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Abstract:
Overview of Babi and Baha'i history, and an account of a multi-day visit with Abdu'l-Baha.

The Bahai Movement, with Some Recollections of Meetings with Abdul Baha

by Maude M. Holbach

published in The Nineteenth Century and After, 77, pages 452-466
London: 1915-02

1. Text

‘LET your ambition be the achievement on earth of a Heavenly Civilisation.’ ‘May you help those sunk in materiality to realize their divine Sonship and encourage them to arise and be worthy of their birthright; so that by your endeavour the world of humanity may become the kingdom of God and of His elect.’

These are the words of a wonderful teacher coming from the East to give a message to the West, spoken in Paris in the autumn of 1911; he is known both as Abbas Effendi, the title usually given to him in the Orient, and as Abdul Baha, the servant of God, a name which inspires love and devotion all over America, and from which his followers take the name of Bahais, followers of the Light.

Most thinking men and women will admit that a wave of spirituality is at present sweeping through the world, and finding expression in many forms. Modernism in the Church of Rome, New Thought, Christian Science, the New Theology, of which Dr. Campbell is the chief exponent, are parts of it. The immense popularity of a recent book on Christian Mysticism is a sign of it.[1]

A modern writer has said[2] ‘Within two decades enlightened European thought has gone over from intelligent scepticism to intelligent mysticism’; and the same writer affirms ‘Inward spiritual happiness impels men to share their experience with others.’ Thus, then, am I impelled to tell the wonderful story of the Bahai Movement, which has been often ignorantly described as a ‘new religion,’ but is rather the renewal of the Divine Message given by the Old Testament prophets, as well as by Zoroaster and Confucius, Buddha and Mohammed, and embodied for Christians in the Sermon on the Mount.

That truth is stranger than fiction is a truism. Strange indeed, and curiously like the story of the dawn of Christianity, is the story of the first Bahai martyr Mirza Ali Mohammed, who took the name of the Bab or door, from which his followers became known as Babis, a name sometimes to-day erroneously given to the Bahais.

The Bab’s mission, however, was to the Mohammedans, that of the greater Teacher Baha’o’llah, who followed him, to the whole world.

A Babi was a Mohammedan reformer, a Bahai may be a reformer in any Church to which he happens to belong, for Abdul Baha asks none to leave their own religion but to love it — to look back through the mists of ages and discern the true spirit of its founder — to cast off dogma and seek reality!

But this is a digression from the fascinating tragic story of the birth of the Bahai Movement and its baptism in blood.

The young man Mirza Ali Mohammed was born at Shiraz in Persia in 1819; the son of a merchant, he received only the ordinary education of young men of his station, but early became known for his wide knowledge and lofty character.

At the age of twenty-four he proclaimed himself as a divine messenger sent to warn the people of the coming of their promised Mahdi foretold by Mohammed. After nineteen years he stated he would be followed by a greater teacher — ‘He whom God would manifest.’

Mirza Ali Mohammed from this time became known as the Bab, and his first disciples went to different parts of Turkey and Persia proclaiming his advent. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca and there proclaimed himself to more than a hundred thousand Mohammedans who had assembled at the time of the great pilgrimage and who carried the glad tidings with them on their return to their homes in all parts of the Moslem world.

From Mecca reports of the Bab’s growing influence reached his native city of Shiraz, and the mullahs became alarmed at his doctrines; for he taught that the Koran was not the final revelation, also proclaimed the equality of the sexes and the necessity of direct communication with God without priestly intervention. The Shi’ite doctors played the part of the Pharisees of old in stirring up the authorities, and persuaded the Governor to summon the Bab to a meeting at Shiraz, at which they tried to confound him but signally failed; they then in desperation declared that whoever laid claim to any revelation other than Mohammed must be an infidel, and sentenced him to death. The Governor of Fars joined in the mockery of a trial by insulting and striking him; but the death sentence was not carried out, probably because the Bab alive was worth more to his persecutors than dead, his maternal uncle, a man of property, having found surety for him.

Nevertheless, the Bab was kept in strict seclusion, yet his followers increased in number and in influence, and among them was the great nobleman Baha’o’llah, who afterwards became the head of the movement.

