Religion, Ethics & Spirituality

The Epic of Humanity

Tuesday April 21, 1936


Bahá’u’lláh taught that human history throughout its entire length was an intelligible and connected whole, centering round a single theme and developing a common purpose. In this essay, first published in The Bahá’í World Volume VI (1934-1936), George Townshend describes how, from the beginning of history to the present day and beyond the present to the cycle’s distant end, one master scheme is disclosed by set degrees.

By George Townshend

Bahá’u’lláh revealed a sublime vision of human history as an epic written by the finger of God and proceeding along an ordered course to a climax, the nature of which was exactly defined before the story opened and the appearance of which at the date ordained by the Author no human misunderstanding nor opposition could prevent or postpone.

He taught that human history throughout its entire length was an intelligible and connected whole, centring round a single theme and developing a common purpose. From the beginning of the cycle to the present day and beyond the present to the cycle’s distant end, one master-scheme is by set degrees disclosed. The stage upon which the action moves forward is the entire globe, with all its continents and all its seas; and there is no race nor nation nor tribe nor even individual who has not a designated place in the unfolding of the Grand Design of God.

This doctrine of the unity of world-history held in the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh a position of cardinal importance. He was far from being the first among the Messengers of God to reveal it. Those “prophets which have been since the beginning of the world” and lesser seers as well as they have given glimpses of it to mankind, or have referred to it in symbol and in parable. It is indeed involved in all the historic faiths of the human race, and there is no world-religion extant which can be fully understood without a knowledge of its truth. But Bahá’u’lláh was the first to lay on it so great an emphasis and to expound it at large and in plain terms. On it depends the significance of his own advent and the timeliness of his humanitarian reforms; and on it turns his teaching as to the aims and methods of Providence in its dealings with mankind.

This scheme is carried out by the power of God’s will and it has its origin in his desire for the well-being of his creatures. Its aim is the training of the peoples of the world to live and to work together in harmony, and to establish by God’s particular assistance a universal civilisation in which all the human faculties shall find at last adequate and complete expression. The attainment of this goal is in the Divine Author’s eyes the opening of the main movement of human history. All previous and earlier events are in the nature of an introduction. They are steps up a long ascent, causes of a desired result. However important they be, their meaning lies not wholly in themselves, but in the fact that they look and lead forward to a transcendent issue save for which they themselves would never have been called into existence.

Secular schools of thought cannot be said to have applied nor adopted any such broad conception of the integral unity of all human history. In past times, truths so large did not find easy entrance into the minds of men. So long as accurate knowledge of distant peoples was as hard to gain as accurate knowledge of past events, such doctrines would remain for scholars disembodied and unsubstantiated ideas. Today, histories of mankind on a comprehensive scale have become numerous; yet those of them which present the complete story as having an organic plot like a well-constructed epic, are probably few indeed.

In the sphere of religion, however, the case is different. The idea that the course of human events is directed by a stronger will and a clearer eye than man’s to a predetermined end is found in more revelations than one. It is said to have been mentioned by the founders of all the world-religions. Though it has not been in any past age of such critical interest as it is today and has not before been treated so fully as now by Bahá’u’lláh, yet it has never been kept wholly concealed from man. There are references to it in scripture or tradition which are clear enough to show that this truth is part of the common religious knowledge of mankind while slight enough to prove that it did not hold in any High Prophet’s teaching the same importance as in that of Bahá’u’lláh.

The general fact that God ordains human events long ages before they take shape on this earth (somewhat as a dramatist will complete his play before it is embodied in action on the stage), was alluded to by Jesus when He said of the righteous in the Last Day, “Enter into the joy prepared for you by the Father before the beginning of the world”; and again on many occasions by the Apostle Paul, as, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. i. 4), and by Peter who speaks in a similar connection of “the foreknowledge of God the Father” (I Peter i. 2).

Muhammad bore the same witness when he revealed that the first thing which God created was a pen and that he said to it, “Write.” It said to him, “What shall I write?” and God said, “Write down the quantity of every separate thing to be created.” And it wrote all that was and all that will be to eternity.

