Century of Light



A Tablet addressed by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá to an American believer in 1905 contains a statement that is as illuminating as it is touching. Referring to His situation following the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá spoke of a letter He had received from America at “a time when an ocean of trials and tribulations was surging…”:

Such was our state when a letter came to us from the American friends. They had covenanted together, so they wrote, to remain at one in all things, and … had pledged themselves to make sacrifices in the pathway of the love of God, thus to achieve eternal life. At the very moment when this letter was read, together with the signatures at its close, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá experienced a joy so vehement that no pen can describe it.…18

An appreciation of the circumstances in which the expansion of the Cause in the West occurred is vital for present-day Bahá’ís, and for many reasons. It helps us abstract ourselves from the culture of coarse and intrusive communication that has become so commonplace in present-day society as to pass almost unnoticed. It draws to our attention the gentleness with which the Master chose to introduce to His Western audiences the concepts of human nature and human society revealed by Bahá’u’lláh, concepts revolutionary in their implications and entirely outside His hearers’ experience. It explains the delicacy with which He used metaphors or relied on historical examples, the frequent indirectness of His approach, the intimacy He could summon up at will, and the apparently limitless patience with which He responded to questions, many of whose assumptions about reality had long since lost whatever validity they might once have possessed.

Yet another insight that a detached examination of the historical situation to which the Master addressed Himself in the West helps provide for our generation is an appreciation of the spiritual greatness of those who responded to Him. These souls answered His summons in spite, not because, of the liberal and economically advanced world they knew, a world they no doubt cherished and valued, and in which they had necessarily to carry on their daily lives. Their response arose from a level of consciousness that recognized, even if sometimes only dimly, the desperate need of the human race for spiritual enlightenment. To remain steadfast in their commitment to this insight required of these early believers—on whose sacrifice of self much of the foundation of the present-day Bahá’í communities both in the West and many other lands were laid—that they resist not only family and social pressures, but also the easy rationalizations of the world-view in which they had been raised and to which everything around them insistently exposed them. There was a heroism about the steadfastness of these early Western Bahá’ís that is, in its own way, as affecting as that of their Persian co-religionists who, in these same years, were facing persecution and death for the Faith they had embraced.

In the forefront of the Westerners who responded to the Master’s summons were the little groups of intrepid believers whom Shoghi Effendi has hailed as “God-intoxicated pilgrims” and who had the privilege of visiting ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá in the prison-city of ‘Akká, of seeing for themselves the luminosity of His Person and of hearing from His own lips words that had the power to transform human life. The effect on these believers has been expressed by May Maxwell:

“Of that first meeting,” … “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.…”19

Their return to their homes became, Shoghi Effendi explains, “the signal for an outburst of systematic and sustained activity, which … spread its ramifications over Western Europe and the states and provinces of the North American continent.…”20 Fuelling their endeavours and those of their fellow believers, and drawing into the Cause growing numbers of new adherents, was a flood of Tablets addressed by the Master to recipients on both sides of the Atlantic, messages that threw open the imagination to the concepts, principles and ideals of God’s new Revelation. The power of this creative force can be felt in the words with which the first American believer, Thornton Chase, sought to describe what he was seeing:

His [the Master’s] own writings, spreading like white-winged doves from the Center of His Presence to the ends of the earth, are so many (hundreds pouring forth daily) that it is an impossibility for him to have given time to them for searching thought or to have applied the mental processes of the scholar to them. They flow like streams from a gushing fountain.…21

These sentiments add their own perspective to the determination with which the Master arose to undertake a venture so ambitious as to dismay many of those immediately around Him. Setting aside concerns expressed about His advanced age, His ill health, and the physical disabilities left by decades of imprisonment, He set out on a series of journeys that would last some three years, carrying Him eventually to the Pacific coast of the North American continent. The stresses and risks of international travel in the early years of the century were the least of the obstacles to the realization of the objectives He had set Himself. In the words of Shoghi Effendi:

He Who, in His own words, had entered prison as a youth and left it an old man, Who never in His life had faced a public audience, had attended no school, had never moved in Western circles, and was unfamiliar with Western customs and language, had arisen not only to proclaim from pulpit and platform, in some of the chief capitals of Europe and in the leading cities of the North American continent, the distinctive verities enshrined in His Father’s Faith, but to demonstrate as well the Divine origin of the Prophets gone before Him, and to disclose the nature of the tie binding them to that Faith.22

