If we study the story of the “ascent of man” as recorded in the pages of history, it becomes evident that the leading factor in human progress is the advent, from time to time, of men who pass beyond the accepted ideas of their day and become the discoverers and revealers of truths hitherto unknown among mankind. The inventor, the pioneer, the genius, the Prophet—these are the men on whom the transformation of the world primarily depends. As Carlyle says:—
The plain truth, very plain, we think is, that … one man that has a higher Wisdom, a hitherto unknown spiritual Truth in him, is stronger, not than ten men that have it not, or than ten thousand, but than all men that have it not; and stands among them with a quite ethereal, angelic power, as with a sword out of Heaven’s own armory, sky-tempered, which no buckler, and no tower of brass, will finally withstand.—Signs of the Times.
In the history of science, of art, of music, we see abundant illustrations of this truth, but in no domain is the supreme importance of the great man and his message more clearly evident than in that of religion. All down the ages, whenever the spiritual life of men has become degenerate and their morals corrupt, that most wonderful and mysterious of men, the Prophet, makes His appearance. Alone against the world, without a single human being capable of teaching, of guiding, of fully understanding Him, or of sharing His responsibility, He arises, like a seer among blind men, to proclaim His gospel of righteousness and truth.
Amongst the Prophets some stand out with special preeminence. Every few centuries a great Divine Revealer—a Krishna, a Zoroaster, a Moses, a Jesus, a Muḥammad—appears in the East, like a spiritual Sun, to illumine the darkened minds of men and awaken their dormant souls. Whatever our views as to the relative greatness of these religion-founders we must admit that They have been the most potent factors in the education of mankind. With one accord these Prophets declare that the words They utter are not from Themselves, but are a Revelation through Them, a Divine message of which They are the bearers. Their recorded utterances abound, too, in hints and promises of a great world teacher Who will appear “in the fullness of time” to carry on Their work and bring it to fruition, One Who will establish a reign of peace and justice upon earth, and bring into one family all races, religions, nations, and tribes, that “there may be one fold and one shepherd” and that all may know and love God “from the least even unto the greatest.”
Surely the advent of this “Educator of Mankind,” in the latter days, when He appears, must be the greatest event in human history. And the Bahá’í Movement is proclaiming to the world the glad tidings that this Educator has in fact appeared, that His Revelation has been delivered and recorded and may be studied by every earnest seeker, that the “Day of the Lord” has already dawned and the “Sun of Righteousness” arisen. As yet only a few on the mountaintops have caught sight of the Glorious Orb, but already its rays are illumining heaven and earth, and erelong it will rise above the mountains and shine with full strength on the plains and valleys too, giving life and guidance to all.
That the world, during the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries,1 has been passing through the death pangs of an old era and the birth pangs of a new, is evident to all. The old principles of materialism and self-interest, the old sectarian and patriotic prejudices and animosities, are perishing, discredited, amidst the ruins they have wrought, and in all lands we see signs of a new spirit of faith, of brotherhood, of internationalism, that is bursting the old bonds and overrunning the old boundaries. Revolutionary changes of unprecedented magnitude have been occurring in every department of human life. The old era is not yet dead. It is engaged in a life and death struggle with the new. Evils there are in plenty, gigantic and formidable, but they are being exposed, investigated, challenged and attacked with new vigor and hope. Clouds there are in plenty, vast and threatening, but the light is breaking through, and is illumining the path of progress and revealing the obstacles and pitfalls that obstruct the onward way.
In the eighteenth century it was different. Then the spiritual and moral gloom that enshrouded the world was relieved by hardly a ray of light. It was like the darkest hour before the dawn, when the few lamps and candles that remain alight do little more than make the darkness visible. Carlyle in his Frederick the Great writes of the eighteenth century thus:—
A century which has no history and can have little or none. A century so opulent in accumulated falsities … as never century before was! Which had no longer the consciousness of being false, so false had it grown; and was so steeped in falsity, and impregnated with it to the very bone, that—in fact the measure of the things was full, and a French Revolution had to end it.… A very fit termination, as I thankfully feel, for such a century.… For there was need once more of a Divine Revelation to the torpid, frivolous children of men, if they were not to sink altogether into the ape condition.—Frederick the Great, Book I, Chap. 1.
Compared with the eighteenth century the present time is as the dawn after darkness, or as the spring after winter. The world is stirring with new life, thrilling with new ideals and hopes. Things that but a few years ago seemed impossible dreams are now accomplished facts. Others that seemed centuries ahead of us have already become matters of “practical politics.” We fly in the air and make voyages under the sea. We send messages around the world with the speed of lightning. Within a few decades we have seen miracles too numerous to mention.
What is the cause of this sudden awakening throughout the world? Bahá’ís believe that it is due to a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the Prophet Bahá’u’lláh, Who was born in Persia in 1817 and passed away in the Holy Land in 1892.