More specifically, Zarathustra taught the gradual perfecting of mankind under divine law and the God-guided progress of history towards a distant but certain culmination.

At some unknown date the Hebrew allegory of the creation of the world in seven days made a cryptic allusion to the procession of world-religions and to the final consummation of God’s full purpose in the Seventh Day, the day of maturity, completion and rest. The seers of the Hebrew people, lifted by inspiration into the eternal realm, would descry some sign or feature of the far-off Day of God, the foreordained climacteric of world-history, and in a mood of exaltation would give utterance to their predictive vision without fully comprehending what they saw or measuring the interval which separated them from its fulfilment.

Isaiah cries:

It shall come to pass in the last days that the Mountain of the Lord’s House shall be established in the top of the mountains . . . and all nations shall flow to it. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.1(i. 2, 4)

Or Zechariah:

The Day of the Lord cometh. . . . And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day shall there be one Lord and His name one.2(Zech. xiv. 1, 9).

Or again Joel:

The Day of the Lord cometh . . . there hath not been ever the like, neither shall there be any more after it even to the years of many generations. . . . Ye shall eat in plenty and be satisfied and praise the name of the Lord that hath dealt wondrously with you . . . ! I will pour out my spirit and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . . your old men shall dream dreams . . . your young men shall see visions. And also upon the servants and the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. And I will show wonders in the heaven and on the earth. The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and the terrible Day of the Lord come. And whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.3(Joel ch. 2)

Confucius, more than five centuries before Christ, outlined in his book, Spring and Autumn, the ordained Plan of History in brief but plain terms.

He divided history into three stages. In the first, which he called the Stage of Disorder, the social mind was very crude; there was a sharp distinction between one’s own country and other countries, and hence attention was paid more to conditions at home than abroad. In the second stage, the Advancement of Peace, there was a distinction between civilized countries on the one side and those uncivilized on the other; the range of civilization extended and friendship between nations became closer. The smaller people could make their voices heard. In the third and final stage, the Supreme Peace, there was no distinction at all among the nations of the world. All became civilized and met upon the level. Righteousness prevailed and the world was unified.

Jesus spoke much of the Last Day (the Kingdom of God as He usually called it) and of its near approach. “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” He did not stress, as Confucius had done, the historical aspect of the coming climacteric, but taking up the warnings of the Hebrew prophets He spoke of the unexpectedness of its advent and of the terrible jeopardy into which it would bring mankind. Even in an age so late in history as His, a full account of the development and destiny of the race would have been premature. He kept the fullness of this truth among those things which He had to say to His disciples, but which at that stage they could not yet bear.

But now a new occasion has arisen. New opportunities, new problems, new perils, confront mankind; and with these new conditions has come the need of a new knowledge. He who, before the human race began, fixed the date at which that yet untreated race would reach the apex of its course and attain the maturity of its powers, has now declared that the Date has come. He who, in dim and distant ages long past, solemnly ratified with His people a Covenant and made to them a faithful promise that He would bring them all to His Kingdom in His own good time, has now in this epoch kept His ancient promise and fulfilled the Covenant in its completeness.

This present time is God’s Good time. This present time is the Era of which since the beginning of the world prophets have chanted and seers have sung. Suddenly—unexpectedly—unawares—without observation (exactly as Jesus said) the fullness of the Glory of God has irradiated the globe from the east to the farthest west. The Day of the Lord has dawned. Keeping his pledge, God has thrown open to men a new domain of life and activity, has conferred on them new powers, laid on them new responsibilities; and he demands that they enter as quickly as may he into this new order of existence and fit themselves to these higher conditions.

The nature of those charges which in the Day of God are to be laid upon mankind can be gathered from a sympathetic reading of the prophets of Israel. Those seers wrote—as a great poet might write—with their minds turned towards God and their hearts lighted and warmed by ardent faith. They could not control the vision that was vouchsafed them: they could not complete it nor set it in its own environment and perspective, nor plumb its meanings nor yet count the years which should elapse before it descended from the realm in which they saw it to the realm of actuality. When the prophets are read in this spirit as Jesus and the evangelists read them, there rises into view a clear and boldly sketched outline of those world-developments which from the creation have been laid up to await the present hour.