The story of the persecution of the Bab reads like a chapter of the New Testament or of the story of the early Christian martyrs. Among those who accepted the new teachings was Manu Chehr Khan, the Christian Governor of Isfahan, a town famed as a centre of orthodoxy and learning, in which nevertheless the new doctrines were rapidly promulgated and one of the chief of the Ulemas became a Babi. Once more the clergy clamoured for the Bab’s life, and the Christian Governor, wishing to save him, gave orders for another debate which should be reported to the Shah, feeling sure that thus the Bab would be vindicated. The clergy, fearing the same result, refused the conference and privately resolved on the Bab’s execution. The death of the Governor aided their plans. First the Bab was ordered to present himself before the Shah, but the Prime Minister, fearing the influence of so wonderful a man might undermine his own, sent orders to stop him on his way and sent him to Teheran; on the journey there at all the towns which the prisoner passed he made converts; finally he was placed in a remote fortress and subjected to a rigorous imprisonment.

Meanwhile the persecution of his followers began. Heretical doctrines were an excuse for plundering and murdering the Babis. Fanatical priests joined hand in hand with rapacious Pashas to wipe out the proscribed people and confiscate their property. The Babis, few in number but valorous to a degree, fought for their lives and homes. The Prime Minister decided to quell the ‘revolt’ by the death of the leader, but was met by the prompt refusal of the local Governor to murder a descendant of the Prophet who had not been convicted of any crime.

The commander-in-chief of the army, however, proved more complacent, and the last act of the drama was enacted in the market-place at Tabriz. One July day in the year 1850 the persecuted Bab and one of his followers were suspended by ropes from the city wall as a target for the Armenian soldiers, whose shots should sever body and soul. The musketry rang out — the smoke cleared — but only the ropes which bound the prisoners were severed they stood where their dead bodies should have been — unbound! The soldiers, struck with awe, refused to fire again — men of another regiment were sent for to complete the tragedy — the prisoners were bound once more — once more the musketry rang out — and this time when the smoke cleared two riddled bodies hung lifeless on the wall.

So ended the first chapter of this strange, true story! The remains of the Bab, exposed to the public gaze, after the medieval fashion of striking terror into the hearts of rebels and evil-doers, were stolen by his followers, and concealed as a bale of goods were first conveyed to Teheran and later to the Bahai headquarters at Haifa. Thus all that was mortal of a very noble soul now rests in a tomb on the peaceful hillside of Mount Carmel, within sight of the window by which I write.

But the seed the martyr sowed lived on and brought forth fruit a hundredfold.

The Bab’s crown of martyrdom shone radiantly throughout Persia; the fire he had lit spread far and wide; thousands inspired by his example laid down their lives for their faith; women and children were among them: weak in body but valiant in soul, like the early Christians they went gladly to their death, undaunted by the horrors their executioners devised, smiling through torture incredible, dying with songs of joy on their lips.

Thirty thousand there met their fate — many accused of no worse crime than the possession of a Bahai book or friendship for one of the proscribed people.

They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews xi. 37).

The priests had found a pretext for these wholesale massacres in an attempt on the Shah’s life made by a young Babi whose brain had been turned by the execution of his master, and the resistance offered by the Babis to the confiscation of their property. The basest treachery was used to overcome them, of which a signal instance is the slaughter of a little body of three or four hundred men at Mazanduan, who, after holding out for eleven months against an army of 25,000 troops, surrendered to the Persian commander on his guarantee (confirmed by an oath sworn on the Koran) that their lives would be spared and each man sent to his own city, as they had come from all over Persia at Baha’o’llah’s call. The starving garrison were assembled and food set before them, and while eating they were butchered by order of the man who had sworn to protect them! Similar instances occurred in other parts of the country.