No more brilliant a stage for the opening act of this great drama could have been desired than London, capital city of the largest and most cosmopolitan empire the world has ever known. In the eyes of the little groups of believers who had made the practical arrangements and who longed for the sight of His face, the trip was a triumph far surpassing their brightest hopes. Public officials, scholars, writers, editors, industrialists, leaders of reform movements, members of the British aristocracy, and influential clergymen of many denominations eagerly sought Him out, invited Him to their platforms, classrooms, homes and pulpits, and showered appreciation on the views He expounded. On Sunday, 10 September 1911, the Master spoke for the first time to a public audience anywhere, from the pulpit of the City Temple. His words evoked for His hearers the vision of a new age in the evolution of civilization:

This is a new cycle of human power. All the horizons of the world are luminous, and the world will become indeed as a garden and a paradise.… You are loosed from ancient superstitions which have kept men ignorant, destroying the foundation of true humanity.

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.23

After an additional two months’ stay in Paris and a return to Alexandria for a winter sojourn and the recuperation of His health, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá sailed on 25 March 1912 to New York City, arriving on 11 April of that year. At even the simplest physical level, a programme packed with hundreds of public addresses, conferences and private talks in over forty cities across North America and an additional nineteen in Europe, some of them visited more than once, was a feat that may well have no parallel in modern history. On both continents, but especially in North America, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá received a highly appreciative welcome from distinguished audiences devoted to such concerns as peace, women’s rights, racial equality, social reform and moral development. On an almost daily basis, His talks and interviews received wide coverage in mass-circulation newspapers. He Himself was later to write that He had “observed all the doors open … and the ideal power of the Kingdom of God removing every obstacle and obstruction.”24

The openness with which He was met permitted ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá to proclaim unambiguously the social principles of the new Revelation. Shoghi Effendi has summed up the truths thus presented:

The independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition; the oneness of the entire human race, the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith; the basic unity of all religions; the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national; the harmony which must exist between religion and science; the equality of men and women, the two wings on which the bird of human kind is able to soar; the introduction of compulsory education; the adoption of a universal auxiliary language; the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty; the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations; the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship; the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society, and of religion as a bulwark for the protection of all peoples and nations; and the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind—these stand out as the essential elements of that Divine polity which He proclaimed to leaders of public thought as well as to the masses at large in the course of these missionary journeys.25

At the heart of the Master’s message was the announcement that the long-promised Day for the unification of humanity and the establishment on earth of the Kingdom of God had come. That Kingdom, as unveiled in ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s letters and talks, owed nothing whatever to the other-worldly assumptions familiar from the teachings of traditional religion. Rather, the Master proclaimed the coming of age of humankind and the emergence of a global civilization in which the development of the whole range of human potentialities will be the fruit of the interaction between universal spiritual values, on the one hand, and, on the other, material advances that were even then still undreamed of.

The means to achieve the goal, He said, had already come into existence. What was needed was the will to act and the faith to persist:

All of us know that international peace is good, that it is the cause of life, but volition and action are necessary. Inasmuch as this century is the century of light, capacity for achieving peace has been assured. It is certain that these ideas will be spread among men to such a degree that they will result in action.26

Although expressed with unfailing courtesy and consideration, the principles of the new Revelation were set out uncompromisingly in both private and public encounters. Invariably, the Master’s actions were as eloquent as the words He used. In the United States, for example, nothing could have more clearly communicated Bahá’í belief in the oneness of religion than ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s readiness to include references to the Prophet Muḥammad in addresses to Christian audiences and His energetic vindication of the divine origin of both Christianity and Islam to the congregation at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco. His ability to inspire in women of all ages confidence that they possessed spiritual and intellectual capacities fully equal to those of men, His unprovocative but clear demonstration of the meaning of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on racial oneness by welcoming black as well as white guests at His own dinner table and the tables of His prominent hostesses, and His insistence on the overriding importance of unity in all aspects of Bahá’í endeavour—such demonstrations of the way in which the spiritual and practical aspects of life must interact threw open for the believers windows on a new world of possibilities. The spirit of unconditional love in which these challenges were phrased succeeded in overcoming the fears and uncertainties of those whom the Master addressed.

