God Passes By


- Chapter XVI -

The Rise and Establishment of the Faith in the West

Though the rebellion of Mírzá Muḥammad-‘Alí precipitated many sombre and distressing events, and though its dire consequences continued for several years to obscure the light of the Covenant, to endanger the life of its appointed Center, and to distract the thoughts and retard the progress of the activities of its supporters in both the East and the West, yet the entire episode, viewed in its proper perspective, proved to be neither more nor less than one of those periodic crises which, since the inception of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh, and throughout a whole century, have been instrumental in weeding out its harmful elements, in fortifying its foundations, in demonstrating its resilience, and in releasing a further measure of its latent powers.

Now that the provisions of a divinely appointed Covenant had been indubitably proclaimed; now that the purpose of the Covenant was clearly apprehended and its fundamentals had become immovably established in the hearts of the overwhelming majority of the adherents of the Faith; and now that the first assaults launched by its would-be subverters had been successfully repulsed, the Cause for which that Covenant had been designed could forge ahead along the course traced for it by the finger of its Author. Shining exploits and unforgettable victories had already signalized the birth of that Cause and accompanied its rise in several countries of the Asiatic continent, and particularly in the homeland of its Founder. The mission of its newly-appointed Leader, the steward of its glory and the diffuser of its light, was, as conceived by Himself, to enrich and extend the bounds of the incorruptible patrimony entrusted to His hands by shedding the illumination of His Father’s Faith upon the West, by expounding the fundamental precepts of that Faith and its cardinal principles, by consolidating the activities which had already been initiated for the promotion of its interests, and, finally, by ushering in, through the provisions of His own Will, the Formative Age in its evolution.

A year after the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá had, in a verse which He had revealed, and which had evoked the derision of the Covenant-breakers, already foreshadowed an auspicious event which posterity would recognize as one of the greatest triumphs of His ministry, which in the end would confer an inestimable blessing upon the western world, and which erelong was to dispel the grief and the apprehensions that had surrounded the community of His fellow-exiles in ‘Akká. The Great Republic of the West, above all the other countries of the Occident, was singled out to be the first recipient of God’s inestimable blessing, and to become the chief agent in its transmission to so many of her sister nations throughout the five continents of the earth.

The importance of so momentous a development in the evolution of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh—the establishment of His Cause in the North American continent—at a time when ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá had just inaugurated His Mission, and was still in the throes of the most grievous crisis with which He was ever confronted, can in no wise be overestimated. As far back as the year which witnessed the birth of the Faith in Shíráz the Báb had, in the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, after having warned in a memorable passage the peoples of both the Orient and the Occident, directly addressed the “peoples of the West,” and significantly bidden them “issue forth” from their “cities” to aid God, and “become as brethren” in His “one and indivisible religion.” “In the East,” Bahá’u’lláh Himself had, in anticipation of this development, written, “the light of His Revelation hath broken; in the West the signs of His dominion have appeared.” “Should they attempt,” He, moreover, had predicted, “to conceal its light on the continent, it will assuredly rear its head in the midmost heart of the ocean, and, raising its voice, proclaim: ‘I am the lifegiver of the world!’” “Had this Cause been revealed in the West,” He, shortly before His ascension, is reported by Nabíl in his narrative to have stated, “had Our verses been sent from the West to Persia and other countries of the East, it would have become evident how the people of the Occident would have embraced Our Cause. The people of Persia, however, have failed to appreciate it.” “From the beginning of time until the present day,” is ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s own testimony, “the light of Divine Revelation hath risen in the East and shed its radiance upon the West. The illumination thus shed hath, however, acquired in the West an extraordinary brilliancy. Consider the Faith proclaimed by Jesus. Though it first appeared in the East, yet not until its light had been shed upon the West did the full measure of its potentialities become manifest.” “The day is approaching,” He has affirmed, “when ye shall witness how, through the splendor of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh, the West will have replaced the East, radiating the light of Divine guidance.” And again: “The West hath acquired illumination from the East, but, in some respects, the reflection of the light hath been greater in the Occident.” Furthermore, “The East hath, verily, been illumined with the light of the Kingdom. Erelong will this same light shed a still greater illumination upon the West.

