East meets West, Abdu’l-Bahá’s Travels to Europe and North America

East meets West, Abdu’l-Bahá’s Travels to Europe and North America


Potent spiritual forces were set in motion about hundred years ago as Abdu’l-Bahá, the leader of the then nascent Bahá’í Faith and son of its Prophet-Founder, Bahá’u’lláh, embarked on a series of journeys to the West. The unexpected growth and spread of the Faith throughout the Western world was the eventual result of these journeys.

It was September 4th, 1911 when Abdu’l-Bahá (Arabic, meaning Servant of the Glory)i—known among Bahá’ís as simply the Master—set foot in the heart of the British Empire, London. It should be noted that He had never visited any Western countries and was unfamiliar with Western customs. He had been a political prisoner from childhood, had received no formal education, and was an old man when he was set free.  It was about a week after His arrival that He made His first public appearance in the Western world, addressing a congregation at the City Temple. Even though his visit was not advertised, the City Temple was filled to capacity.

These are some of the words He uttered at that assemblage:

“The gift of God to this enlightened age is the knowledge of the oneness of mankind and of the fundamental oneness of religion. War shall cease between nations, and by the will of God the Most Great Peace shall come; the world will be seen as a new world, and all men will live as brothers…There is one God; mankind is one; the foundations of religion are one. Let us worship Him, and give praise for all His great Prophets and Messengers who have manifested His brightness and glory.”

About seven months later, He embarked on what was destined to be a more taxing and significant trip to North America. His admirers had sent Him thousands of dollars and asked Him book passage on the Titanic but He refused, and gave the money to charity. He instead embarked on SS Cedric, the destination being New York. A fun and interesting article about Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit entitled ‘the Titanic’s Forgotten survivor’ appeared recently in the Huffington post.

Historic North American Visit

It was fitting that Abdu’l-Bahá’s first public appearance on the American continent was in the city of New York, one of the most prominent and diverse cities in the world. As the SS Cedric steamed past the Statue of Liberty, Abdu’l-Bahá opened his arms wide in salutation and said “There is the new world’s symbol of Liberty and Freedom, after forty years a prisoner, I can tell you that freedom is not a matter of place. It is a condition.”

During His nine-month long North American visit He praised the nation’s outstanding progress in the material realm and wished, longed, and prayed for the American continent to also advance spiritually.

By contrast, Howard Colby Ives in his book Portals to Freedom states that during the very summer of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit, another spiritual figure—

“the poet and sage, Rabindranath Tagore, had been under contract to deliver a series of lectures in America. After covering a part of his proposed itinerary, which was not nearly as extensive as that of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s, his strength and nerves were exhausted and he cancelled his contract and returned to India. He said he could not bear the materialistic vibrations of America. It needs also to be disclosed that while Tagore’s contract called for a sizable financial remuneration, Abdu’l-Bahá had no contract,… and, furthermore, so far from demanding or expecting any financial reward, He consistently refused the slightest remuneration, and even when entertained by solicitous and generous hosts He was punctilious in seeing to it that gifts to both host and servants of the household far outweighed what He received.”

This is not to downplay the efforts of Rabindranath Tagore but rather to demonstrate the truly heroic nature of Abdu’l-Bahá’s sojourn under such difficult circumstances. He met with many prominent individuals who either spoke with Him privately, or attended an event with Him.

Here is a list [5]:

¬ Alexander Graham Bell, Inventor of the Telephone, 04-24-1912, Washington, D.C.

¬ Mabel Thorp Boardman, National Secretary American Red Cross, 04-27-1912, Washington, D.C.

¬ Kate Carew, Caricaturist and Journalist, 04-19-1912, New York, N.Y.

¬ Andrew Carnegie, Philanthropist, 11-18-1912, New York, N.Y.

¬ Russell Conwell, Founder of Temple University, 06-09-1912, Philadelphia, Pa.

¬ Yúsuf Diya Páshá, Turkey’s Ambassador to the U.S. 1909, 04-25-1912, Washington, D.C.

¬ Arthur Pillsbury Dodge, Inventor & Publisher, 04-16-1912, New York, N.Y.

¬ W. E. B. DuBois, Co-Founder of N.A.A.C.P., 04-30-1919, Chicago

¬ Khalil Gibran, Poet & Artist, 04-15-1912, New York, N.Y

¬ Percy Stickney Grant, Noted clergyman & author, 04-14-1912, New York, N.Y.

¬ Samuel Gompers, Founded the American Federation of Labor, 04-26-1912, Washington, D.C.

¬ Phoebe Apperson Hearst, First woman Regent of U.C. Berkeley & Philanthropist, 10-13-1912, Pleasanton CA

¬ Maxim, Inventor of Armaments, 04-13-1912, New York, N.Y.

