Foreword to 'Abdu'l-Baha in America: The Diary of Agnes ParsonsRichard Hollinger.
published in Abdu'l-Bahá in America: The Diary of Agnes Parsons
Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1996
In 1912, `Abdu'l-Bahá `Abbas (1844-1921), recently liberated by the Young Turk's Revolution from his forty-year long confinement in the prison city of Akka, set sail for America. He came, in the twilight of his years and on the eve of world war, to promulgate universal peace, a central teaching of the new religion for whose cause he had been imprisoned and at whose head he stood: the Bahá'í Faith. During his sojourn in the United States, poets and leaders of thought sought his counsel in private interviews, and seekers of all races and classes attended his public talks. Journalists, struck by his charismatic personality and by the modernity of his teachings, described him as a "Prophet from the East" and an "Apostle of Peace."
For the small community of his American disciples, however, `Abdu'l-Bahá's visit had a significance far beyond that ascribed to it by an eager public and in the newspaper reports of the day. A few American Bahá'ís had been able to make the arduous and costly journey to the Holy Land to attain his presence, but for most, `Abdu'l-Bahá's visit to their country offered a first and probably an only opportunity to meet the leader of their faith, the one appointed by its founder, Bahá'u'lláh, to be the interpreter of his teachings after his passing. `Abdu'l-Bahá's presence amongst them fired the imaginations of the Bahá'ís about the teachings they had embraced as he, "the Perfect Exemplar" of those teachings, demonstrated first-hand their application to daily life.
But the fealty of the American Bahá'ís to `Abdu'l-Bahá was inspired by more than a recognition of his station. To them, he was "the Master" -- a loving teacher who had nurtured them from afar through scores of letters and a Christ-like figure about whom they had heard numerous tales from returning pilgrims to the Holy Land. In fact, many of the early American believers believed that he, not Bahá'u'lláh, represented the return of Jesus as prophesied in the New Testament, and it took numerous reiterations to disabuse them of this notion: his only station, he told them, was the station of servitude and the name he wished to be called by was `Abdu'l-Bahá -- the "Servant of Bahá."
Today `Abdu'l-Bahá's travels in the United States hold an unrivalled place in the spiritual heritage of the American Bahá'í community. This legacy is honored by the reverence paid to the places associated with his travels, some of which have become sites of regional pilgrimage, and by the ardent study of the transcripts of hundreds of talks he delivered during his sojourn in America. Another way in which this legacy is celebrated is by the frequent repetition of anecdotes about `Abdu'l-Bahá's encounters with the diverse array of people he taught and counselled in the course of his journey. In fact, so important a place do such stories hold in the collective imagination of the American Bahá'í community that they have taken on a life of their own, forming an oral tradition about the sayings and doings of the Master.
In such tales we often encounter a larger-than-life `Abdu'l- Bahá, a figure who belongs more to legend than to history. Yet clearly, it is imperative to situate the events of `Abdu'l-Bahá's visit to America within their historical context, if we are to understand their true significance. For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá's warnings about the outbreak of a world-shaking conflagration, reiterated throughout his Western journeys, take shape as an ominous foreshadowing when compared to then current views of the Balkans' conflict, and his message of peace, equality, and justice acquires further cogency when set against the important political events and social trends of the day, such as the U.S. presidential campaign of 1912 and the movements for peace, women's suffrage, and racial harmony.
Nor does `Abdu'l-Bahá's journey of peace appear in its truly epic proportions without reference to the turbulent history of the religious movement in which he was a central figure. Not unless we know the something of saga of religious intolerance that consigned `Abdu'l-Bahá to exile and lifelong imprisonment, can we fully appreciate, in all its dramatic power, the mise-en-scene created by the placing of an aged eastern sage, a man who had never in his life faced a public audience, before a congregation of two thousand of the Jewish faithful at a synagogue in San Francisco for the purpose of asserting the truth of the prophetic missions of both Jesus and Muhammad.
`Abdu'l-Bahá's visit to America acquires another kind of frame and a further richness when set against the personal experiences of the people he encountered--people whose lives intersected, however briefly, with his. Even the most devoted Bahá'ís, including those who travelled with `Abdu'l-Bahá, were with him only for short periods of time. The Master's numerous social engagements and obligations made extended contact with him almost impossible. Moreover, the daily responsibilities of life inevitably pulled the Bahá'ís out of `Abdu'l-Bahá's orbit and back into their own individual worlds of experience. However, the records kept of such daily experience provide for us today a illuminating context for the study of the impact of `Abdu'l- Bahá's historic visit on American Bahá'ís and their contemporaries.
