 66 Jews, 41 Druze, and 22 Bahá’ís.38Annual Report, 1920-21, 15.


American University of Beirut, (AUB). Chapel. Students emerging from service. Taken some time between 1920 and 1933. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print


American University of Beirut, (AUB). College Hall. Taken between 1920 and 1933. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

“An Experiment in Religious Association”

In the 1910s, the college’s religious instruction and “influence” increasingly involved interfaith dialogue, in which the Bahá’í students actively participated. The college chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA, attracted a diverse group of students eager to discuss religious subjects, according to Bayard Dodge, Bliss’s son-in-law and successor as college president. Dodge joined the faculty in 1913 and was also executive secretary of the YMCA chapter. In his 1914 annual report for the YMCA, he wrote:

This winter about fifteen men used to gather every Sunday morning to discuss the five different types of religion which they represented. They took a keen interest, but never were intolerant or even hot-headed, so that they showed what an easy matter it is to talk over differences and reforms, without any fear of unpleasant feeling.39Bayard Dodge, Report of the Beirut YMCA, 1913-14, 8, American University of Beirut/Library Archives.

It is evident that the “five different types of religion” included Bahá’ís, along with Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Jews. The Bahá’í students had already received the college’s unofficial consent to hold their own meetings on campus, though many at the college and in the missionary community opposed the practice. On Sunday afternoons, the members of the Society of the Bahá’í Students of Beirut would “gather under the trees in the university [SPC] or in their private rooms, chanting prayers and talking over matters of religious concern.”40Zeine, “Program.”

Dodge had written: “On Sunday morning I meet a group of Moslems and Bahá’ís, who discuss all sorts of religious questions in a most broadminded way and are intensely interesting.”41Bayard Dodge to Cleveland H. Dodge, December 1913, Box 4, The Bayard Dodge Collection, American University of Beirut/Library Archives. In one of Dodge’s earliest letters from the College, dated 26 November 1913, he singled out the Bahá’ís for their interest in such activities: “they try to take the best out of all religions.”42Bayard Dodge to “Bub,” 26 November 1913, Box 4, The Bayard Dodge Collection, American University of Beirut/Library Archives. While such interfaith activities were encouraged, they were seen to take place under the umbrella of the college’s Christianity. A very small number (12 out of 177) of YMCA members were not Christians, perhaps because as non-Christians, they could join only as associate members. By Dodge’s own admission, many other such students attended “most of the meetings, but feared to have the name ‘Christian’ in any way associated with them.”43Bayard Dodge, Report, 6. Despite the disinclination felt by many students toward being part of a Christian association, however, Dodge did not yet perceive any conflict with the fact that the YMCA was the only formal organization for these kinds of activities. Ottoman pressure ultimately succeeded in forcing the college to disband all student societies, including the YMCA, in May 1916.

During the war, the college’s religious regulations underwent dramatic changes. The subsequent, and in part consequent, upsurge in enrollment of Muslim students to the college who would now be exempt from mandatory religious exercises had caused deep anxiety in Bliss, Dodge, and others. West Hall, constructed in 1914 for student activities, became a refuge for the students from the increasingly harsh wartime conditions outside the college walls. It was also a venue for the college’s experiment in religious association to break new ground. The closing of the YMCA, along with the other student societies, in 1916; the continuation of the informal interfaith discussion groups started before the war during which time “the association in worship became freer than ever”44Seelye, “Experiment,” 305. ; and the much-vaunted sense of solidarity that the war seemed to intensify – all of these had paved the way for the formal creation of a new organization, a “Brotherhood,” envisioned by Bliss in a speech at the building’s opening. In a sermon given on 8 February 1914 titled “God’s Plan for West Hall,” Bliss had identified as the new building’s “supreme purpose the awakening in the men who make use of West Hall of the spirit of service, of ‘the struggle for the life of others’”; instrumental for such a purpose, Bliss proposed, was “a West Hall Brotherhood.”45Al-Kulliyah, March 1914, No. 5, 136.

It was not until 1920, however, that the West Hall Brotherhood properly got on its feet, when Laurens Seelye arrived to become the director of West Hall. Two years later, in his aforementioned article “An Experiment in Religious Association,” he explained the emergence of the West Hall Brotherhood. Deriding the patronizing policy of associate membership for non-Christians in the YMCA, Seelye discussed the delicate balance he and others tried to achieve in making the Brotherhood “non-Christian” even while the University remained a “Christian missionary institution.”46Seelye, “Experiment,” 305-06. Important to membership in the Brotherhood was the belief that, as stated in its Preamble, “a thoughtful, sincere man, whether Moslem, Bahai, Jew or Christian can join this Brotherhood without feeling that he has compromised his standing in relation to his own religion.”47Seelye, “Experiment,” 307. A few Bahá’ís would have been among the twelve non-Christian members of the YMCA in 1913-14, as these twelve were “very equally divided amongst men of the different sects.”48Bayard Dodge, Report, 6.Yet, as with the other non-Christians, joining the Brotherhood would have been a far more acceptable alternative for the Bahá’ís. The Brotherhood’s “Pledge” did not name any single religion but only “this united movement for righteousness and human brotherhood.”49Seelye, “Experiment,” 308. In 1921, Dr. Philip Hitti, the renowned Princeton scholar who was then a young faculty member at his alma mater AUB, wrote that the Brotherhood’s “watchword shall be ‘unity through diversity.’”50Al-Kulliyah, Nov. 1921, No. 1, 4.


Photograph of students in the Students' Union, 1914-1915. Shoghi Effendi can be seen standing in the second row, fourth from the right. Credit: AUB Library Archives

The Bahá’í Students’ Contribution

The Bahá’í students’ participation in such intercommunal spaces was complemented by similar experiences they had gained within their own community, both in Beirut as well as in Haifa and Egypt. Part of the reason for Bliss’s 1914 visit was to arrange for the April visits of the Bahá’í students in Beirut, 27 of whom would make the trip (out of around 30-35 total students)51Redman, Visiting, 23. For a broader overview of the Bahá’í students in Beirut, including detailed statistical information, see Richard Hollinger, “An Iranian Enclave in Beirut: Baha’i Students at the American University of Beirut, 1906-1948,” in Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500 Years, ed. H.E. Chehabi (Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies in association with I.B. Taurus, 2006) 96-119.; 20 students, in two groups, visited ʻAbdu’l-Bahá in Egypt in September 1913.52Ahang Rabbani, ed., The Master in Egypt: A Compilation, Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions, Vol. 26 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 2021) 240, 285-86. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá met with these students often during their visits (sometimes twice a day), encouraging them in their studies and asking them if their teachers “took pains to instruct the students.”53Rabbani, Master, 248. He urged them to “strive always to be at the head of [their] classes through hard study and true merit” and to “entertain high ideals and stimulate [their] intellectual and constructive forces.” 54Star of the West 9, no. 9 (20 August 1918): 98. He prioritized the study of agriculture and directly encouraged students to study medicine, in addition to subjects that would lead to careers in commerce and industry. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá also encouraged postgraduate studies, at Stanford, for example.55Rabbani, Master, 305.

Beyond their academic pursuits, however, the Bahá’í students received an education in the kind of united world ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was so interested in cultivating. He urged them to “strive to beautify the moral aspect of [their] lives” through the “divine ideals [of] humility, submissiveness, annihilation of self, perfect evanescence, charity, and loving kindness.” They must, He added, “Love and serve mankind just for the sake of God and not for anything else. The foundation of [their] love toward humanity must be spiritual faith and divine assurance.”56Star of the West 9, no. 9 (20 August 1918): 98. Not only did ʻAbdu’l-Bahá spend time with them and address them on various subjects, but the students also read copies of His talks from His 1912 trip to America.

The effect of these visits on the students was immense. As Badi Bushrui, who was among the students that visited ʻAbdu’l-Bahá in both Egypt and Haifa, later reflected, “Here is an interesting scene: the Hindu, the Zoroastrian, the Jew, the Moslem, and the atheist start singing songs of joy, praising BAHA’O’LLAH that, through His Grace, they were enabled to meet on the common-ground of Unity…”57Redman, Visiting, 24. Bushrui here is identifying people by their source communities, emphasizing the unifying effect of their attraction to the Bahá’í teachings. Indeed, the Bahá’í students were themselves a diverse group; though most were from Persia, they came from Muslim, Jewish, and Zoroastrian backgrounds. In addition, on all their visits, the students interacted with Bahá’ís from Western countries, Americans especially.

The Bahá’í students’ experience visiting ʻAbdu’l-Bahá reinforced their efforts to contribute to the life of the college, and they actively sought out spaces in which they could put into practice their spiritual education. It was through this lens that Bahá’í students participated in religious services at SPC. They were not simply tolerating the Protestant services but viewing them in this far more unifying spirit. They also took advantage of opportunities to participate in the intercommunal spaces that opened up when the services became optional for non-Christians.

But the main venue for the Bahá’í students’ contribution to the college was the Students’ Union, which put on plays and organized a Social Service Institute and a Research Club, besides holding meetings. The most important ones were its weekly Saturday night meetings at which various topics were discussed and debated and the business meetings at which “parliamentary rules [were] observed and practiced.”58Al-Kulliyah, July 1910, No. 6, 229. There were also speaking contest meetings, election meetings, and reception meetings. The twin aims of the Union were “to cultivate and develop public speaking and parliamentary discipline in its members.”59Students’ Union Gazette, 1913, 65, American University of Beirut/Library Archives. Published every two months was the Students’ Union Gazette, the student magazine that had the longest run during this period.60Anderson, American University of Beirut, 22. The Union operated “exclusively” in English61Students’ Union Gazette, 1913, 65., and indeed in his history of AUB, Bayard Dodge refers to the Union as an “English society.”62Bayard Dodge, The American University of Beirut: A Brief History of the University and the Lands Which It Serves (Beirut: Khayat, 1958), 33. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá encouraged the Bahá’í students to perfect their English and to give talks in the language, something they practiced while visiting Him in Egypt and Haifa.63Rabbani, Master, 304.

By 1912 at least, this group was playing an active role in campus life. From the time the Bahá’í students began to form a recognizable group on campus, they became dynamic members of the Union, being elected to the Union’s Cabinet, contributing to the Gazette, participating in and winning prizes in debate contests, and also proposing subjects for debate at the Saturday night meetings. From 1912 until 1916, when all student societies were closed down, Bahá’í students were almost continuously represented in the Students’ Union Cabinet, elections for which were held twice a year. Twice Bahá’í students were elected its president; twice its vice president; at least once its secretary; once its associate secretary; twice the editor of the Students’ Union Gazette; once the president of its Scientific Department; and several times as members-at-large.

Their contributions to the Union – through the topics they suggested for debate, the talks they gave, and the articles they wrote – reveal the focus of their interests: promoting greater unity among the diverse groups of students in the service of universal peace, all the while including a dynamic role for religion. In April 1914, one student proposed that a “universal religion is possible” while another, ‘Abdu’l-Husayn Isfahani, put forth that “Universal Reformation in all the different phases of life can never be effected except through religion”64Students’ Union Gazette, 1914, 60 and Al-Kulliyah, April 1914, No. 6, 192.; Isfahani in a January 1913 speaking contest on “Is reputation an index of true greatness?” had elaborated on this conception of a “universal religion,” basing his argument on the transcendent universality of the founders of major religions – their “creative and inspiring power.”65Students’ Union Gazette, 1913, 35. Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and Buddha, he argued, through their “brilliant commanding genius” accomplished what they did in the face of societal opposition. Thus, their reputations do indicate true greatness. Isfahani also proposed that month that “racial differences do not exist.”66Al-Kulliyah, April 1914, No. 6, 192.

The Bahá’ís continued their involvement with the Students’ Union in the following decades. In 1929, for example, Hasan Balyuzi gave a talk for a speaking contest on the “religion of the future,” which would be characterized by “plasticity, absence of hypocrisy, and spirit of universal brotherhood.”67Al-Kulliyyah, June 1929, No. 8, 238.

At a time when issues of war and peace were very much of the moment, the Bahá’í students sought to promote universal peace. In the years immediately before World War I, Bahá’í students proposed antiwar debate topics, such as “war must inevitably stop,” and wrote articles such as “Towards International Peace.” One such student, Aflatun Mirza, proposed that “a universal language is essential to the progress of the world.”68Al-Kulliyyah, May 1912, No. 7, 227. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá in His talks in America and Europe had supported the establishing of a secondary, auxiliary language to facilitate greater unity and lead to peace.69Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 330. In the 1920s, in fact, many Bahá’ís became active members of the worldwide Esperanto movement. One Bahá’í student, Zeine N. Zeine, was an enthusiastic promoter of the language on campus, giving talks on it, including, on at least one occasion, a short one in Esperanto itself.70Al-Kulliyyah, February 1929, No. 1, 99.

However, even more revealing of the way the Bahá’í students understood their contribution to this discourse was a speech given by Zeine in 1929, a talk that won a prestigious speaking contest. In “Mental Disarmament,” he claimed that such disarmament was more “necessary to peace and happiness of the world than the disarmament of the sword.” Attitudes, he continued, such as “intolerance, ignorance, hatred, prejudice” and so on “play more havoc than the cannon, and bring about strife and war.”71Al-Kulliyyah, April 1929, No. 6, 153. (Appropriately, Zeine, upon his graduation that year, was hired as assistant director of West Hall and an instructor of Sociology.)  In a similar vein, the president of the Students’ Union, not a Bahá’í, at the Brotherhood’s year-opening reception in October 1926, remarked, “the Druze, the Moslem, the Jew, the Bahai, the Christian all unite together to oppose others of the same religion for the welfare of the Union.”72Students’ Union Gazette, 1926, 7-8.  Back in June 1914, Badi Bushrui, who was the outgoing president of the Union, offered a succinct summary of the way Bahá’ís sought to contribute not only in their words but also in their deeds:

Let the Union, as often suggested by President Bliss, stand for universal peace and the oneness of the world of humanity. I am glad that the spirit which the college tries to infuse into her students is finding expression in the life of the Union.  Racial and religious differences play no part there. The President for the first term this year was a Christian, the last President was a Bahai and the new President is a Moslem. I believe this is the biggest stride the Union has taken to be able to choose the best man without regard to religious or racial affinity.73Al-Kulliyyah, June 1914, No. 8, 26.

Furthermore, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s guidance addressed the practical outcomes of their education. In Egypt in 1913, for example, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá told the students that it was “his hope that they would make extraordinary progress along spiritual lines as well as in science and art; so that each one might become a brilliant lamp in the world of modern civilization, and upon their return to Persia that country might profit from their acquired knowledge and experience.”74Rabbani, Master, 241. Out of 24 Master’s theses written before 1918, five were written by Bahá’í students.75Hollinger, Distant Relations, 111. Two theses, both written in 1918, exemplify this focus on serving the best interests of their nation. “Social Evils or Hindrances to Persia’s Progress” and “Persia in Transformation,” both written by Bahá’í students, identified elements of Persia’s religious, social, and political life needing attention and articulated a progressive vision for the country, assigning prominent places to education and the rights of women.76Azizullah Khan S. Bahadur, “Social Evils or Hindrances to Persia’s Progress” (MA thesis, American University of Beirut, 1917); Abdul-Husayn Bakir, “Persia in Transformation” (MA thesis, American University of Beirut, 1918).

In a letter to his father dated 22 June 1914, Dodge commented on this mission of the Bahá’í students.  “Most of these students travel to the College from three to four weeks away,” he related, and “speak in a most serious way of getting an education here and then returning to help their unfortunate land.”77Bayard Dodge to Cleveland H. Dodge, 22 June 1914, Box 4, The Bayard Dodge Collection, American University of Beirut/Library Archives. Dodge’s initial encounters with the Bahá’í students in 1913 led him to state that “they uphold all sorts of good reform movements.”78Bayard Dodge to “Bub,” 26 November 1913, Box 4, The Bayard Dodge Collection, American University of Beirut/Library Archives.

The Bahá’í students also contributed to the college-wide efforts to render service to the local community, efforts which greatly accelerated during the war, including medical relief activities, among others. Not long after the war broke out, most of the Bahá’ís in Haifa and ‘Akká, including Badi Bushrui and another recent SPC graduate Habiballah Khudabakhsh, later known as Dr. Mu’ayyad, were received as guests in the Druze/Christian village of Abu-Sinan.79Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 411. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s warm relationship with the village leaders had made this arrangement possible. In an article titled “A New Experience,” published in a fall 1915 number of the Students’ Union Gazette, Bushrui relates how Dr. Mu’ayyad started a medical clinic in the village, performing many operations and treating a variety of conditions over a period of eight months. 80Bayard Dodge, “Education As a Source of Good Will” in The Bahá’í World (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1933) 4: 370. Bushrui and an American Bahá’í woman, Lua Getsinger, acted as nurses and assistants; Bushrui also taught some of the children. Such an experience of social service would have resonated deeply with the emerging ethos of the college, to be sure.

The Bahá’í students’ contributions became a recognized fact of life at the college over the coming decades. In an article titled “Education as a Source of Good Will” published in the 1930-32 volume of The Bahá’í World, President Bayard Dodge outlined the university’s mission, confirming AUB’s strong relationship with the Bahá’ís and its view of them as a like-minded group. From Dodge’s perspective, the university’s “interpretation of the gospel of Jesus and the teachings of the prophets” was “similar to that proclaimed by the great Bahá’í leaders,” and so there had “naturally been a bond of sympathy” between the university and the Bahá’ís.81Bayard Dodge, “Education As a Source of Good Will” in The Bahá’í World (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1933) 4: 370.  As previously noted, the Bahá’ís’ active involvement before and during the war in the interfaith discussion groups made quite a deep impression on Dodge. Writing in 1930, when there were three Bahá’ís on the university staff and twenty-six students, Dodge listed the twenty-eight graduates of the university (there were in fact thirty82Hollinger, Distant Relations, 104. Hollinger also notes that by 1929, about 60 to 70 Bahá’í students in total had studied at SPC/AUB; by 1940, around 300 Bahá’í students had been educated in Beirut, overall. It was in the mid to late 1910s that the Bahá’í students were most statistically significant, however, with as many as 44 students at the college in 1919.) up to that point, adding that they had “become a great credit to their Alma Mater.”83Dodge, “Education,” 4: 370. The list included two women trained as nurses and midwives (women were first admitted to the university in 1921). Dodge himself noted that the list did not include the many Bahá’ís who spent time at the university but never graduated. Dodge detailed three distinguishing qualities of the Bahá’í students:

In the first place, they have acquired from their parents an enviable refinement and courtesy. As far as I can tell, all of them have been easy to get along with, good natured with their friends, and polite to their teachers. Their reputation for good manners and breeding is well established.

In the second place, the Bahá’í students have been marked by clean living and honesty. The older men have had a good influence on the younger ones, so that it is a tradition that they avoid bad habits. Every Sunday afternoon they meet together for devotional and social purposes at the house of Adib Husayn Effendi Iqbal. The older students are able to keep in touch with what the younger ones are doing and their influence is worth as much as a whole faculty of teachers.

In the third place, the Bahá’ís intuitively understand internationalism. They mix with all sorts of companions without prejudice and help to develop a spirit of fraternity on the campus… 84Dodge, “Education,” 4: 371.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s qualified encouragement of modern education bore fruit in the activities of these Bahá’í students. While taking advantage of their academic opportunities, they were also guided by moral principles, perceiving no conflict between their scientific and religious education. While highly cohesive and united as a group, they sought to be a unifying force at the school, promoting the oneness of humanity and universal peace among their classmates “without prejudice.” Becoming an established presence at a time when SPC was liberalizing its approach to religious education, the Bahá’í students found the college a receptive space in which to express their identities as Bahá’ís, and, inspired by the example and teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, it is clear that they made an important contribution to the life of the college. Their example shows, moreover, that when a group like the Bahá’í students is empowered in such a setting, significant results can accrue for the whole.


An issue of the Students' Union Gazette. Shoghi Effendi can be seen in the photograph.

By Amin Egea

Amín Egea lives in Barcelona, Spain. He is the author of various works on the life and teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, including the two volumes of The Apostle of Peace (George Ronald, 2017 and 2019), Un clamor por la paz (“A Clamor for Peace”, Editorial Bahá’í de España, 2021), and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, la construcción de un nuevo mundo (“‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The building of a new world”, Editorial Bahá’í de España, 2021).

When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited Europe and North America between 1911 and 1913, the West was experiencing a period of great prosperity and peace. Europe had gone almost forty years without a battle on its soil, while the United States had spent nearly half a century healing the wounds of its civil war. The accelerating technological and industrial advances on both sides of the Atlantic were proudly displayed year after year at international expositions visited by citizens and rulers from all corners of the globe. The Western economies had reached unprecedented prosperity, which brought about changes in social organization. It is not surprising, then, that decades later, when describing the gestalt of public opinion in the years preceding the outbreak of World War I, a famous Austrian writer would state: “Never had Europe been stronger, richer, more beautiful, or more confident of an even better future.”1Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (London: Cassell and Company, 1947), 152.

Such confidence in a peaceful and prosperous future was also supported by rapid changes in international politics. The peace conferences held in The Hague in 1899 and 1907 convinced many statesmen and prominent thinkers that the possibility of war was increasingly remote. For the first time, most of the world’s nations had collectively reached global agreements aimed at preventing war, perhaps the most promising of which was the establishment of an International Court of Arbitration. Experts in international law believed that, through arbitration, countries in conflict could resolve their disputes without resorting to arms or shedding a drop of blood. From 1899 until the outbreak of the Great War, hundreds of arbitration agreements were signed to secure peace between signatory countries. Even Great Britain and Germany signed an agreement in 1904.2For a list of arbitration treaties signed before 1912, see Denis P. Myers, Revised List of Arbitration Treaties (Boston: World Peace Foundation, 1912). Each of these advances was applauded by the many statesmen who were interested in internationalism as a path to peace. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, for example, which brought together more than 3,000 politicians from around the world, supported the court without reservation. Leaders such as President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Taft, supported the court.  Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who was president of the New York Peace Society—an organization that had invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to speak to its members—paid for the construction of the Peace Palace in The Hague. The building was inaugurated with great pomp in August 1913, just one year before the outbreak of the Great War.

 

William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States and the tenth Chief Justice of the United States.

The conviction that the solution to war lay primarily in international organization was so strong that the Hague Convention of 1907 agreed on the establishment of an International Court of Justice, which would not merely arbitrate but also administer justice and enforce international law. The details of such a court were postponed to a future Hague Conference, planned for the fateful year of 1915.

The academic world also gave credibility, through  individuals’ works and studies, to this optimistic vision of the future. Scholars reasoned that a war between world powers would be so costly economically and so devastating militarily that the business world, the banks, the political parties, and public opinion in general would undoubtedly impose reason on any warlike temptation.

“The very development that has taken place in the mechanism of war has rendered war an impracticable operation,” wrote Ivan S. Bloch (1836–1902) in The Future of War. He added, “The dimensions of modern armaments and the organization of society have rendered its prosecution an economic impossibility.”3Ivan S. Bloch, The Future of War (Toronto: William Brigs, 1900), xi. Quoted by Sandi E. Cooper, “European Ideological Movements Behind the Two Hague Conferences (1889–1907)” (PhD. diss., New York University, 1967). This was the sixth volume of Bloch’s Budushchaya voina v tekhnicheskom, ekonomicheskom i politicheskom otnosheniyakh (St. Petersburg: Tipografiya I. A. Efrona, 1898).

Ivan S. Bloch

Along similar lines, Norman Angell presented psychological and biological arguments in The Great Illusion (1911)—which was translated into more than twenty languages—to show that war would be an exercise in irrationality and suicide for the contending parties.

Optimism also spread to the peace movement, which was not only more influential than it is today but enjoyed far more resources and support. David Starr Jordan, who held a leading position in the World Peace Foundation and was the first president of Stanford University—and who invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to speak at Stanford—went so far as to ask in 1913, “What shall we say of the Great War of Europe, ever threatening, ever impending, and which never comes? Humanly speaking, it is impossible. … But accident aside—the Triple Entente lined up against the Triple Alliance—we shall expect no war.”4David Starr Jordan, What Shall we Say? Being Comments on War and Waste (Boston: World Peace Foundation, 1913), 18.

David Starr Jordan (Credit: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Andrew Carnegie, who had met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá personally and received at least three letters from Him, would speak in similar terms a year before the war: “Has there ever been danger of war between Germany and ourselves, members of the same Teutonic race? Never has it been even imagined … We are all of the same Teutonic blood, and united could insure world peace.”5Andrew Carnegie, “The Baseless Fear of War,” The Advocate of Peace, April 1913, 79–80.

Norman Angell

As in other spheres, many in the internationalist movement expressed absolute faith in arbitration as the ultimate means of ending war. “I am able to prove, and this is very essential,” said J. P. Santamaria, an Argentinian representative at the Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration in the same year that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke at the distinguished event (1912), “that the majority of the Latin American republics have already exchanged treaties whereby armed conflicts become practically impossible.”6Report of the annual Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration (1912), p. 49.

“We believe not only that France, but Germany and Japan as well, would gladly join with England and the United States in treaties of arbitration which would make war forever impossible,” said another of the event’s speakers.7Address of Samuel B. Capen. Report of the annual Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration (1912), p. 159.

Whether as a result of faith in technological progress, hope in the positive influence of international policy aimed at peace, assurance in the power of the economy, or confidence in the supremacy of scientific reason, the prevailing visions for the future of humanity at the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to the West were strictly based on material criteria. The outbreak of World War I demonstrated the fallacy of that premise.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Radical Analysis of the Causes of War

The diagnosis of the world situation presented by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was very different from that of His contemporaries. Although on numerous occasions He referred to the need to establish international bodies with global reach and sufficient executive power to intervene in conflicts between countries,8For some comments and writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on this issue, see, for example: Makatib-i-Hadrat ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, vol. 4 (Tehran: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 121 B. E.), 161; Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1978) 202:11 and 227:30; Paris Talks (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1967), 40:28; Promulgation of Universal Peace (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2012), 98:10 and 103:11. He  also impressed on His audiences the urgent need to focus on the moral causes of war and the spiritual requirements for the establishment of peace.

Far from arguing that war was simply the result of deficient international organization, He asserted that it was also rooted in erroneous conceptions of the human being, which led irremediably towards division and contention. He especially warned of the dangers of racism and nationalism, which define the individual according to material parameters—bodily appearance and community of birth, respectively—and prioritize human beings and entire societies according to these factors, thus generating inequality and injustice, and fostering hatred and alienation, among human groups. He also referred to religious hatred, which He described as contrary not only to the foundation of religions but also to divine will.

“All prejudices, whether of religion, race, politics or nation, must be renounced, for these prejudices have caused the world’s sickness,” He said in a talk in Paris in 1911. Prejudice, He asserted, is “a grave malady which, unless arrested, is capable of causing the destruction of the whole human race. Every ruinous war, with its terrible bloodshed and misery, has been caused by one or other of these prejudices.”9‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 45:1. Ibid., p. 159.

“Man has laid the foundation of prejudice, hatred and discord with his fellowman,” He explained in 1912 in a speech at a Brooklyn church, “by considering nationalities separate in importance and races different in rights and privileges.”10‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 82:11.

“As long as these prejudices prevail, the world of humanity will not have rest,” He wrote years later.11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 227:10. This is part of one of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s communications to the Central Organization for a Durable Peace, in The Hague.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá rejected the premises on which each of these models of thought were based. He denied, for example, the objective existence of races, stating instead that “humanity is one kind, one race and progeny, inhabiting the same globe.”12‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “Address to the International Peace Forum, New York, 12 May 1912,” Promulgation of Universal Peace, 47:6. He also denied that nations are natural realities, referring to national divisions as “imaginary lines and boundaries.”13‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 98:6. He denied any essential differences between religions, since they all have a common origin, share the same spiritual foundations, and are essentially one and the same. Furthermore, He affirmed that religious differences are due to “dogmatic interpretation and blind imitations which are at variance with the foundations established by the Prophets of God,”14‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 110:15. stressed that these aspects of religion must disappear, and even went so far as to declare that “if religion be the cause of enmity surely the lack of religion is better than its presence.”15“Abdul Baha Gives His Impressions of New York”, The Sun (New York), 7 July 1912, 8.

He spoke at a time when the ideologies characteristic of a culture of inequality (racism, nationalism, sexism, and so on) were on the rise, gradually pushing humanity into what would be the bloodiest and most catastrophic century of its history. Racism, for example, was endorsed by a significant portion of the scientific community of the time and was firmly established in large parts of the world in the form of discriminatory and segregationist laws. It was even undergoing a major transformation equipped by new “scientific” techniques—such as craniometry, phrenology, and physiognomy—that inspired new and abhorrent “social reform” initiatives, such as eugenics and racial hygiene. Nationalism, for the first time in history, had instilled in the majority of humanity the vision of a globe divided into parcels of land defined by races, cultures, and languages. It drove imperialist and colonialist policies, while colonialism, in turn, exported nationalism, imposing previously nonexistent categories and definitions on citizens and territories worldwide. At the same time, longstanding religious conflicts were still very much present, reviving old grievances and warlike moods—as exemplified by the chronic problems in the Balkans, which were in full swing when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited the West.

Even individuals and organizations with noble goals held such doctrines of inequality. Many pacifists, for example, saw war not so much as a moral problem, but as a biological one. Influenced by racism and social Darwinism, they based their criticism of war on the argument that “fit” men were sent to the battlefield, where they died, while “unfit” men stayed behind and reproduced. The consequence of such a phenomenon, they believed, was “racial weakening.”

“Only the man who survives is followed by his kind,” wrote the aforementioned David Starr Jordan. “The man who is left determines the future. From him springs the ‘human harvest’ …”16David Starr Jordan, War’s Aftermath (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914), xv.