Among those thrown into prison in these persecutions was the son of a noble house the names of whose members are writ large in the annals of Persia, having served their country in the highest offices in the State. Mirza Husain Ali Nuri, now known as Baha’o’llah, was designed for a courtier; he might have been Vizier or Prime Minister; he chose instead a life of privation, imprisonment, and exile, which, commencing with his first four months’ incarceration in 1852 in a dungeon where he was chained to four other Babis, ended with his death at Acre in 1892. As no political conspiracy could be proved against Mirza Ali he was very illogically deprived of his vast property and banished to Baghdad, where numbers of Babis followed him and a little settlement of the refugees was formed. The leader then withdrew to the mountains, where he lived for two years in solitude, broken only by occasional visits from holy men who desired to confer with him on spiritual matters; but returned to Baghdad on the urgent appeal of the Babis to overcome some difficulties that had arisen. The little community became such a centre of influence that the Mohammedan priests once more took fright and brought pressure to bear on the Government to treat for the surrender of Mirza Ali. The Sultan instead summoned him to Constantinople; on the journey there, in the Garden of Rizwan, the religious leader proclaimed himself as the great Teacher foretold by the Bab, ‘He whom God should manifest’, and took the title of Baha’o’llah, ‘the Glory of God’, commanding his followers no longer to call themselves Babis but Bahais. At the same time he announced the advent of a new era which should witness the end of warfare and the union of the religions of the world. In 1864 the Bahais arrived at Constantinople, strong in faith in their leader, filled with the glow of enthusiasm that works miracles and transforms the world. It seems as if the magic of Baha’o’llah’s presence had prepared the way before them; courtesy and not bonds awaited them from the Sultan. Baha’o’llah and his family were given a residence in the city and a new centre of influence formed; but priestly intervention quickly broke up such a state of affairs and resulted in another banishment to Adrianople, the Turkish city most remote from Persia.

Here, in his five years’ residence, Baha’o’llah came into touch with European civilisation and Occidental thought. Indeed his residence there corresponds with the calling of the Gentiles in the Bible narrative.

But not all the Babis acknowledged Baha’o’llah as the successor of the Bab. It is written ‘In those days a man’s foes shall be those of his own household’, and it was Baha’o’llah’s own half-brother who, consumed by jealousy, claimed the succession for himself, conspired against him, and treacherously prejudiced the Turkish Government against the Bahai community; so that they were again in danger of their lives and, to the great grief of a large section of the inhabitants of Constantinople, particularly of the Christians, once more banished to Acre, in Palestine, then the worst of the Turkish penal settlements.

Before their departure from Constantinople Baha’o’llah foretold to one of those appointed to carry out the orders of the Porte many events that have subsequently taken place in the Ottoman Empire, including the deposition of Abdul Hamid and the Turkish revolution. In August 1868 the Bahais reached Acre, that wonderful old city whose first annals are lost in the mists of legend and tradition, but which was ancient when the banners of the Crusading kings and princes floated over its walls. Here the little community of seventy persons were confined for two years in two mean rooms in the Government barracks under the most insanitary conditions. Little wonder that sickness was rife. Acre at that time was reeking with typhoid, its water supply was vile: in short, banishment to the ‘Greatest Prison’ was a convenient way of getting rid of undesirable prisoners without the formality of a death sentence.

But among the Bahais only six died in those two years, though severe epidemics broke out among them. In this time of greatest trial it is recorded that Abdul Baha, the present head of the Bahai Movement, then a young man, was the mainstay of the community; his sunny spirit cheered all hearts; his skilful nursing saved the lives of many sufferers; his indomitable spirit rose superior to all ills and infected those around him with fresh courage. The sustaining power of a mighty faith and a marvellous love for their leader and each other upheld the Bahais. God had led them to the Holy Land; this they believed was the fulfilment of prophecy, and little by little, as elsewhere, in spite of the rigorous orders as to their captivity, the hearts of their jailors were touched by their uniform gentleness and courtesy towards all with whom they came in contact, and they came to respect and honour their prisoners.