Greater yet than the effort expended on His public exposition of the Cause was the time and energy the Master devoted to deepening the believers’ understanding of the spiritual truths of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation. In city after city, from early morning to late at night, the hours that were not taken up by the public demands of His mission were given over to responding to the questions of the friends, meeting their needs, and infusing into them a spirit of confidence in the contributions each could make to the promotion of the Cause they had embraced. His visit to Chicago provided the opportunity for ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá to lay, with His own hands, the cornerstone of the first Bahá’í House of Worship in the West, a project inspired by the one already under way in ‘Ishqábád and likewise encouraged from the moment of its conception by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá.

The Mashriqu’l-Adhkár is one of the most vital institutions in the world, and it hath many subsidiary branches. Although it is a House of Worship, it is also connected with a hospital, a drug dispensary, a traveler’s hospice, a school for orphans, and a university for advanced studies.… My hope is that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár will now be established in America, and that gradually the hospital, the school, the university, the dispensary and the hospice, all functioning according to the most efficient and orderly procedures, will follow.27

As with the process simultaneously unfolding in Persia, only future historians will be able to appreciate adequately the creative power of this dimension of the Western trips. Memoirs and letters have testified to the way in which even brief encounters with the Master were to sustain countless Western Bahá’ís through the years of effort and sacrifice that followed, as they struggled to expand and consolidate the Faith. Without such an intervention by the Centre of the Covenant Himself, it is impossible to imagine little groups of Western believers—lacking entirely the spiritual heritage that their Persian co-religionists derived from the long involvement of parents and grandparents in the heroic events of Bábí and early Bahá’í history—being able so quickly to grasp what the Cause required of them and to undertake the daunting tasks involved.

His hearers were summoned to become the loving and confident agents of a great civilizing process, whose pivot is recognition of the oneness of the human race. In arising to undertake their mission, He promised that they would find unlocked in both themselves and others entirely new capacities with which God has in this Day endowed the human race:

Ye must become the very soul of the world, the living spirit in the body of the children of men. In this wondrous Age, at this time when the Ancient Beauty, the Most Great Name, bearing unnumbered gifts, hath risen above the horizon of the world, the Word of God hath infused such awesome power into the inmost essence of humankind that He hath stripped men’s human qualities of all effect, and hath, with His all-conquering might, unified the peoples in a vast sea of oneness.28

Nothing perhaps testifies so strikingly to the response the believers made to this appeal than the fact that the unity established among them did not inhibit their vivid individual ways of expressing the truths of the Faith. The relationship between the individual and the community has always been one of the most challenging issues in the development of society. One has only to read, even cursorily, accounts of the lives of the early Bahá’ís in the West to become aware of the high degree of individuality that characterized many of them, particularly the most active and creative. Not infrequently, they had found the Faith only after intensive investigation of various spiritual and social movements current at the time, and this broad understanding of the concerns and interests of their contemporaries no doubt helped make them such effective teachers of the Faith. It is equally clear, however, that the wide range of expression and understanding among them did not prevent them or their fellow believers from contributing to building a collective unity that was the chief attraction of the Cause. As the memoirs and historical accounts of the period make clear, the secret of this balancing of individual and community was the spiritual bond connecting all believers to the words and example of the Master. In an important sense ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá was, for all of them, the Bahá’í Cause.

No objective review of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s mission to the West can fail to take into account the sobering fact that only a small number of those who had accepted the Faith—and infinitely fewer among the public audiences who had thronged to hear His words—derived from these priceless opportunities more than a relatively dim understanding of the implications of His message. Appreciating these limitations on the part of His hearers, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá did not hesitate to introduce into His relations with Western believers actions that summoned them to a level of consciousness far above mere social liberalism and tolerance. One example that must stand for a range of such interventions was His gentle but dramatic act in encouraging the marriage of Louis Gregory and Louise Mathew—the one black, the other white. The initiative set a standard for the American Bahá’í community as to the real meaning of racial integration, however timid and slow its members were in responding to the core implications of the challenge.