¬ David Starr Jordan, President Stanford University, 10-08-1912, Palo Alto, California

¬ Charles Rann Kennedy, Playwright, author of “The Terrible Meek”, 04-22-1912, New York, N.Y.

¬ Ali Kuli Khan, Chargé d’affaires of the Persian Legation, 04-23-1912, Washington DC.

¬ Gertrude Kasebier, Portrait Photographer, 05-20-1912, New York, N.Y.

¬ Robert Luce, Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, 05-22-1912, Boston, Mass.

¬ Lee McClung, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Washington D.C.

¬ Martin Abraham Meyer, Rabbi & Author, 10-12-1912, San Francisco

¬ Robert Peary, Explorer, 04-23-1912, Washington D.C.

¬ Louis Potter, Sculptor, 05-19-1912, New York, N.Y.

¬ Theodore Roosevelt, President of the U.S.A., 04-25-1912, Washington, D.C.

¬ Albert K. Smiley, Founder & President Mohonk Peace Conference, 05-14-1912 New Paltz, N.Y.

¬ Theodore Spicer-Simpson, Sculptor, 05-10-1912, Washington, D.C.

¬ William Sulzer, U.S. Congressman, Ex-Governor, 04-27-1912, Washington, D.C.

¬ Haozoun Hohannes Topakyan, Persian Consul-General, 06-30-1912, New York, N.Y.

¬ Stephen S. Wise, Co-Founder of N.A.A.C.P., 05-13-1912, New York, N.Y.

New York, ‘The City of the Covenant’

On June 19th Abdu’l-Bahá named New York the “City of the Covenant,” saying: ”I have always returned to New York, because I wished New York to advance greatly…”  This is significant because He was designated by His Father, Bahá’u’lláh, as the Center of the Covenant—that is, the center of Bahá’u’lláh’s covenant with humanity. He is also known to have remarked, “it [New York] is the meeting place of the East and the West. I desire to make it a Center of Signs. I stay here so the friends may advance in spirituality and gain precedence.”  Consequently, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s stay in New York City was the longest in one place: 85 days out of 239 spent in the country.

While the New York of 1912 was a place of cultural diversity and tolerance, it stood in sharp contrast with many other racially segregated cities in the United States. Abdu’l-Bahá arranged for the first Bahá’í interracial marriage to take place there. This was an event of great significance; and He is known to have said that such marriages are “a service to humanity.”

Bahá’ís and others followed Him where ever He went.  New York City welcomed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He gave talks at religious congregations, peace societies, and universities. He even attended the lake Mohonk Peace Conference.

America’s Destiny

The United States in 1912 was not the world power it would later become, but rather an auxiliary power to the nations of Europe. Perhaps one of the most significant and far-reaching prophecies that Abdu’l-Bahá made during His journeys was regarding America’s spiritual destiny. He stated that:

“This revered American nation presents evidences of greatness and worth. It is my hope that this just government will stand for peace so that warfare may be abolished throughout the world and the standards of national unity and reconciliation be upraised. This is the greatest attainment of the world of humanity. This American nation is equipped and empowered to accomplish that which will adorn the pages of history, to become the envy of the world and be blest in the East and the West for the triumph of its democracy. I pray that this may come to pass, and I ask the blessing of God in behalf of you all.[3]”

This does not imply that the American people are in any way superior to any other people, but rather that the destined fulfillment of its potential was due to its geographical location, structure of government, and being a “melting pot” of diverse races, cultures, and nationalities—the ideal environment for the testing of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on the oneness of mankind. Abdu’l-Bahá spoke on a number of occasions about the glaring weakness in America’s social fabric, including racial prejudice, materialism and moral laxity.

The Northeastern States:  Light upon Light

One of the most curious statements Abdu’l-Bahá made about varying stages of spiritual development of geographical regions within the American continent may be about the North Eastern States (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York) that includes the city of New York.  He states:

“Likewise, the continent of America is, in the eyes of the one true God, the land wherein the splendors of His light shall be revealed, where the mysteries of His Faith shall be unveiled, where the righteous will abide and the free assemble. Therefore, every section thereof is blessed: but because these nine states have been favored in faith and assurance, hence through this precedence they have obtained spiritual privilege. They must realize the value of this bounty; because they have obtained such a favor and in order to render thanksgiving for this most great bestowal, they must arise in the diffusion of divine fragrances… [4]”

As a child and youth my ardent prayer was to be able to live in America; it was a prayer that God answered in the affirmative.

Next time, I’ll talk my own journey to New York.

===================== References ======================

[1] Abdu’l-Bahá, Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 18

[2] Howard Colby Ives, Portals to Freedom, p. 134

[3] Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 103

[4] Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of the Divine Plan, p. 59




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