Baha’o’llah was allowed after the first two years to occupy a house in the town, but he was still confined in one room for another seven years, during which he occupied himself in writing his doctrinal works, which, often couched in the symbolic language of prophecy, yet contain the most practical directions for the development of the ideal State and cover every social question of the day. The fame of his wisdom went out far beyond the prison walls, though few were permitted to see him, and in the early days of the imprisonment his devoted followers sometimes journeyed from Persia overland on foot, being months on the way, in order to obtain a glimpse of his face through the barred windows of the prison. At a later date some visitors were admitted to hold intercourse with the Bahais, and they came from all classes, from high official to the poorest of the lower orders, and for help and guidance of all kinds, from things spiritual to mundane. These visitors were nearly always received by Abdul Baha, who with marvellous wisdom, consummate tact, and infinite patience answered their questions and solved their problems; while at the same time he assisted Baha’o’llah in his writings and protected him from the importunities of those who sought his presence when he was occupied with the writing of the spiritual treatises which were to be the guiding principles of his followers in the future.

The few Europeans who saw Baha’o’llah during his imprisonment at Acre all bore witness to the extraordinary majesty and dignity of his presence, which is inimitably described by Professor Browne, of Cambridge, who obtained special leave from his University to go to Palestine to investigate the Bahai Movement.

The face of him on whom I gazed [he writes] I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one’s very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow; while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of devotion and love which Kings might envy and Emperors sigh for in vain!

From the prison at Acre Baha’o’llah sent letters, called in the Baha literature ‘Tablets’, to the rulers of Europe, calling upon them to join in a world movement towards the abolition of war and towards religious unity; it is said that Queen Victoria alone answered him.

To Napoleon the Third he foretold the loss of his throne, to the Pope the loss of the temporal power. As a means towards the attainment of ‘the Most Great Peace’ which should end for ever warfare on earth, he recommended the adoption of an universal language, such as Esperanto, to be learnt by every one in addition to his or her mother tongue. The equality of the sexes is proclaimed for the first time by an Oriental in his writings, and it is a rule of the Bahais to educate their daughters at least as well as their sons, and, should limited means prevent both having equal advantages, to give the better education to the girls as the mothers of the future. The childless are enjoined to educate a child.

Before Baha’o’llah died on the 28th of May 1892, at the age of seventy-five, he had appointed his son Abdul Baha his spiritual successor and instructed him to carry the Bahai teaching to the West by visiting Europe and the American Continent. At the time of Baha’o’llah’s death this command seemed impossible of fulfilment, for Abdul Baha was still a prisoner in the fortress of Acre, and, humanly speaking, it seemed probable (as he had steadfastly refused to allow his liberty to be purchased by corruption) that he would continue a prisoner till death released him. In this connexion an interesting story is told of the plots of the Turkish officials to line their pockets with American dollars by setting free the leader of a movement which had, even then, many adherents in the United States. A wealthy American lady resident in Paris met the then Secretary to the Turkish Embassy at a reception, and, being a devoted Bahai, seized the opportunity to deplore the imprisonment of Abdul Baha. The Secretary, a relative of a former Governor of Syria (who was in Paris at the time of my visit last year and frequently called on Abdul Baha), was equal to the occasion and volunteered the information that for a payment of 3000l. the matter could be arranged. The lady at once gladly agreed to find the sum, and the Turkish Secretary wrote to the Governor to that effect, who, overjoyed at the prospect of such a windfall, cabled back to Paris ‘It will be done.’ The news of the negotiations reached Abdul Baha, however, and another cable from him reached Paris warning the lady not to pay the money. Very sad at heart was the Governor when he found the gold that seemed almost within his reach vanishing before his gaze, and he sent his own son to Acre to represent to the prisoner his desire to set him free — who urged the question with much Oriental diplomacy and flattery, but in vain, though the Governor at that time was so powerful that his reports to the Sultan were laws, and to offend him was well-nigh a sentence of death. To end the matter, Abdul Baha sent a message to the Governor, which must indeed have astonished that great personage by its calm assumption of authority and dignified defiance:

Do not try any more, for you will fail in your secret machinations. There is a destined time for my imprisonment. Before the coming of that time even the Kings of the earth cannot take me out of this prison, and when the appointed time has passed all the Emperors of the world cannot hold me prisoner in Acre. I shall then go out. Rest thou assured of this!

The Molossaf of Acre, to whom Abdul Baha made this emphatic statement, wrote to the Governor advising him to make no further move, ‘because Abbas Effendi has learned from the position of the heavenly Constellations the time of his freedom, and no one can hasten it.’

