Many of us today are deeply dismayed at the destructive polarization of our country and yearn for the united America we happily talk about, for instance, in connection with July 4 or the Stars and Stripes.
Many are also coming to see that this national unity has to have an international dimension as we face immense global challenges such as climate change, pandemics and nuclear war. We are all Americans, but beyond that we have to think and act as world citizens.
The purpose of this column is to give hope by recalling the vision that was given about America when visited in 1912 by Abdu'l Baha (1844-1921), the eldest son of Baha'u'llah, founder of the Baha'i Faith. This new faith was based on three principles of unity: 1) all the great religions speak of the same God, the Creator; 2) they all teach love for God and the creation; and 3) humanity is one. It was fiercely persecuted in the land of its birth, Iran, and its followers were murdered, exiled and imprisoned.
Abdu'l Baha, who succeeded his father as leader of the faith in 1892, was imprisoned for many years and was only released in 1909 from his last prison which was in Acre, located today in Israel but then in the Ottoman Empire. Once free he made trips to visit Baha'is in the West, first in Europe and then in the United States.
Abdu'l Baha arrived in New York on April 11, 1912, aboard the SS Cedric, having turned down a proposal to sail on the Titanic's maiden voyage so as not set an example of an extravagant life style. The press greeted him as an "Eastern Sage" and as an "Apostle of Peace" and this positive treatment lasted for the 239 days of his visit.
He might have been greeted with scorn as a foreigner from a backward part of the world (the Ottoman Empire was then known as "the Sick Man of Europe”) and for having an "oriental name.” But his travels in the West had already shown him to be a man of extreme kindness who clearly loved and respected all those that he met, and who had a gentle wisdom and humor. Even the most hardened representatives of a skeptical profession could not resist.
During his stay, Abdu'l Baha visited some 40 cities, traveling first in the East and Midwest (including a side trip to Montreal, Canada), and then in California and the West. He gave talks mostly in private homes and hotels, but many also at universities such as Howard in the East and Stanford in the West; at religious institutions, such as churches of the Episcopalian, Catholic and Unitarian persuasion as well as Jewish synagogues and theosophical societies; at social and political organizations, such as the NAACP (he spoke at its fourth annual convention), the Socialist Party and the suffragettes; as well as at a major conference on international arbitration. Though he had originally come to visit the small American Baha'i community the vast majority of those he came in contact with, often a thousand or more at a time, were not Baha'is.
His message was always one of love and unity. He spoke strongly in support of race amity, the need to abolish extremes of wealth and poverty, and the equality of men and women. He talked with ease, publicly and privately, with people of all backgrounds ranging from clergymen, congressmen, industrialists, labor leaders, academics, inventors and explorers, to the poorest of the poor on the Bowery.
He advised the Christians to accept the Jews and the Jews to respect Jesus. But his underlying message was America's spiritual destiny, which he said is to lead the nations of the world in establishing a permanent peace.
The essence of that theme is captured by the following extract from his prayer for America: “O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world."
Abdu'l Baha left America from New York aboard the SS Celtic on December 5, 1912. He lived another nine years.
This year the Baha'i world community is commemorating the 100th anniversary of his passing on November 28, 1921. The program in Gainesville includes cooperation with other organizations on climate change issues and showing of a film on the life of Abdu'l Baha.
John Huddleston lives in Gainesville.
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This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: John Huddleston: Abdu'l Baha's message of love, unity worth recalling