Like pilgrims' notes, diaries and memoirs of the Master's travels in the America possess the limitations common to all historical accounts. Consequently, they are not infallible records of `Abdu'l-Bahá's words or even objective descriptions of what happened. Neither are they comprehensive in their documentation of `Abdu'l-Bahá's activities. Still, they are important historical documents which provide a useful framework for understanding some of the talks recorded in The Promulgation of Universal Peace and other publications. Moreover, they provide information about certain daily aspects of`Abdu'l-Bahá's journeys about which we would otherwise know little.
Such accounts also have significance as inspirational literature. Much like the gospels of the New Testament, which recount the events of the ministry of Jesus, accounts of `Abdu'l- Bahá's activities during his sojourn in America tell us what his words and actions meant to those who witnessed them. Although such accounts may well contain historical inaccuracies, they form an intriguing body of sacred stories, stories in which those who had the privilege of coming into the Master's presence render their experiences of an event which, according to Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, marked the "culmination" of and was "the greatest exploit" associated with `Abdu'l-Bahá's ministry -- his journey to the West.
The publication providing the most thorough documentation of `Abdu'l-Bahá's tours of Europe and North America is Kitab-i Badayi`u'l-Athar written by Mahmud-i Zarqani, a member of the Master's entourage. Usually referred to in English as "Mahmud's Diary," this day-by-day account of the Master's travels appears to have been written after the author had returned to the Near East and is probably not, therefore, a diary in the true sense of the term. And although collectively they constitute an important body of source material against which to gauge the accuracy of Zarqani's account, other diaries documenting `Abdu'l-Bahá's American journeys, such as those by Ella Cooper, Shahnaz Waite, Juliet Thompson, Mariam Haney, and Juanita Storch, generally coverthis day-by-day account of the Master's travels appears to have been written after the author had returned to the Near East and is probably not, therefore, a diary in the true sense of the term. And although collectively they constitute an important body of source material against which to gauge the accuracy of Zarqani's account, other diaries documenting `Abdu'l-Bahá's American journeys, such as those by Ella Cooper, Shahnaz Waite, Juliet Thompson, Mariam Haney, and Juanita Storch, generally coverly coverits publication. The result is a quasi- literary work in which experience is distilled and shaped, a work perhaps more revealing of the sensibility of its author, an artist living in the bohemian milieu of early twentieth-century Greenwich Village, than it is informative of the specific details of the Master's activities in America.
By contrast, Mrs. Parsons' diary gives the reader a lucid and relatively unembellished account of `Abdu'l-Bahá's daily activities during the more than five weeks she spent with him in Washington, D.C., and in Dublin, New Hampshire. Agnes Parsons had made a pilgrimage to `Akka in 1910, at which time she had obtained a promise from `Abdu'l-Bahá that he would stay in her home, if he came to America. `Abdu'l-Bahá made three visits to Washington, D.C.: from April 20 to 28, from May 8 to 11, and from November 6 to 11. During the first visit he kept his promise by staying at Mrs. Parsons' home, and during the subsequent visits he held meetings there regularly. `Abdu'l-Bahá also visited Agnes Parsons' summer home, Day Spring, in Dublin, New Hampshire from July 25 to August 15.
Because of the length of time Mrs. Parsons spent with`Abdu'l-Bahá, her diary is one of the most important American sources relating to his visit. It is more extensive than any of the unpublished accounts of `Abdu'l-Bahá's travels in the United States, and, with the exception of the journal of Juanita Storch, it is closer to a true diary than anything in print. However, it should be noted that this publication is based on a handwritten copy of the original diary made by Leona Barnitz, who served as a secretary to Mrs. Parsons in the late 1910's and 1920's; that this copy was lightly edited for style and annotated with margin notes, probably by Mrs. Parsons herself; and that in a least one place in the diary, part of the original account seems to have been deliberately omitted when it was copied. Moreover, aware that she was recording important historical events, Mrs. Parsons may have made a conscious effort to speak in a public voice in her diary in anticipation that someday others would read her account.
Agnes Parsons (1861-1934) was a wealthy Washington socialite with a family to whom she was devoted and a wide circle of prominent friends, a list2p of whose names would have read as a social register of the capital at the time. Her outlook and concerns were firmly rooted in the conservatism and elitism of the capital city's upper classes. Her social location, like that of Juliet Thompson, had an impact both on `Abdu'l-Bahá's visit and on the record that was kept of it. In Dublin and in Washington, D.C., Agnes Parsons introduced `Abdu'l-Bahá to politicians, artists, writers, professors, and other leaders of thought. Their encounters with the Master are documented here, as are his meetings with Bahá'ís in these places.