Abdul Baha was born at Teheran in Persia on the 23rd of May 1844, the day on which the Bab declared his divine mission, and which is now a special festival of the Bahais, sacred to the memory of the great forerunner, and at the same time the birthday of their beloved leader. It was my privilege to be in Paris on the 23rd of May last year and to visit and congratulate Abdul Baha very early in the morning, when he and his entourage were drinking their Persian tea after the morning prayer at sunrise, and before the long stream of callers of all nations arrived to do him homage. Well do I remember that May morning — the peace of its early hours, the cordiality of the Master’s welcome, the spirituality of the atmosphere. I saw him again later in the day; his rooms were filled with the floral offerings of his friends from Orient and Occident; Persian officials rubbed shoulders with distinguished Frenchmen, Christians with Jews and Mohammedans. America was largely represented, for, to their honour be it said, the Americans were the first of Western nations to listen to the voice of the present-day prophet, and in every city of the United States, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Abdul Baha was received with open arms, not only by the Bahais but by the ministers of all denominations and the University professors, and especially by the heads of the International Peace Societies, who recognised in him a powerful co-worker. There were English also, and Germans, at Abdul Baha’s informal birthday reception, all meeting on a common ground in honouring the Oriental teacher, whose message is ‘Forget nationalities, all are equal in the sight of God!’ ‘Let no man glory that he loves his country, but rather let him glory that he loves his kind!’

A vision rises before me as I write of a transformed world permeated with the message of Abdul Baha; no burden of armaments would oppress the people, for no international jealousies would exist; no clash of capital and labour would be there, for no sweated worker would toil for a pittance, but each citizen would emulate not his neighbour’s wealth but his good deeds, each would count it his highest privilege to serve others and thus attain to happiness himself. It is the Christian ideal, but alas! the practice of most ‘Christians’ falls so far short of it!

Abdul Baha’s prophecy to the rapacious Governor was fulfilled. After forty years, at the command of Abdul Hamid (when he re-established the Constitution of 1876 and freed all political prisoners) the prison doors opened and the Bahai leader stepped forth a free man, to proclaim his message of universal peace and brotherhood from East to West.

His visits to England are fresh in the memory of those who were privileged to meet him or to be present on the memorable occasions when he gave the Blessing in St. John’s, Westminster, at the request of Archdeacon Wilberforce, and occupied the pulpit at the City Temple at the invitation of Mr. Campbell.

Abdul Baha had been officially invited to the Universal Races Congress of July 1911, but was unable to reach England in time in his absence a paper by him was read which, it was afterwards pointed out in the Press, was ‘the only one which presented a spiritual solution of racial problems, offering spiritual unity as the greatest human ideal to be attained by using economic and political factors merely as means to that end.’

From London he went to Paris, where it is computed he met more than a hundred and fifty persons daily for two months, besides lecturing before the Theosophical Society, speaking at the Union des Spiritualistes and at Pasteur Wagner’s Church. The addresses in Paris are now published in book form by the Bahai Master,[3] and their deep spirituality impresses all who read them, even as it did those fortunate enough to hear them delivered in sonorous Persian, and ably translated into French by his secretary.

After three months in Europe Abdul Baha returned to Egypt in 1911, but four months later this aged man, with a constitution undermined by his long imprisonment and many privations, but sustained by the same undaunted spirit that had made him the ministering angel of the prison at Acre, undertook a long and arduous journey through America, in the course of which he visited all the chief cities from the Atlantic to the Pacific, addressing Jews, Christians, Mormons, and Freethinkers, meeting the points of view of each, winning the hearts of all. The New York Peace Society welcomed with a banquet in his honour the greatest peace worker in the world, and other International Peace Societies wherever he journeyed vied in doing him honour. Those who know that Mr. W. J. Bryan, the present Secretary of State, came under Abdul Baha’s influence first at Acre on his journey round the world, and again when the leader of the Bahais returned the visit in America, do not wonder at the beneficial influence he is exerting in the present administration — an influence that extends far beyond his own country and makes for world peace.