Along the same lines, Norman Angell also criticized colonial expansion in biological terms, arguing that domination and contact between civilizations prolonged the life of “weak races.”

“When we ‘overcome’ the servile races,” Angell reasoned in his internationally best-selling book, “far from eliminating them, we give them added chances of life by introducing order, etc., so that the lower human quality tends to be perpetuated by conquest by the higher. If ever it happens that the Asiatic races challenge the white in the industrial or military field, it will be in large part thanks to the work of race conservation, which has been the result of England’s conquest …”17Norman Angell, The great illusion (London: William Heinemann, 1910), 189. In 1933 Angell would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Benjamin Trueblood, secretary of the American Peace Society, who met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Washington, D.C., raised the possibility of a future world federation as a consequence of a “great racial federation” in the Anglo-Saxon world.18Benjamin Trueblood, The Federation of the World (Boston: The Riverside Press, 1899), 132. This idea was similar to that put forward by Andrew Carnegie.

In this context, we can understand—with the perspective provided by the passage of more than a century since His travels—that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s warnings about the causes of war could not be understood by societies immersed in paradigms of thought totally different from the ones He presented.

And just as the meanings and diagnoses of the causes of war differed between those provided by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the dominant discourses of the time, so did proposals for the establishment of peace. As explained, the international community had placed its hope in legislation and international institutions as mechanisms for ensuring peace; some pacifists sincerely believed that such changes also required the racial hegemony of certain peoples. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, however, emphasized a completely different concept: peacemaking would only be possible when humanity reached the understanding that it is one and acted in accordance with this principle. He brought this idea forward in a great number of His talks. For instance, in Minneapolis, He stated that human beings “must admit and acknowledge the oneness of the world of humanity. By this means the attainment of true fellowship among mankind is assured, and the alienation of races and individuals is prevented … In proportion to the acknowledgment of the oneness and solidarity of mankind, fellowship is possible, misunderstandings will be removed and reality become apparent.”19‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 105:6.

By making such a statement, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá presented His listeners with a radical challenge. The recognition of the oneness of the human race implies, on one hand, the acceptance that there is a primordial identity common to all human beings, which goes beyond any physical or accidental diversity between individuals. It also implies the abandonment of any vision of the human being—foundational to beliefs such as racism, sexism, unbridled nationalism, and religious exclusivism—that justifies human inequality. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s approach, therefore, clashed head-on with the discourses of the time and the materialistic premises that underpinned them.

The Great War

Although ‘Abdu’l-Bahá praised on numerous occasions progress that humanity was experiencing, for example in economics, politics, science, and industry, He also warned that material progress alone would not be capable of bringing true prosperity without a commensurate spiritual advancement.

“Material civilization concerns the world of matter or bodies,” He explained during His visit to Sacramento, “but divine civilization is the realm of ethics and moralities. Until the moral degree of the nations is advanced and human virtues attain a lofty level, happiness for mankind is impossible.”20‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 113:15.

From this perspective, the ideologies of inequality that permeated all areas of human endeavor were totally incapable of promoting lasting peace, including in movements that promoted pacifism, internationalism, and diplomacy.

“The Most Great Peace cannot be assured through racial force and effort,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained in an address in Pittsburgh:

It cannot be established by patriotic devotion and sacrifice; for nations differ widely and local patriotism has limitations. Furthermore, it is evident that political power and diplomatic ability are not conducive to universal agreement, for the interests of governments are varied and selfish; nor will international harmony and reconciliation be an outcome of human opinions concentrated upon it, for opinions are faulty and intrinsically diverse. Universal peace is an impossibility through human and material agencies; it must be through spiritual power …

For example, consider the material progress of man in the last decade. Schools and colleges, hospitals, philanthropic institutions, scientific academies and temples of philosophy have been founded, but hand in hand with these evidences of development, the invention and production of means and weapons for human destruction have correspondingly increased …

If the moral precepts and foundations of divine civilization become united with the material advancement of man, there is no doubt that the happiness of the human world will be attained and that from every direction the glad tidings of peace upon earth will be announced.21‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 44:13–15.

Based on this premise, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá challenged a falsely optimistic vision of the world, noting that, if the moral and spiritual dimensions of social reality were also assessed, it would become apparent that the world was experiencing a moment of great decadence. “If the world should remain as it is today,” He said in Chicago in 1912, “great danger will face it.”22‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 104:1.

“Observe how darkness has overspread the world,” he explained in Denver:

In every corner of the earth there is strife, discord and warfare of some kind. Mankind is submerged in the sea of materialism and occupied with the affairs of this world. They have no thought beyond earthly possessions and manifest no desire save the passions of this fleeting, mortal existence. Their utmost purpose is the attainment of material livelihood, physical comforts and worldly enjoyments such as constitute the happiness of the animal world rather than the world of man.23‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 107:4.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá warned of the acute risk of an impending international conflict on no less than seventeen occasions. “Europe itself,” He said in Paris in 1911, “has become like one immense arsenal, full of explosives, and may God prevent its ignition—for, should this happen, the whole world would be involved.”24“Apostle of Peace Here Predicts an Appalling War in the Old World,” The Montreal Daily Star, 31 August 1912, 1. [The following includes numerous incomplete citations—most need page or publisher data] For other comments about the possibility of a war, see Promulgation of Universal Peace, 3:7, 103:11, 108:1, 114:2; ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on Divine Philosophy (Boston: The Tudor Press, 1918), 95. “The Awakening of Older Nations,” The Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), 7 May 1911; “Turks Prisoner for 40 Years,” The Daily Chronicle (London), Western Edition, 17 January 1913, 1; “Abdul Baha’s Word to Canada,” Toronto Weekly Star, 11 September 1912; Montreal Daily Star, 11 September 1912, 2; “Abdul Baha’s Word to Canada,” Montreal Daily Star, 11 September 1912, 12; “Persian Peace Apostle Predicts War in Europe,” Buffalo Courier, 11 September 1912, 7; “Message of Love Conveyed by Baha,” Buffalo Enquirer, 11 September 1912, 5; “Urges America to Spread Peace,” Buffalo Commercial, 11 September 1912, 14; “Abdul Baha an Optimist,” Buffalo Express, 11 September 1912, 1; “Bahian Prophet Returns After a Trip to Coast,” Denver Post, 29 October 1912, 7.

Despite this and other explicit warnings, His audiences remained for the most part unmoved. Confidence in material well-being weighed more heavily on public opinion than His diagnosis of the moral state of the world.25‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 34:5.

He reiterated his warnings in the years between the end of World War I and His passing in 1921. In His correspondence, He explained that a second world conflagration was imminent, despite the terror caused by the first world war and the enormous progress that had been made in international governance with the establishment of the League of Nations.

“Although the representatives of various governments are assembled in Paris in order to lay the foundations of Universal Peace and thus bestow rest and comfort upon the world of humanity,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote in 1919, “yet misunderstanding among some individuals is still predominant and self-interest still prevails. In such an atmosphere, Universal Peace will not be practicable, nay rather, fresh difficulties will arise.”26‘Abdu’l-Bahá, tablet to David Buchanan of Portland, Oregon, Star of the West, 28 April 1919, 42.

“For in the future another war, fiercer than the last, will assuredly break out,” He wrote in 1920. “Verily, of this there is no doubt whatever.”27Letter to Ahmad Yazdaní, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 228:2.

In another letter sent the same year, He was even more explicit. After presenting—as He had done in His addresses in the West—some of the spiritual requirements for the establishment of peace, He closed by enumerating some of the elements that would eventually lead humanity to World War II just nineteen years later:

The Balkans will remain discontented. Its restlessness will increase. The vanquished Powers will continue to agitate. They will resort to every measure that may rekindle the flame of war. Movements, newly born and worldwide in their range, will exert their utmost effort for the advancement of their designs. The Movement of the Left will acquire great importance. Its influence will spread.28Letter sent through Martha Root, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 202:14.

The Birth of a New Society

No reader of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá should be tempted to think that, in His exposition of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, He moved only within the theoretical realm. On the contrary, while His efforts to spread Bahá’u’lláh’s message were enormous, His endeavors to bring those teachings into the realm of action were colossal. In a conversation in London, for example, referring to one of the many congresses held at the time, bringing together philanthropists eager to improve the world, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stressed, “To know that it is possible to reach a state of perfection, is good; to march forward on the path is better. We know that to help the poor and to be merciful is good and pleases God, but knowledge alone does not feed the starving man …”29‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982)60.

Throughout His ministry, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá directed the Bahá’í community to make itself a model of the future society foretold by Bahá’u’lláh—one through which humanity might witness the transformations that accompany the application of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings to social and interpersonal relations.

In several of His talks, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described the Bahá’ís of Persia (now Iran) as one such example. They lived in an environment in which religious segregation was a social reality. Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and other religious minorities lived in isolation from their Muslim neighbors and also separated from each other. Being considered impure beings (najis), the minority groups were subject to strict rules that regulated not only their relations with Muslims, but also the jobs they performed and even the clothes they wore. In this environment, bringing people from different religious backgrounds together in the same room was not just taboo, but unthinkable. Despite this, the Bahá’í community in Persia managed to become—first under the guidance of Bahá’u’lláh and then of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—a cohesive group comprising people from all religious backgrounds. Having in common their faith in the transformative capacity of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, they were able to set aside prejudices inherited from the surrounding society and their ancestors and work together to improve conditions for their fellow citizens. It was not long before Persian Bahá’ís—men and women alike—learned to make decisions collectively and to implement them without regard for different backgrounds or genders.

Such a change not only resulted in the unprecedented growth of the Bahá’í community, but also in the proliferation of numerous social and charitable projects throughout the country. For example, during the ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Persian Bahá’ís managed to establish no less than twenty-five schools, including some of the country’s first schools for girls. Beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, Bahá’ís in Persia also established health centers in several cities, including the Sahhat Hospital in Tehran, which followed the instructions of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to include in its mission statement that it would provide “service to mankind, regardless of race, religion and nationality,” a revolutionary statement at that time and place.30Seena B. Fazel and Minou Foadi. “Baha’i health initiatives in Iran: a preliminary survey,” The Baha’is of Iran, eds. Dominic P. Brookshaw and Seena B. Fazel (New York: Routledge, 2008), 128.

While this was happening in the East, American Bahá’ís were working under the leadership of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to racially integrate their community.

“Strive with heart and soul in order to bring about union and harmony among the white and the black and prove thereby the unity of the Bahá’í world wherein distinction of color findeth no place, but where hearts only are considered,” He wrote in one of His letters to them. “Variations of color, of land and of race are of no importance in the Bahá’í Faith; on the contrary, Bahá’í unity overcometh them all and doeth away with all these fancies and imaginations.”31Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 75.

He also exhorted them to “endeavor that the black and the white may gather in one meeting place, and with the utmost love, fraternally associate with each other.”32Bonnie J. Taylor and National Race Unity Conference, eds., The Power of Unity (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1986), 30.

“If it be possible,” He wrote on another occasion, “gather together these two races—black and white—into one Assembly, and create such a love in the hearts that they shall not only unite, but blend into one reality. Know thou of a certainty that as a result differences and disputes between black and white will be totally abolished.”33The Power of Unity, 28.

The process by which the Bahá’í community in the United States became a model of racial integration was accelerated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to North America—through His personal example, His participation in integrated meetings, His encouragement to Bahá’ís who held them, and His constant instructions in all the cities He visited on the issue of race.

After the war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá commissioned Agnes Parsons, a Bahá’í  and member of high society in Washington, D.C., to organize the first Race Amity Conference, which took place in May 1921. The event, promoting racial unity and harmony, triggered a national movement that replicated the Conference in different parts of the United States in the following years, involving not only the American Bahá’í community, but also many other organizations and societal leaders. The result of these efforts was the transformation of the Bahá’í community into a group actively engaged in banishing the racial prejudices so present in its surrounding society.

Agnes Parsons

In His efforts to demonstrate, through the global Bahá’í community, empirical proof that unity and freedom from prejudice leads to peace, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also promoted collaborative ties between the Bahá’ís of the West and the East. Beginning in the early twentieth century, He encouraged Persian Bahá’ís to travel to Europe and North America, and Western Bahá’ís to visit Persia or India. He promoted communications between Bahá’í communities. For example, the Star of the West, the journal of the Bahá’ís of the United States, included a section in Persian and was regularly sent to Persia. As development projects in Persia grew and became more complex, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá encouraged Western Bahá’ís to support them and extend assistance. As a result, in 1909, Susan Moody, M.D., moved to the country to work at the Sahhat hospital in Tehran. Moody was followed by other Bahá’ís, including teacher and school administrator Lilian Kappes, nurse Elizabeth Stewart, and fellow doctor Sarah Clock. In 1910, the Orient-Occident Unity was founded with the aim of establishing collaboration in different fields between the people of Persia and the United States.34This name was adopted in 1912. Its earliest name was the Persian-American Educational Society. The work of this organization involved not only many Bahá’ís, but other prominent organizations and individuals.

Susan Moody
From left to right: Lillian Kappers, Muhibbih Sultan, his wife Muchul Khanum, Dr Susan Moody, Dr. Sarah Clock, and Elizabeth Stewart, 1911 in Tehran.

All these transformations provided glimpses of the social implications of the principles promulgated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and presented examples of the effects generated by applying in the field of action the principle of world unity and the conception of the human being enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh.

Addressing the immediate needs

On 24 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austrian-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo. A few weeks later, the European powers were at war, and the disaster predicted by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá only a few years earlier became a reality.

The Ottoman regions of Syria and Palestine did not escape the dire consequences of the conflagration. The area was hit by famine caused by pillaging Ottoman troops as they crossed the territory to reach Egypt, where they were defending the strategic Suez channel. In the Haifa area, circumstances were particularly complicated. The local population held diverging alliances. The Arabs were divided between those sympathizing with the French and those supporting the Ottoman Empire, while the members of the large German colony supported their own country. These divisions caused tension and sometimes produced violence. The city was also the target of bombings from the sea. Thus, within a few weeks, Haifa and its surroundings experienced a rapid transition from a relative state of peace to severe insecurity associated with a humanitarian crisis. The conflict caused acute needs that required urgent attention.

Before the war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had taken steps that would allow Him to ameliorate these conditions. His most visible contribution was to provide food for the people of Haifa and its vicinity. At the beginning of the twentieth century, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had established various agricultural communities around the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan Valley, with the most important one in ‘Adasiyyih, in present-day Jordan. During the hardest years of the war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent shipments of foodstuffs from this location to Haifa, using some two hundred camels for just one trip, which gives an idea of the scale of the aid.35For more information on this, see Iraj Poostchi, “Adasiyyah: A Study in Agriculture and Rural Development,” Bahá’í Studies Review 16 (2010), 61–105. To distribute the food within the population, He organized a sophisticated rationing system using vouchers and receipts to ensure that the food reached all those in need while preventing abuse.

“He was ever ready to help the distressed and the needy,” a witness was quoted as saying in 1919 in London’s Christian Commonwealth:

… often He would deprive himself and his own family of the necessities of life, that the hungry might be fed and the naked be clothed. … For three years he spent months in Tiberias and Adassayah, supervising extensive works of agriculture, and procuring wheat, corn and other food stuffs for our maintenance, and to distribute among the starving Mohamedan and Christian families. Were it not for his pre-vision and ceaseless activity none of us would have survived. For two years all the harvests were eaten by armies of locusts. At times like dark clouds they covered the sky for hours. This, coupled with the unprecedented extortions and looting of the Turkish officials and the extensive buying of foodstuffs by the Germans to be shipped to the “Fatherland” in a time of scarcity, brought famine. In Lebanon alone more than 100.000 people died from starvation.36“News of Abdul Baha,” Christian Commonwealth (London), 22 January 1919, 196. Text in Amín Egea, The Apostle of Peace, vol. 2 (Oxford: George Ronald, 2018), 427–428.

“Abdul Baha is a great consolation and help to all these poor, frightened, helpless people,” another report read.37“Bahai News,” Christian Commonwealth (London), 3 March 1915, 283. Text in The Apostle of Peace, vol. 2, 410.

A few years later—just after the war—a British army officer described ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s role in reuniting the divided peoples of Haifa, saying, “Many are looking to him to solve the problems arising between Moslem and Christian sects.”38W. Tudor Pole, quoted in “Palestine of Tomorrow,” Christian Commonwealth (London), 24 September 1919, 614. Text in The Apostle of Peace, vol. 2, 426.

Reading Reality in Times of Crisis

The three levels of action taken by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on the issue of war—participation in the discourses of His time, building a community based on spiritual principles, and paying attention to the immediate needs arising from the outbreak of war—offer us an opportunity to reflect, nearly one hundred years after His passing, on the appropriateness of the models of thought that currently influence global decision-making.

Today, as then, the world is beset by a large number of threats. The progressive environmental decline, the deficient global economic system—which allows for the existence of extremes of wealth and poverty and, at the same time, periodically causes major economic crises—the prevalence of war in a multitude of forms and its constant threat in a context of unprecedented technological development, the rapid spread and assimilation of hate mongering of all kinds and of all orientations, and the rise of an unfettered nationalism with an associated drive against human diversity and resistance to the processes of global convergence, are just some of the challenges facing humanity. In addition to these, which have been created by human beings themselves, there are others of an unexpected and natural character which, like the current global pandemic, highlight the fragility of a human ecosystem that has been greatly weakened by internal divisions and inequalities.

If the response to these crises—some of them unprecedented—is to be based on contradictions similar to those of the internationalists or pacifists of the years before the Great War, we can anticipate that any remedy applied will be dramatically limited in its influence. Can, for instance, a humanity that still clings to a nationalistic world view provide an adequate response to global problems? Is it possible for societies that perceive consumerism and the accumulation of goods as a path to true happiness to find solutions to crises such as global warming?

If we heed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s advice, the diagnosis of these and future crises should not depend solely on an analysis of the material circumstances that converge in each of them, but should also address the ultimate, moral causes of these phenomena. Some of these include the pursuit of self-interest, submission to materialism, the perception that struggle and strife are legitimate means of resolving conflicts, the persistence of prejudices that deny human equality, and the distortion of the purpose of religion. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá consistently stated in His talks and writings, the solutions to the problems that afflict the human race depend not only on a change in the material conditions of humanity but also on a transformation in our understanding of what it means to be human, of our existential purpose, and of the moral framework upon which we base our actions.

By Kathryn Jewett Hogenson

Historian and lawyer Kathryn Jewett-Hogenson is the author of Lighting the Western Sky: The Hearst Pilgrimage and the Establishment of the Baha’i Faith in the West and is now writing a biography of Hand of the Cause of God Horace Holley.

In the late summer of 1911 in the United States, Albert Smiley found a letter sent from Egypt among the items in his mail. Dated August 9, it was from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, head of a religion which Smiley had only briefly encountered the year before.1Two Bahá’ís had attended the 1911 Lake Mohonk Conference and another Bahá’í met Albert Smiley at a different conference in 1911, which may in part explain how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was aware of the annual Lake Mohonk Conferences. Egea, Amin, The Apostle of Peace: A Survey of References to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Western Press 1871-1921, Volume One: 1871 – 1912, p. 635, note 12. The letter addressed Smiley as the founder and host of the Lake Mohonk Conferences on International Arbitration and praised those gatherings and their goal of establishing arbitration as the means to settle disputes between nations. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stated emphatically, “What cause is greater than this!” Explaining how His Father, Bahá’u’lláh, had advocated the unity of the nations and religions, He asserted that the basis of this unity was the oneness of humanity.2“Tablets from Abdul-Baha,” Star of the West, Vol. II, No. 15, December 12, 1911, pp. 3-4. To ensure that His message to the sponsors was received and considered, a second letter was sent on August 22 to the Conference secretary, Mr. C. C. Philips. It began, “The Conference on International Arbitration and Peace is the greatest results [sic] of this great age.”3“Tablets from Abdul-Baha,” Star of the West, Vol. II, No. 15, December 12, 1911, p. 4. In response, the organizers invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to take part in the 1912 Conference and to address one of its sessions.4Egea, Amin, The Apostle of Peace: A Survey of References to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Western Press 1871-1921, Volume One: 1871 – 1912, p. 302

Even though other groups in the United States and Europe were holding meetings to promote peace, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá singled out the Lake Mohonk Conferences; for this reason, these exceptional gatherings are worthy of close examination. At them, Albert Smiley and his identical twin brother, Alfred, created an atmosphere that not only illuminated the issue under discussion but resulted in practical action.

The devoutly religious, idealistic Smiley brothers were lifelong members of the Society of Friends, the Christian Protestant denomination better known as Quakers. In their youth, they worked as educators. Then, in 1869, they pursued a different direction by purchasing a dilapidated hunting lodge on the shore of Lake Mohonk in the Catskill Mountains, half a day’s travel by train from New York City, and they successfully developed it into a fashionable resort.

Albert gained a reputation for civic-mindedness and, out of a desire to ameliorate the ills of society, developed a keen interest in social movements. Consequently, Rutherford Hayes, then President of the United States, appointed him to the federal Board of Indian Commissioners. In the course of this service, Smiley recognized an urgent need to create a space where issues regarding America’s indigenous peoples could be explored, and solutions proposed and acted upon. To that end, in 1883, he invited his fellow commissioners and others working on behalf of indigenous populations to his resort for a conference, which proved useful enough to be held annually until 1916. The consultation which occurred during those sessions influenced the course of government policy. Pleased with the success of the Smiley efforts, President Hayes suggested that the brothers establish a similar conference focused on addressing injustices faced by Americans of African descent. The Smileys organized and hosted the first national conference on the situation of Black Americans in 1890, but the extraordinary challenge posed by the issue forced them, with great reluctance, to abandon the conference after just two years.5Larry E. Burgess, The Smileys: A Commemorative Edition, Moore Historical Foundation, Redlands, California, 1991, pp. 30-45.

Unlike many of their fellow Quakers, the Smileys were not strict pacifists; however, their religious upbringing had instilled in them an unshakeable reverence for life.6Larry E. Burgess, The Smileys: A Commemorative Edition, Moore Historical Foundation, Redlands, California, 1991, , p. 5. They were wholeheartedly committed to the cause of peace. Drawing upon what they had learned from experience, in 1895 they established the Conferences on Arbitration at Lake Mohonk. During that first gathering, a standing international court of arbitration was proposed and discussed at length. Among the participants was the man who would serve as head of the US delegation to the conference at the Hague a few years later when the Permanent Court of International Arbitration was established. The exploration of the ins and outs of such a court at Lake Mohonk informed the thinking of many of the participants, especially the American delegation.7Larry E. Burgess, The Smileys: A Commemorative Edition, Moore Historical Foundation, Redlands, California, 1991, pp. 62-63. This would be the first tangible fruit of the arbitration conferences.

Managing two annual conferences, Albert Smiley developed a set of working principles. First, the topic had to be one that could lead to action. One reason the conferences on indigenous populations were influential was that all policy regarding the indigenous peoples in the United States was set by one national government agency, so a handful of officials could implement the recommendations that were made. In contrast, most of the laws and policies that affected the situation of African Americans were set and executed by countless state and local level governments.8Larry E. Burgess, The Smileys: A Commemorative Edition, Moore Historical Foundation, Redlands, California, 1991, p. 40. The issue of international arbitration, while global in scope, shared more in common with the first example because a small number of highly placed politicians, officials, and diplomats determined policy. This meant that the number of people requiring educating and persuading was manageable.

Smiley’s second underlying principle was that religion had a major role to play in resolving social problems, including the promotion of world peace. Religious leaders were invited to take part in all the conferences. The meetings themselves had a religious overtone and the participants were expected to adhere to the Quaker moral code, which included an unwritten prohibition against drinking alcoholic beverages and playing cards.9Davis, Calvin C., “Albert Keith Smiley”, Harold Josephson, editor, Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1985, p. 889.

The Smileys also learned how to conduct consultation effectively. A variety of points of view were welcome and fostered, and Albert chose chairmen who would not use their role to promote their own viewpoints or agendas and would be even-handed. The Smileys ensured that no group or position dominated the discussion portions of the sessions. Discussion was to be conducted at the level of principle rather than based upon specific matters, especially those that were controversial, such as the Spanish American War. The Smileys did not allow speakers at the arbitration conference to give talks about the horrors of war, lest the consultation become less about solutions and more about sentiment. The conferences were, however, an opportunity to provide information about legislation, treaties, and other news related to the topic at hand.

Albert Smiley (1828-1912)

At the outset, idealistic leaders of social movements whose worldviews were not always practical filled the arbitration sessions, so the Smileys began to invite representatives of the business community. Nothing was worse for the average businessman than the economic disruption and uncertainty of a war. Women were always invited and fully participated, which was liberal for the time.

Finally, Albert Smiley recognized that the conference schedule must allow time for informal meetings and the networking that naturally occurs through socializing. The plenary sessions only lasted two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, with the rest of the day unscheduled except for meals. The expansive property, much of which was woodlands with hiking trails surrounding the lake, provided welcome opportunities both to meditate in nature and to discuss ideas privately.10For a lengthy discussion of how the conferences were conducted, see Burgess, pp. 61-67.

By the time ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to the organizers of the conferences, the gatherings had become influential. The groundwork necessary for the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, for instance, was established there, and the American Society of International Law was also created at the conference, in the 1905 session.11For a brief discussion of the fruits of the Lake Mohonk Arbitration Conferences see Burgess, p. 890.

Establishing the Court of Arbitration was only the beginning, for as that institution undertook its work, other issues arose: How could countries be encouraged or required to bring matters to the Court rather than resort to war?  How were the decisions of the Court to be upheld? Treaties became an obvious instrument and topic for discussion. Because the conferences were held annually with many of the same participants, different layers of the matter of arbitration were explored over their 21-year history.

When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed the conference as its opening speaker on the evening session on May 15, 1912, He was introduced by the conference chairman, Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, who would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Among the approximately 200 people in attendance were the future Prime Minister of Canada, W. MacKenzie King, ambassadors, jurists, journalists, academics, religious leaders, businessmen, trade unionists, and leaders of civic organizations, including peace activists. The speakers who followed Abdu’l-Bahá that evening came from Nicaragua, Argentina, Germany, and Canada—a sampling of the many countries represented.12Report of the Eighteenth Annual Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration, Published by the Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration, 1919, pp. 42 – 63.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was allotted twenty minutes for His talk, most of which was in the form of reading a previously submitted English translation. His address began with a discussion of Bahá’u’lláh’s emphasis on the oneness of humanity and His promise of the coming of the “Most Great Peace.” He explained to the audience that Bahá’u’lláh promulgated His Teachings during the nineteenth century when wars were raging throughout the world among religious sects, ethnic groups, and nations. His Father’s teachings, explained ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, inspired many people to put aside their prejudices and instead love and closely associate with their former enemies. The talk then turned to the importance of investigating reality and forsaking blind imitation; for, as He pointed out, once people see truth clearly, they will behold that the foundation of the world of being is one, not multiple. Following His discussion of the oneness of humankind, He explored the agreement of science and religion. Throughout the speech, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stressed that religion should bring about a bond uniting the peoples of the world, not be the cause of disunity; that all forms of prejudice must be abolished, including racial, religious, national, and political; and that women should be accorded equal status with men. He then briefly touched upon the problem of the disparities of wealth and poverty. Finally, He stated that philosophy is incapable of bringing about the absolute happiness of mankind: “You cannot make the susceptibilities of all humanity one except through the common channel of the Holy Spirit.”13Report of the Eighteenth Annual Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration, Published by the Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration, 1919, pp. 42 – 44.

The members of His entourage recorded that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talk was well-received and that many people approached Him afterward to thank Him and to speak with Him.14Mahmud’s Diary, p. 101.  Note that the chronicler, Mahmud, was confused about the dates. The full translation of His talk was included in the widely distributed report of the conference and much of the press coverage also mentioned it.15The conference published an annual report which was sent to all libraries across the United States with more than a 10,000 book collection (the average size of a small community or branch library). Burgess, p. 65. One of the promoters of the conferences was the wealthy industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, who establishing public libraries across the United States as well as for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. (There are indications that Carnegie was present when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke at Lake Mohonk, but that is unconfirmed.) For a thorough accounting of the press coverage of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s participation in the 1912 conference, see Egea, pp. 306. Press accounts of His arrival in the United States also frequently made mention of His intention to participate in the Lake Mohonk Conference. Ibid, pp. 197, 198, 201, 203, 217, 286, 298, 299.

Earlier that day, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had taken advantage of the unscheduled afternoon to give at least one informal talk and to speak with a number of the conference participants. He did not stay for the entire event but returned to New York the following morning after spending His last hours at the resort visiting with Albert Smiley.16Mahmud’s Diary, pp. 102 – 103.

The 1912 conference was the last one attended by the far-sighted Albert Smiley. Alfred had already passed away and Albert followed his twin in December of that year. Their brother, Daniel, whose attention to detail in planning the conferences was part of their success,17Larry E. Burgess, The Smileys: A Commemorative Edition, Moore Historical Foundation, Redlands, California, 1991, p. continued to host the conferences until circumstances forced him to discontinue them when the United States entered WWI in 1917. Years later, Dr. Butler, reviewing his own participation in the conferences between 1907 and 1912, reflected, “it is extraordinary how much vision was there made evident.” However, he concluded, “it is more than pathetic that that vision is still waiting for fulfilment.”18Butler, Nicholas Murray, Across the Busy Years: Recollections and Reflections II, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1940, p. 90.

All the efforts of peace organizations and gatherings such as the Lake Mohonk Conferences culminated in the creation of the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. However, although President Woodrow Wilson was given credit for conceiving the League, the US Congress refused to ratify the treaty that would make the United States a member. Thus, despite hopeful expectations, the League was born handicapped and, after a few initial achievements, proved to be ineffective at preventing wars. It was, nevertheless, a beginning.