More specifically has the Author of the Bahá’í Revelation Himself chosen to confer upon the rulers of the American continent the unique honor of addressing them collectively in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, His most Holy Book, significantly exhorting them to “adorn the temple of dominion with the ornament of justice and of the fear of God, and its head with the crown of the remembrance” of their Lord, and bidding them “bind with the hands of justice the broken,” and “crush the oppressor” with the “rod of the commandments” of their “Lord, the Ordainer, the All-Wise.” “The continent of America,” wrote ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, “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.” “The American continent,” He has furthermore predicted, “giveth signs and evidences of very great advancement. Its future is even more promising, for its influence and illumination are far reaching. It will lead all nations spiritually.

The American people,” ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, even more distinctly, singling out for His special favor the Great Republic of the West, the leading nation of the American continent, has revealed, “are indeed worthy of being the first to build the Tabernacle of the Most Great Peace, and proclaim the oneness of mankind.” And again: “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 both the East and the West for the triumph of its people.” Furthermore: “May this American democracy be the first nation to establish the foundation of international agreement. May it be the first nation to proclaim the unity of mankind. May it be the first to unfurl the standard of the Most Great Peace.” “May the inhabitants of this country,” He, moreover has written, “…rise from their present material attainment to such heights that heavenly illumination may stream from this center to all the peoples of the world.

O ye apostles of Bahá’u’lláh!,” ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá has thus addressed the believers of the North American continent, “…consider how exalted and lofty is the station you are destined to attain … The full measure of your success is as yet unrevealed, its significance still unapprehended.” And again: “Your mission is unspeakably glorious. Should success crown your enterprise, America will assuredly evolve into a center from which waves of spiritual power will emanate, and the throne of the Kingdom of God, will in the plenitude of its majesty and glory, be firmly established.” And finally, this stirring affirmation: “The moment this Divine Message is carried forward by the American believers from the shores of America, and is propagated through the continents of Europe, of Asia, of Africa and of Australasia, and as far as the islands of the Pacific, this community will find itself securely established upon the throne of an everlasting dominion … Then will the whole earth resound with the praises of its majesty and greatness.

Little wonder that a community belonging to a nation so abundantly blessed, a nation occupying so eminent a position in a continent so richly endowed, should have been able to add, during the fifty years of its existence, many a page rich with victories to the annals of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh. This is the community, it should be remembered, which, ever since it was called into being through the creative energies released by the proclamation of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, was nursed in the lap of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s unfailing solicitude, and was trained by Him to discharge its unique mission through the revelation of innumerable Tablets, through the instructions issued to returning pilgrims, through the despatch of special messengers, through His own travels at a later date, across the North American continent, through the emphasis laid by Him on the institution of the Covenant in the course of those travels, and finally through His mandate embodied in the Tablets of the Divine Plan. This is the community which, from its earliest infancy until the present day, has unremittingly labored and succeeded, through its own unaided efforts, in implanting the banner of Bahá’u’lláh in the vast majority of the sixty countries which, in both the East and the West, can now claim the honor of being included within the pale of His Faith. To this community belongs the distinction of having evolved the pattern, and of having been the first to erect the framework, of the administrative institutions that herald the advent of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Through the efforts of its members the Mother Temple of the West, the Harbinger of that Order, one of the noblest institutions ordained in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, and the most stately edifice reared in the entire Bahá’í world, has been erected in the very heart of the North American continent. Through the assiduous labors of its pioneers, its teachers and its administrators, the literature of the Faith has been enormously expanded, its aims and purposes fearlessly defended, and its nascent institutions solidly established. In direct consequence of the unsupported and indefatigable endeavors of the most distinguished of its itinerant teachers the spontaneous allegiance of Royalty to the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh has been secured and unmistakably proclaimed in several testimonies transmitted to posterity by the pen of the royal convert herself. And finally, to the members of this community, the spiritual descendants of the dawn-breakers of the Heroic Age of the Bahá’í Dispensation, must be ascribed the eternal honor of having arisen, on numerous occasions, with marvelous alacrity, zeal and determination, to champion the cause of the oppressed, to relieve the needy, and to defend the interests of the edifices and institutions reared by their brethren in countries such as Persia, Russia, Egypt, ‘Iráq and Germany, countries where the adherents of the Faith have had to sustain, in varying measure, the rigors of racial and religious persecution.