But it is not alone among the nations that Abdul Baha is working for unity. Equally is he the apostle of peace between the Churches, and between Science and Religion, which have so long been estranged. ‘There is no opposition between Religion and Science,’ he declares. ‘They are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights; with which the human soul can progress.’ This subject he treated at length in a remarkable address to the world of Science delivered at Stanford University in California, and in the same city he addressed a crowded congregation of Jews in one of the chief synagogues on ‘The Fundamental Unity of Religious Thought’, establishing the validity of the claims of Jesus Christ and inviting the Jews to believe in Him.

It was at the conclusion of his American tour that it was my privilege and happiness to meet Abdul Baha. Nearly three years ago, when visiting Haifa and Acre to study the ground of the Crusades, I first heard of the Oriental teacher — and turned a deaf ear! For the time that I should recognise his greatness was not yet! An English resident of Haifa at that period spoke of him as a modern Elijah who had founded a second School of the Prophets on Mount Carmel. Someone else in Jerusalem told me that I should write about the Bahai Movement if I wanted a new subject, but ‘I went my unremembering way,’ smiling with English superiority at the statement that Americans were coming to sit at the feet of the new prophet! A year later at Oxford I found, when reading in the Bodleian Library, a book which opened my eyes to the beauty of the Bahai teaching, but much had happened in the year — some study of comparative religions, and particularly of Christian Science, with its message, ‘Man is not material, he is spiritual,’ and of the power of universal love to heal both mind and body, had prepared me for it.

A few months later, in a London drawing-mom I found a portrait of Abdul Baha and recognised it immediately, though I had never seen any portrait of him, by the intuition that comes to some of us in certain crises of life. My hostess, who had been the first to welcome ‘the Master’ to England, coming into the room immediately afterwards, I eagerly questioned her, and learned that I was standing in the first room Abdul Baha had entered on reaching England, and in the house that had been his English home.

In the following October (1912) I went, consequently upon the outbreak of the Balkan War, on a hastily organised lecturing tour to America, entirely ignorant that Abdul Baha was still in the United States, for a letter inquiring as to his movements had been lost, and in a rush of engagements and preparations I had not given the matter any more thought. Again the hand of Fate led me. By a remarkable coincidence, within a few days of landing I learned that Abdul Baha was in New York and would leave very shortly for England, and that a farewell banquet to him, given by the Bahais of America, who had come from far and near, was even then taking place. This time nothing, I resolved, should prevent me meeting the great man of whom I had heard so much. An exchange of telephone messages with the Great Northern Hotel, where the banquet was taking place, a hasty toilet, a rush through the brilliantly lit streets of New York at a taxi’s topmost speed, and I entered a banqueting room where three to four hundred guests were already seated, and saw beyond the long table an upper table at which a venerable figure in Oriental robes was standing, surrounded by a group of more Orientals (among whom I afterwards found was the Persian Chargé d’Affaires from Washington), and addressing the guests in a strange tongue which was translated sentence by sentence into poetic English. I can remember nothing of what he said except that this was a feast differing from all other feasts because it was a feast of love — and divine! Room was made for me, the stranger and latecomer, with true Bahai courtesy, at one of the principal tables, where I could have the best view of the guest of the evening. Later Abdul Baha walked slowly round the banqueting-hall followed by his interpreter, stopping from time to time to give a short address and laying his hands in blessing on the head of every guest. Probably I was the only one present who was not a Bahai, and I am well aware I displayed my ignorance of the movement in my conversation, for a New York business man who was my table neighbour seemed surprised by my remarks, while I was vastly impressed by his simple downright ‘straight talk’ (to use an Americanism) of the practical value of Bahai principles in business life, in promoting harmony with his workmen of various nationalities, because he now regarded them all as brothers instead of, as formerly, Greeks, Armenians, and ‘niggers.’

Wonderful days followed, in which I had the privilege of conversing alone (through an interpreter who somehow effaced himself completely and seemed but a living mouthpiece) with the unique personage who impressed those who came within his influence more and more deeply as they became more imbued with his spirit, as well as of being present at his interviews with men and women of various attainments and mental stature, to each of whom he suited himself and by all of whom he was evidently regarded with the deepest veneration. The most interesting of the interviews at which I was privileged to be present were, I think, that which took place when the Secretary of the New, York Peace Society called to bid him ‘Good-bye’ and discussed the International Peace Question; and a private interview to which I accompanied the wife of a diplomat, an American who had lived much in the East and heard of the Persian prophet through her great friend, a high Turkish official, Prince Oslan,[4] having come under the spell of his spiritual personality and being changed, to use her own words, ‘from a brilliant worldling to a spiritually minded man.’