Following the Great War, the United States returned to its default foreign policy position of isolationism; namely, the conviction that the country should stay out of the conflicts afflicting other parts of the world. It was as if all the work done before the war to promote world peace through internationalism had been undone. This situation was exacerbated by the 1919 “Red Scare,” during which anarchists and communists were accused of instigating several violent incidents. Moreover, in the 1920s, deep-seated prejudices took firmer hold of US public policy. Congress passed restrictive immigration legislation in 1924 to keep out Jews and Catholics. It became all but impossible for Africans to legally immigrate, and Chinese immigration was banned by law.

Meanwhile, in 1919, white people attacked and set fire to black neighborhoods in Chicago and, in 1921, attacked and even bombed from the air a prosperous black district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, leaving untold black citizens dead and the lives of the survivors ruined. The white supremacist, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic organization, the Ku Klux Klan, experienced a resurgence, demonstrating its strength with a large parade through Washington, D.C. in 1926, its members’ distinctive white-hooded uniforms blending with the backdrop of the gleaming white marble of the U.S. Capitol building.

On the international front, fascism and communism arose quickly from the still-smoldering ashes of Europe. The armistice of 1918 would prove to be only an intermission before war erupted again in the 1930s. In the Far East, Japan’s armies were on the move, beginning with the 1931 invasion of the Manchurian region of China. In country after country, rearmament accelerated. If ever the peoples of the world needed to grasp Bahá’u’lláh’s message that humankind is one, it was during the period between the World Wars.

World peace remained the primary focus of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talks when He visited California a few months after His appearance at the Lake Mohonk Conference. In a talk given at the Hotel Sacramento on 26 October 1912, He said that “the greatest need in the world today is international peace,” and after discussing why California was well-suited to lead the efforts for the promotion of peace, He exhorted attendees: “May the first flag of international peace be upraised in this state.”

Leroy C. Ioas (1896-1965)

One of those inspired by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s vision of California as a leader in the promotion of world peace was Leroy Ioas, a twenty-six-year-old resident of San Francisco and rising railway executive.  He remembered how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had met with many prominent people during His ten months in the United States and, drawing upon His example, some years later Ioas became determined that Bahá’í principles should be widely promulgated among community leaders, especially those in positions to put them into effect or to influence the thinking of the citizenry. In 1922, Ioas wrote to Agnes Parsons in Washington, DC, to solicit her opinion and guidance about the prospect of a unity conference in his city. The previous year, at the express request of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, she had organized a successful, well-attended Race Amity Conference in her own racially polarized region of the South. Ioas noted in his letter that the challenge on the West Coast was not simply prejudice towards black people, for their numbers were few, but strong animosity towards the more numerous Chinese and Japanese citizens. Parsons responded with encouragement and suggestions. Armed with this guidance, Ioas approached two of the pillars of the Bay Area Bahá’í community—Ella Goodall Cooper and Kathryn Frankland—to gain their support for a conference. With this groundwork laid, he proposed a unity conference to the governing council for the San Francisco Bahá’í community, which decided it was not timely.

Ella Goodall Cooper (1870-1951)

Undeterred, Ioas approached Rabbi Rudolph Coffee, head of the largest synagogue in the Bay Area and the first Jewish person to serve as chaplain of the California State Senate.  Coffee shared many of the Bahá’í ideals and became an enthusiastic ally. Ioas again turned to the Bahá’í council, and this time it supported his plan to form a committee that included Cooper and Frankland as members.

Rabbi Rudolph Coffee (1878-1955)

The committee’s first order of business was to draft a statement of purpose. It said that the goals of the conference were “to present the public … the spiritual facts concerning the beauty and harmony of the human family, the great unity in the diversity of human blessings, and the harmonizing of all elements of the body politic as the Pathway to Universal Peace.” The group also decided that the expenses of the three-day conference set for March 1925 would be covered by the Bahá’í community so that participants would not be asked to contribute money—but, despite the Bahá’í underwriting of the event, the program would not have any official denominational sponsorship. The committee booked the prestigious Palace Hotel, the city’s first premier luxury hotel, as the venue for the event.

Cooper, listed on the San Francisco Social Registry,191932 San Francisco Social Registry, https://www.sfgenealogy.org/sf/1932b/sr32maid.htm. The social registry is a directory of socially-connected members of high society. had access to the leading citizens of the area. As experienced event organizers, Cooper and Frankland set to work soliciting leading city residents to serve as “patrons”. The greatest coup was enlisting Dr. David Starr Jordan, founding president of Stanford University, to serve as the honorary chairman of the conference. Jordan had met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and was known in peace movement circles for having developed his own peace plan. Other note-worthy speakers accepted, and the first World Unity Conference was born. The committee even hired a public relations firm to advertise the event and assist with arrangements.

Over the course of the evenings of March 21, 22, and 23, speakers addressed, before large audiences, the issues of the status of women and of the black, Chinese, and Japanese communities, as well as topics related to world peace. The roster of accomplished presenters included not only Rabbi Coffee and Dr. Jordan but also the senior priest of the Catholic Cathedral, a professor of religion, a Protestant minister of a large African-American congregation, distinguished academics, and a foreign diplomat. The last one to address the conference was the Persian Bahá’í scholar, Mírzá Asadu’llah Fádil Mázandarání, the only Bahá’í on the program.

Measured by attendance and favorable publicity, the conference was an unqualified triumph. But as the last session drew to a close, the inevitable question was put to Ioas by Rabbi Coffee: What next? Hold such a conference annually? The planners did not have an answer. Just like the Smileys, Rabbi Coffee realized that the conference should lead to action. Undertaking one conference had stretched the financial and human resources of the San Francisco Bahá’í community. It had also provided a glimpse of what they could achieve. The ideas presented were, however, scattered to the wind with only the hope that some hearts and minds had been changed.20Chapman, Anita Ioas, Leroy Ioas: Hand of the Cause of God, pp. 45-49.

Ioas provided the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada—the governing council for the Bahá’í communities of the two countries—with a report, and he suggested that similar World Unity Conferences be held in other communities. The National Assembly enthusiastically agreed and established a three-person committee, including two of its officers, to assist other localities in their efforts to hold conferences. The committee members were Horace Holley, Florence Reed Morton, and Mary Rumsey Movius.21Bahá’í News Letter: The Bulletin of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, no. 12, June-July 1926, pp. 6-7. Human resources and all funds were to come from the sponsoring communities, but the national committee would help to promote the conferences and offer other assistance, including speakers.

During 1926 and into 1927, eighteen communities held World Unity Conferences. These included Worcester, Massachusetts; New York, New York; Montreal, Canada; Cleveland, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Hartford, Connecticut; New Haven, Connecticut; Chicago, Illinois; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and Buffalo, New York. They followed the format of the San Francisco conference with three consecutive nights of programs featuring a diversity of speakers—the majority of whom were not Bahá’ís—on topics that were encompassed within Bahá’í principles. Among the presenters were clergy, academics, politicians, including the first woman to serve in the Canadian Parliament,22This was Agnes Macphail, who spoke at the Montreal Conference which was chaired by William Sutherland Maxwell. Nakhjavani, Violette, The Maxwells of Montreal : Middle Years 1923-1937, Late Years 1937-1952, George Ronald, Oxford, p. 74.22 and writers. Some conferences were held in church buildings, others on university campuses, and a few in hotels.

As in San Francisco, the World Unity Conferences provided valuable experience that enhanced the capacities of the hosting Bahá’í communities. They supplied a means for those fledgling communities to obtain positive local publicity and brought the nascent Faith to the attention of civic leaders as a new and growing force for good. Although the conferences were on the whole successful, as in San Francisco, they stretched to the limit local human and material resources. Shoghi Effendi urged the American community to follow-up with the conference attendees who showed the greatest interest,23Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922 – 1932, p. 117.
but this guidance was not implemented systematically.

As the series of conferences drew to an end and attention turned to other matters, a growing sense of urgency motivated the three committee members because they took to heart ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s warning that another war greater than the last one was coming; they hoped that bringing the Bahá’í message to the attention of important people might prevent it.24Horace Holley fled Paris, France with his wife and young child at the beginning of WWI in September 1914 and so keenly understood the significance of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s prediction that another war was coming in His second Tablet to the Hague, written after the Great War. Letter from Horace Holley to Albert Vail, October 21, 1925, Vail papers, U.S. Bahá’í National Archives. Mary Movius, in discussing Dr. Randall’s upcoming role as primary spokesman for the World Unity Foundation with him, mentions her concern about where the coming war will start. Letter from Mary Movius to John Randall, June 11, [1927?], U.S. Bahá’í National Archives. They devised a plan to establish a World Unity Foundation that would both sponsor ongoing conferences and provide speakers to other events. In addition, they decided to create a proper organization—a movement—with local councils and a journal titled World Unity. The National Spiritual Assembly approved of the proposal but decided that it should be an individual initiative rather than an official activity of the Faith. The Assembly also encouraged the Bahá’í community to be supportive of the Foundation.25Bahá’í News Letter: The Bulletin of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, no. 20, November 1927, p. 5.

Each of the three members26Montfort Mills, a lawyer from New York City and former chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly was also part of this consultation, but at the time he was engaged in frequent travels abroad on behalf of the work of the Faith. As much as possible, Mills served as an advisor to and promoter of the World Unity Foundation. made important contributions to the new endeavor.

Florence Morton (1875-1953)

Morton, a prosperous businesswoman who owned a factory, provided most of the funding and served as treasurer. Holley, with a professional background in writing, publishing, and advertising, assumed the management of the journal. Movius, a writer and another source of funds, became president of the board of directors. They hired Dr. John Herman Randall, an ordained Baptist minister and associate pastor of a non-denominational, liberal church—The Community Church in New York City—to be the Foundation’s public face as director and editor.27Randall was one of the two Christian clergymen from New York City who played active roles in the Bahá’í community during the 1920s and 1930s. Shoghi Effendi said, “I am delighted to learn of the evidences of growing interest, of sympathetic understanding, and brotherly cooperation on the part of two capable and steadfast servants of the One True God, Dr. [John] H. Randall and Dr. [William Norman] Guthrie, whose participation in our work I hope and pray will widen the scope of our activities, enrich our opportunities, and lend a fresh impetus to our endeavors.” Bahá’í Administration, p. 82. For a brief summary of Randall’s life see, Day, Anne L., “Randall, John Herman”, Kuehl, Warren F., editor, Biographical Dictionary of Internationalists, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1983, pp. 595 – 97. See also, “John Herman Randall Sr.: Pioneer liberal, philosopher, pacifist” by one of his grandsons [David Randall?] at http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~knower/genealogy/johnhermansrcareer.htm. Randall was a gifted, widely sought-after orator and author who was keenly interested in and sympathetic towards the Bahá’í Faith, even though he was not a professed adherent. Randall had spoken at several of the World Unity Conferences and shared the ideals underlying them. The four individuals then established a non-profit corporation, the World Unity Foundation, with Randall as director and journal editor.28The Board of Trustees of the World Unity Foundation included the following Bahá’ís: Horace H. Holley, Montfort Mills, Florence Reed Morton, and Mary Rumsey Movius. The other members were: Reverend John Herman Randall (non-denominational Protestant), Reverend Alfred W. Martin (Unitarian), and Melbert B. Cary (friend of Dr. Randall). The Honorary Committee for the Foundation were: S. Parkes Cadman, Carrie Chapman Catt, Rudolph I. Coffee, John Dewey, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Herbert Adams Gibbons, Mordecai W. Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Rufus M. Jones, David Starr Jordan, Harry Levi, Louis L. Mann, Pierrepont B. Noyes, Harry Allen Overstreet, William R. Shepherd, Augustus O. Thomas. Bahá’í News Letter: The Bulletin of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, no.22, March 1928, p. 8.

John Hermann Randall (1899-1980)

The original plan was that Dr. Randall, working full time for the Foundation, would ensure that World Unity Conferences were held all over the country. The talks from those events would provide the content for the journal, and conference participants would be encouraged to form local councils to carry forward the work of spreading the cause of peace. None of this went as planned, despite a few early successes. Speakers rarely followed through with written versions of their talks. Local committees often dissolved within a year. Limited resources made it impossible to give attention to the innumerable details required to attract and retain a growing membership.29Letter dated July 7, 1932 from Horace Holley to Florence Morton, U.S. Bahá’í Archives.

Despite setbacks associated with the conferences, in October 1927, the first issue of World Unity was published, providing an expansive view of the world and current international affairs. It covered not only important peace subjects such as the League of Nations and the Paris (Kellogg-Briand) Pact of 1928—the first attempt to make war illegal—but also articles introducing to the Western reader various countries, religions, arts, and other topics that would engender a sense of world citizenship. The contributors by and large were not Bahá’ís, though the three Bahá’í directors tried to ensure the publication reflected Bahá’í ideals. A number of those featured in its pages had been regular participants at the Lake Mohonk Arbitration Conferences, including leading peace activists Hamilton Holt, Edwin D. Mead and Lucia Ames Mead, and Theodore Marburg. A small number had spoken at World Unity Conferences, among them Dr. Jordan and Rabbi Coffee. Though the majority of articles were written specifically for the magazine, some were taken from speeches or other publications. Over seven years, the magazine published articles by notables such as Nobel Peace Prize recipient Norman Angell; eminent sociologist and advisor to President Wilson, Herbert Adolphus Miller; scholar of international law Philip Quincy Wright; the foremost scholar on auxiliary languages, Albert Léon Guérard, who heard ‘Abdu’l-Bahá speak in California; the first president of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee; the well-known writer and philosopher Bertrand Russell; eminent U.S. foreign policy historian and official historian of the San Francisco Conference to establish the United Nations, Dexter Perkins; Charles Evans Hughes, chief justice of the US Supreme Court; philosopher and influential social reformer John Dewey; socialist, pacifist, and US presidential candidate Norman Thomas; Philip C. Nash, executive director of the League of Nations Association; and Robert W. Bagnell, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the preeminent American civil rights organization. The journal occasionally carried talks by or about the teachings propagated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed one version of the masthead and also penned an article.30Frank Lloyd Wright was a friend of Horace Holley, who convinced Wright to submit an article. Wright then suggested that he redesign the magazine’s cover. His design, with some modifications, was first used for the October 1929 edition of World Unity. Website: The Wright Library, http://www.steinerag.com/flw/Periodicals/1930-39.htm. (The article quoted on the website assumes that Holley and Wright met through their mutual friend, Dr. Guthrie. Actually, they first met in Italy in 1910. (Letter from Horace Holley to Irving Holley from Florence, Italy, dated Easter Sunday [1910], in the possession of the author.)) But perhaps one of the most praiseworthy attributes of the journal was its inclusion of well-reasoned articles by ordinary people who would have not found another national outlet for their voices.31Day, Anne L., “Randall, John Herman”, Kuehl, Warren F., editor, Biographical Dictionary of Internationalists, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1983, pp. 100-101.

There were two aspects of the work of the Foundation that proved problematic. First, the objectives were lofty, but too broad. For example, the journal’s subhead was: “A monthly magazine promoting the international mind.” This allowed for wide participation in the Foundation’s work, but it also left ambiguous the question of what exactly the journal stood for.  In 1932, the Foundation sought to bring greater clarity to this question, first by explicitly promoting the Bahá’í concept of world federation and then by adopting the tenets set forth in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s 1919 letter to the Central Organisation for Durable Peace in The Hague.

A second challenge was that the initial approach taken by the Foundation confused and dismayed many Bahá’ís. In the beginning, the founders were concerned that associating the World Unity Foundation explicitly with religion would turn away some people who otherwise shared Bahá’í ideals and would cause their primary target audience, leaders of thought, to ignore its activities. In fact, the Bahá’í background of the Foundation was so well-concealed that most who have written about it after it was discontinued have also believed that Dr. Randall was its sole founder and proponent. 32Most of what is published about Dr. Randall’s work with the World Unity Foundation is derived from memorials to him written by his descendants or from his own books. To address the confusion that had arisen, the magazine began in 1933 to include articles explicitly based on the Bahá’í Faith.33The decision to make the magazine more openly Bahá’í was taken in 1932. Letter dated October 28, 1932 from Horace Holley to Florence Morton, page 2, U.S. Bahá’í Archives. In a 1933  letter to Morton, Holley pointed out to her how he was trying to “build a bridge of sympathetic understanding between World Unity readers and the Articles of the Cause which will be published later on” through his more recent editorials. Letter dated February 2, 1933 from Horace Holley to Florence Morton, page 2, U.S. Bahá’í Archives. See also an explanation of the careful transition to Bahá’í content in letter dated January 7. 1933 from Horace Holley to Mary Movius, U.S. Bahá’í Archives. During its last years of publication, it was openly a Bahá’í journal.

Because of the controversy the Foundation generated within the Bahá’í community, Shoghi Effendi addressed the matter in a letter to the National Spiritual Assembly, discussing at length the approach of putting forth the Bahá’í message without mentioning the source of the ideas. Referring to the World Unity Conferences held earlier by Bahá’í communities, he wrote, “I desire to assure you of my heartfelt appreciation of such a splendid conception.” He then explored why a variety of approaches, both direct and indirect, to conveying the teachings of the Faith were appropriate and desirable if executed with thoughtful care under the supervision of a National Spiritual Assembly.34Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration, pp. 124 -28.

Just as the Foundation and its journal were gaining traction, they encountered one challenge that could not be overcome: The Great Depression of the 1930s. Morton could no longer pay her factory employees, much less continue to fund the organization. Movius experienced her own economic setbacks. Randall resigned at the end of 1932. In a last effort to save the journal, Holley took over as editor.35Both Randall and Holley were paid for their services, but after the financial crisis started, Holley took a cut in salary even as his responsibilities increased. For a time, he drew no pay but funded the journal from his own savings. Letter dated April 1, 1933 from Horace Holley to Florence Morton, U.S. Bahá’í National Archives. But the times were against it. The world’s rapid march towards war was already underway. Peace movements seemed out of touch and magazines promoting their ideals became a luxury. No matter the sacrificial strivings of the proponents of the World Unity Foundation, their resources proved insufficient to further any interest that had been generated. As Movius wrote to Holley, “I like extremely the editorials you are writing for ‘World Unity,’ and only hope they will bear fruit. They will, undoubtedly, even if we never hear of it.”36Both Randall and Holley were paid for their services, but after the financial crisis started, Holley took a cut in salary even as his responsibilities increased. For a time, he drew no pay but funded the journal from his own savings. Letter dated April 1, 1933 from Horace Holley to Florence Morton, U.S. Bahá’í National Archives.

Finally, in 1935, after consulting the institutions of the Bahá’í Faith, it was decided to merge World Unity with another publication, Star of the West (renamed The Bahá’í Magazine in its later volumes) to become a new entity, World Order.37Bahá’í News, no. 90, March 1935, p. 8. This magazine was published from 1935 to 1949, revived in 1966, and ran until 2007. Like World Unity, its erudite articles covered a wide range of topics aimed at the educated public, but it was unmistakably a Bahá’í organ under the auspices of the US National Spiritual Assembly and never acquired as broad a readership as World Unity.

Did the World Unity Foundation and its journal have any impact?  The renowned head of the Riverside Church in New York City, Harry Emerson Fosdick, said of World Unity Magazine that it represented, “one of the most serious endeavors … to use journalism to educate the people as to the nature of the world community in which we are living.”38Undated World Unity circular. U.S. Bahá’í Archives. Perhaps the foremost scholar of internationalism during the early twentieth century, Warren F. Kuehl, listed the magazine as one of only a tiny handful at the time discussing issues promoting peace through international order, noting that it seemed unique in its advocacy of a world federation.39Kuehl, Warren F. and Lynne Dunn, Keeping the Covenant: American Internationalists and the League of Nations, 1920-1939, Kent State University Press, 1997, p. 73 Another scholar of diplomatic history, Anne L. Day, concluded that World Unity’s primary contribution was creating a space for lesser-known people interested in international peace to put forth their ideas.40Kuehl, Warren F. and Lynne Dunn, Keeping the Covenant: American Internationalists and the League of Nations, 1920-1939, Kent State University Press, 1997, pp. 100-101

… the conferences and the magazine helped foster a world outlook without prejudice and a faith in humanity which survived the horrors of World War II. World Unity Magazine gave young scholars a medium to which they could hone their insights toward global humanitarian values, thus broadening consciousness to recognize the moral and spiritual equality, “to realize that the interests of all men are mutual interests.”41Day, Anne L., “Randall, John Herman”, p. 596.

The World Unity Foundation was formally dissolved just as armies were moving into a growing number of hot spots in Europe and Asia. Within a few short years, much of the globe would be plunged into the most horrible conflict mankind had ever known. As the end of World War II came into view, a few far-sighted leaders became determined that such a catastrophe should never afflict humanity again and looked to the future. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for an international conference to be held in October 1945 to create a new organization of countries that would improve upon the impotent League of Nations. The United Nations would be born that year.

That historic conference was held in San Francisco, fulfilling ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s wish that California would be the first place to hoist the banner of international peace. Seated in the audience were official representatives of the worldwide Bahá’í community, including Holley’s close friend and protégé, Mildred Mottahedeh, who would later serve as the Faith’s representative to the United Nations. Indeed, from the very inception of the United Nations, the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) has actively participated in its work as an official non-governmental organization.

Those representing the Bahá’í Faith to the United Nations and its agencies are building on the foundation laid by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ over a century ago, drawing on His example and the lessons that have been learned since. First and foremost, they have been guided by the conviction that all participation in endeavors to remedy the ills of humanity should be based on moral and spiritual principles. This precept applies to the design, implementation, and evaluation phase of any initiative. Discussing difficult issues by first identifying underlying principles naturally enhances unity and understanding.  Furthermore, over the course of the past century, Bahá’ís have consistently fostered the broad inclusion of voices in public discourse, enabling the diverse voices of humanity to contribute, on equal footing, to those discussions that impact the great issues of the day.

Bahá’í delegation to the United Nations International Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations. (L to R) Amin Banani, Mildred R. Mottahedeh, Hilda Yen and Matthew Bullock; Lake Success, NY, USA; 4-9 April 1949.

This deliberate approach, along with always adhering to the attributes of trustworthiness, inclusiveness, and dependability, has gained the BIC a positive reputation among Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).  In 1970, the BIC representative was elected to serve on the Executive Board of the United Nations Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations. Subsequently, Bahá’í representatives have been elected or appointed to officer positions on a number of significant NGO committees and advisory bodies to the United Nations, often serving as chairpersons, such as the election of BIC Representative Mary Power as Chair of the NGO Commission on the Status of Women from 1991-1995.

The BIC’s wide-ranging engagement in the world’s most pressing issues has not gone unnoticed. As early as 1976, Kurt Waldheim, then United Nations Secretary-General, addressed the Bahá’í community with the following statement:

Non-governmental organizations such as yours, by dealing comprehensively with the major problems confronting the international community and striving to find solutions which will serve the interests of all nations, make a very substantial and most important contribution to the United Nations and its work.42In a message dated 1 June 1976 to the International Bahá’í Conference in Paris. Available at https://www.bic.org/timeline/international-bahai-conference-paris

In 1987, Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar designated the BIC as “Peace Messengers,” an honor bestowed upon only three hundred organizations. Approaching the turn of the century, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for both a Millennium Summit for the leaders of the world and a Millennium Forum for the world’s peoples, represented through non-governmental agencies. In recognition of its consistently principled approach to its work, its integrity, and its even-handedness, the BIC was chosen to co-chair the Forum and to provide the speaker from the Forum to address the Summit.

On September 8, 2000, Dr. Techeste Ahderom, then the BIC Principal Representative to the United Nations, addressed the assembled heads of state of more than 150 nations on behalf of the peoples of the world.43The Four Year Plan and The Twelve Month Plan, 1996 – 2001: Summary of Achievements, Bahá’í World Center, 2002. In his talk, Ahderom reminded the assembled leaders that the very idea of the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations, arose through the participation of civil society in various forms. He closed with the words from the Millenium Forum Declaration: “‘In our vision we are one human family, in all our diversity, living on one common homeland …’”44https://www.bic.org/statements/statement-millennium-summit

Techeste Ahderom, principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations, speaking before the Millenium Summit, September 2001 in his capacity as co-chairman of the Millennium Forum.

As resources have allowed and capacity has increased, the BIC has addressed vital issues including racial discrimination, human rights, the status of women, protection of the environment, science and technology, the rights of indigenous peoples, education, health, youth, freedom of religion or belief, global governance, and UN reform.

According to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His address at Lake Mohonk, the issue of peace is multifaceted, and it will not be attained until an environment is created that will ensure a lasting end to conflict. In its approach to the promotion of peace, the Bahá’í community has always sought a holistic approach to the question of global peace. In this light, the BIC New York Office in 2012 instituted a regular forum where ideas could be discussed freely, on the condition that the identity of the person or organization offering the information is not disclosed. Participants in these forums have thereby, regardless of their functions and roles, had the freedom to engage in consultation without it being assumed that their comments represent the official position of their country or organization. By mid-2020, more than sixty of these discussions had been held covering a wide range of topics.45Berger, Julia, Beyond Pluralism: A New Framework for Constructive Engagement (2008 – 2020), chapter 7, pp. 16 19. Pre-publication edition. I am grateful to Julia Berger and Melody Mirzaagha, for staff members of the Bahá’í International Community Offices in New York for their assistance and insights. I also wish to thank the BIC New York Office for directing me to Dr. Berger and Ms. Mirzaagha. Through this and many other efforts, the BIC has been learning to draw on the unseen power of consultation to create environments where those entrusted with global leadership and whose decisions impact the fortunes of the planet are able to deliberate in a distinctive environment on the major issues of our time.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, the BIC issued a statement asserting that to meet the needs of the twenty-first century will require a far greater level of global integration and cooperation than anything that has existed before.46In 1995, a statement titled “Turning Point for All Nations” was issued for the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations. It is available at https://www.bic.org/statements/turning-point-all-nations The statement calls for the strengthening and evolution of the consultative process of international dialogue and for world leaders to give priority to that which will benefit the whole of humankind. It argues that what is needed now is a radical change in the approach to solving the problems of the world—a process that conceives of the world as an organic whole and takes into consideration the essential need for spiritual and ethical advancement to be commensurate with scientific and technological progress.47“A Governance Befitting: Humanity and the Path Toward a Just Global Order”, A Statement of the Bahá’í International Community on the Occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations, p. 5. https://www.bic.org/sites/default/files/pdf/un75_20201020.pdf

Ultimately, the goal of the Bahá’í Faith is to bring about a universal recognition that we are all one people—with the profound implications that carries through all areas of life, requiring no less than a restructuring of society.  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá through His words and actions pointed out the way to promote this most essential of all truths, and a clear thread can be seen from His contributions to peace to the efforts of the Bahá’í community since. Such efforts will doubtless continue for decades, perhaps centuries, until the time arrives when all decisions will rest upon the indisputable reality of the oneness of humankind and the world will transform into a new world—a peaceful world where war is relegated to the sad accounts found only in history books.

By Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is Professor Emeritus of History at Michigan State University. He is author and coauthor of several books on race relations, the African American experience, and the Baha’i Faith.

Once again, as the United States finds itself embroiled in racial conflicts and decades-old struggles for racial justice and racial unity, the Bahá’í community of the United States stands ready to contribute its share to the healing of the nation’s racial wounds. Neither the current racial crisis nor the current awakening is unique.  Sadly, the United States has been here before.1National Advisory Committee Report on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam Books, 1968). The American people have learned many lessons but have also forgotten other lessons about how best to solve the underlying problems facing their racially polarized society. For decades the country has seen countless efforts by brave and courageous individuals and dedicated organizations and institutions to hold back the relentless tide of racism. Many of these efforts have achieved great outcomes, but the tide has repeatedly rushed back in to test the resolve of every generation after the fall of Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and the historic election of the first African American president.2John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1988), 227-38; Eoin Higgins, “The White Backlash to the Civil Rights Movement” (May 22, 2014), available at https://eoinhiggins.com/the-white-backlash-to-the-civil-rights-movement-1817ff0a9fc; David Elliot Cohen and Mark Greenberg, Obama: The Historic Front Pages (New York/London:Sterling, 2009); Adam Shatz, “How the Obama’s Presidency Provoked a White Backlash,” Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2016. Available at http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-shatz-kerry-james-marshall-obama-20161030-story.html

During some of America’s worst racial crises, the Bahá’í community has joined the gallant struggle not only to hold back the tide of racism but also to build a multiracial community based on the recognition of the organic unity of the human race.  Inspired by this spiritual and moral principle, the Bahá’í community, though relatively small in number and resources, has, for well over a century, sought ways to contribute to the nation’s efforts to achieve racial justice and racial unity.  This has been a work in progress, humbly shared with others. It is an ongoing endeavor, one the Bahá’í community recognizes as “a long and thorny path beset with pitfalls.”3Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, Available at www.bahai.org/r/720204804

As the Bahá’í community learns how best to build and sustain a multiracial community committed to racial justice and racial unity, it aspires to contribute to the broader struggle in society and to learn from the insights being generated by thoughtful individuals and groups working for a more just and united society.