If it is important to know that `Abdu'l-Bahá met with influential thinkers, it is equally important to recognize that such encounters did not compose the totality of his visit. `Abdu'l-Bahá's meetings with persons of social prominence dominate the pages of this diary because these were what Mrs. Parsons witnessed and what she felt were most significant. But `Abdu'l-Bahá also spoke with the servants in the households of the prominent figures he visited and held meetings with the poor and the working-classes during his American travels. The reader, therefore, should be aware of the limitations of this account and should not view it as a complete record of `Abdu'l-Bahá's visits to Washington, D.C. or to Dublin, New Hampshire. Rather, the diary of Agnes Parsons should be seen as an important source which must be supplemented by other accounts of the Master's visits to these places if a complete and accurate picture is to be formed.
At the time Mrs. Parsons wrote her diary, Washington, D.C. was home to the most diverse Bahá'í community in North America: it had within its fold the largest group of African-Americans, and virtually all social classes, from the working poor to the social elite, were represented in it. As part of the American south, Washington, D.C. was also a city in which racial segregation was a fact of life, and it was on the issue of racial equality that `Abdu'l-Bahá was most uncompromising during his visit to America. On one occasion, which is mentioned briefly in this diary,`Abdu'l-Bahá shocked some of the white socialites present by insisting that Louis Gregory, an African-American Bahá'í and lawyer, be seated next to him at a society luncheon. In such a milieu, the Bahá'ís found it challenging to comply with `Abdu'l-Bahá's instruction that they should hold racially-integrated meetings. Even locating a public site for a community dinner honoring`Abdu'l-Bahá proved difficult, since no hotels in the city would allow an integrated meeting.
Beneath the concern of Washington's upper classes to uphold long-standing social conventions regarding racial segregation were deep-rooted prejudices not easily overcome. Even Mrs. Parsons' husband once commented to `Abdu'l-Bahá that he wished all the blacks would return to Africa, to which the Master wryly replied that such an exodus would have to begin with Wilber, the trusted butler of the Parsons household. While Mrs. Parsons herself would not have harbored such sentiments, having accepted the Bahá'í teaching on the oneness of humanity, her social position would have made it extremely difficult for her to accept African-Americans as persons with whom she could have social relations as equals, and it may also have made her reluctant to advocate racial integration, even within the Bahá'í community.
On this subject, the silences of this diary are perhaps more telling than what is recorded. For example, there is scarcely a mention of any of `Abdu'l-Bahá's talks at the homes of Andrew Dyer and Joseph Hannen, both of which were sites of racially integrated meetings for the Washington, D.C. Bahá'í community, or at African-American venues, such as the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, presumably because Mrs. Parsons did not attend most of these events. Such activities were not part of the social world in which she lived. It is remarkable, then, that `Abdu'l-Bahá subsequently chose Agnes Parsons to spearhead the Racial Amity campaign initiated by the Bahá'í community and as remarkable that she transcended her social milieu in order to carry out this mandate.
Dublin, New Hampshire is the other location in which the events of Mrs. Parsons' diary take place. Originally an agricultural village near Monandock, the mountain romanticized by its mention in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, by the late 1870's Dublin had become a popular rustic resort for Bostonians who boarded during the summer months with local farmers. By the turn-of-the-century, Dublin had become well established as a summer resort, and an artist's colony had begun to emerge there as painters, writers, academicians, and patrons of the arts acquired homes in and around the village.
Attracted to the quiet atmosphere and natural splendor of the region, the well-known naturalist painters George DeForest Brush (1849-1921) and Abbot Handerson Thayer (1855-1921) had relocated to Dublin in 1899 and in 1901 respectively, the latter drawing to the town art students who came to work under his tutelage. Those who owned or rented summer homes in Dublin included Isabella Steward Gardner (1840-1924), a well-known patron of the arts from Boston; Joseph Linden Smith, a sculptor who taught at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School; and Raphael Pumpelly, a geology professor at Harvard and a famous world-traveller, who once entertained `Abdu'l-Bahá in his Dublin home. In addition, there was a steady stream of visitors to Dublin, a list of whose names would read, as one historian has observed, like "a Who's Who of turn-of-the-century America."
By the time `Abdu'l-Bahá visited Dublin in 1912, therefore, the town had evolved into an artists' colony and fashionable summer resort. Dublin was a place where the worlds of Agnes Parsons and Juliet Thompson intersected. Here the artist could come into contact with high society and vice-versa as bohemian and socialite alike sought refreshment and renewal amidst the beauty of the New England countryside. It was in Dublin that `Abdu'l-Bahá met with some of the most important intellectual and cultural figures of the day, and the contacts he made there undoubtedly provided entrees into social networks that were drawn upon in arranging the subsequent segments of his journey.