Even without a deep understanding of the Master’s goals, those who embraced His message set out, often at great personal cost, to give practical expression to the principles He taught. Commitment to the cause of international peace; the abolition of extremes of wealth and poverty that were undermining the unity of society; the overcoming of national, racial and other prejudices; the encouragement of equality in the education of boys and girls; the need to shake off the shackles of ancient dogmas that were inhibiting investigation of reality—these principles for the advancement of civilization had made a powerful impression. What few, if any, of the Master’s hearers grasped—perhaps could have grasped—was the revolutionary change in the very structure of society and the willing submission of human nature to Divine Law that, in the final analysis, can alone produce the necessary changes in attitude and behaviour.

The key to this vision of the coming transformation of the individual and social life of humankind was ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s proclamation, shortly after His arrival in North America, of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant and of the central part He Himself had been called on to play in it. In the Master’s own words:

As to the most great characteristic of the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, a specific teaching not given by any of the Prophets of the past: It is the ordination and appointment of the Center of the Covenant. By this appointment and provision He has safeguarded and protected the religion of God against differences and schisms, making it impossible for anyone to create a new sect or faction of belief.29

Choosing New York City for His purpose—and designating it “the City of the Covenant”—‘Abdu’l‑Bahá unveiled for Western believers the devolution of authority made by the Founder of their Faith for the definitive interpretation of His Revelation. A highly regarded believer, Lua Getsinger, had been called on by the Master to prepare the group of Bahá’ís who had gathered in the house where He was temporarily residing for this historic announcement, following which He Himself went downstairs and spoke in general terms about some of the implications of the Covenant. Juliet Thompson, who, with one of the Persian translators, had been in the upstairs room at the time this mission had been given to her friend, has left an account of the circumstances. She quotes ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá as saying:

I am the Covenant, appointed by Bahá’u’lláh. And no one can refute His Word. This is the Testament of Bahá’u’lláh. You will find it in the Holy Book of Aqdas. Go forth and proclaim, “This is the Covenant of God in your midst.”30

Conceived by Bahá’u’lláh as the Instrument which, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, was “to perpetuate the influence of [the] Faith, insure its integrity, safeguard it from schism, and stimulate its world-wide expansion,”31 the Covenant had been violated by members of Bahá’u’lláh’s own family almost immediately after His ascension. Recognizing that the authority invested in the Master by the Kitáb-i-‘Ahd, the Tablet of the Branch and related documents frustrated their private hopes to turn the Cause to their personal advantage, these persons began a persistent campaign to undermine His position, first in the Holy Land and then in Persia, where the bulk of the Bahá’í community was concentrated. When these schemes failed, they next sought to manipulate the fears of the Ottoman government and the avarice of its representatives in Palestine. This hope too collapsed when the “Young Turk Revolution” overthrew the regime in Constantinople, hanging some thirty-one of its leading officials, including several who had been implicated in the plans of the Covenant-breakers.

In the West, during the early years of the Master’s ministry, representatives sent by Him had already successfully countered the machinations of Ibrahim Khayru’lláh—ironically, the individual who had introduced many of the American believers to the Cause—who had aimed at securing a position of leadership through association with the Covenant-breakers in the Holy Family. Such experiences had doubtless prepared the Western believers for the Master’s formal proclamation of His station and for the firmness with which He enjoined on believers avoidance of any involvement with such agents of division: “Certain weak, capricious, malicious and ignorant souls … have striven to efface the Divine Covenant and Testament, and render the clear water muddy so that in it they might fish.”32 It would be only gradually, however, as the new communities struggled to overcome differences of opinion and resist the perennial human temptation to factionalism, that the implications of this great organizing law of the new Dispensation would emerge.

While laying out in both public addresses and private discussions the vision of a world of unity and peace that the Revelation of God for our day will bring into being, the Master warned emphatically of the dangers that lay on the immediate horizon—both for the Faith and for the world. For both, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá foresaw, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, a “winter of unprecedented severity”.

For the Cause of God, that winter would entail heartbreaking betrayals of the Covenant. In North America, the inconstancy of a small number of individuals, frustrated in their aspirations for personal leadership, remained an ongoing source of difficulty for the community, undermining the faith of some and causing others simply to drift away from participation in the Faith. In Persia, too, the faith of the friends was repeatedly tested by the schemes of ambitious individuals suddenly awakened to the possibilities for self-aggrandizement they believed they saw in the successes attending the Master’s work in the West. In both cases, the consequences of such defections were ultimately to deepen the devotion of the firm believers.