Strange, indeed, that in a country, invested with such a unique function among its sister-nations throughout the West, the first public reference to the Author of so glorious a Faith should have been made through the mouth of one of the members of that ecclesiastical order with which that Faith has had so long to contend, and from which it has frequently suffered. Stranger still that he who first established it in the city of Chicago, fifty years after the Báb had declared His Mission in Shíráz, should himself have forsaken, a few years later, the standard which he, single-handed, had implanted in that city.

It was on September 23, 1893, a little over a year after Bahá’u’lláh’s ascension, that, in a paper written by Rev. Henry H. Jessup, D.D., Director of Presbyterian Missionary Operations in North Syria, and read by Rev. George A. Ford of Syria, at the World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago, in connection with the Columbian Exposition, commemorating the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, it was announced that “a famous Persian Sage,” “the Bábí Saint,” had died recently in ‘Akká, and that two years previous to His ascension “a Cambridge scholar” had visited Him, to whom He had expressed “sentiments so noble, so Christ-like” that the author of the paper, in his “closing words,” wished to share them with his audience. Less than a year later, in February 1894, a Syrian doctor, named Ibráhím Khayru’lláh, who, while residing in Cairo, had been converted by Ḥájí ‘Abdu’l-Karím-i-Ṭihrání to the Faith, had received a Tablet from Bahá’u’lláh, had communicated with ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, and reached New York in December 1892, established his residence in Chicago, and began to teach actively and systematically the Cause he had espoused. Within the space of two years he had communicated his impressions to ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, and reported on the remarkable success that had attended his efforts. In 1895 an opening was vouchsafed to him in Kenosha, which he continued to visit once a week, in the course of his teaching activities. By the following year the believers in these two cities, it was reported, were counted by hundreds. In 1897 he published his book, entitled the Bábu’d-Dín, and visited Kansas City, New York City, Ithaca and Philadelphia, where he was able to win for the Faith a considerable number of supporters. The stout-hearted Thornton Chase, surnamed Thábit (Steadfast) by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá and designated by Him “the first American believer,” who became a convert to the Faith in 1894, the immortal Louisa A. Moore, the mother teacher of the West, surnamed Livá (Banner) by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, Dr. Edward Getsinger, to whom she was later married, Howard MacNutt, Arthur P. Dodge, Isabella D. Brittingham, Lillian F. Kappes, Paul K. Dealy, Chester I. Thacher and Helen S. Goodall, whose names will ever remain associated with the first stirrings of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh in the North American continent, stand out as the most prominent among those who, in those early years, awakened to the call of the New Day, and consecrated their lives to the service of the newly proclaimed Covenant.

By 1898 Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, the well-known philanthropist (wife of Senator George F. Hearst), whom Mrs. Getsinger had, while on a visit to California, attracted to the Faith, had expressed her intention of visiting ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá in the Holy Land, had invited several believers, among them Dr. and Mrs. Getsinger, Dr. Khayru’lláh and his wife, to join her, and had completed the necessary arrangements for their historic pilgrimage to ‘Akká. In Paris several resident Americans, among whom were May Ellis Bolles, whom Mrs. Getsinger had won over to the Faith, Miss Pearson, and Ann Apperson, both nieces of Mrs. Hearst, with Mrs. Thornburgh and her daughter, were added to the party, the number of which was later swelled in Egypt by the addition of Dr. Khayru’lláh’s daughters and their grand-mother whom he had recently converted.