This article provides a historical perspective on the Bahá’í community’s contribution to racial unity in the United States between 1912 and 1996. The period of 1996 to the present—a “turning point” that the Universal House of Justice characterized as setting “the Bahá’í world on a new course”4Universal House of Justice, from a letter dated 10 April 2011 in Extracts from Letters Written on Behalf of the Universal House of Justice to Individual Believers in the United States on the Topic of Achieving Racial Unity (Updated Compilation 1996-2020), [7],5. Available at https://greenlakebahaischool.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/compilation-uhj-on-race-unity-1996-2020.pdf One aim of this extraordinary period from 1996 to the present has been to empower distinct populations and, indeed, the masses of humanity to take ownership of their own spiritual, intellectual, and social development. A future article will look at the impact of this latter period on the approach to the racial crisis in the United States. Recent articles on community building and approaches to building racial unity in smaller geographic spaces provide valuable insights about developments during this period. and increasing its capacity to contribute to social progress—is still underway.  During the past twenty-five years, the Bahá’í community’s capacity to contribute to humanity’s efforts to overcome deep-rooted social and spiritual ills has advanced significantly, and a subsequent article will focus on the implications of this distinctive period on the community’s ability to foster racial justice and unity.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Visit: Laying the Foundation for Racial Unity, 1912-1921

The Bahá’í community’s first major contribution to racial unity began in 1912 when ‘Abdul’-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), visited the United States. His historic visit occurred during one of the worst periods of racial terrorism in the United States against African Americans. According to historians John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, “In the first year of the new century more than 100 Negroes were lynched and before the outbreak of World War 1 the number for the century was 1,100.” 5Franklin and Moss, 282. In 1906, riots broke out in Atlanta, Georgia, where “whites began to attack every Negro they saw.”6Franklin and Moss, 283. That same year, race riots also occurred in Brownsville, Texas.7Franklin and Moss. Two years later, in 1908, there were race riots in Springfield, Illinois.8Franklin and Moss, 285. And in 1910, nation-wide race riots erupted in the wake of the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Johnson (Black) and Jim Jeffries (White) in Reno, Nevada, in July of that year.9Matt Reimann, “When a black fighter won ‘the fight of the century,’ race riots erupted across America.” May 25, 2017. Available at https://timeline.com/when-a-black-fighter-won-the-fight-of-the-century-race-riots-erupted-across-america-3730b8bf9c98

Racial turmoil prevailed before and after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit. Yet, in this raging period of racial terrorism and conflict, He proclaimed a spiritual message of racial unity and love, and infused this message into the heart and soul of the fledgling Bahá’í community—a community still struggling to discover its role in promoting racial amity.  Before His visit to the United States, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent a message to the 1911 Universal Race Conference in London in which He compared humankind to a flower garden adorned with different colors and shapes that “enhance the loveliness of each other.”10G. Spiller, ed., Papers on Inter-Racial Problems Communicated to the First Universal Races Congress Held at the University of London, July 26-29, 1911. Rev. ed. (Citadel Press, 1970), 208.

The next year, in April, 1912, He gave a talk at Howard University, the premier African-American university in Washington D.C.  A companion who kept diaries of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Western tours and lectures wrote that whenever ‘Abdu’l-Bahá witnessed racial diversity, He was compelled to call attention to it. For example, His companion reported that, during His talk at Howard University, “here, as elsewhere, when both white and colored people were present, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seemed happiest.” Looking over the racially mixed audience, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had remarked: “Today I am most happy, for I see a gathering of the servants of God. I see white and black sitting together.”11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/098175321

After two talks the next day, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was visibly tired as He prepared for the third talk. He was not planning to talk long; but, here again, when he saw Blacks and Whites in the audience, He became inspired. “A meeting such as this seems like a beautiful cluster of precious jewels—pearls, rubies, diamonds, sapphires. It is a source of joy and delight. Whatever is conducive to the unity of the world of mankind is most acceptable and praiseworthy.”12‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/322003373 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá then went on to elaborate on the theme of racial unity to an audience of Blacks and Whites who had rarely, if ever, heard such high praise for an interracial gathering. He said to those gathered that “in the world of humanity it is wise and seemly that all the individual members should manifest unity and affinity.”13‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/635635504

In the midst of a period saturated with toxic racist and anti-Black language, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offered positive racial images woven into a new language of racial unity and fellowship. He painted a picture for his interracial audience: “As I stand here tonight and look upon this assembly, I am reminded curiously of a beautiful bouquet of violets gathered together in varying colors, dark and light.”14‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/947904389 To still another racially mixed audience, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá commented: “In the clustered jewels of the races may the blacks be as sapphires and rubies and the whites as diamonds and pearls. The composite beauty of humanity will be witness in their unity and blending.”15‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/635635504

Through His words and actions, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá demonstrated the Bahá’í teachings on racial unity. Several examples stand out. Two Bahá’ís, Ali-Kuli Khan, the Persian charge d’affaires, and Florence Breed Khan, his wife, arranged a luncheon in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s honor in Washington D.C.  The guests were members of Washington’s social and political elite. Before the luncheon, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent for Louis Gregory, a lawyer and well-known African American Bahá’í. They chatted for a while, and when lunch was ready and the guests were seated, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá invited Gregory to join the luncheon. The assembled guests were no doubt surprised by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s inviting an African American to a White, upper-class social affair, but perhaps even more so by the affection and love ‘Abdu’l-Bahá showed for Gregory when He gave him the seat of honor on His right. A biographer of Louis Gregory pointed out the profound significance of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s action: “Gently but yet unmistakably, ‘Abdul-Bahá has assaulted the customs of a city that had been scandalized a decade earlier by President’s Roosevelt’s dinner invitation to Booker T. Washington.”16Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America, (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 53.

The promotion of interracial marriage was yet another example of how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá demonstrated the Bahá’í teachings on racial unity. Many states outlawed interracial marriage or did not recognize such unions; yet, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá never wavered in his insistence that Black and White Bahá’ís should not only be unified but should also intermarry. Before his visit to the United States, He had first broached the subject in Palestine with several Western Bahá’ís and explored the sexual myths and fears at the core of American racism. His solution was to encourage interracial marriage. Once in the U.S., He demonstrated the lengths to which the American Bahá’í community should go to show its dedication to racial unity when He encouraged the marriage of Louis Gregory and an English Bahá’í, Louisa Mathew. Their marriage was the first Black-White interracial marriage that was personally encouraged by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. This demonstration of Bahá’í teachings proved difficult for some Bahá’ís who doubted that such a union could last in a racially segregated society, but the marriage lasted until the end of the couple’s lives, nearly four decades later. Throughout this period, Louis and Louisa became a shining example of racial unity.17Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America, (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 63-72, 309-10.

Race Amity Activities: The Bahá’í Community’s Responses to Racial Crises, 1921-1937

Although working endlessly to promote racial unity through inspiring talks and actions, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá understood the persistent reality of racism in the U.S. In a letter to a Chicago Bahá’í, He predicted what would happen if racial attitudes did not change: “Enmity will be increased day by day and the final result will be hardship and may end in bloodshed.”18Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America, (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 59. Several years later, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá repeated this warning to an African American Bahá’í that “if not checked, ‘the antagonism between the Colored and the White, in America, will give rise to great calamities.’”19Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America, (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 59.

Tragically, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s predictions came true. Five years after His visit to the U.S. where He laid the foundation for the American Bahá’í community’s future contributions to racial unity, race riots broke out in 1917 in East St. Louis, Illinois, and other cities. Two years later, in 1919, “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation had ever witnessed”20John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1988), 313. rocked the country. From June to the end of the year, there were approximately twenty-five race riots.21John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1988), 313. With the country still in the throes of racial upheaval, ‘Abdul-Bahá, frail and worn, gathered the strength to rally the American Bahá’í community for what would become one of its signature contributions to racial amity in the U.S. In 1920, He mentioned the tragic state of race relations in the U.S. to a Persian Bahá’í residing in that country: “Now is the time for the Americans to take up this matter and unite both the white and colored races. Otherwise, hasten ye towards destruction! Hasten ye to devastation!”22Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America, (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 59.

That same year, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá initiated a plan to address the racial crisis in America. As Louis Gregory wrote in his report on the First Race Amity Convention held in Washington, D.C., May 19 to 21, 1921: “ It was following His return to the Holy Land…after the World War that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá set in motion a plan that was to bring the races together, attract the attention of the country, enlist the aid of famous and influential people and have a far-reaching effect upon the destiny of the nation itself.”23Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006),180. Originally published in The Bahá’í World: A Biennial International Record, Vol.7, 1936-1938, compiled by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada (New York: Bahá’í Publishing Committee). In His message to this first Race Amity Convention, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote: “Say to this convention that never since the beginning of time has one more important been held. This convention stands for the oneness of humanity; it will become the cause of the enlightenment of America. It will, if wisely managed and continued, check the deadly struggle between these races which otherwise will inevitably break out.”24Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006),180. Originally published in The Bahá’í World: A Biennial International Record, Vol.7, 1936-1938, compiled by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada (New York: Bahá’í Publishing Committee).

This first race amity convention could not have come at a better time. Ten days later, on May 31 and June 1, a race riot, also known as “the Tulsa race massacre,” occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  “It has been characterized as ‘the single worst incident of racial violence in American history’” when “mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked black residents and businesses.” 25Wikipedia, “Tulsa Race Massacre”. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulsa_race_massacre They not only attacked Blacks on the ground but also used private aircrafts to attack them from the air. The attacks resulted in the destruction of the Black business district known as Black Wall Street, “at the time the wealthiest black community in the United States.”26Wikipedia, “Tulsa Race Massacre”. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulsa_race_massacre

One can only imagine what went through the minds of participants in the interracial gathering at that historic first race amity convention in Washington D.C. as the news of the Tulsa race riot swept the nation. Perhaps their minds raced back to a similar but less destructive race riot that had ravaged their own city during the “red summer”27John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1988), 314 two years earlier. Some were probably thankful that they were part of a budding interracial movement dedicated to racial amity.

Louis Gregory reflected this optimism after the first race amity convention when he reported: “Under the leadership and through the sacrifices of the Bahá’ís of Washington three other amity conventions…were held….Christians, Jews, Bahá’ís, and people of various races mingled in joyous and serviceable array and the reality of religion shone forth.”28Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006),182. Originally published in The Bahá’í World: A Biennial International Record, Vol.7, 1936-1938, compiled by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada (New York: Bahá’í Publishing Committee). He related that “the Washington friends continued their race amity work in another form by organizing an interracial discussion group which continued for many years and did a very distinctive service, both by its activities and its fame as the incarnation as a bright ray of hope amid scenes where racial antagonism was traditionally rife.”29Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006),182. Originally published in The Bahá’í World: A Biennial International Record, Vol.7, 1936-1938, compiled by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada (New York: Bahá’í Publishing Committee).

From the year of the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1921 to 1937, the Bahá’í-inspired race amity movement— a lighthouse of racial hope—cast a sometimes small but powerful beam of light through a thick fog of racism.  Notwithstanding setbacks, it made a mighty effort to steady that beam of light.  In city after city across the country, brave and courageous peoples of all races and religions joined the movement.  In December of 1921, Springfield, Massachusetts, followed Washington D.C. Three years later, New York joined the ranks of race amity workers. That same year Philadelphia—”the City of Brotherly Love” — held its first Race Amity Convention and followed it up six years later (1930) with another one. 30Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006),182-185. Originally published in The Bahá’í World: A Biennial International Record, Vol.7, 1936-1938, compiled by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada (New York: Bahá’í Publishing Committee).

In 1927, a year Louis Gregory called “that memorable year for amity conferences,”31Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 185 a race amity conference was held in Dayton, Ohio.  The Dayton community hosted a second race amity conference in 1929.32Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 186. According to Gregory, “Race amity conferences at Green Acre, the summer colony of the Bahá’ís in Maine, cover[ed] the decade beginning in 1927,”33Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (34. Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 186 a decade which he referred to as “this fruitful period,”34Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 187 when Geneva, New York, Rochester, New York, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Boston all contributed their share to the race amity movement.35Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 192-93 “The friends in Detroit, under the rallying cry, ‘New Views on an Old, Unsolved Human Problem,’ raised the standard of unity in a conference March 14, 1929.”36Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 193 In Atlantic, City, with only one “active Bahá’í worker in the field,” not even the opposition of “the orthodox among the clergy…which unfavorably affected the press”37Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 193-94 could stem the tide of the race amity movement. On April 19, 1931, assisted by the Bahá’ís of Philadelphia, The Society of Friends, and other organizations, close to four hundred people attended a gathering.38Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 194 Five months later, in October, the Pittsburgh Bahá’ís arranged a conference.39Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 195

Bahá’ís and their friends and associates in Denver, Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles all joined hands as they expanded the circle of unity beyond Black and White to include Native Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Japanese-Americans.40Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 195-96.  The Bahá’ís also held interracial dinners and banquets. Such banquets “appeared to give to those who shared them a foretaste of Heaven,” 41Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 196. Gregory wrote. One of the last race amity conferences was held in Cincinnati, Ohio, in April of 1935, and was considered

one of the most interesting and influential of all. The Bahá’ís…having with one mind and heart decided upon such an undertaking, under the guidance of their Spiritual Assembly—the local Bahá’í governing council—proceeded to work the matter out in the most methodical and scientific way. [In addition] they succeeded in laying under the tribute of service some sixteen others noted for welfare and progress.42Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 197.

The Bahá’í racial amity activities also included three interracial journeys of Black and White Bahá’ís “into the heart of the South.” They were inspired by the wishes of Shoghi Effendi, who became of the Head of the Bahá’í Faith after the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and was designated the title “Guardian.”43Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 198. Interracial teams of two Bahá’í men, Black and White, traveled South in the autumn of 1931, the spring of 1932, and the winter of 1933.  “One of the most interesting discoveries of [the 1931 team’s] trip was to find the same interest at the University of South Carolina, for Whites, as at Allan University and Benedict College, located in the same City of Columbia, for Colored.”44Louis Gregory, “Racial Amity in America: An Historical Review,” in Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis & Richard Thomas, eds, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North American: 1898-2000 (Wilmette, Ill.: Baháί Publishing, 2006), 199.

The Most Challenging Issue: Preparing the American Bahá’í Community to Become a Model of Racial Unity

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the American Bahá’í community contributed its share to promoting racial unity and to lessening, to some degree, the relentless forces of racism. They brought people together in conferences to discuss delicate racial issues and created intimate spaces, such as banquets and interracial dinners in which to break bread, at a time when sitting down and eating together was the prevailing social taboo.  These were no small accomplishments. These experiences seeded future interracial meetings and friendships. More work had to be done, however, before the Bahá’í community could move to the next stage of its contribution to racial unity in the larger society. It had to prepare itself to become, at the very least, a work in progress of a model of racial unity.

Foremost among the Guardian’s concerns for the United States was racial prejudice and its influence on the American Bahá’í community. In his lengthy letter to the American Bahá’í community, which was published as The Advent of Divine Justice (1939), he characterized racism as “the corrosion of which, for well-nigh a century has bitten into the fiber, and attacked the whole social structure of American society” and said it should be “regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bahá’í community at the present stage of its evolution.” He told Bahá’ís of both races that they faced “a long and thorny road beset with pitfalls” that “still remained untraveled.”45Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice. Available at www.bahai.org/r/720204804  Both races were assigned specific responsibilities. White Bahá’ís were to

make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to  persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on a part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds.46Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice. Available at www.bahai.org/r/376777192

Black Bahá’ís were to “show by every means in their power the warmth of their response, their readiness to forget the past, and their ability to wipe out every trace of suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds.”47Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice. Available at bahai.org/r/376777192 Neither race could place the burden of resolving the racial problem within the Bahá’í community on the other race or to see it as “a matter that exclusively concerns the other.”48Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice. Available at bahai.org/r/376777192

As well, the Guardian cautioned Bahá’ís that they should not think the problem could be easily or immediately resolved. They should not “wait confidently for the solution of this problem until the initiative has been taken, and the favorable circumstances created, by agencies that stand outside the orbit of their Faith.”49Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice. Available at bahai.org/r/376777192 Rather, Shoghi Effendi encouraged Bahá’ís to

believe, and be firmly convinced, that on their mutual understanding, their amity, and sustained cooperation, must depend, more than any other force or organization operating outside the circle of their Faith, the deflection of that dangerous course so greatly feared by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and the materialization of the hopes He cherished for their joint contribution to that country’s glorious destiny.50Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice. Available at bahai.org/r/376777192

The American Bahá’í community now had their specific marching orders. During the 1940s, they engaged in a range of efforts designed to eliminate racism and promote unity among its members and continue their decades-old commitment to promote racial unity in the wider society.  In 1940, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’í of the United States set the example during its meeting in Atlanta, Georgia — their first meeting in the Deep South. This was timely because the predominantly White Bahá’í community was “far from enthusiastic about putting racial unity into practice.”51Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America, (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 282. Racially integrated meetings were held for both Bahá’is only and for the general public.52Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America, (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 283.  “White Bahá’ís were put on notice, even at the risk of their withdrawal from the Faith, that they had to come to terms with the principle of oneness both in their Bahá’í community life and in their approach to the public.”53Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America, (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 283. Before long, the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Atlanta Bahá’í community mirrored the interracial makeup of the community.54Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America, (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 283.

A new generation of Bahá’ís had to be educated about race if the community hoped to play a role in the pursuit of racial justice and racial unity.  In a series of articles, a new Race Unity Committee (RUC) began educating the Bahá’í community on “the most challenging issue.” The Bahá’í Children Education Committee (CEC) reviewed and recommended to Bahá’í parents a major book on racial attitudes in children. The RUC also suggested Bahá’í books on race relations emphasizing the link between minority history and culture and the work on racial unity. It urged Bahá’í communities to make race unity a topic of consultation at the Nineteen Day Feasts55Bahá’í News (January, 1940),10-12; Bahá’í News (February, 1940),10; Bahá’í News (October, 1940),9. In Richard W. Thomas, Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress, (Ottawa, Canada: The Association of Bahá’í Studies, 1993), 140-41.—community gatherings held once a month on the Bahá’í calendar.

As tens of thousands of southern Blacks migrated to northern industrial centers during World War II, racial tensions and conflicts exploded. On June 20, 1943, the worst race riot of the war period broke out in Detroit, leaving death and destruction in its wake.56Dominic J. Capeci, Jr. and Martha Wilkerson, “Layered Violence: The Detroit Rioters of 1943,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 84, 2 (Jackson, Miss. and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1991). Available at https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.2307/2649046?journalCode=jnh

For decades, the Bahá’ís had been warned that such racial turmoil would continue unless racial justice and racial unity were established. So they continued their work. In the fall of 1944, the Bahá’í News claimed, “The past year has reported the most progress in race unity since the movement began.”57Bahá’í News (September,1944),7. In short, as terrible and destructive as race riots and racial injustice could be, they would not dampen the spirit nor hold back the Bahá’í community’s mission of promoting racial justice and racial unity.

Responding to the dynamic nature of racism, however, has always required of the Bahá’ís agility and an ability to read the signs of the time and respond accordingly. During World War II, anti-Japanese racism had, for instance, become widespread, and thousands of Japanese Americans were interned in concentration camps.58Bill Hosokawa, Nisei, The Quiet Americans, (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1969), 204-48; Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 329-405. Conscious of the dangers of rising xenophobic sentiments, Shoghi Effendi, in December 1945, sent a letter through his secretary to the RUC pointing out that “to abolish prejudice against any and every race and minority group, it is obviously proper to include in particular any group that is receiving especially bad treatment—such as the Japanese-Americans are being subjected to.”59Bahá’í News (October, 1946), 4.

A Steady Flow of Guidance on Race Unity: The 1950s and the Turbulent 1960s

In 1953, at the historic All-American Conference celebrating the centenary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation, the dedication of the completed Bahá’í Temple in Wilmette, Illinois, and the start of a ten-year plan for the worldwide Bahá’í community to advance its growth and development, Dorothy Baker, a White Bahá’í and veteran race unity worker, had just returned from the Holy Land with a message from the Guardian. The Guardian, she reported, had said

one driving thing over and over—that if we did not meet the challenging requirements of raising to a vast number the believers of the Negro race, disasters would result. And…that it was now for us to arise and reach the Indians of this country. In fact, he went so far as to say on two occasions that this dual task is the most important teaching work on American shores today.60Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America,  (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 292

Over the years, the predominantly White Bahá’í community had accomplished a great deal in promoting race unity conferences, interracial dinners, and other interracial activities, but times were changing. The state of race relations in the Bahá’í community and the wider society required much more radical action.  Shoghi Effendi’s instructions to bring in “vast numbers” of African-Americans presented a challenge to many White Bahá’ís.  Others probably felt they were already doing enough participating in periodic race unity programs. This level of Bahá’í activity would not, however, raise “to a vast number the believers of the Negro race.”  Shoghi Effendi instructed the Bahá’ís to establish two committees: one to teach African Americans and another to teach Native Americans. He wanted the Bahá’ís “to reach the Negro minority with this great truth in vast numbers. Not just publicity stunts…”61Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Amity in America,  (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 293

Bahá’ís continued to promote racial unity. In 1957, the National Assembly, with the approval of the Guardian, instituted Race Amity Day, to be “observed on the second Sunday of June beginning June 9, 1957.”62Bahá’í News (May, 1957), 1. It was established as an exclusively Bahá’í-sponsored event different from Brotherhood Week and Negro History Week, events sponsored by other organizations in which Bahá’ís had participated. The purpose of Race Amity Day was to “celebrate the Bahá’í teachings of the Oneness of Mankind, the distinguishing feature of the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh.”63Bahá’í News (May, 1957), 1.

That same year, the Bahá’í Interracial Teaching Committee started holding a race amity meeting in conjunction with the annual observance of Negro History Week. Eighty-three Bahá’í communities in thirty-three states conducted some form of public meeting addressing the concerns of the African-American community.  The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History distributed Bahá’í literature to its exclusive mailing list of distinguished African Americans. In turn, the committee gave the association 500 copies of “Race and Man,” a Bahá’í publication featuring discussions on race.64Bahá’í News (April, 1957),6.

As well, in 1957, Americans also witnessed as “segregationists cheered the active opposition of Governor Orval Faubus to the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Not until President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock in response to the governor’s defiance of a court order did the Negro children gain admission to the school.”65John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1988), 436. The forces of racial justice and race unity prevailed, however, with the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, “the first civil rights act since 1875.”66John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1988), 438.

The annual Bahá’í Race Amity Day observances stood out among other “points of light” and hope during the racially volatile period of the 1960s.  The decade of the Civil Rights Movement and Black urban rebellion and race riots was also the decade when many predominantly White local Bahá’í communities worked tirelessly to promote racial unity. Years after the first Bahá’í race amity observances, scores of these communities throughout the country, through interracial picnics, panel discussions, media events, and official proclamations, provided people from diverse racial backgrounds with hope and inspiration that racial unity was possible. By 1960, Race Amity Day observances were increasingly being recognized by government officials. For example, in 1967, eleven mayors and one governor officially proclaimed Race Unity Day.67For an explanation of the change from “race amity” to “race unity” see Morrison, 275. Yet, in July of that same year, “Detroit experienced the bloodiest urban disorder and the costliest property damage in U.S. history,” when forty-three people died and over one thousand were injured.68Joe T. Darden and Richard W. Thomas, Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013),1.

Expanding the Circle of Unity: Multiracial Community Building, 1970s and 1980s

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the American Bahá’í community experienced a remarkable increase in the racial and ethnic diversity of its membership.  In the early 1970s, thousands of African Americans in rural South Carolina and many in other southern states joined the Bahá’í Faith.69American Bahá’í (February,1971,1-4; April,1976,1). In 1972, the American Bahá’í Northeast Oriental Teaching Committee began reaching out to Asian American populations of the Northeastern States.70Bahá’í News (January, 1973),5.  In 1986, the Interracial Teaching Committee described the great influx of southern rural Blacks as well as other racial groups into the Bahá’í community as an indication of the American Bahá’í community becoming “a truly multiethnic community with fully one-third of its members Black and rural, and a significant percentage from the Native-American, Hispanic, Iranian, and Southeast Asian populations.” 71Bonnie J. Taylor, The Power of Unity: Beyond Prejudice and Racism. Selections from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the Bab,’Adbu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice, compilation (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1986), ix.

Bahá’ís were expanding their circle of community, embracing more and more diverse peoples and knitting them into the fabric of their collective life. In 1985, Milwaukee Bahá’ís, in cooperation with the Midtown Neighborhood Association, a social-service agency, and the Hmong-American Friendship Association, worked to serve the needs of the Hmong people in the neighborhood by opening the Bahá’í Center on weekends for adult English classes and after-school classes for culture and language for children ages 8 to 13.72American Bahá’í (March, 1985),8. In their response to the unprecedented waves of Asian immigrants arriving to America during the 1980s, the American Bahá’í community published guidelines to facilitate the integration of Indo-Chinese refugees into the Bahá’í community.

In 1989, the U.S. Bahá’í Refugee Office visited ten cities throughout central California to help integrate refugees into the larger Bahá’í community. The Bahá’í community did not limit its concern to Bahá’í refugees only. For example, the Bahá’ís in Des Moines, Iowa, resolved to adopt all Cambodian refugees in that state as a service goal for the 1989-90 year. The persecution of Iranian Bahá’ís in Iran during the late 1970s forced many Iranian Bahá’ís to seek refuge in the United States where they were assisted by the Bahá’í Persian-American Committee to become part of the increasingly diverse American Bahá’í community. 73American Bahá’í (April,1989),2.

The Bahá’í community was becoming what Shoghi Effendi had hoped for a half-century ago when he wrote:

No more laudable and meritorious service can be rendered the Cause of God, at the present hour, than a successful effort to enhance the diversity of the members of the American Bahá’í community by swelling the ranks of the Faith through the enrollment of the members of these races. A blending of these highly differentiated elements of the human race, harmoniously interwoven into the fabric of an all-embracing Bahá’í fraternity, and assimilated through the dynamic process of a divinely appointed Administrative Order and contributing each its share to the enrichment and glory of Bahá’í community life, is surely an achievement the contemplation of which must warm and thrill every Bahá’í heart.74Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice. Available at www.bahai.org/r/138409678

The 1990s: Models and Visions of Racial Unity and the Los Angeles Riots

The American Bahá’í community entered the 1990s with increased commitment to racial justice and racial unity.  The Association for Bahá’í Studies held a conference, “Models of Racial Unity,” in November of 1990 to explore examples of racial unity. This conference produced a joint project, “Models of Unity: Racial, Ethnic, and Religious,” conducted in the spring of 1991 by the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago and the National Spiritual Assembly to “find examples of efforts that have successfully brought different groups of people together in the Greater Chicago area.” 75Models of Unity: Racial, Ethnic, and Religious. A Project of the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago and the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, February, 1992.

The next year, the National Assembly published a statement, “The Vision of Race Unity: America’s Most Challenging Issue,” as the cornerstone of a national race unity campaign. They distributed it to a wide range of people including teachers, students, organizations, and public officials. In April, 1992, several months after the publication of the joint-project report on Models of Unity in Chicago, the National Assembly sponsored a race unity conference at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, Georgia76See conference program, Visions of Race Unity: Race Unity Conference,” The Carter Presidential Center, Atlanta, Georgia, Saturday, April 4, 1992. Sponsored by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States.: “The purpose of this conference is to explore specific actions which may be taken by different groups and institutions to establish racial unity as the foundation for the transformation of our society.”77Quoted in American Bahá’í (July 13,1992),1. Several weeks later, Los Angeles exploded into violence in the wake of the not guilty verdict of four White policemen caught on tape beating Rodney King, a Black motorist.78Paul Taylor and Carlos Sanchez, “Bush orders troops into Los Angeles,” The Washington Post, May 2, 1992. Available at https//www.washingtonpost.com/archives/politics It seemed that the Bahá’í community’s constant efforts to promote racial unity were  “water in the sand” of racial turmoil.

The National Assembly sent a message, on behalf of the U.S. Bahá’í Community, to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley:

We join you in your appeal to all our fellow-citizens not to be blinded by anger and hate….the American Bahá’í community, faithful to the teachings of its Founder, has worked for the establishment of racial unity in a country blighted by race prejudice that confronts its cherished values, threatens its peace, and poisons the soul of its citizens.79American Bahá’í (June 5,1992).

The National Spiritual Assembly referred to its recently published statement on race, “The Vision of Race Unity,” and informed the mayor of its readiness to share its message with “city authorities, private organizations, and individuals who seek such a solution.”80American Bahá’í (June 5,1992). In addition, the National Assembly presented to the mayor and the city, the Chicago-based study, Models of Unity: Racial, Ethnic, and Religious. Concluding their letter to the mayor, the Assembly left him with this message of hope:

We offer you, Mr. Mayor, our cooperation, and pray that Los Angeles will emerge from its trials more enlightened and dedicated to the realization of the great truth that we are all “the leaves of one tree and the drops of one ocean”. 81American Bahá’í (June 5,1992).

The National Assembly then published a letter to President George H. W. Bush that appeared in several national newspapers. It opens:

No American can look with indifference upon the tragedy relentlessly unfolding in our cities. Its causes lie beyond a particular verdict or a particular act of oppression. The fires and deaths in Los Angeles are only symptoms of an old congenital disease eating at the vitals of American society, a disease that has plagued our country ever since slaves were brought from Africa to these shores by their early settlers.82The Washington Post, June 15, 1992, A15. Reprinted in American Bahá’í (June 24, 1992),1.

The letter described the path of racial progress in American history as a “history of advance and retreat,” and, though acknowledging that the solution to the racial problems “is not simple,” stated that it is clear that “America has not done enough to demonstrate her commitment to the equality and the unity of races.”  For this reason, “ever since its inception a century ago the American Bahá’í community has made the elimination of racism one of its principle goals.”83The Washington Post, June 15, 1992, A15. Reprinted in American Bahá’í (June 24, 1992),1. The National Assembly concluded its letter with an appeal:

We appeal to you, Mr. President, and all our fellow citizens, not to turn away from this “most vital and challenging issue.” We plead for a supreme effort on the part of the public and private institutions, schools, and the media, business and the arts, and most of all to individual Americans to join hands, accept the sacrifices this issue must impose, show forth the “care and vigilance it demands, the moral courage and fortitude it requires, the tact and sympathy it necessitates” so that true and irreversible progress may be made and the promise of this great country may not be buried under the rubble of our cities.84The Washington Post, June 15, 1992, A15. Reprinted in American Bahá’í (June 24, 1992),1.