As for humanity in general, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá warned in ominous terms of the catastrophe that He saw approaching. While emphasizing the urgency of efforts at reconciliation that might alleviate in some measure the suffering of the world’s people, He left His hearers in no doubt of the magnitude of the danger. In one of the major newspapers in Montreal, where press coverage of the trip was particularly comprehensive, it was reported:

“All Europe is an armed camp. These warlike preparations will necessarily culminate in a great war. The very armaments themselves are productive of war. This great arsenal must go ablaze. There is nothing of the nature of prophecy about such a view”, said ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá; “it is based on reasoning solely.”33

On 5 December 1912, the Figure who had been hailed across North America as “the Apostle of Peace” sailed from New York for Liverpool. After relatively brief stays in London and other British centres, He visited several continental cities, again devoting several weeks to Paris, where He had available the services of Hippolyte Dreyfus, whose written Arabic and Persian met the Master’s requirements. As the recognized cultural capital of continental Europe, Paris was a focal centre for visitors from many parts of the world, including the Orient. While the talks delivered during His two extended visits to the city make frequent reference to the great social issues discussed elsewhere, they seem particularly distinguished by an intimate spirituality that must have profoundly touched the hearts of those privileged to meet Him:

Lift up your hearts above the present and look with eyes of faith into the future! Today the seed is sown, the grain falls upon the earth, but behold the day will come when it shall rise a glorious tree and the branches thereof shall be laden with fruit. Rejoice and be glad that this day has dawned, try to realize its power, for it is indeed wonderful!34

On the morning of 13 June 1913, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá embarked at Marseilles on the steamer S. S. Himalaya, arriving at Port Said in Egypt four days later. What Shoghi Effendi has called “His historic journeys” ended with His return to Haifa on 5 December 1913.

Two years, almost to the day, after ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s statement to the editor of the Montreal Daily Star, the world that had enjoyed so intoxicating a sense of self-confidence and whose foundations had appeared impregnable, collapsed abruptly. The catastrophe is popularly associated with the murder in Sarajevo of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and certainly the train of blunders, reckless threats and mindless appeals to “honour” that led directly to World War I was ignited by this relatively minor event. In reality, however, as the Master had pointed out, preliminary “rumblings” during the entire first decade of the century should have alerted European leaders to the fragility of the existing order.

In the years 1904–1905, the Japanese and Russian empires had gone to war with a violence that led to the destruction of virtually the entire naval forces of the latter power and its surrender of territories it regarded as vital to its interests, a humiliation that was to have long-lasting domestic and international repercussions. On two occasions during these opening years of the century, war between France and Germany over imperialist designs in North Africa was narrowly averted only through the self-interested intervention of other powers. In 1911 Italian ambitions similarly provoked a dangerous threat to international peace by the seizure from the Ottoman empire of what is now Libya. International instability had been further deepened—as the Master had also warned—when Germany, feeling constrained by a growing web of hostile alliances, embarked on a massive naval building programme aimed at eliminating the previously accepted British lead.

Exacerbating these conflicts were tensions among the subject peoples of the Romanov, Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. Waiting only for some turn of events that would break the grip of the ramshackle systems that suppressed them, Balts, Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Greeks, Albanians, Bulgars, Romanians, Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, and a host of other nationalities looked forward eagerly to their day of liberation. Tirelessly exploiting this network of fissures in the existing order were a multitude of conspiracies, resistance groups and separatist organizations. Inspired by ideologies ranging from an almost incoherent anarchism at one extreme to sharply honed racist and nationalist obsessions at the other, these underground forces shared one naïve conviction: if the particular part of the prevailing order that had become their target could somehow be brought down, the inherent nobility of the segment of humankind that supported their aims—or the assumed nobility of humankind in general—would by itself ensure a new era of freedom and justice.

Alone among these would-be agents of violent change one broadly based movement was proceeding systematically and with ruthless clarity of purpose towards the goal of world revolution. The Communist Party, deriving both its intellectual thrust and an unshakeable confidence in its ultimate triumph from the writings of the nineteenth century ideologue Karl Marx, had succeeded in establishing groups of committed supporters throughout Europe and various other countries. Convinced that the genius of its master had demonstrated beyond question the essentially material nature of the forces that had given rise to both human consciousness and social organization, the Communist movement dismissed the validity of both religion and “bourgeois” moral standards. In its view, faith in God was a neurotic weakness indulged in by the human race, a weakness that had merely permitted successive ruling classes to manipulate superstition as an instrument for enslaving the masses.