The arrival of fifteen pilgrims, in three successive parties, the first of which, including Dr. and Mrs. Getsinger, reached the prison-city of ‘Akká on December 10, 1898; the intimate personal contact established between the Center of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant and the newly arisen heralds of His Revelation in the West; the moving circumstances attending their visit to His Tomb and the great honor bestowed upon them of being conducted by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá Himself into its innermost chamber; the spirit which, through precept and example, despite the briefness of their stay, a loving and bountiful Host so powerfully infused into them; and the passionate zeal and unyielding resolve which His inspiring exhortations, His illuminating instructions and the multiple evidences of His divine love kindled in their hearts—all these marked the opening of a new epoch in the development of the Faith in the West, an epoch whose significance the acts subsequently performed by some of these same pilgrims and their fellow-disciples have amply demonstrated.

“Of that first meeting,” one of these pilgrims, recording her impressions, has written, “I can remember neither joy nor pain, nor anything that I can name. I had been carried suddenly to too great a height, my soul had come in contact with the Divine Spirit, and this force, so pure, so holy, so mighty, had overwhelmed me … We could not remove our eyes from His glorious face; we heard all that He said; we drank tea with Him at His bidding; but existence seemed suspended; and when He arose and suddenly left us, we came back with a start to life; but never again, oh! never again, thank God, the same life on this earth.” “In the might and majesty of His presence,” that same pilgrim, recalling the last interview accorded the party of which she was a member, has testified, “our fear was turned to perfect faith, our weakness into strength, our sorrow into hope, and ourselves forgotten in our love for Him. As we all sat before Him, waiting to hear His words, some of the believers wept bitterly. He bade them dry their tears, but they could not for a moment. So again He asked them for His sake not to weep, nor would He talk to us and teach us until all tears were banished…”

…“Those three days,” Mrs. Hearst herself has, in one of her letters, testified, “were the most memorable days of my life … The Master I will not attempt to describe: I will only state that I believe with all my heart that He is the Master, and my greatest blessing in this world is that I have been privileged to be in His presence, and look upon His sanctified face … Without a doubt ‘Abbás Effendi is the Messiah of this day and generation, and we need not look for another.” “I must say,” she, moreover, has in another letter written, “He is the most wonderful Being I have ever met or ever expect to meet in this world … The spiritual atmosphere which surrounds Him and most powerfully affects all those who are blest by being near Him, is indescribable … I believe in Him with all my heart and soul, and I hope all who call themselves believers will concede to Him all the greatness, all the glory, and all the praise, for surely He is the Son of God—and ‘the spirit of the Father abideth in Him.’”

Even Mrs. Hearst’s butler, a negro named Robert Turner, the first member of his race to embrace the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh in the West, had been transported by the influence exerted by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá in the course of that epoch-making pilgrimage. Such was the tenacity of his faith that even the subsequent estrangement of his beloved mistress from the Cause she had spontaneously embraced failed to becloud its radiance, or to lessen the intensity of the emotions which the loving-kindness showered by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá upon him had excited in his breast.