Bahá’u’lláh taught that the Prophet, or “Manifestation of God,” is the Light-bringer of the spiritual world, as the sun is the light-bringer of the natural world. Just as the material sun shines over the earth and causes the growth and development of material organisms, so also, through the Divine Manifestation, the Sun of Truth shines upon the world of heart and soul, and educates the thoughts, morals and characters of men. And just as the rays of the natural sun have an influence which penetrates into the darkest and shadiest corners of the world, giving warmth and life even to creatures that have never seen the sun itself, so also, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the Manifestation of God influences the lives of all, and inspires receptive minds even in places and among peoples where the name of the Prophet is quite unknown. The advent of the Manifestation is like the coming of the Spring. It is a day of Resurrection in which the spiritually dead are raised to new life, in which the Reality of the Divine Religions is renewed and reestablished, in which appear “new heavens and a new earth.”
But, in the world of nature, the Spring brings about not only the growth and awakening of new life but also the destruction and removal of the old and effete; for the same sun, that makes the flowers to spring and the trees to bud, causes also the decay and disintegration of what is dead and useless; it loosens the ice and melts the snow of winter, and sets free the flood and the storm that cleanse and purify the earth. So it is also in the spiritual world. The spiritual sunshine causes similar commotion and change. Thus the Day of Resurrection is also the Day of Judgment, in which corruptions and imitations of the truth and outworn ideas and customs are discarded and destroyed, in which the ice and snow of prejudice and superstition, which accumulated during the season of winter, are melted and transformed, and energies long frozen and pent up are released to flood and renovate the world.
Bahá’u’lláh declared, plainly and repeatedly, that He was the long-expected educator and teacher of all peoples, the channel of a wondrous Grace that would transcend all previous outpourings, in which all previous forms of religion would become merged, as rivers merge in the ocean. He laid a foundation which affords a firm basis for Unity throughout the whole world and the inauguration of that glorious age of peace on earth, goodwill among men, of which prophets have told and poets sung.
Search after truth, the oneness of mankind, unity of religions, of races, of nations, of East and West, the reconciliation of religion and science, the eradication of prejudices and superstitions, the equality of men and women, the establishment of justice and righteousness, the setting up of a supreme international tribunal, the unification of languages, the compulsory diffusion of knowledge—these, and many other teachings like these, were revealed by the pen of Bahá’u’lláh during the latter half of the nineteenth century, in innumerable books and epistles several of which were addressed to the Kings and Rulers of the world.
His message, unique in its comprehensiveness and scope, is wonderfully in accord with the signs and needs of the times. Never were the new problems confronting men so gigantic and complex as now. Never were the proposed solutions so numerous and conflicting. Never was the need of a great world teacher so urgent or so widely felt. Never, perhaps, was the expectancy of such a teacher so confident or so general.
When Christ appeared, twenty centuries ago, although the Jews were eagerly awaiting His Coming, and prayed every day, with tears, saying: “O God, hasten the Revelation of the Messiah,” yet when the Sun of Truth dawned, they denied Him and rose against Him with the greatest enmity, and eventually crucified that divine Spirit, the Word of God, and named Him Beelzebub, the evil one, as is recorded in the Gospel. The reason for this was that they said: “The Revelation of Christ, according to the clear text of the Torah, will be attested by certain signs, and so long as these signs have not appeared, whoso layeth claim to be a Messiah is an impostor. Among these signs is this, that the Messiah should come from an unknown place, yet we all know this man’s house in Nazareth, and can any good thing come out of Nazareth? The second sign is that He shall rule with a rod of iron, that is, He must act with the sword, but this Messiah has not even a wooden staff. Another of the conditions and signs is this: He must sit upon the throne of David and establish David’s sovereignty. Now, far from being enthroned, this man has not even a mat to sit on. Another of the conditions is this: the promulgation of all the laws of the Torah; yet this man has abrogated these laws, and has even broken the sabbath day, although it is the clear text of the Torah that whosoever layeth claim to prophethood and revealeth miracles and breaketh the sabbath day, he must be put to death. Another of the signs is this, that in His reign justice will be so advanced that righteousness and well-doing will extend from the human even to the animal world—the snake and the mouse will share one hole, the eagle and the partridge one nest, the lion and the gazelle shall dwell in one pasture, and the wolf and the kid shall drink from one fountain. Yet now, injustice and tyranny have waxed so great in his time that they have crucified him! Another of the conditions is this, that in the days of the Messiah the Jews will prosper and triumph over all the peoples of the world, but now they are living in the utmost abasement and servitude in the Empire of the Romans. Then how can this be the Messiah promised in the Torah?”