To the leaders of the world, blindly edging their way towards the universal conflagration which pride and folly had prepared, the great strides being made by science and technology represented chiefly a means of gaining military advantage over their rivals. The European opponents of the nations concerned, however, were not the poverty-stricken and largely uneducated colonial populations whom they had been able to subject. The false confidence that military hardware thus inspired led inexorably to a race to equip armies and navies with the most advanced of modern weaponry, and to do so on as massive a scale as possible. Machine guns, long-range cannon, “dreadnoughts”, submarines, landmines, poison gas and the possibility of equipping airplanes for bombing attacks emerged as features of what one commentator has termed the “technology of death”.35 All of these instruments of annihilation would, as ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá had warned, be deployed and refined during the course of the coming conflict.

Science and technology were also exerting other, more subtle pressures on the prevailing order. Large-scale industrial production, fuelled by the arms race, had accelerated the movement of populations into urban centres. By the end of the preceding century, this process was already undermining inherited standards and loyalties, exposing growing numbers of people to novel ideas for the bringing about of social change, and exciting mass appetites for material benefits previously available only to elite segments of society. Even under relatively autocratic systems, the public was beginning to perceive the extent to which civil authority was dependent for its effectiveness on its ability to win broad popular support. These social developments would have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences. As war would drag endlessly on and unthinking faith in its simplicities come into question, millions of men in conscript armies on both sides would begin to see their sufferings as meaningless in themselves and fruitless in terms of their own and their families’ well-being.

Beyond these implications of technological and economic change, scientific advancement seemed to encourage easy assumptions about human nature, the almost unnoticed overlay that Bahá’u’lláh has termed “the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge”.36 These unexamined views communicated themselves to ever-widening audiences. Sensationalism in the popular press, fiery debates between scientists or scholars, on the one hand, and theologians or influential clergymen, on the other, along with the rapid spread of public education, continued to undermine the authority of accepted religious doctrines, as well as of prevailing moral standards.

These seismic forces of the new century combined to make the situation facing the Western world in 1914 intensely volatile. When the great conflagration did break out, therefore, the nightmare far surpassed the worst fears of thoughtful minds. It would serve no purpose here to review the exhaustively analyzed cataclysm of World War I. The statistics themselves remain almost beyond the ability of the human mind to encompass: an estimated sixty million men eventually being thrown into the most horrific inferno that history had ever known, eight million of them perishing in the course of the war and an additional ten million or more being permanently disabled by crippling injuries, burned-out lungs and appalling disfigurements.37 Historians have suggested that the total financial cost may have reached thirty billion dollars, wiping out a substantial portion of the total capital wealth of Europe.

Even such massive losses do not begin to suggest the full scope of the ruin. One of the considerations that long held back President Woodrow Wilson from proposing to the United States Congress the declaration of war that had by then become virtually inescapable was his awareness of the moral damage that would ensue. Not the least of the distinctions that characterized this extraordinary man—a statesman whose vision both ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá and Shoghi Effendi have praised—was his understanding of the brutalization of human nature that would be the worst legacy of the tragedy that was by then engulfing Europe, a legacy beyond human capacity to reverse.38

Reflection on the magnitude of the suffering experienced by humankind in the war’s four years—and the resulting setback to the long, painful process of the civilizing of human nature—lends tragic force to words the Master had addressed only two or three years earlier to audiences in such European cities as London, Paris, Vienna, Budapest and Stuttgart, as well as in North America. Speaking one evening in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sutherland Maxwell in Montreal, He had said:

Today the world of humanity is walking in darkness because it is out of touch with the world of God. That is why we do not see the signs of God in the hearts of men. The power of the Holy Spirit has no influence. When a divine spiritual illumination becomes manifest in the world of humanity, when divine instruction and guidance appear, then enlightenment follows, a new spirit is realized within, a new power descends, and a new life is given. It is like the birth from the animal kingdom into the kingdom of man.… I will pray, and you must pray, likewise, that such heavenly bounty may be realized; that strife and enmity may be banished, warfare and bloodshed taken away; that hearts may attain ideal communication and that all people may drink from the same fountain.39

The vindictive peace treaty, imposed by the Allied powers on their defeated enemies, succeeded only, as both ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá and Shoghi Effendi have pointed out, in planting the seeds of another, far more terrible conflict. The ruinous reparations demanded of the vanquished—and the injustice that required them to accept the full guilt for a war for which all parties had been, to one degree or another, responsible—were among the factors that would prepare demoralized peoples in Europe to embrace totalitarian promises of relief which they might not otherwise have contemplated.