The return of these God-intoxicated pilgrims, some to France, others to the United States, was the signal for an outburst of systematic and sustained activity, which, as it gathered momentum, and spread its ramifications over Western Europe and the states and provinces of the North American continent, grew to so great a scale that ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá Himself resolved that, as soon as He should be released from His prolonged confinement in ‘Akká, He would undertake a personal mission to the West. Undeflected in its course by the devastating crisis which the ambition of Dr. Khayru’lláh had, upon his return from the Holy Land (December, 1899) precipitated; undismayed by the agitation which he, working in collaboration with the arch-breaker of the Covenant and his messengers, had provoked; disdainful of the attacks launched by him and his fellow-seceders, as well as by Christian ecclesiastics increasingly jealous of the rising power and extending influence of the Faith; nourished by a continual flow of pilgrims who transmitted the verbal messages and special instructions of a vigilant Master; invigorated by the effusions of His pen recorded in innumerable Tablets; instructed by the successive messengers and teachers dispatched at His behest for its guidance, edification and consolidation, the community of the American believers arose to initiate a series of enterprises which, blessed and stimulated a decade later by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá Himself, were to be but a prelude to the unparalleled services destined to be rendered by its members during the Formative Age of His Father’s Dispensation.

No sooner had one of these pilgrims, the afore-mentioned May Bolles, returned to Paris than she succeeded, in compliance with ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s emphatic instructions, in establishing in that city the first Bahá’í center to be formed on the European continent. This center was, shortly after her arrival, reinforced by the conversion of the illumined Thomas Breakwell, the first English believer, immortalized by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s fervent eulogy revealed in his memory; of Hippolyte Dreyfus, the first Frenchman to embrace the Faith, who, through his writings, translations, travels and other pioneer services, was able to consolidate, as the years went by, the work which had been initiated in his country; and of Laura Barney, whose imperishable service was to collect and transmit to posterity in the form of a book, entitled “Some Answered Questions,” ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s priceless explanations, covering a wide variety of subjects, given to her in the course of an extended pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Three years later, in 1902, May Bolles, now married to a Canadian, transferred her residence to Montreal, and succeeded in laying the foundations of the Cause in that Dominion.

In London Mrs. Thornburgh-Cropper, as a consequence of the creative influences released by that never-to-be-forgotten pilgrimage, was able to initiate activities which, stimulated and expanded through the efforts of the first English believers, and particularly of Ethel J. Rosenberg, converted in 1899, enabled them to erect, in later years, the structure of their administrative institutions in the British Isles. In the North American continent, the defection and the denunciatory publications of Dr. Khayru’lláh (encouraged as he was by Mírzá Muḥammad-‘Alí and his son Shu‘á‘u’lláh, whom he had despatched to America) tested to the utmost the loyalty of the newly fledged community; but successive messengers despatched by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá (such as Ḥájí ‘Abdu’l-Karím-i-Ṭihrání, Ḥájí Mírzá Ḥasan-i-Khurásání, Mírzá Asadu’lláh and Mírzá Abu’l-Faḍl) succeeded in rapidly dispelling the doubts, and in deepening the understanding, of the believers, in holding the community together, and in forming the nucleus of those administrative institutions which, two decades later, were to be formally inaugurated through the explicit provisions of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s Will and Testament. As far back as the year 1899 a council board of seven officers, the forerunner of a series of Assemblies which, ere the close of the first Bahá’í Century, were to cover the North American Continent from coast to coast, was established in the city of Kenosha. In 1902 a Bahá’í Publishing Society, designed to propagate the literature of a gradually expanding community, was formed in Chicago. A Bahá’í Bulletin, for the purpose of disseminating the teachings of the Faith was inaugurated in New York. The “Bahá’í News,” another periodical, subsequently appeared in Chicago, and soon developed into a magazine entitled “Star of the West.” The translation of some of the most important writings of Bahá’u’lláh, such as the “Hidden Words,” the “Kitáb-i-Íqán,” the “Tablets to the Kings,” and the “Seven Valleys,” together with the Tablets of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, as well as several treatises and pamphlets written by Mírzá Abu’l-Faḍl and others, was energetically undertaken. A considerable correspondence with various centers throughout the Orient was initiated, and grew steadily in scope and importance. Brief histories of the Faith, books and pamphlets written in its defence, articles for the press, accounts of travels and pilgrimages, eulogies and poems, were likewise published and widely disseminated.