In this wise did they object to that Sun of Truth, although that Spirit of God was indeed the One promised in the Torah. But as they did not understand the meaning of these signs, they crucified the Word of God. Now the Bahá’ís hold that the recorded signs did come to pass in the Manifestation of Christ, although not in the sense which the Jews understood, the description in the Torah being allegorical. For instance, among the signs is that of sovereignty. For Bahá’ís say that the sovereignty of Christ was a heavenly, divine, everlasting sovereignty, not a Napoleonic sovereignty that vanisheth in a short time. For well-nigh two thousand years this sovereignty of Christ hath been established, and until now it endureth, and to all eternity that Holy Being will be exalted upon an everlasting throne.
In like manner all the other signs have been made manifest, but the Jews did not understand. Although nearly twenty centuries have elapsed since Christ appeared with divine splendor, yet the Jews are still awaiting the coming of the Messiah and regard themselves as true and Christ as false. (Written by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá for this chapter.)
Had the Jews applied to Christ He would have explained to them the true meaning of the prophecies concerning Himself. Let us profit by their example, and before deciding that the prophecies concerning the Manifestation of the Latter-day Teacher have not been fulfilled, let us turn to what Bahá’u’lláh Himself has written regarding their interpretation, for many of the prophecies are admittedly “sealed” sayings, and the True Educator Himself is the only One Who can break the seals and show the real meaning contained in the casket of words.
Bahá’u’lláh has written much in explanation of the prophecies of old, but it is not on these that He depends for proof of His Prophethood. The sun is its own proof, to all that have the power of perception. When it rises we need no ancient predictions to assure us of its shining. So with the Manifestation of God when He appears. Were all the former prophecies swept into oblivion, He would still be His own abundant and sufficient proof to all whose spiritual senses are open.
Bahá’u’lláh asked no one to accept His statements and His tokens blindly. On the contrary, He put in the very forefront of His teachings emphatic warnings against blind acceptance of authority, and urged all to open their eyes and ears, and use their own judgment, independently and fearlessly, in order to ascertain the truth. He enjoined the fullest investigation and never concealed Himself, offering, as the supreme proofs of His Prophethood, His words and works and their effects in transforming the lives and characters of men. The tests He proposed are the same as those laid down by His great Predecessors. Moses said:—
When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.—Deut. xviii, 22.
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.… Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.—Matt. vii, 15–17, 20.
In the chapters that follow, we shall endeavor to show whether Bahá’u’lláh’s claim to Prophethood stands or falls by application of these tests: whether the things that He had spoken have followed and come to pass, and whether His fruits have been good or evil; in other words, whether His prophecies are being fulfilled and His ordinances established, and whether His lifework has contributed to the education and upliftment of humanity and the betterment of morals, or the contrary.
There are, of course, difficulties in the way of the student who seeks to get at the truth about this Cause. Like all great moral and spiritual reformations, the Bahá’í Faith has been grossly misrepresented. About the terrible persecutions and sufferings of Bahá’u’lláh and His followers, both friends and enemies are in entire agreement. About the value of the Movement, however, and the character of its Founders, the statements of the believers and the accounts of the deniers are utterly at variance. It is just as in the time of Christ. Concerning the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecution and martyrdom of His followers both Christian and Jewish historians are in agreement, but whereas the believers say that Christ fulfilled and developed the teachings of Moses and the prophets, the deniers declare that He broke the laws and ordinances and was worthy of death.
In religion, as in science, truth reveals her mysteries only to the humble and reverent seeker, who is ready to lay aside every prejudice and superstition—to sell all that he has, in order that he may buy the “one pearl of great price.” To understand the Bahá’í Faith in its full significance, we must undertake its study in the spirit of sincere and selfless devotion to truth, persevering in the path of search and relying on divine guidance. In the Writings of its Founders we shall find the master key to the mysteries of this great spiritual awakening, and the ultimate criterion of its value. Unfortunately, here again there are difficulties in the way of the student who is unacquainted with the Persian and Arabic languages in which the teachings are written. Only a small proportion of the Writings has been translated into English, and many of the translations which have appeared leave much to be desired, both in accuracy and style. But despite the imperfection and inadequacy of historical narratives and translations, the greatest essential truths which form the massive and firm foundations of this Cause stand out like mountains from the mists of uncertainty.2
The endeavor in the following chapters will be to set forth, as far as possible, fairly and without prejudice, the salient features of the history and more especially of the teachings of the Bahá’í Cause, so that readers may be enabled to form an intelligent judgment as to their importance, and perhaps be induced to search into the subject more deeply for themselves.
Search after truth, however, important though it be, is not the whole aim and end of life. The truth is no dead thing, to be placed in a museum when found—to be labeled, classified, cataloged, exhibited and left there, dry and sterile. It is something vital which must take root in men’s hearts and bear fruit in their lives ere they reap the full reward of their search.
The real object, therefore, in spreading the knowledge of a prophetic revelation is that those who become convinced of its truth may proceed to practice its principles, to “lead the life” and diffuse the glad tidings, thus hastening the advent of that blessed day when God’s Will shall be done on earth as it is in Heaven.