Ironically, no matter how harsh were the reparations required of the defeated, the supposed victors awoke to the appalled realization that their triumph—and the demand for unconditional surrender that had driven it—had come at an equally crippling price. Staggering war debts ended forever the economic dominance which these European nations had acquired through three centuries of imperialist exploitation of the rest of the planet. The deaths of millions of young men who would have been urgently needed to meet the challenges of the coming decades was a loss that could never be recovered. Indeed, Europe itself—which only four brief years earlier had represented the apparent summit of civilization and world influence—lost at one stroke this pre-eminence, and began the inexorable slide during the following decades toward the status of an auxiliary to a rising new centre of power in North America.

Initially, it seemed that the vision of the future conceived by Woodrow Wilson would now be realized. In part, this proved to be the case as subject peoples throughout Europe gained the freedom to work out their own destinies through the emergence from the ruin of the former empires of a series of new nation-states. Further, the president’s “Fourteen Points” briefly endowed his public statements with so great a moral authority in the minds of millions of Europeans that not even the most recalcitrant of his fellow leaders among the Allied powers could entirely disregard his wishes. Despite months of wrangling over colonies, borders, and clauses in the text of the peace treaty, the Versailles settlement eventually incorporated an attenuated form of the proposed League of Nations, an institution which it was hoped could adjust future disputes between nations and harmonize international affairs.

Shoghi Effendi’s commentary on the significance of this historic initiative commands reflection on the part of every Bahá’í who seeks to understand the events of this turbulent century. Describing two closely interrelated developments that are associated with the dawn of world peace, he lays emphasis on the fact that they are “destined to culminate, in the fullness of time, in a single glorious consummation”.40 The first, the Guardian describes as associated with the mission of the Bahá’í community in the North American continent; the second, with the destiny of the United States as a nation. Speaking of this latter phenomenon, which dated back to the outbreak of the first world war, Shoghi Effendi writes:

It received its initial impetus through the formulation of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, closely associating for the first time that republic with the fortunes of the Old World. It suffered its first setback through the dissociation of that republic from the newly born League of Nations which that president had labored to create.… It must, however long and tortuous the way, lead, through a series of victories and reverses, to the political unification of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, to the emergence of a world government and the establishment of the Lesser Peace, as foretold by Bahá’u’lláh and foreshadowed by the Prophet Isaiah. It must, in the end, culminate in the unfurling of the banner of the Most Great Peace, in the Golden Age of the Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh.41

How tragic, therefore, was the fate of the conception that had inspired the efforts of the American president. As soon became apparent, the League had been stillborn. Although it included such features as a legislature, a judiciary, an executive, and a supporting bureaucracy, it had been denied the authority vital to the work it was ostensibly intended to perform. Locked into the nineteenth century’s conception of untrammelled national sovereignty, it could take decisions only with the unanimous assent of the member states, a requirement largely ruling out effective action.42 The hollowness of the system was exposed, as well, by its failure to include some of the world’s most powerful states: Germany had been rejected as a defeated nation held responsible for the war, Russia was initially denied entrance because of its Bolshevik regime, and the United States itself refused—as a result of narrow political partisanship in Congress—either to join the League or to ratify the treaty. Ironically, even the half-hearted efforts made to protect ethnic minorities living in the newly created nation-states proved eventually to be little more than weapons to be used in Europe’s continuing fratricidal conflicts.