Simultaneously, travellers and teachers, emerging triumphantly from the storms of tests and trials which had threatened to engulf their beloved Cause, arose, of their own accord, to reinforce and multiply the strongholds of the Faith already established. Centers were opened in the cities of Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Seattle, St. Paul and in other places. Audacious pioneers, whether as visitors or settlers, eager to spread the new born Evangel beyond the confines of their native country, undertook journeys, and embarked on enterprises which carried its light to the heart of Europe, to the Far East, and as far as the islands of the Pacific. Mason Remey voyaged to Russia and Persia, and later, with Howard Struven, circled, for the first time in Bahá’í history, the globe, visiting on his way the Hawaiian Islands, Japan, China, India and Burma. Hooper Harris and Harlan Ober traveled, during no less than seven months, in India and Burma, visiting Bombay, Poona, Lahore, Calcutta, Rangoon and Mandalay. Alma Knobloch, following on the heels of Dr. K. E. Fisher, hoisted the standard of the Faith in Germany, and carried its light to Austria. Dr. Susan I. Moody, Sydney Sprague, Lillian F. Kappes, Dr. Sarah Clock, and Elizabeth Stewart transferred their residence to Ṭihrán for the purpose of furthering the manifold interests of the Faith, in collaboration with the Bahá’ís of that city. Sarah Farmer, who had already initiated in 1894, at Green Acre, in the State of Maine, summer conferences and established a center for the promotion of unity and fellowship between races and religions, placed, after her pilgrimage to ‘Akká in 1900, the facilities these conferences provided at the disposal of the followers of the Faith which she had herself recently embraced.

And last but not least, inspired by the example set by their fellow-disciples in ‘Ishqábád, who had already commenced the construction of the first Mashriqu’l-Adhkár of the Bahá’í world, and afire with the desire to demonstrate, in a tangible and befitting manner, the quality of their faith and devotion, the Bahá’ís of Chicago, having petitioned ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá for permission to erect a House of Worship, and secured, in a Tablet revealed in June 1903, His ready and enthusiastic approval, arose, despite the smallness of their numbers and their limited resources, to initiate an enterprise which must rank as the greatest single contribution which the Bahá’ís of America, and indeed of the West, have as yet made to the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh. The subsequent encouragement given them by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, and the contributions raised by various Assemblies decided the members of this Assembly to invite representatives of their fellow-believers in various parts of the country to meet in Chicago for the initiation of the stupendous undertaking they had conceived. On November 26, 1907, the assembled representatives, convened for that purpose, appointed a committee of nine to locate a suitable site for the proposed Temple. By April 9, 1908, the sum of two thousand dollars had been paid for the purchase of two building lots, situated near the shore of Lake Michigan. In March 1909, a convention representative of various Bahá’í centers was called, in pursuance of instructions received from ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá. The thirty-nine delegates, representing thirty-six cities, who had assembled in Chicago, on the very day the remains of the Báb were laid to rest by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá in the specially erected mausoleum on Mt. Carmel, established a permanent national organization, known as the Bahá’í Temple Unity, which was incorporated as a religious corporation, functioning under the laws of the State of Illinois, and invested with full authority to hold title to the property of the Temple and to provide ways and means for its construction. At this same convention a constitution was framed, the Executive Board of the Bahá’í Temple Unity was elected, and was authorized by the delegates to complete the purchase of the land recommended by the previous Convention. Contributions for this historic enterprise, from India, Persia, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Russia, Egypt, Germany, France, England, Canada, Mexico, the Hawaiian Islands, and even Mauritius, and from no less than sixty American cities, amounted by 1910, two years previous to ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s arrival in America, to no less than twenty thousand dollars, a remarkable testimony alike to the solidarity of the followers of Bahá’u’lláh in both the East and the West, and to the self-sacrificing efforts exerted by the American believers who, as the work progressed, assumed a preponderating share in providing the sum of over a million dollars required for the erection of the structure of the Temple and its external ornamentation.

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