Abdul Baha does not preach — he prefers to teach. Although at the request of the Theosophical and other Societies he addressed some large public meetings, his usual ‘talks’ are much more informal. It was his custom in America to receive callers from 9 o’clock till noon, and during these hours his ante-room was always thronged with those who desired to meet or consult him, waiting for their turn; and then to come into the general reception room, shake hands with all present, and give a short address of general interest. I have often felt that it is not so much his words as his spirit which carry conviction, and this spirit is reflected among his followers to such a degree that to find oneself at a Bahai assembly, whether in New York or Chicago, London or Paris or Stuttgart (the centre of the movement in Germany), is everywhere to find oneself among friends animated by a real spirit of mutual help and brotherhood. There are, of course, as there have been in every religious movement, some Bahais who are Bahais in name only; but taken as a whole a wonderful spirit of real Christian brotherhood animates the Bahai communities, which is perhaps the more remarkable when one reflects that a large number of those who came into the movement were, before they found it, frankly irreligious. A leading Bahai of New York was pointed out to me with the comment ‘There goes a man who was one of the hardest-hearted atheists in this city.’ He, by the way, was selected as one of a little band to take the Bahai teachings to India.

I was present at several of the ‘feasts’ held at different private houses every nineteen days by command of Abdul Baha, and I reflected how much love must go to the preparation of a dinner for thirty or forty people in a private house, where the ménage often consists of but one, or at most two, servants, the difficulty of procuring domestic ‘help’ in America rendering larger establishments out of the question. I have known a feast given in a home where the mistress was the only maid, and her friends all helped her in waiting. No invitations are issued, but all are welcome, so no one knows how many may come to these gatherings, especially as friends of Bahais are often present. At the ‘feasts’ Bahai news from other centres is read, as well as some of the ‘Tablets’ (writings of Baha’o’llah).

It has been erroneously stated by some ill-informed or ill-disposed people that the object of Abdul Baha’s journey to America was to obtain money from the ‘friends’ there (the term used by the Quakers has been very fittingly adopted by the Bahais, with whom they have many points of similarity); so far from true is this that Abdul Baha returned the 30,000 dollars collected and sent as a voluntary offering of love for the expenses of his tour, with a message that it should be used for the poor of America, and everywhere he went he gave liberally to charitable institutions, besides privately relieving individual cases of want.

His departure from New York was a remarkable sight, for Bahais had come to that city from far and near, some even from California, to bid him farewell, and when the great modern liner left her moorings the pier was black with people whose eyes were centred on the patriarchal figure with the long grey beard and snowy turban, who looked the embodiment of the Old Testament prophets and presented so remarkable a contrast to his modern surroundings. Few among the onlookers were unmoved, many women were openly weeping, and I saw men whose eyes were dim, while those of Abdul Baha’s Persian followers who were left behind were unrestrained in their grief!

‘Isn’t it sad he is going?’ said someone as the great ship slowly moved out to sea. ‘Ah! but how glad for those he is going to!’ was the reply from one who knew how eagerly people were waiting to welcome Abdul Baha in England and Scotland, as well as in Paris.

Last summer the turn came of Stuttgart, Vienna, and Budapest. In Germany the Bahai literature is being translated, and there are Bahais at Munich and Leipzig, as well as at Stuttgart and Esslingen, but the movement is comparatively new, and the number of its adherents proportionately small, though drawn from the most thoughtful classes of the community. Christian Scientists and Theosophists especially seem to be investigating it. At Vienna the Baroness von Suttner, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who had been speaking in America in the Peace interest the previous year but had not then met Abdul Baha, called upon him and conferred with him upon the subject of International Peace, to promote which was their common aim.