The National Spiritual Assembly then turned to the Bahá’í community. In mid-May 1992, it met in Atlanta with representatives of twenty-nine local Bahá’í assemblies from the surrounding area and members of Local Spiritual Assemblies in fourteen cities in which rioting had taken place to review the Bahá’í communities’ responses to the riots and their aftermath and to consult with an international board of advisers on courses of action. The consultation resulted in a “decision to channel all national effort in the coming year into one mission—the promotion of race unity.”85American Bahá’í (July13, 1992),1.

For the next four years, Bahá’ís labored on in the diverse and often confusing maze of race relations. They and others were sincere workers in their efforts. Following the long tradition of Bahá’í race unity work, the Bahá’í Spiritual Assembly of Detroit created a task force in 1993 to carry out a faith-based mandate to promote racial unity. Two years later, the task force became a non-profit organization called the “The Model of Racial Unity, Inc.” and expanded its membership to include members of the Episcopal Diocese of Detroit and the Catholic Youth Organization. The task force launched its first conference on June 11, 1994, “to promote unity among the diverse populations of Detroit Metropolitan area by bringing together people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect.”86Joe T. Darden and Richard W. Thomas, Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 282.

A day before the conference, the Detroit Free Press commented: “The Bahá’í Faith Community of Greater Detroit is a main sponsor of the conference, which is an outgrowth of the religion’s guiding principles: unity across racial and ethnic lines.” 87Detroit Free Press, June 10, 1994.  The Second Annual Model of Racial Unity Conference in 1995 demonstrated how far the organization had progressed since the first conference. General Motors was now the major sponsor. Other sponsors included the owner of Azar’s Oriental Rugs and Mag-Co Co Investigations. Both owners were members of the Metropolitan Bahá’í community—the former, an Iranian American, and the latter, African American.88Joe T. Darden and Richard W. Thomas, Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 282

It was a great honor and tribute to the efforts of the Bahá’í community when Mayor Dennis W. Archer designated May 20, 1995, as “Model of Racial Unity Day.”  The Third Annual Model of Racial Unity Conference occurred on May 18, 1996.89Joe T. Darden and Richard W. Thomas, Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 282 The Bahá’ís attending and participating in that conference and the larger American Bahá’í community would soon be entering a new stage of spiritual guidance on race relations.

Earlier in the year, the House of Justice had advised the Bahá’ís: “With respect to principles, it would assist the friends greatly if the issue of addressing race unity can be formulated within the broad context of the community. The distinctiveness of the Bahá’í approach to many issues needs to be sharpened.”  Bahá’ís should be “future oriented, to have a clear vision and to think through the steps necessary to bring it into fruition. This is where consultation with the Bahá’í institutions will provide a critical impulse to your own efforts.”90Universal House of Justice, from a letter dated 25 February, 1996, in Extracts from Letters Written on Behalf of the Universal House of Justice to Individual Believers in the United States on the Topic of Achieving Race Unity (Updated Compilation 1996-2000), [1],1. Available at https://greenlakebahaischool.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/compilation-uhj-on-race-unity-1996-2020.pdf

Several months later, the 1996 Ridvan Message provided that “clear vision” stating: “The next four years will represent an extraordinary period in the history of our Faith, a turning point of epochal magnitude…”91Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 1996. Available at www.bahai.org/r/328665132 In 1996, a twenty-five year period of intensive learning commenced during which Bahá’í endeavors worldwide have become increasingly focused on capacity building in local populations to take greater ownership of their spiritual, intellectual, and social advancement, opening new possibilities in the long-term effort of the Bahá’ís to root out racial prejudice and contribute to the emergence of a society based on racial justice and unity.

Conclusion

The pursuit of racial justice and unity have been defining aspirations of the Bahá’í community of the United States since the earliest days of its establishment in the country. Indeed, for well over a century, it has dedicated itself to racial unity. During periods of racial turmoil, it has contributed its share to the healing of the nation’s racial wounds. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá provided the example during his visit in 1912 and set in motion a race amity movement in 1921 for the Bahá’í community to build upon. Bahá’ís continued this work for decades with some fits and starts, but always moving forward under the inspired guidance of the Guardian of the Faith and then the Universal House of Justice.

By Robert Weinberg

On 10 September 1911 and at the age of 67 years, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá delivered the first public address of His life. From the pulpit of the City Temple in London, He announced to the reported 3,000-strong congregation: “This is a new cycle of human power.” Humanity’s dynamic acceleration toward greater levels of unity, He explained, was a consequence of the “light of Truth … shining upon the world.”1‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London. London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987, p.19.

Throughout the ensuing two years of His travels, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—finally free after more than half a century of imprisonment and exile—continued to elucidate, in both open presentations and private conversations, the distinctive capacities of humanity in this “new day.”2‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London. London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987, p.19. In Paris, for example, He stated:

Look what man has accomplished in the field of science, consider his many discoveries and countless inventions and his profound understanding of natural law.

In the world of art it is just the same, and this wonderful development of man’s faculties becomes more and more rapid as time goes on. If the discoveries, inventions and material accomplishments of the last fifteen hundred years could be put together, you would see that there has been greater advancement during the last hundred years than in the previous fourteen centuries.3‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Paris Talks. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing, 2006, p.84.

By the early years of the twentieth century, such advances were familiar in the Western societies into which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ventured, which had been impacted by the scientific challenge to Bible-centric worldviews, technological progress and urbanization, shifts in governance and global consciousness, the intensification of financial exchange and improvements to the status of women. These and numerous other advancements—also taken up in distant corners of the planet, many of which had been annexed, colonized and influenced by Imperialist powers—are often included in the humanities and social sciences as some of the characteristics of “modernity.”

Concurrently, a wide variety of beliefs and practices later labelled ‘modernist’ were taking root. Ideals of truth, reason, and liberty were shared through diverse branches of human thought and endeavor, ranging from the materialistic to the esoteric. For the purposes of this exploration pertaining particularly to cultural pursuits, ‘modernism’ might be seen as both an outcome and, at times, a rejection of aspects of modernity. Rebelling against widely accepted norms, modernists in the arts set out to shun tradition and break rules, or at least push them to their limits. Painters dismissed the accurate depiction of reality, exploring instead the expressive and space-defining potential of color, experimented with abstracted forms, and revealed their process in the creation of an image; composers tested novel approaches to melody, harmony and rhythm; dancers drew upon the gestures of daily life or looked back to ancient civilizations for physical movements that stretched the possibilities of bodily expression; writers and dramatists departed from the established rules of prose, poetry, and playwriting to articulate the new sensibilities of the time. Some modernists conceived of utopian visions of society, albeit in certain cases by spreading the supremacy of their own nationalistic cultural heritage over neighboring traditions. At the heart of all of this burgeoning experimentation, however, was an aspiration for change, to which the subjective ‘self’ of the practitioner was central.

Ironically, while modernists often scorned uniformity and the imposition of Western values on the earth’s populations, they also turned for inspiration to the very cultures that were then becoming even more familiar to the public as a result of the expansionist ambitions of the powers under which they lived. A new universal art, some modernists believed, would emerge as they opened their eyes to what they considered to be the exciting, radical, and inventive qualities of the folk art and tribal crafts of the colonies, on display in museums and great expositions. Often it was the enormous wealth—extracted from colonialized subjects abroad and exploited lower classes at home—that enabled modernist projects, pursuits, and indulgences in the West.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution began to mount its challenge to the Biblical, anthropocentric conception of creation, the search for “an exotic and syncretic world religion” also became “an early modernist aim.”4Bernard Smith. Modernism and Post-Modernism, a neo-Colonial Viewpoint. Working Papers in Australian Studies, Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, 1992 New translations made accessible such religious texts as The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita, and the Tao Te Ching. Elements of the religions of India and Tibet—and the more mystical strands of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—were incorporated into modernist thinking, often through the teachings of the Theosophical Society, and especially among women seeking a spirituality that cut out the literal middle man.

Such was the burgeoning cultural landscape in the West when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived with His message of the dawning of a new era in human evolution, in which the unity and equality of all humanity would be recognized and conflict and contention would give way to an enduring peace.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s discourse on progress was rooted in the conviction that the discoveries and developments of the age represented an instinctive response on the part of humanity to a new infusion of divine power into creation. Fundamental to the Bahá’í conception of history is the belief that, when a Manifestation of God appears in the world, the accompanying forces required to accomplish His divinely-ordained purpose are also released, setting in motion irresistible processes of societal transformation. Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed:

The world’s equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System—the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed.5Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1978, LXX, p.135.

The spiritual forces released by the Revelations of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh were thus breaking down barriers and pushing an unknowing humanity toward the consciousness and realisation of its essential oneness, regardless of race, gender, class, or other divisive factors. Such forces had deranged the stability of the existing world order and instigated transformation at every level:

Through that Word the realities of all created things were shaken, were divided, separated, scattered, combined and reunited, disclosing, in both the contingent world and the heavenly kingdom, entities of a new creation …6Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1978, LXX, p.135.

These “spiritual, revolutionary forces,” observed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s grandson Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, “… are upsetting the equilibrium, and throwing into such confusion, the ancient institutions of mankind.”7Shoghi Effendi. The Promised Day is Come. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980, p.95 Humanity, either in its overt resistance to—or in its attempts to stimulate—social transformation was, in Shoghi Effendi’s analysis, experiencing the “commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax …”8Shoghi Effendi. ‘The Unfoldment of World Civilization’, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991, p.202 While the internal physiological processes within an individual trigger the onset of adolescence, the release into the world of Divine Revelation affects the inner fibre of human life and thought, and has an impact far beyond the personal orbit of a Manifestation of God and those who physically hear His message or respond directly to His call. It suffuses every aspect of existence and at a subliminal level is received by sensitive human hearts and minds, as yet oblivious to its source.


‘Abdu’l-Bahá with a group of Bahá’ís under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, January 1913

At the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s arrival in Paris on 3 October 1911, the French capital was maintaining its status as the most fertile arena for artists, writers, and musicians—including countless Americans—engaged in a passionate quest to live and work free from stifling convention. “I like Paris because I find something here, something of integrity, which I seem to have strangely lost in my own country,” wrote the African-American writer Jessie Redmon Fauset. “It is simplest of all to say that I like to live among people and surroundings where I am not always conscious of ‘thou shall not.’”9Shari Benstock. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. London: Virago, 1986, p.13 For women such as Fauset, who were escaping their homeland, where even educated Black citizens were still prohibited from participating in most social spaces, Paris offered the opportunity for fearless experimentation and acceptance. It was a city in which scientists such as the Polish Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist Marie Curie could train and embark on their careers, and where literary salons—including those hosted by expatriates Gertrude Stein and Natalie Clifford Barney—flourished, offering spaces where artists and writers could uninhibitedly share their ideas and work.

Women had also played a significant role in the establishment, in Paris, of the first Bahá’í centre in Europe at the close of the nineteenth century. Through the efforts of May Ellis Bolles (later Maxwell), many important figures in early Western Bahá’í history embraced the message of Bahá’u’lláh in the city. Among them were other Americans and Canadians, including painters such as Juliet Thompson and Marion Jack, and heiress Laura Clifford-Barney, Natalie’s sister. Impressionist painter Frank Edwin Scott, architect William Sutherland Maxwell, poet and art gallery manager Horace Holley and the Irish-born philanthropist Lady Blomfield also first came across the Bahá’í teachings in Paris. Experimental dancer Raymond Duncan, brother of the more renowned Isadora, and composer Dane Rudhyar were included in the Bahá’í circle. Rudhyar was a modernist who intuitively felt that Western civilization was coming to “the autumn phase of its cycle of existence.”10Rudhyar Archival Project. http://www.khaldea.com/rudhyar/bio1.shtml Later composing Commune—based on the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá— Rudhyar deemed the Bahá’í message to have embodied “clearly the most basic keynotes of the collective spirit of the age …”11Dane Rhudyar, cited in The Bahá’í World Vol. XIII 1954-1963. Haifa: The Universal House of Justice, 1970, p.829

To exhausted communities of the world [the Bahá’í Revelation] gives vital impetus which, we hope, will soon energize new creative manifestations and produce an inspired art, equal or superior to that of early Christianity.12Dane Rhudyar, cited in The Bahá’í World Vol. XIII 1954-1963. Haifa: The Universal House of Justice, 1970, p.829.

Many artists and writers of the period were continuing to take a Symbolist approach. As a prelude to more far-reaching forms of abstraction, Symbolists strove to represent universal truths through metaphorical language and imagery, in an attempt to “illumine the deepest contradictions of contemporary culture seen through the prism of various cultures.”13Andrei Bely. The Emblematics of Meaning: Premises to a Theory of Symbolism, 1909 The novelist Andrei Bely wrote:

… we are now experiencing, as it were, the whole of the past: India, Persia, Egypt, Greece … pass before us … just as a man on the point of death may see the whole of his life in an instant … An important hour has struck for humanity. We are indeed attempting something new but the old has to be taken into account …14Andrei Bely. The Emblematics of Meaning: Premises to a Theory of Symbolism, 1909

It seems natural, then, that the opportunity to see in person a striking, venerable figure from Persia was intriguing to those who sought enlightenment from the East to find a language appropriate for expressing the modern world. The influential critic and Symbolist poet Remy de Gourmont, for example, met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris on 20 October 1911. From Gourmont’s account, published in La France, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appears to have been alert to the fact that he was a writer for whom a metaphorical depiction of spiritual reality would have appeal:

… The eloquent patriarch spoke to us of the simple joys experienced in the Bahá’í city, of pleasures designed to delight the docile hearts, where spring is eternal, ever-flowering with the perpetual blooming of lilies, violets and roses, where women smile and men are happy in the perfume air of love. And we spoke of the great truth that excels all the previous truths, in which our little human errors are melted and transformed, as such quarrels disappear in the shade of the greatest Peace. And we felt a deep passion in the faintly halting voice, roughly punctuated by the guttural sounds of the Persian language, but also gently punctuated by the phrasing of his musical laughter. For the prophet is joyful and we all feel within him the gaiety of being a prophet, upon whom forty years of prison have left no trace. He had with him a bouquet of violets, offering one to each of his visitors; to the most resistant to his teachings and to those who had the audacity to stubbornly oppose him, the parma violets serve as his arguments, as do his hearty laugh, his beautiful and poetic arguments, and the simplicity of his Persian dress.15 See Amin Egea. The Apostle of Peace Vol.1: 1871-1912. Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 2017, p.164.

Evidently touched by their exchange, Gourmont urged his readers to seek out ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s public appearances. Subsequently, using a pseudonym, Gourmont even penned a review of his own La France article for another journal.

Another significant modernist who learned of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was Guillaume Apollinaire, although whether they met is not known. One of the foremost poets of the early twentieth century and a close associate of such emerging painters as Picasso, Braque, and Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire is credited with coining the terms “Cubism” in 1911 and “Surrealism” in 1917. His “Le Béhaisme” appeared in the Mercure de France on 17 October 1917. That article concludes:

A new voice is coming out of Asia. Already many in Europe believe that the word of Beha-Oullah[sic] does not contradict our modern science and can be assimilated for we[sic] Europeans, who need comforting. Isn’t it just that this comfort comes to us from Asia as it came before?16Guillaume Apollinaire, “Le Béhaisme.” Mercure de France, 16 October 1917, p.768

In like manner, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s stay in London was widely reported in the publications of the day. One weekly magazine, aptly titled The New Age and supported by the future Nobel Prize-winning writer George Bernard Shaw, was dedicated to publishing modernism in literature and the arts. In its 21 September 1911 edition, two weeks after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s arrival in the city, The New Age reported, “Seeds of strange religions are wafted from time to time on our shores. But fortunately or unfortunately, they do not find the soil in us in which to flourish … The latest to land in public is Bahaism, of which, indeed many of us have heard in private these many years.”17A.R. Orage. “Notes of the Week.” New Age 9, September 1911, p.484

The pioneering modernist poet Ezra Pound was a regular contributor to The New Age. The day after “Bahaism” was mentioned in its pages, Pound stated somewhat arrogantly to his future wife, Dorothy Shakespear, “They tell me I’m likely to meet the Bahi[sic] next week in order to find out whether I know more about heaven than he does …’18Ezra Pound, cited in Elham Afnan, “‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Ezra Pound’s Circle”, The Journal of Bahá’í Studies Volume 6 No.2, June-September 1994, p.8 Following their meeting, Pound then wrote to Margaret Cravens, a friend who lived in the French capital, “I met the Bahi yesterday, he is a dear old man. I wonder would you like to meet him, he goes to Paris next week. I’ll arrange for you anyhow and you can go or not, as you like.”19Omar Pound and Robert Spoo, editors. Ezra Pound and Margaret Cravens: A Tragic Friendship 1910-1912. Durham: Duke University Press, 1988, p.90. In a further communication to Cravens, Pound was clearly eager for his friend to see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, placing His significance above that of the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne:

The Bahi—Abdul Baha, Abbas Effendi, or whatever you like to call him is at the Dreyfus Barney’s … and any one interested in the movement can write and see him there by appointment. It’s more important than Cezanne, & not in the least like what you’d expect of an oriental religious now. At least, I went to conduct an inquisition & came away feeling that questions would have been an impertinence. The whole point is that they have done instead of talking …20Omar Pound and Robert Spoo, editors. Ezra Pound and Margaret Cravens: A Tragic Friendship 1910-1912. Durham: Duke University Press, 1988, p.95.

Despite Pound’s later, well-documented inclination towards fascism—which is about as ideologically far removed as can be imagined from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s purpose—it nevertheless appears that he was momentarily disarmed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The poet even revived his memory of that day more than two decades later in his monumental verse cycle The Cantos. “Pound did not interest himself in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s message beyond expressing approval of its unexpected modernity,” literature scholar Elham Afnan has observed, yet the “portrait of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá [in Canto XLVI], despite its flippancy, is basically sympathetic and as respectful as Pound can manage to be.”21Elham Afnan, “Abdu’l-Bahá and Ezra Pound’s Circle”, p.11.

Ezra Pound

Pound was also a contributor to the modernist journal Blast, in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s name appeared in a somewhat surprising fashion. Blast was the creation of the painter and novelist Percy Wyndham Lewis, founder of the short-lived Vorticist movement, which was inspired by the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, and the Italian Futurists’ celebration of the machine age. The first edition of Blast contained an extensive list of people, institutions, and objects that were, in the Vorticist view, either “Blessed” or “Blasted.” Curiously, included among those “Blasted” is the name “Abdul Bahai.” Since there is no record of Wyndham Lewis having met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the inclusion of His name in such a provocative list is perhaps more indicative of the contempt in which Blast’s editors held organized religion, or anything they deemed “bourgeois” and “establishment,” which may have encompassed the involvement of wealthy Londoners in Eastern movements.

In time, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s fame reached and impacted modernists much farther afield than the cities in which He spoke. In August 1911, the influential Japanese writer Yone Noguchi had sent Ezra Pound two books of his poems. Pound was very taken with Noguchi’s work, saying, “If east and west are ever to understand each other that understanding must come slowly and come first through art.”22Cited in Howard J.Booth and Nigel Rigby, Modernism and Empire. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000, p.82.

Yone Noguchi

Noguchi later learned of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá from Agnes Alexander, a Hawaiian-born Bahá’í who had been sent by Him to share the Bahá’í Teachings in Japan.23Agnes Baldwin Alexander, History of the Bahá’í Faith in Japan 1914-1938. Tokyo: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1977, p.41. Noguchi wrote:

I have heard so much about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, whom people call an idealist, but I should like to call Him a realist, because no idealism, when it is strong and true, exists without the endorsement of realism. There is nothing more real than His words on truth. His words are as simple as the sunlight; again like the sunlight, they are universal. … No Teacher, I think, is more important today than ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.24Yone Noguchi, cited in The Bahá’í World Vol. VIII 1938-1940. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981, p.624.

During the early days of the First World War, Agnes Alexander also introduced the Bahá’í Faith to the highly influential English potter Bernard Leach, who recalled: “We asked what had brought her to Japan and I was struck by the quietness of her smile when she answered ‘… you will not understand, but I came because a little old Persian Gentleman asked me to come.’”25Bernard Leach, “My Religious Faith” in Robert Weinberg, ed., Spinning the Clay into Stars. Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 1999, p.60. Leach—who became the most significant figure in the revival of craft pottery in modern Britain—dedicated his entire life to encouraging the union of East and West, fully embracing the Bahá’í Faith in 1940 after he was re-introduced to it by the American painter Mark Tobey, when they were both teaching at the progressive arts school Dartington Hall in Devon, England.

Bernard Leach with his son, David and students in the Old Pottery in St. Ives, England. From the Bernard Leach archive at the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, BHL/8999A.

 

Also favorable in his response to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was another enthusiast for modernism, Professor Michael Sadler. A progressive educationalist and university administrator, Sadler was president of the Leeds Arts Club, which mixed socialist and anarchist politics with the philosophy of Nietzsche, suffragette feminism, Theosophy, avant-garde art, and poetry. Sadler built up a remarkable collection of art, including a Symbolist masterpiece by Paul Gauguin and works by the Russian Expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky, at a time when his paintings were either unknown or dismissed in London, even by well-known supporters of modernism. In Kandinsky’s seminal 1911 treatise, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art), translated into English by Sadler’s son, the painter proposed that abstraction in painting was the best weapon for transforming a corrupt, materialist society.

Michael Sadler

Michael Sadler presided over ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s farewell talk at the conclusion of His first visit to London, on 29 September 1911, saying:

We have met together to bid farewell to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and to thank God for his example and teaching, and for the power of his prayers to bring Light into confused thought, Hope into the place of dread, Faith where doubt was, and into troubled hearts, the Love which overmasters self-seeking and fear.

Though we all, among ourselves, in our devotional allegiance have our own individual loyalties, to all of us ‘Abdu’l-Bahá brings, and has brought, a message of Unity, of sympathy and of Peace. He bids us all be real and true in what we profess to believe; and to treasure above everything the Spirit behind the form. With him we bow before the Hidden Name, before that which is of every life the Inner Life! He bids us worship in fearless loyalty to our own faith, but with ever stronger yearning after Union, Brotherhood, and Love; so turning ourselves in Spirit, and with our whole heart, that we may enter more into the mind of God, which is above class, above race, and beyond time.26‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London. London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987, p.34.

In January 1913, when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá travelled to Edinburgh, Scotland’s main proponents of modernist painting—known as the Scottish Colourists—were working abroad in France, where their pictures were exhibited and sold predominately by the Paris gallery managed by Horace Holley. Symbolism, however, was a strong component of the Celtic Revival movement, in which artists and writers drew inspiration from the ancient myths and traditions of Gaelic literature and the early British mediaeval style to create art in a modern idiom. While in Edinburgh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke with a number of artists through introductions from leading Celtic Revivalist Sir Patrick Geddes, the celebrated philanthropist and town planner (who also had the dubious honor of being “blasted” by Wyndham Lewis). Geddes presided over a public gathering with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, saying of Him:

We approve of the ideal He lays before us of education and the necessity of each one learning a trade, and His beautiful simile of the two wings on which society is to rise into a purer and clearer atmosphere, put into beautiful words what was in the minds of many of us. What impressed us most is that courage which enabled Him, during long years of imprisonment, and even in the face of death, to hold fast to His convictions.27H.M. Balyuzi. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant. Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 1971, p.365.

Geddes invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to visit a protégé of his, the painter John Duncan and Duncan’s wife Christine who had connections to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s friends Wellesley Tudor Pole and Alice Buckton, who shared in her Spiritualist interests. Among Duncan’s paintings, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá viewed St. Bride—now housed in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art—depicting the Irish saint who, legend has it, was transported by angels from Ireland to Bethlehem to attend the birth of Christ. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reportedly blessed the paintings, much to the delight of the Duncans.

John Duncan, “Saint Bride”

At the Edinburgh College of Arts, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also encouraged a prize-winning sculptor, Fanindra Nath Bose, from Calcutta. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá praised Bose’s work, suggesting he return to India to found a new school of sculpture.28H.M. Balyuzi. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant. Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 1971, p.11. Later in 1913, Bose relocated to Paris to work under the great sculptor Auguste Rodin, which led to his becoming part of the “new sculpture” movement in Britain, creating small, figurative, Symbolist statues.

In addition to conversing with artists, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá occasionally agreed to have His portrait painted. During the nine days in April 1913 that He stayed in Budapest, Hungary, He sat three times for Róbert Nádler, a celebrated painter and teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts and president of the city’s Theosophical Society. Two decades later, Nádler warmly recalled the experience, saying, “I saw with admiration that in his facial expression peace, clean love, and perfect good intentions reflected themselves. He saw everything in such a beatific light; he found everything beautiful the outer life of the city, as well as the souls of its inhabitants.”29Cited in Martha Root, “‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Visit to Budapest”, in Kay Zinky, ed., Martha Root: Herald of the Kingdom. New Delhi: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1983, pp.361-370 Nádler’s sympathetic painting of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is unique among the portraits made of Him, taking an Impressionistic impasto approach, particularly in the treatment of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s gossamer-like beard, made up of rhythmic brushstrokes.

Portrait of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá by Róbert Nádler, a celebrated painter and teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts and president of the city’s Theosophical Society

During ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s nine-month sojourn in North America, the most well-known literary personality to encounter Him was the Syrian-born, Lebanese-American writer and artist Kahlil Gibran, a central figure of Arabic literary modernism. Gibran arrived in New York City at the end of April 1911, his creative horizons having expanded during his exposure to modernists in Paris. Greenwich Village, where Gibran settled, was a gathering place for radical political and bohemian thinkers who were committed to an imminent revolution in human consciousness and social change. Art, they believed, would provide people with new values, giving rise to a new social order. In 1913, modern European art arrived forcefully in New York, when astonished Americans saw for the first time more than 300 avant-garde works at the infamous Armory Show. While remaining unmoved by most of the pieces on display, Gibran was sensitive to the motivations of modern artists, saying, “… the spirit of the movement will never pass away, for it is real—as real as the human hunger for freedom.”30Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran. Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World. Edinburgh, Canongate Press, 1992, p.252

Gibran “simply adored” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, recalled Juliet Thompson, who was Gibran’s neighbour. “He was with Him whenever he could be.”31Marzieh Gail, “Juliet Remembers Gibran”, Other People, Other Places. Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, p.230. On 19 April 1912, Gibran sketched a portrait for which ‘Abdu’l-Baha sat and, for the rest of his life, “often talked of Him, most sympathetically and most lovingly.”32Marzieh Gail, “Juliet Remembers Gibran”, Other People, Other Places. Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, p.230. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá may well have been a source of inspiration for Gibran’s most famous work, The Prophet. The name of the book’s main protagonist Almustafa, it has been posited, resembles that of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with only the consonants changed,33See David Langness, ‘The Bahá’í influence on Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’. https://bahaiteachings.org/bahai-influence-on-kahlil-gibrans-the-prophet/ and the villagers in the narrative refer to him as ‘The Master,’ an appellation commonly used in relation to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. While Thompson did not later recall there being any definite connection between The Prophet and Gibran’s meeting with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the author did tell her that when he was writing The Son of Man, “he thought of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá all through.”34Gail, Other People, Other Places, p.228 He also expressed his intention—though it was never realised—to write a book specifically about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

Portrait of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá by Kahlil Gibran, 1912.

Juliet Thompson also arranged for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to sit for the outstanding photographer Gertrude Käsebier. Since 1899, Alfred Stieglitz—a prominent New York gallery owner who championed American modernism—had promoted photography through his ‘Photo-Secession’ movement, which aimed to advance photography as a serious new art form and exhibit the finest work by American practitioners. Käsebier, who Stieglitz deemed to be the leading artistic portrait photographer of the day, was at the heart of Photo-Secession and believed the medium could be a particularly suitable art form and source of income for women. “I earnestly advise women of artistic tastes to train for the unworked field of modern photography,” she said in a lecture. “It seems to be especially adapted to them, and the few who have entered it are meeting a gratifying and profitable success.”35Cited in Stephen Petersen and Janis A. Tomlinson, eds. Gertrude Kasebier – The Complexity of Light and Shade. University of Delaware Press, 2013, p.11.

Käsebier had distinguished herself by her sympathetic, powerful portraits of America’s indigenous peoples, focusing on their expressions and individuality, rather than costumes and customs, a sensitivity she deployed in her portrait session with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on 20 June 1912. “I shall never forget the Master’s beauty in the strange cold light of her studio,” wrote Thompson in her diary, “a green, underwater sort of light, in which He looked shining and chiselled, like the statue of a god. But the pictures are dark shadows of Him.”36Juliet Thompson. The Diary of Juliet Thompson. Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1983, p.317. Kasebier, though, told Thompson afterwards, that she would like to live near Him.

Photograph of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá by Gertrude Käsebier during her portrait session with Him on 20 June 1912

Although those who came into contact with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá were deeply impacted by His presence and personality, some appear not to have consciously or explicitly made the profound connection between the Revelation He propagated and the revolutionary period during which they were making their distinctive mark. Yet, other leading modernists did respond more directly and thoughtfully to His Message.

The June 1912 edition of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s official magazine The Crisis published ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s speech at its fourth conference.

One of the Bahá’í principles promulgated with urgency by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His travels in the United States was the elimination of racial prejudice. His address at the fourth conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) made a strong impact, for example, on sociologist and writer W.E.B. Du Bois, who published ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s speech in full in the June 1912 edition of the NAACP’s official magazine The Crisis and made Him one of the ‘Men of the Month’ in the July issue. The Bahá’í teachings on race unity also resonated forcefully with Alain LeRoy Locke—the philosophical architect of the Harlem Renaissance artistic movement, which aimed to create a body of African American writing and art comparable to the best from Europe, to celebrate and transcend the stereotypes of black American culture and encourage social integration. Locke asserted that, drawing on African American sources, black “artists could transcend the narrow conventions of Western art creating a genuinely human art.”37Willliam B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff. New York Modern – The Arts and the City. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999, p.139.

