published in Lights of Irfan, 13, pages 381-399 Wilmette, IL: Haj Mehdi Armand Colloquium, 2012
Abstract: `Abdu'l-Bahá Abbás visited North America from April 11 to December 5, 1912. His eight-month sojourn took Him to some 38 localities in 15 states and the province of Quebec, Canada. Because His North American trip followed on an earlier European visit, when `Abdu'l-Bahá arrived in New York He had a developed daily routine.
It appears that He gave approximately 351 talks during His trip (of which 139 were published in The Promulgation of Universal Peace), an average of 1.5 per day. Extrapolation from known attendance figures and some statistical assumptions allow one to arrive at a rough figure of 86,000 people who attended them. Particularly noteworthy are the talks He gave in thirty-one liberal and moderate white Protestant churches, fourteen Theosophical and other metaphysical gatherings, five universities, three synagogues, one African American church, the Lake Mohonk Peace Conference, Hull House, and the fourth annual NAACP conference.
`Abdu'l-Bahá’s talks can be divided roughly into two types: those to the public and those primarily to Bahá'í audiences. A “generic” public talk gradually developed throughout His journey that emphasized up to ten principles of the Bahá'í Faith. Talks to Bahá'ís, on the other hand—especially the last talk to them in each locality—usually emphasized two things: the Covenant and obedience to `Abdu'l-Bahá as the Center of the Covenant on the one hand, and teaching the Faith on the other. The former emphasis presaged some provisions of the Will and Testament, while the latter anticipated aspects of the Tablets of the Divine Plan.
No one has yet assembled all the newspaper articles that resulted from His visit. Well over 100 articles are currently available. Coverage was almost uniformly positive, much to the surprise of the Bahá'ís, who feared `Abdu'l-Bahá “would simply be placed on a level with many traveling ‘Swamis.’”
It is difficult to assess the impact `Abdu'l-Bahá’s visit had on North America and its Bahá'ís. A comparative approach is particularly illuminating. The first “Oriental” teacher to come to the United States was Protap Chunder Majumdar (1840-1905), a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, who visited over sixty Unitarian churches in the Northeastern United States in 1883. Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) spoke at the Parliament and then went on a three-month tour of the United States, to which he returned in 1896-97 and at least once subsequently. He helped establish Buddhism in the United States. Better known is Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) of the Rama Krishna Mission, who spoke repeatedly at the Parliament and then crisscrossed the United States for two and a half years, lecturing on Hinduism and criticizing Christian missionaries. Vivekananda’s aggressive speaking style, his eloquent English, and his considerable western education made him a formidable and controversial speaker, which may explain why his travels in the United States are remembered by scholars of religion better than anyone else’s. Unlike Majumdar, Vivekananda created a community of American Hindus, the Vedanta Society, though the group had only a hundred or so members when Vivekananda left America and it still had one hundred members in 1912. [Carl T. Jackson, Vedanta for the West: The Ramakrishna Movement in the United States (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 108.]
Majumdar, Dharmapala, Vivekanada, and other eastern teachers such as D. T. Suzuki (the principal founder of Zen Buddhism in the United States) had a significant impact on American culture because they were the harbingers of ancient and vast religious-cultural traditions; they were the tip of an iceberg, the rest of which was increasingly accessible because of colonialism, growing commercial ties with Asia, military involvement in the region, tourism, and extensive wealth that could be lavished on the endowing of university chairs and the subvention of extensive translation efforts. In contrast, in 1912 (and even today) the Bahá'í Faith is a small religious community, a minority in every land where it is found, with a relatively undeveloped secondary literature and cultural expressions. If `Abdu'l-Bahá were thought of as the tip of an iceberg, the iceberg is yet to congeal completely, and its vast submarine stretches will be easier to contour a few centuries from now.
`Abdu'l-Bahá did have one advantage that the other Asian teachers lacked: a significant number of American followers located in dozens of cities across the United States. One notable result was the ability to organize numerous local public and private meetings and attract the rank and file of the local population. But Bahá'í communities of 1912 were poorly organized and uncertain whether they were a separate religious community or a leaven destined to spread Bahá'í teachings within the existing churches. As a result, `Abdu'l-Bahá’s visit did not immediately produce a large number of new, active members. Ironically, His sojourn also sharpened ideological divisions within the American Bahá'í community.
`Abdu'l-Bahá was very pleased by the way Americans received Him. He frequently ordered His Persian secretaries to send bundles of newspaper clippings to Haifa or Iran so that others could share in His happiness. The Persian pages of The Star of the West spread positive reports of His trip throughout the Persian-speaking Bahá'í world. The confidence and increased self esteem that such reports gave to the local Bahá'ís cannot be underestimated.
According to Shoghi Effendi, `Abdu'l-Bahá’s trip to the western world was the “culmination” of His ministry and its “greatest exploit.” [Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 295.] Certainly, the impact of `Abdu'l-Bahá’s journey is still being felt; the seeds He planted are still germinating, and an ample harvest awaits its gathering by every generation. Historians face much work ahead of them to discover the myriad facets of His American tour.