In Budapest, where Abdul Baha met with an ovation from both scholars and social reformers, the head of the Peace Society, a high dignitary of the Church of Rome, showed his liberality by extending a warm welcome to the Oriental guest, and appearing with him on the platform at a public meeting at which a renowned Jewish professor stood on his other side, thus typifying the union of religions for which Abdul Baha pleads.

No account of the visit to Budapest would be complete without mention of Abdul Baha’s two interviews with Professor Vambéry, the effect of which is shown by the remarkable letter [online here] that great scholar and Orientalist addressed to him shortly before his death. The meeting between Vambéry and Abdul Baha took place in April 1913, and the letter was written on the receipt of a gift Abdul Baha cent him on his return to Egypt in the following summer. It has been my privilege to see the original and hear Abdul Baha read it aloud. It is, of course, couched in the Oriental style adopted by the learned to a very great teacher, and the translation is as follows:

Professor Vambéry’s Testimony to the Religion of Abdul Baha.

I forward this humble petition to the sanctified and holy presence of Abdul Baha Abbas, who is the centre of knowledge, famous throughout the world, and loved by all mankind. O thou noble friend, who art conferring guidance upon humanity, may my life be a ransom to thee!

The loving epistle which you have condescended to write to this servant, and the rug which you have forwarded, came safely to hand. The time of the meeting with your Excellency, and the memory of the benediction of your presence, recurred to the memory of this servant, and I am longing for the time when I shall meet you again. Although I have travelled through many countries and cities of Islam, yet have I never met so lofty a character and so exalted a personage as your Excellency, and can bear witness that it is not possible to find such another. On this account I am hoping that the ideals and accomplishments of your Excellency may be crowned with success and yield results under all conditions; because behind these ideals and deeds I easily discern the eternal welfare and prosperity of the world of humanity.

This servant, in order to gain first-hand information and experience, entered into the ranks of various religions — that is, outwardly, I became a Jew, Christian, Mohammedan, and Zoroastrian. I discovered that the devotees of these various religions do nothing else but hate and anathematise each other, that all their religions have become the instruments of tyranny and oppression in the hands of rulers and governors, and that they are the causes of the destruction of the world of humanity.

Considering those evil results, every person is forced by necessity to enlist himself on the side of your Excellency, and accept with joy the prospect of a basis of the religion of God, which is being founded through your efforts.

I have seen the father of your Excellency from afar. I have realised the self-sacrifice and noble courage of his son, and I am lost in admiration.

For the principles and aims of your Excellency I express the utmost respect and devotion, and if God, the Most High, confers long life, I will be able to serve you under all conditions. I pray and supplicate this from the depths of my heart.

    — Your servant,
    Mamhenyn, VAMBÉRY.

After meeting Abdul Baha in New York and Paris, I am now fortunate enough to see him in his native East; not, it is true, in the land of his birth, but in the Holy Land — the Land of the Prophets, to which by spiritual succession he rightfully belongs. India is waiting eagerly for his promised visit, but his strenuous life in America and long journeying have told on his body, though his spirit is never weary. Those who love him hope that he will here, in his own home and among his own family from whom he has so long been separated, take the rest he so sorely needs, although even here it is difficult for him to rest. Over fifty pilgrims from Persia awaited his arrival at Haifa, and his loving spirit cannot send away those who have come so far and at so great a sacrifice without giving them all the spiritual teaching and happiness of his presence that they desire. The Bahai community at Haifa and Acre numbers many wives and children of the martyrs who died for their faith in Persia; all these are more or less depending on the bounty of Abdul Baha and his family, who one and all live only for the Cause, and work unceasingly, by deeds of loving-kindness to those near and far, to promote that oneness of humanity that shall begin the New Era of the Most Great Peace.
    MAUDE M. HOLBACH.
    Haifa, Palestine.

Notes:

  1. The Mystic Way. By Evelyn Underwood.
  2. The Modern Social Religion. By Horace Holley.
  3. Talks by Abdul Baha given in Paris.
  4. Prince Oslan, a hereditary chief of the Druses and leading spirit among the Turkish Liberals, was assassinated in the counter-revolution.

2. Image scans (click image for larger version)


[Vambery's letter is online at bahai-library.com/appreciations_bahai_faith#vambery]


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