Alain LeRoy Locke

Locke formally accepted the Bahá’í Faith in 1918. Five years later, making his first pilgrimage to the Bahá’í Shrines in the Holy Land, he had a profoundly affecting experience in the Shrine of the Báb and the Shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, where he became “strangely convinced that the death of the greatest teachers is the release of their spirit in the world. …”38Alain Locke. “Impressions of Haifa”, The Bahá’í World Vol.3, 1928-1930. Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980, p.280.

Through their encounters with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, then, thousands of souls in the West came into direct contact with the human embodiment of the spiritual forces released by the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, a Revelation through which, although few of them discerned it, “… the whole creation was revolutionized, and all that are in the heavens and all that are on earth were stirred to the depths.”39Bahá’u’lláh. Prayers and Meditations. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987, CLXXVIII, p.295 One particular aspect of that Revelation, of which most of the artists and writers He met probably remained unaware, concerned the radical redefinition of art as being an act of worship. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described it thus to Juliet Thompson:

I rejoice to hear that thou takest pains with thine art, for in this wonderful new age, art is worship. The more thou strivest to perfect it, the closer wilt thou come to God. What bestowal could be greater than this, that one’s art should be even as the act of worshipping the Lord? That is to say, when thy fingers grasp the paintbrush, it is as if thou wert at prayer in the Temple.40Extract from a Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, www.bahai.org/r/925134802

This consecration of humanity’s creative pursuits would, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá foresaw it, in the centuries ahead give rise to “a new art, a new architecture, fused of all the beauty of the past, but new.”41Cited in Star of the West, Vol.VI No.4, 15 May 1915, pp.30-1. Despite all of its cultural ferment and experimentation, then, the early years of the twentieth century—with its “landscape of false confidence and deep despair, of scientific enlightenment and spiritual gloom,”42Century of Light. Haifa, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001, p.7. a landscape on which the “luminous figure of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá”43Century of Light. Haifa, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001, p.7 appeared— might thus be seen merely as the first streaks of the dawn of a “new cycle of human power.”44‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London. London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987, p.19.

 

The author is grateful to Debra Bricker Balkan, Hari Docherty, Dannah Edwards, Sky Glabush, Jan Jasion, Michael Karlberg, Arlette Manasseh, Anne Perry, and Nathan Rainsford for their assistance in the preparation of this essay.

In the last several decades, debates around the globe have intensified about the place of governments in safeguarding the welfare of their people. On one end of the spectrum have been those arguing that the state’s role in this enterprise should be absolute. They would say that, as the ultimate representative of the people, public institutions bear full responsibility to create universal systems to meet all social needs, and that leaving such concerns to the private and non-governmental realm can only result in piecemeal programming, profiteering from essential services, and people falling through the cracks. On the other end of the spectrum are those that have argued that government is inevitably inefficient, corrupt, and prone to stifling the transformative ingenuity generated by market forces, the freedom of altruistic individual initiative, and the responsiveness of grassroots community action. As such, the needs of society, they would say, can be best met by minimizing the size and scope of government, with an understanding that this leads to robust economic growth and the flourishing of non-governmental organizations and charities able to respond directly to local needs and provide support for the most disadvantaged. These debates, of course, have not just played out in academic and philosophical arenas, but have had a profound impact on the day-to-day lives of all people.

At present, a frenetic pace of change in countless spheres—from economics to climate, from technology to demographics—has fed a mounting sense of uncertainty. In every corner of the globe, growing masses live in precarious social conditions and governments find themselves paralyzed by disputes about their responsibility and capacity to respond. Despite the many achievements brought about by the prevailing sociopolitical order, its legitimacy is increasingly called into question. There is thus a crying need for a renewed vision of the place of public institutions in providing for social well-being.

As with many subjects involving extremes of perspective, instead of one side “winning” the ideological debate and attempting to impose itself, arriving at a lasting solution would seem to require a more moderate approach. The sustainability of any set of social arrangements depends on the degree to which genuine consensus is built. In this connection, the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, together with the Bahá’í community’s emergent reconceptualization of the relationships between individuals, communities, and institutions, provide new vantage points from which to understand and begin to address current political impasses. Moreover, the writings and recorded utterances of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offer numerous insights on the subject of government’s responsibilities and proper functioning. Disclosing glimpses of a world in which institutions and people work in concert for societal well-being, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words illuminate a way forward characterized not by compromise between competing claims but by their reconciliation and harmonization.

The Emergence of the Modern Welfare State

In his seminal 1776 work An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote that among a sovereign’s central obligations was “the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain”. These, he suggested, could not reasonably be established by a private interest because any profit they might generate could never repay the expense incurred, but they “may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.”1Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: Books IV-V (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 310.

Smith, the so-called father of capitalism, was first and foremost a moral philosopher, and his concern was not only explaining the dynamics of the new political economy. He also pointed to the ethical implications of nascent capitalism—both in terms of the system’s potential pitfalls and the social norms required for its proper functioning. As Smith saw markets as human constructions whose ultimate purpose was to serve the public good, in many of his writings, he designated a central role to government in safeguarding markets through considered regulation and in making provisions to ensure social well-being.2Smith leveled harsh criticisms against the actions and motivations of the employer “order”, saying that its interests were “never exactly the same with that of the public” and it generally had “an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public” (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: Books I-III, London: Penguin, 1999, p. 359). He also advocated higher taxation on the rich, especially on those deriving and maintaining their wealth from rents, and displayed a deep concern for the soul-crushing effects of laborers having to engage in mindless, repetitive work (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: Books IV-V, London: Penguin, 1999, pp. 368-434).

In a sense, Smith’s comments on the place of public institutions in society presaged a set of ideological contests that would shape the modern world. For thousands of years, human beings have debated the role of those in power to regulate individual action and provide for social needs. But these questions came into much sharper relief in the last two centuries as a result of the revolution of industrial capitalism in Europe and a variety of attendant developments. As a new age of material and technological abundance dawned, population levels grew and cities swelled with the rural peasantry entering the urban labor force. Millennia-old communal and familial arrangements for ensuring collective well-being were disrupted, and governments were increasingly expected to fill the gaps.

In the fertile soil of the political upheavals of the day and the mounting discontent with the new miseries produced by the industrial economic order, an array of European thinkers and activists developed the modern ideas of socialism and communism. While the specifics and ambition of their proposals varied greatly, they generally called for the collective ownership of the means of production as an antidote to what they saw as the exploitative capitalist system. In such schemas, the society as a whole would be the primary owner of the resources of economic life, and this ownership would be administered either by the state, by workers groups, or through some other collective framework. These ideas achieved their highest and most influential expression in the work of German philosopher Karl Marx, whose writings would provide the ideological and theoretical foundations for numerous movements and revolutions in the century to come. The most significant of these was undoubtedly the Russian Revolution of 1917 that led to the establishment of the Soviet Union—as this state would serve as the standard-bearer of international socialism and sociopolitical challenger to the Western capitalist order during most of the twentieth century.

But well before the rivalry between the capitalist and socialist camps erupted on the global stage, there were attempts to reconcile their respective aspirations and appease differing factions through hybrid systems. Tracing its origins to late nineteenth century Germany, the modern welfare state emerged through this process. Under the leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm I and his “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, the newly-united German nation implemented a series of policies designed to undermine the threat of socialism by meeting the social needs of the working class. The measures included health and accident insurance, an old-age pension program, and worker protection regulations.

Over the course of the early twentieth century, industrialized countries followed Germany’s lead and began expanding government’s involvement in social welfare. As with Bismarck’s government, many states faced the accusation that they were the defenders of a system that benefited the few at the expense of the suffering masses, and they therefore enacted measures to deliver essential services and curb the worst inequities. As humanity was rocked by world wars and the Great Depression, many wealthy nations established universal and targeted systems to provide healthcare, education, unemployment and disability benefits, pensions, childcare, and other public services. This was bolstered by the influential work of British economist John Maynard Keynes, who advocated increased public spending and government taking a more active role in the market and national employment levels.3In view of this discussion, it is interesting to note that John Maynard Keynes once famously commented: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else” (John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, London: Macmillan, 1936, p. 383). Moreover, following the conclusion of World War II and the emergence of the Cold War between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, the capitalist West sought to demonstrate not only its military supremacy to the socialist East but also its superiority in delivering broad-based prosperity to its citizens. In this context, by the middle of the century, the welfare state—with varying degrees of comprehensiveness—had become the norm in high-income capitalist countries, and increasingly in poorer countries as well.

However, by the 1970s, the proposition that government ought to serve as the principal arbiter in ensuring social welfare, a proposition that seemed to have attained broad consensus, was eroding. The size and scope of most governments had expanded significantly in the decades prior, and a growing chorus of economists, led by Milton Friedman, argued that underwriting large, bureaucratic states was hamstringing private interests and impeding economic growth. Moreover, in the global ideological and geopolitical contest between capitalism and socialism, capitalism had gained the upper hand. As awareness grew about the atrocities occurring in the Soviet Union and cynicism rose about the failures of other revolutionary social movements to achieve their goals or even abide by their noble ideals, market economies were proving themselves more capable of delivering prosperity than planned economies. In this context, the capitalist governments of the world felt less and less pressure to prove their capacity to provide for social well-being.

The twilight of the Cold War witnessed the ascendance of so-called “neoliberalism”. Led by the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom, and prescribed to many developing economies, this economic vision entailed lowering taxes, privatizing state enterprises, deregulating markets, and promoting economic globalization through the reduction of national barriers to trade and investment. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the implementation of such measures—combined with the forces of globalization—had succeeded in restructuring the relationship between many citizens and their national governments.4Even China, the last major flag-bearer of international socialism, had introduced in the preceding years a series of transformative economic reforms, leading to its signature “socialist market economy” and the eventual lifting of 850 million citizens out of poverty (World Bank website, “The World Bank in China”: https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/china/overview, accessed 25 January 2020). In this context, one prominent thinker proclaimed the “end of history”, asserting that humanity had reached the end of its ideological evolution with Western-style liberal democracy upholding a free-market economic system triumphing as “the final form of human government”.5Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest, no. 16, 1989. Fukuyama later expanded this article into the 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man.

Contemporary challenges

Although the “end of history” claim was quickly met with skepticism and critique, in many ways the world has only moved closer to this vision in the years since. Countries in the “developed” world—supposedly representing the end goal that all “developing” nations should strive to attain—have continued to abide within this basic citizen-government compact, albeit with differing levels of government involvement in socioeconomic life. In Nordic countries, for instance, society operates based on a free market economy combined with a large public sector—funded by high levels of taxation relative to gross domestic product—that administers a comprehensive welfare state and actively engages in labor issues. But there are also countries where government plays a more modest role in promoting social welfare. The most prominent among these is the United States, with its restricted social safety net, relatively high levels of private provision of social services, and limited government involvement in labor issues.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, even as the liberal-democratic capitalist order remained ascendant on the global stage, there were increasing signs of an undercurrent of discontent. Resurgent and often deadly forces of religious fanaticism and ethno-nationalism, skyrocketing economic inequality, and the booms and busts inherent to the system dashed much of the optimism of the period immediately following the Cold War. Building on earlier traditions of distrust in government stewardship, this once-simmering dissatisfaction with political and economic elites began erupting to the surface.

As a result, humanity currently finds itself at a juncture of paradox and precarity. Despite objective gains in many metrics of human well-being in recent decades, large numbers of people perceive their lives and the world in general as becoming worse.6Max Roser, “Most of us are wrong about how the world has changed (especially those who are pessimistic about the future)”, Our World in Data, 27 July 2018: https://ourworldindata.org/wrong-about-the-world, accessed 25 January 2020. Rich and poor countries alike are experiencing ever more uncertainty amidst unending transformations in the spheres of technology and employment, waves of internal and international migration, disasters precipitated by changes in the climate, and the havoc wreaked by global pandemics. In a world in which the notion of “disruption” itself is lauded as a social good, a growing number of citizens clamor for greater social stability.

However, there is a lack of clarity about from where this salve should come. Governments, the traditional purveyors of societal security, are externally looked upon with suspicion and are internally divided as to their responsibilities. Crises of faith in public institutions are everywhere apparent as society demonstrates itself bereft of a shared vision on this front.

The Bahá’í Perspective on Government Providing for Social Well-Being

In the nineteenth century, as the modern world was being forged by economic and political upheavals in Europe’s centers of power, another set of developments was agitating the status quo in sites across the Middle East. In 1863, one month before the founding of the world’s first socialist party,7Ferdinand Lassalle, the originator of the idea of “state socialism,” founded the General German Workers’ Association on 23 May 1863. In contrast to Marx, who saw the state as an apparatus for maintaining existing class structures, Lassalle considered the state to be independent of class allegiances, a potential instrument of justice, and therefore essential to establishing socialism (Gary Dorrien, Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019, p. 59). Bahá’u’lláh inaugurated a new chapter in a transformative movement that had been building for decades.

In the unassuming setting of a garden north of Baghdad, Bahá’u’lláh declared that humanity was entering a new stage in its history and, over the course of the next several decades, gradually outlined a comprehensive assessment of the world’s contemporary condition. He indicated that humankind stood at the cusp of its collective maturity and that the upheavals into which it had fallen were symptomatic of a turbulent adolescence. As such, the world was in need of new social tools and reinvigorated spiritual principles to give up outdated modes of social organization based on greed, conflict, and particularistic thinking and embrace a new ethic of reciprocity, collaboration, and universality. Bahá’u’lláh expressed that on the other side of this transitional period would be a peaceful and prosperous global civilization, but that it would be humanity’s responsibility to construct this new world.

In this connection, the Bahá’í writings contain many insights for the restructuring of governance and social organization. Beginning in 1867, Bahá’u’lláh wrote to the kings and rulers of the world—including Emperor Napoleon III, Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Tsar Alexander II, and Pope Pius IX—admonishing them to abandon wasteful and self-serving endeavors and dedicate their energies to the well-being of their citizens.8These messages are compiled in the book Summons of the Lord of Hosts. And in 1875, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá anonymously directed a treatise to the rulers and people of Persia, which laid out the practical and moral requirements for the nation to overcome its degraded condition and achieve prosperity.

Later published under the title The Secret of Divine Civilization, this unequaled work on the interplay of spiritual principle and political economy spoke to a nation struggling to enter the modern era. At a time when the Shah had publicly “resolved to bring about the advancement of the Persian people, their welfare and security and the prosperity of their country,”9‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 5. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advised the country’s leaders to look to the rest of the world and learn from others’ breakthroughs in science and public administration. By abandoning their cultural and religious biases, particularly concerning the West, and earnestly seeking knowledge and insight from whatever source it might come, they could overcome the country’s stagnation. For ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, a society characterized by the technological and institutional advancement of the West and the spiritual devotion of the East would be the envy of the world.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s call for national upliftment was directed at the entire society. Pointing to a reciprocal relationship between people and government, He indicated that the nation at every level was in need of education and a regeneration of moral principle grounded in spiritual conviction.10‘Abdu’l-Bahá says that Persia’s “people must make a massive effort” and that “[c]lose investigation will show that the primary cause of oppression and injustice, of unrighteousness, irregularity and disorder, is the people’s lack of religious faith and the fact that they are uneducated. When, for example, the people are genuinely religious and are literate and well-schooled, and a difficulty presents itself, they can apply to the local authorities; if they do not meet with justice and secure their rights and if they see that the conduct of the local government is incompatible with the divine good pleasure and the king’s justice, they can then take their case to higher courts and describe the deviation of the local administration from the spiritual law. Those courts can then send for the local records of the case and in this way justice will be done. At present, however, because of their inadequate schooling, most of the population lack even the vocabulary to explain what they want” (Ibid., pp. 10-18). Moreover, provision had to be made for the well-being of all people, particularly the downtrodden, but The Secret of Divine Civilization does not stipulate categorically from where it should come. The source of public welfare is given less import than the assurance that the people’s needs are met. For instance, with regard to the capacity of individual initiative to promote the common good, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá discusses the prospect of a prosperous and enlightened person using his or her wealth to transform the fortunes of the generality of the people. He states:

Above all, if a judicious and resourceful individual should initiate measures which would universally enrich the masses of the people, there could be no undertaking greater than this, and it would rank in the sight of God as the supreme achievement, for such a benefactor would supply the needs and insure the comfort and well-being of a great multitude.11Ibid., p. 24.

But while ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes clear the duty of every individual to be “a source of social good”,12Ibid., p. 2. He nevertheless places the ultimate responsibility for social well-being on government and leadership. It is the “monarch”, He says, “on whose high resolve the welfare of all his subjects depends.” 13Ibid., p. 11. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes the obligation of a leader to view his or her work as an act of service and to “consider the welfare of the community as one’s own” (Ibid., p. 39). At the core of The Secret of Divine Civilization is a call for authorities to abandon self-interest and act with moral rectitude. He writes that “any agency whatever, though it be the instrument of mankind’s greatest good, is capable of misuse. Its proper use or abuse depends on the varying degrees of enlightenment, capacity, faith, honesty, devotion, and high-mindedness of the leaders of public opinion.”14Ibid., p. 23. On a policy level, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá identified the widespread practice of bribery among Persian government officials, known “by the pleasant names of gifts and favors,” and asserted that such behavior could in part be curbed by relieving provincial authorities of the corrupting influence of “absolute authority” (Ibid., p. 15).

On this note, while The Secret of Divine Civilization highlights a number of practical considerations for the building of a materially and spiritually prosperous society, it is primarily concerned with establishing the social norms on which the project can be sustainably undertaken. The same can be said of the Bahá’í teachings more generally. The Bahá’í Faith does not put forward a blueprint for a new sociopolitical system, but rather calls for the development of new modes of social engagement and collective decision-making capable of giving rise to such a system. In the Bahá’í view, without a renewal of attitudes and qualities such as compassion, selflessness, and fairmindedness at the individual and collective levels, the idea of erecting just social structures is a chimera.

Although the Bahá’í writings do not advance technical policy prescriptions, they nevertheless offer glimpses of some practical arrangements of a society befitting a humanity that has come of age. What follows are a number of these interconnecting guiding lines. At the outset, it should be noted that the implication here is not that there is a particular model to be realized but rather that there are multiple ways to arrive at the same social outcome. Different governments may adopt different approaches to respond to the unique realities and social needs of their people—though by embracing a posture of learning, they can continually gain insight from one another’s advances and adjust their approaches accordingly. Nevertheless, the Faith does make clear that there are certain social thresholds below which it is immoral to let any member of the human family fall—and others which it is likewise immoral to surpass. As such, certain principles on governance and social welfare might well be regarded as universal. On this note, it should also be stressed that the topics addressed below do not represent a comprehensive treatment of the Bahá’í perspective on the subject. While the Bahá’í teachings emphasize an integrated vision of human well-being and contain countless insights on questions ranging from education to health to societal cohesion, the guiding lines that follow focus on issues related to economic conditions.

Elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty

One of the most widely discussed subjects in the world today is income inequality. For this reason, few of the social teachings of the Bahá’í Faith seem as relevant now as the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty. This cardinal Bahá’í principle recurs, in particular, throughout the writings and recorded utterances of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who was emphatic as to the grave injustice of extreme inequality and its destabilizing effect on society. Not to be confused with complete equalization, which for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would go against nature and result in “chaos” and “universal disappointment”,15‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 273-274. He describes the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty in this way:

Certainly, some being enormously rich and others lamentably poor, an organization is necessary to control and improve this state of affairs. It is important to limit riches, as it is also of importance to limit poverty. Either extreme is not good. To be seated in the mean is most desirable. If it be right for a capitalist to possess a large fortune, it is equally just that his workman should have a sufficient means of existence.16‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 152. In another instance, He affirms: “Consider an individual who has amassed treasures by colonizing a country for his profit: he has obtained an incomparable fortune and has secured profits and incomes which flow like a river, while a hundred thousand unfortunate people, weak and powerless, are in need of a mouthful of bread. There is neither equality nor benevolence. So you see that general peace and joy are destroyed, and the welfare of humanity is negated to such an extent as to make fruitless the lives of many. For fortune, honors, commerce, industry are in the hands of some industrialists, while other people are submitted to quite a series of difficulties and to limitless troubles: they have neither advantages, nor profits, nor comforts, nor peace” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 273-274).

It bears noting that at the time ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made this statement in Paris in 1911, the Western world was experiencing a period of heightened inequality.For example, when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed the subject again in New York City in 1912, it is estimated that the top 1% of earners in the United States were taking in nearly a fifth of the nation’s income. This figure fell substantially in subsequent decades but has rebounded and been surpassed in recent years.17Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, “Distributional National Accounts: Methods and Estimates for the United States”, NBER Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research, December 2016: https://www.nber.org/papers/w22945.pdf, accessed 25 January 2020 In many ways, present-day economic conditions are the same as those to which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke, with extremes of wealth and poverty that are difficult to fathom.18It has been reported that in 2009 the combined wealth of the world’s 380 richest people equaled that of the poorest 50% of the planet’s population—that is, more than three and a half billion people—but by 2019 the disparity had grown significantly, with just 26 individuals having as much as the poorest half of the world (Larry Elliott, “World’s 26 richest people own as much as poorest 50%, says Oxfam”, The Guardian, 21 January 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jan/21/world-26-richest-people-own-as-much-as-poorest-50-per-cent-oxfam-report, accessed 25 January 2020). Such a skewed distribution of resources not only has countless deleterious effects on the ability of those living in poverty to lead happy, healthy, fulfilling lives, but has been shown to be detrimental to the entirety of society—including to the wealthy.19See, for example, Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (London: Penguin, 2010). Addressing this imbalance thus represents one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. The question, of course, is how. And on this front, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá points to regulatory and legislative means:

There must be special laws made, dealing with these extremes of riches and of want. The members of the Government should consider the laws of God when they are framing plans for the ruling of the people. The general rights of mankind must be guarded and preserved…. The government of the countries should conform to the Divine Law which gives equal justice to all. This is the only way in which the deplorable superfluity of great wealth and miserable, demoralizing, degrading poverty can be abolished.20‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 152.

In utterances like this and many others, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá lays the responsibility of correcting the imbalance of extreme inequality on government. He repeatedly states that the “remedy must be legislative readjustment of conditions”,21‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107. as such laws represent the “greatest means” for promoting social equity.22Ibid., p. 216.

Taxation and voluntary giving

When speaking of legislative action to foster social equity, the most often cited means is progressive taxation. Since the first modern income taxes were levied in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century,23The tax was introduced in 1799 to fund the growing war against Napoleon. It required all annual incomes over £200 to be taxed at a rate of 10% and incomes between £60 and £200 to be taxed at a graduated rate from less than 1% to 10%; incomes below £60 were not taxed (Parliament of the United Kingdom website, “War and the coming of income tax”: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/taxation/overview/incometax/, accessed 25 January 2020). the notion that taxpayers ought to pay incrementally greater percentages of their income or wealth based on what they have and what they earn has become commonplace. In recent years, in the context of growing levels of inequality, leading economists have proposed aggressively redistributive tax rates to try to limit the concentration of wealth among a small few. This, they contend, would lead to a more equitable circulation of resources and curb the social and economic instability caused by extreme inequality.24In the landmark 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, for example, Thomas Piketty proposes an annual global wealth tax of up to 2% and a progressive income tax up to 80% for the very highest earners. A century ago, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also laid out a schema for progressive taxation. Writing that the “question of economics must commence with the farmer and then be extended to the other classes” as “the farmer is the first active agent in human society”, He describes a system for the collection of taxes in a village and their payment to a community “storehouse”.25‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “Additional Tablets, Extracts and Talks”, Bahá’í Reference Library website: https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/additional-tablets-extracts-talks/, accessed 25 January 2020. Administered by an elected local board composed of trustworthy individuals, the storehouse would have multiple sources of revenue. The first source would be a “tithe” owed by farmers, which would be calculated in consideration of their revenue and needful expenditures. By way of example, He defines a five-tiered taxation scale in which farmers whose annual income is equal to their expenses—that is, with no surplus—would pay nothing to the storehouse, while those with the greatest surpluses would pay half of their income to it. In between, He gives scenarios of farmers owing, respectively, one-tenth, one-fourth, and one-third of their net earnings.26‘Abdu’l-Bahá states: “As to the first, the tenths or tithes: we will consider a farmer, one of the peasants. We will look into his income. We will find out, for instance, what is his annual revenue and also what are his expenditures. Now, if his income be equal to his expenditures, from such a farmer nothing whatever will be taken. That is, he will not be subjected to taxation of any sort, needing as he does all his income. Another farmer may have expenses running up to one thousand dollars we will say, and his income is two thousand dollars. From such [a farmer] a tenth will be required, because he has a surplus. But if his income be ten thousand dollars and his expenses one thousand dollars… he will have to pay as taxes, one-fourth. If his income be one hundred thousand dollars and his expenses five thousand, one-third will he have to pay…. But if his expenses be ten thousand and his income two hundred thousand then he must give an even half because ninety thousand will be in that case the sum remaining. Such a scale as this will determine allotment of taxes. All the income from such revenues will go to this general storehouse” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 40).

The reason for these progressive taxation rates is to address disparities in people’s means and needs. In the context of all people contributing to the community’s output, such a measure promotes social equity and ensures the elimination of poverty. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains:

All must be producers. Each person in the community whose income is equal to his individual producing capacity shall be exempt from taxation. But if his income is greater than his needs he must pay a tax until an adjustment is effected. That is to say, a man’s capacity for production and his needs will be equalized and reconciled through taxation. If his production exceeds, he will pay a tax; if his necessities exceed his production he shall receive an amount sufficient to equalize or adjust. Therefore taxation will be proportionate to capacity and production and there will be no poor in the community.27‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 217.

It is important to note that, for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, such a measure would be founded on an ethic of reciprocity and social trust. Those contributing to the village storehouse would do so knowing that their contributions would help ensure the well-being of their neighbors, particularly those who may be unable to provide for themselves—such as orphans, the elderly, and those with disabilities. In addition, any member of the community that confronted a set of emergency expenses would be able to draw from the storehouse. Thus, all contributors would simultaneously be beneficiaries. The same principles would hold true in large urban settings, though on a larger and more complex scale.28Ibid., p. 41.

The sense of social trust and reciprocity underpinning the storehouse would be bolstered by local control of its finances. It is only after all local needs are covered, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, that any surplus found in the storehouse would “be transferred to the national treasury.”29Ibid., p. 40. It is interesting to note that the high-tax Nordic countries mentioned above maintain a similar type of local control of tax revenue, with municipal income tax rates often higher than national rates and decisions about how to use these funds made close to the tax base. But on a more profound level, its proper functioning would depend on a particular worldview and moral orientation at the communal level. Specifically, it would require a conception of individual well-being as inextricably tied to collective well-being—that is, of individuals constituting component parts of an organic social body. Notions of individual accumulation and the primacy of individual ownership would need to be subordinated to a vision of private property as simply a means to the end of collective prosperity.

In this connection, in the Bahá’í view, the giving of one’s property for the collective good should be an act performed willingly, and not one based on coercion. On this note, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserts:

To state the matter briefly, the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh advocate voluntary sharing, and this is a greater thing than the equalization of wealth. For equalization must be imposed from without, while sharing is a matter of free choice… Man reacheth perfection through good deeds, voluntarily performed, not through good deeds the doing of which was forced upon him. And sharing is a personally chosen righteous act: that is, the rich should extend assistance to the poor, they should expend their substance for the poor, but of their own free will, and not because the poor have gained this end by force. For the harvest of force is turmoil and the ruin of the social order. On the other hand voluntary sharing, the freely-chosen expending of one’s substance, leadeth to society’s comfort and peace. It lighteth up the world; it bestoweth honour upon humankind.30‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 115.

This principle of voluntary sharing applies not only to charity, but also holds true in relation to the Bahá’í conception of taxation. 31‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107. As seen in the description of the community storehouse and the moral framework that undergirds it, taxation in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s view represents a “duty” in the true sense of the word—that is, an obligation enthusiastically fulfilled. On this note, while it is possible to approach the above passages from an individualistic perspective, such a reading gives rise to an apparent incongruence between the dual counsels on externally-imposed taxation and freely-performed giving. However, this seeming discrepancy may be reconciled by looking at the issue through a collective lens. That is to say, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá may be indicating that the wealthy segments of society, as a whole, need to voluntarily support and submit to progressive taxation policies. From this perspective, rather than such measures arising from, say, a coercive revolution of the working classes, they would be the result of an act of collective will across society. Discretionary charitable giving, then, would be in addition to these agreed-upon contributions.

In this connection, the Bahá’í vision of taxation finds its most complete expression in the law of Huqúqu’lláh. The “Right of God”, Huqúqu’lláh was set forth by Baháʼu’lláh and stipulates the payment of 19% of any wealth in excess of one’s needful expenses to the center of the Faith—currently the Universal House of Justice. These monies are to be expended for humanitarian purposes and are intended to help equalize levels of wealth across different parts of the world. The calculation and payment of Huqúqu’lláh are left to the discretion of the individual; it is not solicited nor is its amount determined by any authority. It thus depends entirely on an individual’s conscience and must be paid with sincere joy in order to be acceptable.

Decent work

In addition to income inequality and taxation, one of the most daunting challenges facing policymakers today is expanding opportunities for meaningful, secure, and fairly-remunerated employment. In many places, where stable work in manufacturing, agriculture, and professional services was previously the norm, a restructuring of the labor force is taking place—with short-term, contract, and informal jobs becoming more and more common. Among other factors, the rise of the “gig economy” is being driven by increasing levels of automation, in which machines carry out tasks formerly done by humans. While the earliest advances in automation date back to at least the industrial revolution, leading voices have signaled that the world is now in the first stages of a new revolution in automation with the potential for even more disruptive results. Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and related spheres are making machines capable of performing highly-sophisticated functions that match or exceed the capabilities of the human brain.32Klaus Schwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means and How to Respond”, Foreign Affairs, 12 December 2015: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-12-12/fourth-industrial-revolution, accessed 25 January 2020.