The picture is one which has puzzled, fascinated and awed the Christian mind. The impression made by the vision upon the seer-prophets was profound. They write or chant in a strain of exaltation which finds its answer across the years in the rapturous faith of the Apocalypse and the controlled but not less deep emotion of the Christ telling of his second Advent. The strange scenes and deeds and wonders that appear in the picture are hardly more startling than the violent contrast of the colors in which they are painted. Here Hell seems to reach out to the gates of Paradise; delusion and enlightenment, despair and victory, the unlighted Pit and the sunshine of God’s own presence seem all to have a place here, and through some purgation of Phlegethonian misery man hardly comes alive to inherit the promise of all ages.

The Event which the Hebrew prophets foresaw was not to be an isolated occurrence; it was one of a series of events; it was the Last Day of many days. But it so transcended all before it as to be outstanding and paramount. Its splendour outshone all previous splendours, and its blessings were so far above all previous experience and precedent that men would live in a new world and would not even remember the former things that had passed so utterly away. So full will be the Revelation vouchsafed by God in the Last Day, so glorious the effulgence of this supreme Theophany that darkness and error will not be able to withstand the impact of its might. They will flee and perish. The radiance will sweep across the entire globe from the east to the west. It will settle and abide in every land. Mankind will become one, and will be organised round a single central authority which it will recognise as divinely appointed. One law will run throughout the whole earth. National distinctions will not be obliterated; the various nations will meet upon a common level but will retain their separate identity. All peoples and races will share a common relation to one another. A Universal religion will unite the hearts of all. Mankind will form a single congregation, their God being recognised everywhere as one and the same God endowed with the same attributes and known by the same Name. The Glory of the Most High in its depth and in its height will be poured forth over the earth; and spiritual gifts, once the privilege of a gifted few, will be possessed by the many. War will be abandoned. The skill of those who made weapons of destruction will be turned to beneficent uses. All the world over, men will be able to enjoy their homes and their prosperity in security and peace.4See, for instance, Isaiah ii. 2-4; xv. 17- 25; Zech. ix. 10; xiv. 9; viii, 20 ff.; Zeph. iii. 9; Micah iv. 1-5, etc.

Such is the prophets’ picture of the world conditions of the Last Day; such—believe the Bahá’ís—are the changes which man in this hour is called upon to make.

Prescient of the crisis and the difficulties that lay ahead, Bahá’u’lláh, half a century ago, with timely forethought, offered to mankind the knowledge that would enable them to shoulder the new responsibility about to be imposed upon them. He not only outlined a large plan of reform, but he explained, with an emphasis, a fullness, and a precision not used before, the brotherhood of mankind and the unity of their development from the infancy of the race to the present time.

History, he taught, is in its length and breadth one and single. It is one in its structure. It is one in its movement. From the beginning of time the whole human race has been subject to one law of development; and it has advanced age after age in accordance with one and the same principle and by the application of one and the same method. Its whole movement has one source and one cause, and is directed towards one goal. The unification of the world, instead of being an afterthought, or of needing an improvised miracle for its completion, is the normal conclusion of a process that has been going on since the race began. Each of the world-religions has its own set place within this vast economy. Each is mediated through a Master Prophet from God by one and the same principle and bears witness to some phase of one indivisible Truth. No religion has been exhaustive or final. Every one admits of development and invites it. If all were under God thus developed, each along the line of its own implicit truth, they would not move farther and farther apart, but on the contrary would approach one another till at last they merged and became one. The ultimate ideal of them all, while not the same as any one of those from which it grew, will yet be consistent with the essence of each of them. It is the universal religion: the fruit and the perfection of all that preceded it. He who accepts it on its appearance will not deny the ancient Faith of his forefathers; he will reassert it, and at the same time will accept all the other revealed faiths of mankind.

When all men know the certainty of their common history and their organic unity, then, said Bahá’u’lláh, on that knowledge will be built the temple of peace and the fabric of future civilisation.