In sum, at precisely the moment in human history when an unprecedented outbreak of violence had undermined the inherited bulwarks of civilized behaviour, the political leadership of the Western world had emasculated the one alternative system of international order to which experience of this catastrophe had given birth and which alone could have alleviated the far greater suffering that lay ahead. In the prophetic words of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá: “Peace, Peace … the lips of potentates and peoples unceasingly proclaim, whereas the fire of unquenched hatreds still smoulders in their hearts.” “The ills from which the world now suffers,” He added in 1920, “will multiply; the gloom which envelops it will deepen.… The vanquished Powers will continue to agitate. They will resort to every measure that may rekindle the flame of war.”43

As war’s inferno was engulfing the world, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá turned His attention to the one great task remaining in His ministry, that of ensuring the proclamation to the remotest corners of the Earth of the message which had been neglected—or opposed—in Islamic and Western society alike. The instrument He devised for this purpose was the Divine Plan laid out in fourteen great Tablets, four of them addressed to the Bahá’í community of North America and ten subsidiary ones addressed to five specific segments of that community. Together with Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet of Carmel and the Master’s Will and Testament, the Tablets of the Divine Plan were described by Shoghi Effendi as three of the “Charters” of the Cause. Revealed during the darkest days of the war, in 1916 and 1917, the Divine Plan summoned the small body of American and Canadian believers to assume the role of leadership in establishing the Cause of God throughout the planet. The implications of the trust were awe-inspiring. In the words of the Master:

The hope which ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá cherishes for you is that the same success which has attended your efforts in America may crown your endeavors in other parts of the world, that through you the fame of the Cause of God may be diffused throughout the East and the West, and the advent of the Kingdom of the Lord of Hosts be proclaimed in all the five continents of the globe. 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 Australia, 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 all the peoples of the world witness that this community is spiritually illumined and divinely guided. Then will the whole earth resound with the praises of its majesty and greatness.…44

Shoghi Effendi reminds us that this historic mission, described by him as “the birthright of the North American Bahá’í Community”,45 is rooted in the words of the Twin Manifestations of God to humanity’s age of maturity. It appeared first in the words of the Báb, who called on the “peoples of the West” to “issue forth from your cities”, to “aid God ere the Day when the Lord of mercy shall come down unto you in the shadow of the clouds…”, and to become “as true brethren in the one and indivisible religion of God, free from distinction,… so that ye find yourselves reflected in them, and they in you”.46 In His summons to the “Rulers of America and the Presidents of the Republics therein”, Bahá’u’lláh Himself delivered a mandate that has no parallel in any of His other addresses to world leaders: “Bind ye the broken with the hands of justice, and crush the oppressor who flourisheth with the rod of the commandments of your Lord, the Ordainer, the All-Wise.”47 It was Bahá’u’lláh, too, who enunciated one of the most profound truths about the process by which civilization has evolved: “In the East the light of His Revelation hath broken; in the West have appeared the signs of His dominion. Ponder this in your hearts, O people.…”48

Although the Divine Plan would, as the Guardian was later to say, “be held in abeyance” until the system necessary to its execution had been brought into being, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá had selected, empowered and mandated a company of believers who would take the lead in launching the enterprise. His own life was now swiftly moving to its end, but the three years left to Him after the conclusion of the world war seemed, in retrospect, to provide a foretaste of the victories that the Cause itself would know as the century unfolded. The changed conditions in the Holy Land freed the Master to pursue His work unhampered and created the conditions in which the brilliance of His mind and spirit could exercise their influence on government officials, visiting dignitaries of every kind, and the various communities making up the population of the Holy Land. The Mandate Power itself sought to express its appreciation of the unifying effect of His example and the philanthropic work He did by conferring on Him a knighthood.49 More importantly, a renewed flow of pilgrims and of Tablets to Bahá’í communities of both East and West stimulated an expansion in the teaching work and a deepening of the friends’ understanding of the implications of the Faith’s message.

Nothing perhaps illustrated so dramatically the spiritual triumph the Master had won at the World Centre of the Faith than the events in Haifa that occurred immediately after His ascension in the early hours of 28 November 1921. The following day a vast concourse of thousands of people, representing the variegated races and sects of the region, followed the funeral cortège up the slopes of Mount Carmel in a state of unaffected grief such as the city had never before witnessed. It was led by representatives of the British government, members of the diplomatic community, and the heads of all of the religious bodies in the area, several of whom participated in the service at the Shrine of the Báb. So unrestrained and unified an outburst of mourning reflected a sudden awareness of the loss of a Figure whose example had served as a focal centre of unity in an angry and divided land. In itself, it served for all with eyes to see as a compelling vindication of the truth of the oneness of humankind which the Master had tirelessly proclaimed.

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