While such labor-saving innovations hold great promise for humanity, their rewards have thus far not been equally enjoyed by all. On the contrary, in the twenty-first century they have begun to leave growing legions of workers scrambling to piece together livelihoods as their work becomes obsolete. On this front, the forecasts of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offer a vision for how humanity can not only cope but thrive in the midst of such changes. Speaking at a time of comparable economic transformation,33The so-called “Second Industrial Revolution” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. when the fight for labor rights was picking up momentum in the Western world, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá illustrated a vision of fair remuneration of workers and the liberation of humanity from long hours occupied with mundane, back-breaking tasks:

The civilizations of the past have all been founded upon the enslavement of mankind and the poor working class has suffered every oppression for the sake of the enrichment of the few. This limited wealthy class has alone had the privilege of developing individuality. The downtrodden worker after labouring long hours each day, has not had sufficient mental capacity at the conclusion of his task to do anything but eat and sleep.

That all mankind might have opportunity, it was necessary to shorten the hours of labour so that the work of the world could be completed without such demand of strain and effort, and all human beings would have leisure to think and develop individual capacity….

The first decided shortening of the hours will appear… when a legal working day of eight hours is established…. But this working day of eight hours is only the beginning…. Soon there will be a six hour day, a five hour, a three hour day, even less than that, and the worker must be paid more for this management of machines, than he ever received for the exercise of his two hands alone….

You cannot understand now, how the labour saving machines can produce leisure for mankind because at present they are all in the hands of the financiers and are used only to increase profits, but that will not continue. The workers will come into their due benefit from the machine that is the divine intention, and one cannot continue to violate the law of God. So with the assurance of a comfortable income from his work, and ample leisure for each one, poverty will be banished and each community will create comfort and opportunity for its citizens. Education will then be universal at the cost of the state, and no person will be deprived of its opportunity.34‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as reported by Mary Hanford Ford in Star of the West, Volume 10, pp. 106-107. It is worth noting that a few years after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made this prediction about the shortening of the working day to eight hours, US President Woodrow Wilson enacted the legal day of eight hours for all federal workers, which subsequently became the norm for all US workers.

In other recorded utterances, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá points to the role that government ought to play in managing changes in labor relations. Through the development of sound policy, public institutions have the capacity to help ensure that all people can truly benefit from advances in technology, so that all are able to earn a living and contribute to society through a trade or profession. Specifically, He indicates that elected leaders bear the responsibility for resolving the issue of wages. Wage agreements should be developed, He says, with wisdom and moderation, “so neither the capitalist suffer from enormous losses nor the laborers become needy.”35‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 43. On this note, He encourages the adoption of systems of employee share ownership—a scheme that has gained increased acceptance in recent years—as a way to foster both equitable compensation and workers’ sense of identification with their labor:

For instance, the owners of properties, mines and factories should share their incomes with their employees and give a fairly certain percentage of their products to their workingmen in order that the employees may receive, beside their wages, some of the general income of the factory so that the employee may strive with his soul in the work.36Ibid.

Rethinking Prevailing Modes of Collective Decision Making

The foregoing pages offer glimpses of a new set of social arrangements characterized by justice and concern for all people’s welfare. However, it should be emphasized that many of the practical proposals outlined above are not unique to the Bahá’í writings. Many have been discussed in policy circles for decades, if not centuries. While the Bahá’í Faith envisions a transformation in the social life of humanity far more rich and profound than, say, an idealized balance between capitalism and socialism, it may well be that current sociopolitical systems possess many of the substantive elements of such a future civilization.37In this connection, Shoghi Effendi asserts the following: “In the Bahá’í economic system of the future, private ownership will be retained, but will be controlled, regulated, and even restricted. Complete socialization is not only impossible but most unjust, and in this the Cause is in fundamental disagreement with the extreme socialists or communists. It cannot also agree with the other extreme tendency represented by the ‘Laissez-faire’ or individualistic school of economics which became very popular in the late eighteenth century, by the so-called democratic countries. For absolute freedom, even in the economic sphere, leads to confusion and corruption, and acts not only to the detriment of the state, or the collectivity, but inevitably results in the end in jeopardizing the very interests of the individual himself…. The Cause can and indeed will in the future maintain the right balance between the two tendencies of individualism and collectivism, not only in the field of economics, but in all other social domains” (cited in Hooshmand Badee, ed., The True Foundation of All Economics: https://bahai-library.com/pdf/b/badee_compilation_foundation_economics.pdf, accessed 25 January 2020).

To be sure, in many instances it is not that the solutions to contemporary social challenges have not yet been imagined, but rather that humanity lacks the means and collective will to reach agreement on and move toward them. To achieve progress, seeing what is on the horizon is not enough; what is needed are new patterns for making and implementing collective decisions. This issue lies at the heart of the idea of governance itself, and it is on this front that the insights of the Bahá’í teachings are perhaps most significant.

At present, the central obstacle to moving toward a shared vision of government’s role in promoting social well-being is the way the issue tends to be framed—that is, as a debate. In many countries, political discourse has become so clouded by ideology that it has become divorced from the potential merits and shortcomings of the policy proposals themselves. Driving this apparent irreconcilability of perspectives are divergent conceptions of the rights and responsibilities of individuals, communities, and institutions, as well as associated concepts related to autonomy, choice, authority, and prosperity. On this subject, the Universal House of Justice has written:

Throughout human history, interactions among [the individual, the institutions, and the community] have been fraught with difficulties at every turn, with the individual clamouring for freedom, the institution demanding submission, and the community claiming precedence. Every society has defined, in one way or another, the relationships that bind the three, giving rise to periods of stability, interwoven with turmoil. Today, in this age of transition, as humanity struggles to attain its collective maturity, such relationships—nay, the very conception of the individual, of social institutions, and of the community—continue to be assailed by crises too numerous to count.38Universal House of Justice, Letter to the Conference of the Continental Board of Counsellors dated 28 December 2010, “Selected Messages of the Universal House of Justice”, Bahá’í Reference Library website: https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/, accessed 25 January 2020.

In the context of the current culture, social policy typically involves imposing the vision of political “winners” on political “losers”, along with the diluting of social programs in the common interest to appease special interests. As such, even if a veritably flawless social, economic, and political system were somehow developed, it would be impossible to know because, if implemented, it would immediately be resisted and undermined by dissenting factions clinging to their own perspectives and not allowing the system to ever achieve its potential.

On this note, the Bahá’í writings suggest that no social reform—no matter how well-designed or sophisticated—can lead to the desired outcome if it is not precipitated and accompanied by a particular set of values and attitudes. But such qualities are not static, nor do they emerge spontaneously. In the Bahá’í view, humanity therefore needs to engage in an intentional, iterative process of learning about the principles that make for a just, prosperous, and unified society and how these can be systematically cultivated at the individual and collective levels.

From this perspective, it is not only about what policy decisions are made but about how they are made. And here, the Bahá’í principle of consultation sheds light on a new way of arriving at decisions of shared import. In consultation, individuals come together in an earnest attempt to discover the truth and make decisions, not through begrudging negotiation or even amicable compromise, but through a sincere setting aside of self-interest and personal preference. “No welfare and no well-being”, affirms Bahá’u’lláh, “can be attained except through consultation.”39Bahá’u’lláh, as quoted in The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement by the Bahá’í International Community, 1995. On the use of consultation within the elected bodies of the Bahá’í community, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states:

They must then proceed with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and moderation to express their views. They must in every matter search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one’s views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden.40‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 88.

By prizing humility over forcefulness, dialogue over debate, and truth over victory, consultation opens the way to a mode of making decisions in which options are dispassionately assessed and a variety of perspectives serve to build a more complete vision of social reality. By championing true consensus-building and a universal sense of ownership of the arrived-at decisions, it allows individuals, communities, and institutions to engage in a process of shared learning. In this way, plans and systems can be objectively evaluated, and those that work can be sustained while those that do not can be discarded or reformed.

Such a model of genuine deliberation is clearly a departure from those dominant in the political systems in the world today. Nevertheless, signs abound that humanity is tiring of growing levels of partisan gridlock and rancor preventing government from living up to its potential. It is clear in the writings of the Bahá’í Faith that public institutions have an indispensable role in ensuring humanity’s social well-being, but central to the challenge of fulfilling this duty will be fostering a new ethic of leadership and alternative patterns of governance. Bringing about this change will no doubt require continual proactive effort,41In The Secret of Divine Civilization, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states: “If haste is harmful, inertness and indolence are a thousand times worse” (p. 108). as well as much trial and error. Still, there is every reason to be optimistic that this long-term process of institutional maturation is already in course. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states:

The world of politics is like the world of man; he is seed at first, and then passes by degrees to the condition of embryo and foetus, acquiring a bone structure, being clothed with flesh, taking on his own special form, until at last he reaches the plane where he can befittingly fulfill the words: “the most excellent of Makers.” Just as this is a requirement of creation and is based on the universal Wisdom, the political world in the same way cannot instantaneously evolve from the nadir of defectiveness to the zenith of rightness and perfection. Rather, qualified individuals must strive by day and by night, using all those means which will conduce to progress, until the government and the people develop along every line from day to day and even from moment to moment.42Ibid., pp. 107-108.

By William Hatcher

III. THE COLLECTIVE DIMENSION OF SPIRITUALITY

1. The Social Matrix of Individual Growth

Until now in our discussion, we have viewed the process of spiritual growth as being primarily an individual one, a process which effects changes within the individual and in his behavior towards his social and natural environment. However, it is obvious that individual spiritual growth does not and cannot take place in a vacuum. It takes place within the context of a given society that is bound to have a profound influence on the individual in his pursuit of spirituality. Indeed, there are many intricate, subtle, and complex interactions between any society and each of the individuals composing it. These interactions produce reciprocal influences that operate on different levels of behavior, life experience, and consciousness. It is therefore more accurate to view the spiritual growth process as an organically social one having several identifiable but related components. Some of these are: (1) an individual component, which has been the main focus of our discussion in the previous sections, (2) a collective or global component, involving the evolution of society as a whole, and (3) an interactive component, involving the relationship between the individual and society. In this section, the global and interactive dimensions of the spiritual growth process will be briefly examined.

The Bahá’í Writings make clear that, just as the individual has a basically spiritual purpose to his existence, so society also has a spiritual raison d’être. The spiritual purpose of society is to provide the optimal milieu for the full and adequate spiritual growth and development of the individuals in that society. In the Bahá’í view, all other aspects of social evolution, such as technological innovations, institutional structures, decision-making procedures and the exercise of authority, group interactions, and the like, are to be judged positive or negative according to whether they contribute to or detract from the goal of fostering a favorable milieu for spiritual growth.

Such a concept of society and its meaning is certainly a radical departure from the commonly held view that society serves primarily as a vehicle for economic activity to provide for the conditions of material existence. However, the inherent limitations of this common viewpoint become readily apparent when one reflects that nature itself already provides the basic conditions for material existence. Therefore, providing such conditions can hardly be the fundamental purpose of human society, for society then becomes redundant at best and possibly harmful.

Of course, economic activity is an important part of society’s function since a certain level of material well-being and stability provides opportunities for spiritual growth. A social milieu in which large segments of the population are starving or living in other such extreme conditions is hardly a milieu which is favorable to the full and adequate spiritual development of its members, although spiritual growth can take place under such conditions. Also, a just, well-organized, and efficient economy can serve to free man, at least partially, from boring and excessive labor and thus provide time for higher intellectual and artistic pursuits.

Another spiritual implication of economic activity is that it requires intense human interaction and therefore provides many of the challenges and opportunities necessary to stimulate spiritual growth among its participants. It is in the market place that questions of justice, compassion, honesty, trust, and self-sacrifice become living reality and not just abstract philosophy. We therefore cannot safely neglect the “outer” dimension of society in the name of our basic preoccupation with spiritual growth. Indeed, if the prevailing structures and behavioral norms of society are such as to inhibit or discourage spiritual growth, the individual will be impeded in his personal growth process. The occasional moral hero will succeed in spiritualizing his life against all odds, but the vast majority will eventually succumb to the prevailing negative influences.

Also, one of the important characteristics of personal spiritual maturity is a highly developed social conscience. The spiritually-minded individual has become intensely aware of the many ways he depends on society and has a keen sense of social obligation. Society thus benefits from the spiritualized individuals within its fold because of the unselfish quality of their service to the collectivity, and because their particular talents and capacities are relatively well-developed. At the same time, the individual spiritual seeker’s relative dependence on society fosters his humility, and the energy and effort he contributes towards the solution of social problems helps prevent the (necessary) attention he gives to his inner spiritual struggles from leading to an unhealthy degree of self- preoccupation. Bahá’u’lláh has said that the individual in the pursuit of spirituality should be anxiously concerned with the needs of the society in which he lives and that “All men have been created to carry forward an ever- advancing civilization.”1Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 215.

2. Unity

In our discussion of the principles governing individual spiritual growth, we have seen that certain attitudes and behavior patterns are conducive to spiritual growth whereas others are not. In the same way, certain social norms and types of social structures are conducive to the spiritual growth process whereas others are not. One of the fundamental features of the Bahá’í Faith is that its teachings include detailed prescriptions regarding social structures and their relationship to spiritual growth. Broadly speaking, Bahá’u’lláh teaches that those social and economic structures which favor co-operation and unity are conducive to the spiritual growth process while those structures based on competition, conflict, power-seeking, and dominance-seeking hierarchies are destructive to the growth process. The unity taught by Bahá’u’lláh is not simply a formal juxtaposition of disparate parts, but an organic unity based on a spiritual quality of relationship between groups and among individuals working within a given group. Nor is it a uniformity or homogeneity, but a “unity in diversity,” a unity in which the particular qualities of the co-operating components are respected in a way that enables these qualities to contribute to the unity of the whole rather than detracting from it as so often happens in the case of social structures based on competition and dominance-seeking.

The Bahá’í focus on unity, and the attention which the Bahá’í Writings give to the social and collective dimension of the spiritual growth process probably represent the most original contributions of the Bahá’í Faith to the collective spiritual consciousness of mankind, for the individual dimension of the spiritual growth process has been a part of every revealed religion. Indeed, some revelations, for example those of Jesus and Buddha, have focused almost entirely on the individual. Other revelations, such as those of Moses and Muhammad, have treated the social dimension to a greater degree, giving laws governing the behavior of groups as well as that of individuals. However, in the case of the Bahá’í Faith, we see for perhaps the first time in religious history the spiritual growth process in its full collective dimension.

3. Social Evolution; World Order

In the Bahá’í view, the whole of mankind constitutes an organic unit which has undergone a collective growth process similar to that of the individual. Just as the individual achieves his maturity in stages, gradually developing his abilities and enlarging the scope of his knowledge and understanding, so mankind has passed through different stages in the as yet unfinished process of achieving its collective maturity. According to Bahá’u’lláh, each occurrence of revelation has enabled mankind to achieve some particular step forward in its growth process. Of course, every revelation has contributed in a general way to man kind’s spiritual awareness by restating and elaborating those eternal spiritual truths which are the very basis of human existence. But Bahá’u’lláh affirms that, besides this general and universal function common to all revelations, there is a specific function by which each revelation plays its particular and unique role in the spiritual growth process. Here are some of the ways that these two dimensions of revelation are described in the Bahá’í Writings:

The divine religions embody two kinds of ordinances. First those which constitute essential or spiritual teachings of the Word of God. These are faith in God, the acquirement of the virtues which characterize perfect manhood, praiseworthy moralities, the acquisition of the bestowals and bounties emanating from the divine effulgences; in brief the ordinances which concern the realm of morals and ethics. This is the fundamental aspect of the religion of God and this is of the highest importance because knowledge of God is the fundamental requirement of man. … This is the essential foundation of all the divine religions, the reality itself, common to all. …

Secondly: Laws and ordinances which are temporary and non-essential. These concern human transactions and relations. They are accidental and subject to change according to the exigencies of time and place.2‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Faith For Every Man (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1972), p. 43.

God’s purpose in sending His Prophets unto men is twofold. The first is to liberate the children of men from the darkness of ignorance, and guide them to the light of true understanding. The second is to ensure the peace and tranquility of mankind, and provide all the means by which they can be established.3Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 79-80.

These Manifestations of God have each a twofold station. One is the station of pure abstraction and essential unity …If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith. …

The other station is the station of distinction, and pertaineth to the world of creation, and to the limitations thereof. In this respect, each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined revelation, and specially designated limitations. Each one of them is known by a different name, is characterized by a special attribute, fulfils a definite mission, and is entrusted with a particular Revelation.4Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 50-52.

Bahá’u’lláh associates His “particular revelation” with the transition from adolescence to adulthood in the collective life of mankind. He affirms that the social history of mankind from its primitive beginnings in the formation of small social groups until the present day represents the stages of infancy, childhood, and adolescence of mankind. Mankind now stands poised on the brink of maturity, and the current turbulence and strife in the world are analogous to the turbulence of the ultimate stages of preadulthood in the life of the individual.

The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood.5Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing trust, 1955), p. 202.

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind—the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve—is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. … Its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family. … It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced. …

It represents the consummation of human evolution—an evolution that has had its earliest beginnings in the birth of family life, its subsequent development in the achievement of tribal solidarity, leading in turn to the constitution of the city-state, and expanding later into the institution of independent and sovereign nations.

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, carries with it no more and no less than a solemn assertion that attainment to this final stage in this stupendous evolution is not only necessary but inevitable, that its realization is fast approaching, and that nothing short of a power that is born of God can succeed in establishing it.6Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing trust, 1955), pp. 42-43.

Because Bahá’u’lláh conceived His fundamental mission to be that of realizing world unity, His teachings contain detailed proposals for the establishment of institutions and social forms conducive to that end. For example, He proposes the establishment of a world legislature and a world court having final jurisdiction in all disputes between nations. He proposes the adoption of a universal auxiliary language, of universal obligatory education, of the principle of equality of the sexes, and of an economic system which would eliminate the extremes of poverty and wealth. All of these institutions and principles He sees as essential to building a society that encourages and promotes the full spiritual growth of its members.

The emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and world culture—all of which must synchronize with the initial stages in the unfoldment of the Golden Age of the Bahá’í Era—should, by their very nature, be regarded, as far as this planetary life is concerned, as the furthermost limits in the organization of human society, though man, as an individual, will, nay must indeed as a result of such a consummation, continue indefinitely to progress and develop.7Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing trust, 1955), p. 163.

Bahá’u’lláh gave the term “world order” to the new system He envisaged. Bahá’ís believe that the establishment of this new world order is ultimately the only answer to the quest for spiritual growth. For if the stability, harmony, and morally progressive character of human society are not assured, the individual’s goal of achieving spiritual development will be frustrated and his basic purpose in life thereby undermined.

The change in focus which results from this global perspective on the spiritual growth process is succinctly and clearly expressed by Shoghi Effendi:

… the object of life to a Bahá’í is to promote the oneness of mankind. The whole object of our lives is bound up with the lives of all human beings; not a personal salvation we are seeking, but a universal one…. Our aim is to produce a world civilization which will in turn react on the character of the individual. It is, in a way, the inverse of Christianity which started with the individual unit and through it reached out to the conglomerate life of men.8Shoghi Effendi, quoted in The Spiritual Revolution (Thornhill, Ontario: Canadian Bahá’í Community, 1974), p. 9.

4. The Bahá’í Community

The social structure and behavioral norms of present-day society are largely those we have inherited from the past. For the most part, they have not been consciously chosen by the collectivity through some deliberate process, but rather have evolved in response to various temporary and sometimes contradictory exigencies. They most certainly have not been chosen according to the criterion of fostering spiritual growth.

Especially in the industrialized West, but even in more technologically primitive societies, the currently existing social forms are largely based on competition and on dominance-seeking hierarchies. Such social forms tend to promote disunity, conflict, aggressive behavior, power-seeking behavior, and excessive preoccupation with purely material success. The following passage from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh powerfully conveys the destructive effects mankind has suffered as a result of these social forms and behavior patterns:

And amongst the realms of unity is the unity of rank and station. It redoundeth to the exaltation of the Cause, glorifying it among all peoples. Ever since the seeking of preference and distinction came into play, the world hath been laid waste. It hath become desolate. Those who have quaffed from the ocean of divine utterance and fixed their gaze upon the Realm of Glory should regard themselves as being on the same level as the others and in the same station. Were this matter to be definitely established and conclusively demonstrated through the power and might of God, the world would become as the Abhá Paradise.9Quoted in a letter from the Universal House of Justice published in Bahá’í Canada, June-July 1978, p. 3.

Given Bahá’u’lláh’s affirmation that unity is the necessary social basis for spiritual growth, it follows that we are now living in a society which is largely indifferent and in many ways detrimental to the spiritual growth process. Indeed, the historical events of the twentieth century and the moral quality of our day to day lives provide powerful confirmations of this hypothesis. The social structures of present-day society are vestiges of past forms which may have been helpful in stimulating certain kinds of growth during previous stages of mankind’s spiritual evolution but which have now outlived their usefulness.

This situation obviously poses a deep problem to any individual who is serious in his pursuit of spiritual growth. Even if one accepts Bahá’u’lláh’s model of world order and is willing to strive to bring it about as the best hope for mankind, how is one to pursue successfully the spiritual growth process in a milieu that is so unconcerned with it?

The answer the Bahá’í Faith offers to this dilemma is the Bahá’í community. Bahá’u’lláh has not only offered a vision and a hope for the future, He has established a living community which already functions on the basis of the unity principles. This community is conceived as a prototype or an embryo of the future world society. By relating properly to this community and participating in it, the individual finds himself capable of developing his spiritual capacities in a significant way, even if the enveloping society-at-large remains indifferent to the growth process. Bahá’ís view the Bahá’í community established by Bahá’u’lláh as a precious and necessary tool for this transition period from the old to the new social order. At the same time, the growth and development of the Bahá’í community are part of the progressive establishment of the world order itself. Moreover, the Bahá’í community functions as an entity and as a constructive force within the larger community to stimulate the movement of society as a whole towards unity.

The individual’s participation in the Bahá’í community is not passive. There is no priesthood, clergy, or ecclesiastical hierarchy in the Bahá’í Faith. Spiritual growth is a self-initiated, self-responsible process, and the individual’s participation in the Bahá’í community in no way diminishes his responsibility for his personal development.

In order to understand more clearly how participation in the Bahá’í community fosters spiritual development, let us focus for a moment on the spiritually negative features of modern-day society. It is in the contrast between the Bahá’í community, based on unity and co-operation, and the larger society based on competition and dominance- seeking, that we can gain insight into the interactive dimension of the spiritual growth process.

It is the essence of the relationship between the individual and the society to which he belongs that the individual is strongly motivated to succeed according to the prevailing norms of success in the given society. Security, status, material well-being, social acceptance, and approval are the main things the individual seeks from society, and success in satisfying societal norms yields these rewards. Society wants the individual’s productive effort, his collaboration and support in the realization of collective goals. Society applies both incentives and threats to induce the individual to accept social norms and goals.

To say that an individual accepts the norms and goals of a society means that he uses his understanding capacity to learn the skills necessary for success. He must also cultivate those emotional patterns, attitudes, and aspirations which characterize socially successful individuals in the given society. Finally, he must act in a way conducive to success. Such a pattern of behaviour will involve producing certain goods or services as well as a certain kind of relationship with other members of the society.

The norms of modern industrialized society largely revolve around material success through competition, dominance-seeking and power-seeking. The goal is usually a high level of economic productivity coupled with a high ranking and status in the social hierarchy. To succeed, the individual must learn those skills and techniques which enable him to best others in competitive struggle and to obtain power over them. He must learn how to manipulate, control, and dominate others. The knowledge which is useful to these ends is often diametrically opposed to the kind of knowledge involved in spiritual growth. We have earlier seen that the self-knowledge which is equivalent to the knowledge of God amounts to knowing how to submit to the will of God: The individual must learn how to be the conscious instrument of a force that is his moral and spiritual superior. Thus, virtually all the skills he develops in the pursuit of social success in a power-oriented society will be useless and, in fact, detrimental to his spiritual growth. The spiritually sensitive individual in modern society is therefore faced with a dilemma. He will either become a split personality, trying to be spiritual part of the time and to manipulate others for the remainder, or else he will ultimately have to choose between the two goals of social success and spiritual progress.10Success in the pursuit of dominance must be distinguished from success in the pursuit of excellence. Striving for excellence is highly encouraged in the Bahá’í Writings. That the two pursuits are different, and that competitive struggle with others is not necessary to attain excellence, are important spiritual and psychological insights.

It is not only the development of the knowing capacity that is falsified by the pursuit of success in competition, but the heart’s feeling capacity as well. One must continually give priority to one’s own needs and desires and become increasingly insensitive to the needs of others. Genuine compassion towards and love for other individuals undermines the will to dominate because such empathetic emotions lead one to identify with and to experience the feelings of the dominated one.

The giving and receiving of love is a reciprocal or symmetric relationship. It is a positive and satisfying experience for both parties. Dominance, however, is asymmetrical, yielding positive emotions and a sense of exhilaration for the dominant one, but generally negative, depressed, angry and self-deprecating emotions for the one dominated. It is therefore logically and psychologically impossible to seek to dominate someone whom we genuinely love, since the empathetic emotions of love allow us to feel the unpleasant emotions of being dominated, and this experience undermines our willingness to become the conscious agent of producing such negative emotions in one we love and respect.

In other words, we cannot be successful in competitive struggle with others without hurting them, and we cannot deliberately hurt others if we love them. It is thus easy to see how a person who dedicates himself to success in competitive struggle with others will increasingly become alienated both from himself and from others. His heart will become atrophied and hard. The development of his feeling capacity will be stunted and distorted.

The will capacity is also misused in the pursuit of power and dominance. The force of the will is turned outward towards others and used against them rather than being turned inward towards self-mastery and self-dominance. The will is used to oppose others, to limit their field of action, rather than being applied to develop the internal capacities of the self in the pursuit of spirituality and excellence.

Excellence represents self-development, the flowering of the self’s capacities and qualities. It involves comparisons between our performance at different instances and under various circumstances (so-called “self competition”). But competition and power-seeking are based on comparisons with the performance of others. Such comparisons usually lead either to mediocrity, arrogance, undeveloped potential and unrealistically low, self-expectations or else to depression, jealousy, aggressive behaviour and unrealistically high self-expectations, depending on the capacities of those with whom we choose to compare ourselves. Neither of these is conducive to excellence.

In pursuing power, we tend to manipulate others, to use them as means to our ends. This is the very opposite of serving others and of acting towards them in such a way as to contribute to their spiritual advancement—the proper, God-intended expression of the will in action. In fact, unselfish service to society and true self-development go hand-in-hand, for a high degree of development makes us secure in our identity. It gives us inner peace and self- confidence. Moreover, we have more to give others, and our service is therefore more valuable and more effective.

Thus, spirituality and the pursuit of excellence reinforce each other while power struggle and competition are inimical to both. The pursuit of dominance may stimulate some development on the part of the “winners,” but such development is often at the expense of others and of society as a whole. And even for the winners, it frequently produces an unstable, artificial, and unbalanced kind of development.

A society based on unity, co-operation and mutual encouragement allows everyone to pursue spirituality and excellence while contributing significantly to the society itself. Just as love is satisfactory to both giver and receiver, so unity is beneficial both to society and to the individual members of the society. Such is the interactive dimension of the spiritual growth process.

Unity, co-operation, and mutuality constitute the norms and goals of the Bahá’í community and form the basis of its institutions. Therefore, all the spiritual benefits which derive from a society based on unity principles accrue to those who participate in the Bahá’í community. There is, first of all, the association with people who are also committed to the process of self-aware, self-initiated spiritual growth. Since no two people have exactly the same experiences or have attained to an identical level of development in all areas of their lives, the individual participant receives much stimulation and help from others. When facing a spiritual crisis in his personal life, he can usually find those who have already faced a similar crisis and can give helpful advice and loving encouragement. He therefore overcomes many difficulties which, under other circumstances, might have discouraged him to such an extent that he would have abandoned the struggle for spiritual growth. He consequently attains a much higher level of development than would have been the case had he been deprived of such helpful associations and fellowship.

At the same time, the mutuality and reciprocal nature of association based on unity means that the relationship with the community is not unidirectional: the individual is not a passive recipient of spiritual advice from experts, but has opportunities to contribute to the growth of others and of the community. His own qualities, experiences, and opinions are respected and valued by others. He is constantly being called upon to sacrifice purely selfish interests in the path of service. This acts as a check on pride and arrogance. Since sincerely motivated service to others is the real fruit of the spiritual growth process, the individual is provided almost daily with concrete situations which enable him better to evaluate the level of spiritual development he has attained.

The spiritual seeker in contemplative isolation can easily fall victim to the subtle pitfall of spiritual pride. Preoccupied with his perception of his internal mental processes, he can quickly acquire the self-generated illusion that he has reached a high degree of spiritual development. Constant and vigorous participation in a hard-working community can help to dispel such conceits.

Participation in the Bahá’í community enables one to acquire certain specific skills that cannot be easily acquired elsewhere. For example, the basis of group decision-making in the Bahá’í Faith is consultation, a process involving a frank but loving expression of views by those involved on a basis of absolute equality. Consultation represents a subtle and multifaceted spiritual process, and time and effort are required to perfect it. Similarly, the electoral processes in the Bahá’í community involve many unique aspects which will not be discussed in the framework of this paper.

Another important dimension of the Bahá’í community is its diversity and universality. One is called upon to associate intimately with people of all social, cultural, and racial backgrounds. In society at large, our associations tend to be based on homogeneity: We associate with people with whom we feel the most comfortable. If most of our associations are on this basis, it will be difficult for us to discover our subtle prejudices and illusory self- concepts. Our friends will be those who are congruent with the false as well as the true aspects of our personality. The immense diversity within the Bahá’í community makes the discovery of prejudice and self-deceit much easier.

Thus, the Bahá’í Faith views the spiritual growth process as both collective and individual. The collective dimension involves the principles by which human society can be properly structured and ordered so as to optimize spiritual and material well-being and provide a healthy growth milieu for all individuals within it. The individual bears the primary responsibility for prosecuting his own growth process and for working to create a unified and healthy social milieu for everyone. This involves working towards the establishment of world unity. In particular, it involves active participation in the ongoing life of the Bahá’í community which, though forming only a part of society as a whole, already functions on the basis of the unity principles and seeks to implement them progressively in society.

IV. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

In the Bahá’í conception, spirituality is the process of the full, adequate, proper, and harmonious development of the spiritual capacities of each human being and of the collectivity of human beings. These spiritual capacities are capacities of a nonphysical, indivisible and eternally lasting entity called the soul. The soul of each individual, with its particular characteristics, is formed at the moment of the conception of the physical body. The process of spiritual development is eternal, continuing in other dimensions of existence after the death of the physical body. The body and its physical capacities serve as instruments for this process of spiritual growth during the period of earthly life when the body and soul are linked together.

All of man’s initially given capacities, both physical and spiritual, are good and potentially helpful to the spiritual growth process. However, there is a certain tension between the body’s physical needs and the metaphysical needs of the soul. Physical needs and desires must therefore be disciplined (not suppressed) if they are to contribute to the process of spiritual development in an effective way. Through the misuse or improper development of his initially given capacities, man can acquire unnatural or inordinate capacities and needs inimical to the spiritual growth process.

Among the basic spiritual capacities to be developed are the understanding or knowing capacity, the heart or feeling capacity, and the will, which represents the capacity to initiate and sustain action. The beginning stage of the process of spiritual development in childhood is one in which the individual is primarily the passive recipient of an educational process initiated by others. As the individual attains the full development of his physical capacities in adolescence, he becomes the active and self-responsible agent of his own growth process.

The goal of the development of the knowing capacity is the attainment of truth, which means that which is in conformity with reality. The ultimate reality to be known is God, and the highest form of knowledge is the knowledge of Him. God is the self-aware and intelligent force (Creator) responsible for man and his development. This knowledge of God takes the form of a particular kind of self-knowledge which enables the individual to become a conscious, willing, and intelligent instrument for God and for his purposes.

The goal of the development of the heart capacity is love. Love represents the energy necessary to pursue the goal of spiritual development. It is experienced as a strong attraction for and attachment to God and the laws and principles He has established. It also expresses itself as an attraction to others and in particular to the spiritual potential they have as beings like ourselves. Love thereby creates within us the desire to become instruments for the growth process of others.

The goal of the development of the will capacity is service to God, to others, and to ourselves. Service is realized by a certain kind of intentionality (good will) which is dramatized through appropriate action (good works). All of these basic capacities must be developed systematically and concomitantly, or else false or improper development (unspirituality) will result.

Our condition during the period of earthly life is one in which we have direct access to material reality but only indirect access to spiritual reality. The proper relationship to God is therefore established by means of recognizing and accepting the Manifestations or prophetic figures Who are superhuman beings sent by God for the purpose of educating and instructing mankind. These Manifestations are the link between the visible world of material reality and the invisible, but ultimately more real world of spiritual reality. Acceptance of the Manifestations and obedience to the laws They reveal are seen to constitute an essential prerequisite for the successful prosecution of the spiritual growth process.

The human race constitutes an organic unit whose fundamental component is the individual. Mankind undergoes a collective spiritual evolution analogous to the individual’s own growth process. The periodic appearance of a Manifestation of God is the motive force of this process of social evolution. Human society is currently at the stage of the critical transition from adolescence to adulthood or maturity. The practical expression of this yet-to-be-achieved maturity is a unified world society based on a world government, the elimination of prejudice and war, and the establishment of justice and harmony among the nations and peoples of the world. The particular mission of the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh is to provide the basis for this new world order and the moral impetus to effect this transition in the collective life of mankind. Relating effectively to this present stage of society’s evolution is essential to the successful prosecution of the spiritual growth process in our individual lives. Participation in the world-wide Bahá’í community is especially helpful in this regard.

Such, in its barest outlines, is the process of individual and collective spiritual growth as found in the Bahá’í Writings. Undoubtedly, what remains to be discovered and understood in the vast revelation of Bahá’u’lláh is infinitely greater than what we can now understand and greater still than what we have been able to discuss in the present article. But the only intelligent response to this perception of our relative ignorance is not to wait passively until such future time as these deeper implications will have become evident, but rather to act vigorously and decisively on the basis of our limited understanding. Indeed, without such a response to the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, we may never arrive at the point where we will be able to penetrate the more subtle and deeper dimensions of the spiritual growth process.

No true knowledge is purely intellectual, but spiritual knowledge is unique in the breadth of its experiential dimension: it must be lived to become part of us. Nowhere does this truth appear more clearly than in the succinct and powerful coda to Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words:

I bear witness, O friends! that the favor is complete, the argument fulfilled, the proof manifest and the evidence established. Let it now be seen what your endeavors in the path of detachment will reveal.11Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), pp. 51-52.

 

By William Hatcher

Human history has witnessed the birth, proliferation, and death of countless religions, belief systems, and philosophies. Though the generating impulse for each of these systems is undoubtedly related to numerous particular cultural and psychological factors, there runs through virtually all of them the common idea that man is not, in his naturally given human state, whole or complete. The concomitant to this belief is the idea that man must undergo some process of completion, some discipline of self-definition. Such a process is usually regarded by its exponents as the basic purpose of man’s existence, for through it man is seen to acquire or develop what is essential and universal, and not merely accidental and local, within the range of human potentiality. By this process, he defines what he truly is by becoming what he most truly can be. The process is often described as one of “salvation”, of being lifted above the condition of unregeneration (or spiritual death) to the plane of a superior reality.

The revealed religions have been major sources of such salvation concepts, spiritual philosophies, and spiritual disciplines. Historically, the revealed religions would seem to be united in affirming, each in its own particular way, that there is an objectively real spiritual dimension to the universe, and that this spiritual dimension of existence is for man the most fundamental and the most important aspect of reality. However, the revealed religions also appear, at least at first glance, to exhibit a disturbing degree of difference in their respective views of the exact nature of this spiritual reality and of how man should relate properly to it. Moreover, most of the traditional systems of religious belief appear now to have crystallized into rigid social patterns and dogmatic attitudes of thought and belief with which the modern ethos of rapid social and intellectual change seems incompatible.

The changes in modern-day society are being wrought primarily by a highly efficient, powerful, and established science which owes little or nothing to established religion. Whereas the religions, for the most part, continue to press harder and harder their mutually contradictory claims each to possess an absolute and unchanging truth which admits no compromise, science is based squarely on the idea that truth is relative and progressive, that what is useful and productive in the realm of ideas and techniques today may be obsolete and unproductive tomorrow. Thus, traditional religion has come to abhor and fear change while science thrives upon it.

Yet, science and technology have not given man the sense of wholeness he has so long been seeking, even though they have given him a vastly increased power to control and manipulate his physical environment. The sense of incompleteness and the conscious need for transcendence, for contact with some deep spiritual reality, are widespread in our society. Indeed, hardly at any other time of history or in any other culture has the sense of spiritual inadequacy been so acute as is currently the case in industrialized, high-technology, Western culture. But if contemporary man turns to religion for enlightenment, he too often finds dogmatism, which his mind cannot accept, or mindless emotionalism, which is not worthy of acceptance.

From the modern perspective, each of the great religions appears as a system which was largely successful in satisfying the spiritual and social needs of a certain people or culture during a previous era of history, but which is no longer adequate to meet the needs of humanity in the present critical period of history. Thus, modern man is caught in a serious dilemma with regard to fundamental spiritual questions. On the one hand, the highly efficient science he has so successfully developed serves in part to deepen his moral and spiritual needs—needs that science alone cannot satisfy.1For example, powerful new techniques for manipulating such things as the human genetic endowment raise novel and acute ethical questions concerning their proper and responsible use. On the other hand, most of the traditional religious forms, attitudes and concepts now appear obsolete and irrelevant.

This modern dilemma is addressed by several of the fundamental principles of the historically recent Bahá’í Faith. The Bahá’í principle of the unity of science and religion holds that religious truth, like scientific truth (or truth in general), is relative and progressive. It accepts unreservedly that “If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science they are mere superstitions and imaginations….”2‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1956), p. 240. In particular, with regard to spiritual questions the Bahá’í Faith rejects a dogmatic approach: It affirms that there are spiritual realities governed by lawful relationships, and it invites each individual to assume a scientific attitude and to seek out and test for himself these spiritual truths.3The present monograph consists in a rather detailed discussion of certain aspects of the Bahá’í conception of these spiritual truths and realities, but with little or no attempt to explain the basis upon which such a conception rests. This latter task was the objective of a previous effort of the present writer, published as “The Science of Religion,” Bahá’í Studies, vol. 2, rev. ed., 1980.

Concerning the great world religions, the Bahá’í Faith teaches that they all derive from one common source, namely, that one, ultimate, creative force responsible for the phenomena of the universe, that force we call God. Bahá’ís hold that the founding figures of those great religious systems (e.g., Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Zoroaster, Muhammad) were all chosen channels or true spokesmen for this unique God, and that differences in Their teachings are due primarily to the varying requirements of the cultures and ages in which these systems were originally promulgated. Other significant doctrinal differences among these systems, as they are currently elaborated, are attributed to inaccuracies and distortions gradually introduced by their followers in the course of their evolution as social systems after the death of their founders.4Also, one should not forget that, except for the more historically recent of these systems (such as Islám), we have no direct access to the exact words or the pure form of the original teachings as given by the Founder. Moreover, the various interpretations which the theologians and thinkers have subsequently attached to those written records which do exist are conditioned and limited by various cultural factors and cannot, therefore, be regarded as surely authentic representations of the thought of the Founder. However, the essential spiritual message of these systems is affirmed to be universal and common to all.

The Bahá’í Faith views itself as deriving from the most recent of these revelation events, as the latest chapter in the (unending) book of religion, so to speak. Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, put forth these and other teachings in a series of over 100 books and manuscripts written primarily between 1853 and His death in 1892. Thus, Bahá’ís feel that traditional religions are perceived by modern man as so unsatisfactory partly because some of their teachings are laden with culture-bound patterns and concepts (e.g., the dietary and penal laws of Judaism and Islám) and partly because of man-made distortions and corruptions which have crept in over the years. Religious dogmatism represents the arrogant attempt to transform a relative and partial conception of truth into an absolute and unchanging system, binding the whole of mankind for all human history. According to the Bahá’í understanding of the dynamics of God-created human nature, no such fixed system could ever be adequate for mankind. The Bahá’í system itself is viewed as responding to the needs of mankind in the present hour, but not for all future history.

Bahá’ís hold that the basic spiritual message common to the revealed religions is progressively elaborated and more fully articulated in each successive revelation. One would therefore expect that the Bahá’í Faith, if it is indeed the most recent divinely inspired articulation of spiritual truth to mankind, would contain a fuller elaboration and deeper expression of this truth.

I believe that such is the case, and in the following pages I have quoted liberally, and sometimes at length, from the Bahá’í Writings in an effort to convey to the reader some of the incredible spiritual riches they contain. Yet, all the ideas and opinions expressed herein should be strictly regarded as nothing beyond the attempt of one mind to grasp some of the deeper meanings latent in the profound Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. In an effort to limit the scope of this monograph to reasonable proportions and to achieve an orderly exposition, I have consistently focused on the concept of spirituality, that is, on an intellectual and logical understanding of spirituality. This work does not attempt in any way to be a manual for attaining spirituality but seeks only to gain, insofar as is possible, a clearer conception of what is implied in attaining it.

Of course, attaining any goal is easier when we have a clear conception of what its attainment involves. I have offered the present text for publication only in the hope that it may contribute in some measure to the common task we all have of trying to express our spiritual understanding to each other, especially as I have already richly benefited from the insights and reflections of so many in this regard.

I. THE NATURE OF MAN

1. The Basic Components of Man’s Character

The Bahá’í writings articulate a model of human nature and functioning which sees man as the product of two basic conditions, the physical (material) and the spiritual (non-material). The physical dimension of man’s existence derives from his genetic endowment, determined at conception, plus the interaction of this configuration with the environment. This interaction produces an internal, physical milieu which is unique to each individual, though sharing common features with all members of the human species. The spiritual dimension of man’s nature derives from the existence of a non-material entity, the soul, which is individualized, it is explained, at the moment of conception. Just as the physical body of man has various physical capacities, so the soul has its capacities, called spiritual capacities of man. Among the most important spiritual capacities mentioned in the Bahá’í Writings as characteristic of man are those of the intellect or understanding, the heart or feeling capacity, and the will (the capacity to initiate and sustain action).

The interactions of the individual with his environment affect not only his body but his soul as well. They develop both the genetically given physical capacities and the initially given spiritual capacities. These interactions may be called learning or education, and they give rise to a third aspect of man’s total character, an aspect that is both physical and spiritual.

In sum, there are three essential aspects of the character of man: his genetic endowment, which is surely physical; his soul and its capacities, which are purely spiritual; and education, which is both physical and spiritual.5According to the Bahá’í conception, the soul of each individual is eternal while the body, composed as it is of elements, is subject to physical decomposition, i.e., death. Thus, the soul is the true source of the individual’s consciousness, personality, and self. The soul does not depend on the body but rather the body is the instrument of the soul during the period of earthly existence when the soul and the body are linked together. The Bahá’í Writings also make unequivocally clear the Bahá’í belief that each human soul is not preexistent but is “individualized” at the moment of conception. Bahá’ís do not, therefore, believe in reincarnation—the doctrine that the same individual soul returns in different bodies to live different or successive earthly lives. It is explained rather that the soul’s progress after the death of the physical body is towards God and that this progression takes place in other, purely spiritual (i.e. nonmaterial) realms of existence.
Of course, we cannot see the soul since it is not physical, but we can deduce its existence from the observable effects it produces. Roughly speaking, we can observe that the physical endowments of the higher apes, and, in particular, their central nervous systems, do not differ substantially from man’s. Yet such beings seem incapable of the conscious, self-aware, deliberate intellection which characterizes man. At best, they seem capable only of “reactive” conditioned response rather than the imaginative, self-initiated thought of man, involving as it does long chains of deduction, and anticipation of and adaptation to imagined future events (i.e., hypotheses).

In Some Answered Questions, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá speaks of these three basic aspects of man’s character:

He [man] has the innate character, the inherited character, and the acquired character which is gained by education.

 

With regard to the innate character, although the divine creation is purely good, yet the variety of natural qualities in man come from the difference of degree; all are excellent, but they are more or less so, according to the degree. So all mankind possesses intelligence and capacities, but the intelligence, the capacity and the worthiness of men differ. …

 

The variety of inherited qualities comes from strength and weakness of constitution—that is to say, when the two parents are weak, the children will be weak; if they are strong, the children will be robust. …

 

But the difference of the qualities with regard to culture is very great, for education has great influence …Education must be considered as most important, for as diseases in the world of bodies are extremely contagious, so, in the same way, qualities of spirit and heart are extremely contagious. Education has a universal influence, and the differences caused by it are very great.6‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), pp. 212-214.

From this, and other similar passages in the Bahá’í Writings, it is clear that the innate character derives from the capacities of the soul while the inherited character derives from the individual’s genetic endowment. Once fixed, these two elements of man’s character remain unchanged, but the process of education enables man to develop these capacities either to a relatively high degree or to a relatively low degree, thus producing significant differences in character not attributable solely either to heredity or to innate spiritual capacity.

2. Spirituality Defined

We have used the word “capacity” in referring both to the spiritual and to the physical endowments of the individual. The word connotes a potential, something to be fulfilled or accomplished (and something that is capable of fulfillment and accomplishment). Indeed, it is clear that the individual, at his birth into this world, is capable of manifesting very few of the qualities possessed by the mature adult human being. We know, moreover, that unless the infant is properly cared for and provided with a host of support systems and a growth-inducing milieu, he will never exhibit such qualities. Life, then, is a growth process. Man begins the process as a little bundle of potential and proceeds, for better or worse, to develop his potential through the process of education (considered broadly as the sum of all environmental influences on the individual plus the individual’s reaction to these influences).

According to Bahá’í teachings, the very purpose of man’s life is the proper, harmonious, and full development of spiritual capacities. This is the most worthwhile possible goal since spiritual capacities, being part of the immortal soul (see note 1), will eternally endure while the body and its capacities will not. However, the body is the instrument of the soul’s development in this earthly life, and so physical health and development cannot be safely neglected but rather must be made to serve the primary goal of fostering the soul’s progress.

Bahá’u’lláh expresses this truth succinctly and powerfully:

Through the Teachings of this Day Star of Truth [The Manifestation or Prophet of God] every man will advance and develop until he attaineth the station at which he can manifest all the potential forces with which his inmost true self hath been endowed. It is for this very purpose that in every age and dispensation the Prophets of God and His chosen Ones have appeared amongst men, and have evinced such power as is born of God and such might as only the Eternal can reveal.7Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 68.

The process of developing one’s spiritual capacities is called spiritual growth or simply spirituality. We can thus formulate a working (operational) definition of the concept of spirituality as follows: Spirituality is the process of the full, adequate, proper, and harmonious development of one’s spiritual capacities. Unspirituality, by contrast, is either the lack of development of these capacities, their imbalanced or inharmonious development (e.g., the development of one to the exclusion of others), or else the false (improper) development and/or use of these capacities.

With this definition of spirituality in mind, we can also formulate a working definition of Bahá’í morality: That which fosters and advances the process of spiritual development is good, and that which tends to inhibit it is bad. Every law, counsel or behavioral norm contained in the Writings of the Bahá’í Faith can be understood in large measure from this perspective.

3. The Duality of Human Nature

The only component of man’s character capable of change is that which is acquired through education, where the latter term is understood broadly to mean the sum of all influences on the individual resulting from his encounters with and reactions to his environment. However, the human situation is such that not every influence, and most certainly not every one of our reactions to these influences, is conducive to spiritual progress. Thus, the process of spiritual growth involves learning how to make appropriate responses to various circumstances and how to initiate certain kinds of actions: spiritual growth is an educational process of a particular sort.

The experience of our life during the period when the body and the soul are linked is one of a tension between contradicting and opposing forces. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that this tension results from the duality of the physical and the spiritual in man’s nature. On the one hand, man’s body has legitimate physical needs which cry for satisfaction: food, shelter, companionship, and protection from threatening forces. However, in seeking to satisfy these needs, man is easily led to be possessive, aggressive, and insensitive to the needs of others. On the other hand, man’s soul also has intrinsic needs that demand satisfaction. These needs are metaphysical and intangible. They incite the individual to seek meaning and purpose in life and to establish the proper relationship with God, with himself, and with his fellow humans. Though this proper relationship may, and indeed must, be expressed through physical means, it also is essentially intangible. It involves submission to the will of God, the acceptance of our dependence on a power higher than themselves. It implies self-knowledge, the discovery both of our limitations and of our particular talents and capacities. And it requires recognition of and respect for the rights of others. This means that we realize and understand that all other men have needs similar to our own and that we accept all the implications of this fact in our relations with and actions towards others.

Of course, the Bahá’í Faith is certainly not the first belief system to recognize this duality in man’s nature. But the Bahá’í view of this duality is significantly different from certain views frequently attributed to other belief systems, for the Bahá’í Faith does not superimpose an absolute (good-evil) value judgement upon the duality, viewing all things spiritual as good and all things material as bad. The Bahá’í Writings make clear that man can misuse his spiritual faculties just as easily as he can misuse his material ones. At the same time, the material faculties of man (indeed all of man’s natural capacities) are viewed as God-given and therefore intrinsically (metaphysically) good. As moral categories, good and evil are relative terms: A given action on the part of an individual is relatively less good than another action if that other action would have been more favorable to the process of spiritual growth. Moreover, the Bahá’í Writings lead us to understand that God judges human actions only with regard to those actions which are truly logically possible for the individual in the given circumstances. To judge otherwise would be tantamount to requiring of man that which is beyond his capabilities or, paraphrasing words of Bahá’u’lláh, to tasking a soul beyond its power.8See Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 106.

In other words, only the direction of the spiritual growth process is given absolutely: it is towards the (unattainable) ideal of God-like perfection. But the process itself is lived relatively by each individual according to his spiritual and material endowments plus the free will choices he makes in dealing with the particular circumstances of his life. Since only God knows truly what these endowments and circumstances are for any individual, only God can judge the degree of moral responsibility of the individual in any situation.9This observation explains the time-honored injunction expressed by virtually all religious prophets and thinkers that no man is capable of judging the spiritual or moral worth of any other individual. This has nothing to do with society’s right to protect itself against antisocial behavior whether perpetrated deliberately by morally insensitive individuals, or involuntarily by sick or misguided individuals.

Here is the way that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains the essential and intrinsic goodness of all of man’s capacities, material or spiritual:

In creation there is no evil; all is good. Certain qualities and natures innate in some men and apparently blameworthy are not so in reality. For example, from the beginning of his life you can see in a nursing child the signs of greed, of anger and of temper. Then, it may be said, good and evil are innate in the reality of man, and this is contrary to the pure goodness of nature and creation. The answer to this is that greed, which is to ask for something more, is a praiseworthy quality provided that it is used suitably. So if a man is greedy to acquire science and knowledge, or to become compassionate, generous and just, it is most praiseworthy. If he exercises his anger and wrath against the bloodthirsty tyrants who are like ferocious beasts, it is very praiseworthy; but if he does not use these qualities in a right way, they are blameworthy.

Then it is evident that in creation and nature evil does not exist at all; but when the natural qualities of man are used in an unlawful way, they are blameworthy. 10‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 215.

Thus, the main function of the body is to serve as an instrument of the soul during the time the immortal soul is linked to the mortal body. This period constitutes the first stage of an eternal growth process. The body’s capacities, when properly used, contribute to the process of spiritual growth. These material capacities are no more intrinsically bad than the capacities of the soul itself. Both material and spiritual capacities become harmful if they are misused through false or improper development.

However, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá do stress the fact that the material capacities must be rigorously disciplined (not suppressed) if they are to serve their intended purpose as vehicles for spiritual growth. Since satisfying our physical needs can easily incite us to become aggressive towards others and insensitive to their needs, the individual must engage in a daily struggle with himself to maintain the proper perspective on life and its spiritual meaning.11Also, the Bahá’í Writings make totally clear the Bahá’í disbelief in the objective existence of Satan or of any such evil power or force (cf. Some Answered Questions, ‘The Nonexistence of Evil,’ pp. 263-264). It is explained that what man perceives as evil within himself is simply the absence of some positive quality (which lack is perhaps perceived in a particularly acute way if the individual suddenly finds himself in a situation where the missing quality would have been very useful). Similarly, strong or irrational urges are not, it is affirmed, the result of the action on us of some extrinsic evil force, but rather of subjectives desires arising from within ourselves, possibly due either to a prior lack of proper discipline or to the existence of some deep need which we may have neglected to fulfil in a healthy way (or which has not, in any case, been properly fulfilled). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that improper development can pervert our intrinsically good, natural (God-given) capacities into negative and destructive acquired capacities: “… capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good … but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium each day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and natures.’ Some Answered Questions, pp. 214-215.

More will be said later about the nature of this daily spiritual discipline. The main point here is that the tension between the material and spiritual in man is a creative tension purposely given by God, a tension whose function it is constantly to remind the individual of the necessity of making an effort in the path of spiritual growth. Moreover, the existence of the physical body with its needs provides daily opportunities for the individual to dramatize through action the degree of spirituality he has attained and to assess realistically his progress.12For example, since everyone knows what the physical sensation of hunger is like, anyone who willingly sacrifices his own physical well-being to help feed others commands a certain respect and communicates a spiritual reality to others in a way that far transcends preaching or philosophical discourse.

If man did not have the spiritual-material duality in his nature, he would be spared the unpleasant tension that often accompanies the struggle to take a step along the path of spiritual growth, but he would also be denied the opportunities for growth provided by this very duality.

4. Metaphysical Considerations

We have seen how the Bahá’í concept of spirituality flows naturally and logically from a coherent concept of the nature of man and of God’s purpose for man. It must be admitted, however, that a paradox seems to be at the heart of this process, or at least of our experience of the process during this earthly life. The paradox is that God has given man immediate and easy access to material reality while denying him such immediate access to spiritual realities. This seems a curious thing for God to have done if, in fact, the most important aspect of reality is the spiritual one and if our basic purpose in life is spiritual. If the spiritual dimension of man’s existence is ultimately the most real, then why are we given immediate perception only of the less substantial portion of total reality? Why, in short, are we called upon by God to pursue a spiritual purpose while being immersed in a sea of materiality?

To many people, this basic perception of our human condition is not just a paradox but an outright contradiction. It is impossible, they say, that there could be a world of unseen and unobservable spiritual realities so much less accessible than the world of material reality: the most obvious explanation for the inaccessibility of spiritual reality is that it does not exist. Whether or not the paradox is stated this strongly, it remains the basic stumbling block to atheists, agnostics, materialists, and positivists of whatever philosophical stripe in their approach to spiritual questions. For, even if one becomes convinced that there is a significant, nonmaterial dimension to objective reality, the rationale for its having been deliberately hidden from immediate access by a God who nevertheless holds us responsible for relating properly to it remains obscure.

Fortunately for our attempts to grasp the deeper significance of the Bahá’í concept of spirituality, Bahá’u’lláh has explained in clear terms the divine purpose underlying this fundamental feature of the human situation. The explanation lies in the principle of ‘separation and distinction’ by which God wishes individual moral and spiritual attainment to be the result of the individual’s self-responsible and self-directed efforts. Bahá’u’lláh affirms unequivocally that God could certainly have rendered spiritual truth and spiritual reality as irrefutably evident and as immediately accessible to our spiritual senses as is material reality to our physical senses. But, had He done so, all men would have been forever bereft of one important experience: the experience of the state of spiritual deprivation. As the universe is now ordered, everyone can have the experience of moving from a position of relative doubt, insecurity, uncertainty, and fear towards a position of relative certitude, security, knowledge and faith.

On this journey, we learn important lessons which would otherwise be denied us. We value true spirituality the more for having experienced, to whatever degree, its lack, and we are grateful for the privilege of having participated in and contributed to the process of its attainment. All of this would not be possible if spiritual knowledge and perfection were simply our natural state of being from the moment of our creation.

Here is one passage in which Bahá’u’lláh explains the principle of separation and distinction:

The purpose of God in creating man hath been, and will ever be, to enable him to know his Creator and to attain His Presence. … Whoso hath recognized the Day Spring of Divine guidance and entered His holy court hath drawn nigh unto God and attained His Presence. … Whoso hath failed to recognize Him will have condemned himself to the misery of remoteness, a remoteness which is naught but utter nothingness and the essence of the nethermost fire. Such will be his fate, though to outward seeming he may occupy the earth’s loftiest seats and be established upon its most exalted throne.

He Who is the Day Spring of Truth is, no doubt, fully capable of rescuing from such remoteness wayward souls and of causing them to draw nigh unto His court and attain His Presence. “If God had pleased He had surely made all men one people.” His purpose, however, is to enable the pure in spirit and the detached in heart to ascend, by virtue of their own innate powers, unto the shores of the Most Great Ocean, that thereby they who seek the Beauty of the All-Glorious may be distinguished and separated from the wayward and perverse. Thus hath it been ordained by the all-glorious and resplendent Pen. …

That the Manifestations of Divine justice, the Day Springs of heavenly grace, have when they appeared amongst men always been destitute of all earthly dominion and shorn of the means of worldly ascendancy, should be attributed to this same principle of separation and distinction which animateth the Divine Purpose. Were the Eternal Essence to manifest all that is latent within Him … none would be found to question His power or repudiate His truth. Nay, all created things would be so dazzled and thunderstruck by the evidences of His light as to be reduced to utter nothingness.13Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 70-72.

From this passage, we can understand that the intangibility of spiritual realities is not an accident but rather a deliberate and fundamental aspect of God’s purpose for man. Of course, if God had created us with no spiritual inclinations or perceptions whatever, if He had denied us immediate access to any part of reality, material or spiritual, or if He had created us with spiritual and metaphysical longings impossible of genuine fulfillment, we would be unable to succeed in our basic task. By starting the eternal spiritual growth process as spiritual-material hybrids, having immediate access to material reality and being endowed with significant physical and intellectual powers, we are able to learn the subtleties of spiritual development gradually. By experiencing first-hand the order and the lawfulness of the physical creation, we come to understand that the unseen spiritual realm is similarly ordered and governed by lawful, cause-and-effect relationships. At first intuitively, then explicitly and intellectually, and finally through genuine spiritual experience and inner development, we learn to participate consciously in this spiritual order of things. It becomes a day-to-day reality having an immediacy equal to and even greater than the immediacy of physical experience. Indeed, as Bahá’u’lláh explains, if we fulfill our responsibilities and learn our lessons well, we will be ready at the time of our physical death to pass easily into the purely spiritual realm. We will already have become familiar with its basic laws and modes of functioning and will therefore be prepared to take up our lives in that new realm and proceed with our growth process in a harmonious and satisfying manner:

The Prophets and Messengers of God have been sent down for the sole purpose of guiding mankind to the straight Path of Truth. The purpose underlying Their revelation hath been to educate all men, that they may, at the hour of death, ascend, in the utmost purity and sanctity and with absolute detachment, to the throne of the Most High.14Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 156-157. For a parallel discussion of some of these points see ‘The Metaphorical Nature of Physical Reality’, by John S. Hatcher, Bahá’í Studies, vol. 3, 1977.

Parts 2 and 3 of this article are re-published separately on this website and can be found in the Library.