'Abdu'l-Bahá in New York
A New Book By
Hussein Ahdieh and Hillary Chapman

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Of all the historical, religious and cultural events in the history of the United States, the arrival of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in1912 was the most important one of all. Many people–from all facets of society–had the honor to meet Him, attend His talks, benefit from His wisdom and witness His benevolence and humility. Their encounters with Him were life-altering: He touched the depths of their souls and awakened them spiritually. This re-telling of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s days in New York City will bring you closer to this unique figure in spiritual history, whose life will serve as a model of the true spiritual and ethical life for centuries to come.

Book Chat

Dr. Hussien Ahdieh is interviewed by Nwardi Lawson, Award-Winning Journalist, Georgia Public Broadcasting Producer, and Bahá'í Auxiliary Board Member. The subject of the interview is 'Abdu'l-Bahá in New York.

Excerpts from 'Abdu'l-Bahá in New York

1

The SS Cedric reached the dock. There was a great festive mood at the arrival of the great ship. People shouted greetings from the deck to the dock and back. The crew rushed about calling out instructions and setting up the disembarkation. A deep horn bellowed.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá requested that Edward Kinney—whom he had named ‘Saffa’—come aboard. Edward ‘Saffa’ Kinney and his wife, Vafa, had been to the Holy Land on pilgrimage. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá instructed him to tell the other Bahá’ís who waited below to proceed to the Kinney home and await his arrival.

Mr. Kinney went out to give ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s instructions to the waiting believers. Mist came over the pier. The Master stepped off the gangplank onto the ground of the United States like a benediction.

****

Juliet Thompson waited with her two friends Marjorie Morton and Rhoda Nichols, who was holding a long box of lillies. Juliet lived in a brownstone on 10th St. in Greenwich Village which had become a haven for free thinkers and artists such as herself. She painted and wrote and read the manuscripts of her neighbor, Khalil Gibran, the famous Lebanese poet. She was honest and trusting to a fault and completely open to spirit of the age. She had also seen the vision of the future in the Bahá’í teachings and had become profoundly devoted to the figure of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to whom she had already made several pilgrimages.

The three women waited over by the entrance to the pier, pressed against the window. Though others had left following the instructions, Marjorie refused to leave before she had seen him. The car of Mountfort Mills, a local Bahá’í, rolled up to the entrance. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stepped forward to climb into it. As he did so, he turned his head in the direction of Juliet and smiled.

 

2

Juliet Thompson was born in Washington DC, in 1873, of Irish descent. Early on she showed a talent for painting and was able to make money as a teenager selling her pastel portraits. The money became necessary because her father died when she was twelve, and he had left the family with little money. While living in New York City, she had become ill with dyptheria and overheard the doctor telling her mother that she would not survive. In a dream, Juliet saw the face of a “most wonderful-looking man” who reassured her that she would get better. Some years later, while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, Juliet saw a photograph of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and recognized him as the man from her dream. She became a Bahá’í there in 1901. In Paris, she met many believers such as May Bolles, the first Bahá’í to live in Europe, Lua Getsinger, Thomas Breakwell, the first English believer, and Hippolyte Dreyfus, the first French believer. Juliet had the great fortune to be educated in the Faith by one of its foremost teachers and scholars, Mírzá Abu’l Fadl. She was able to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with her friends the Kinneys in 1909, and a trip to Europe to see the Master again in 1911.

When she moved to New York City, she made her home in Greenwich Village, on W. 10th St. near Fifth Ave.. This neighborhood had become a haven for artists and writers, and she fit right in. Washington Square Park, a few blocks south, was the heart of the village and reflected the changing nature of the area. On the north side were the large homes of wealthy business families. These were shuttered during the summer as the families left for their country homes. When they returned and the social season began, one would see well dressed, affluent New Yorkers stepping out of the doors of expensive automobiles opened by men dressed in livery clothes and then onto red velvet carpets protected by canvas canopies raised overhead.

Washington Square bustled with life—much of it contrasting to the lives of these wealthy families. In the evenings, one could listen to a young man preaching fervently about the equality of men and women on the northeast corner of the square. The sounds of a cornet could be heard inviting people to a movie on the corner of Thompson St. and the Square. Children gathered around men who were grinding hand organs. A band of musicians hired by the City would be entertaining people in the Square. A sidewalk cart sold warm chestnuts. Men and women down on their luck slept on some of the benches and were regularly awoken and moved along by the policemen who patrolled the streets from each corner. In the fall, an old white horse pulled a cart around the Square while men dressed in brown uniforms tossed in the piles of leaves. As the weather turned cold, the fountains in the Square were wrapped in straw.

Artists and writers had gradually moved into the dilapidated buildings, cottages and frame houses south of the Square. An artist who was new to the area would have to first make a stop at Pepe’s real estate office who knew every room in the area and how to make studio space out of the holes in the wall in old factory buildings. Pepe would send the new young struggling artist out on the street with a list of places for rent. Every building was constantly in transition from its former uses. One local writer lived in a garret of a one hundred year old building which had begun as a tool house for undertakers, then become the home of a Governor, then a stage-house for stage coaches waiting to carry the mail, then a roadhouse for people, then a saloon and then an inn. Washington Square itself had originally been a potter’s field. This area had been home to the pamphleteer Thomas Paine, and writers Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and O. Henry, among many others. Its cheap rents, bustling atmosphere of small restaurants, shops and tiny obscure theaters—described by one writer as being for, “people who cannot act, who have no originality in any direction, who are amateur playwrights, gather together, rent rooms some where … and play theatre”—were all attractions for artist and writers.

This was an age when more people were searching outside of mainstream churches for alternatives or broader belief systems, possibly sensing that the times were changing. Among these alternatives were spiritualism, the belief that God is transcendent and cannot be described in anthropomorphic terms and that spirits can contact us from the next world, theosophical societies, which taught that God was everywhere, that human nature was ultimately Divine and that sickness could be healed through ‘right thinking’, and Hinduism and Buddhism which were only taught or understood in fragments. These movements tended to have a more universal view of God and salvation than traditional churches, and people were more willing to discard or go beyond long accepted church doctrines. Many of these seekers continued to be Christian in terms of its social and spiritual teachings and some involvement in a church. For some, the Bahá’í Faith appeared to be one of these ‘alternatives’, with a charismatic rather than formal community structure, and, as far as people knew, with general spiritual teachings such as the unity of the human race and the promotion of world peace which echoed what many people regarded as the needs of the day and which did not challenge their already held opinions on other subjects. In this sense, the pre-World War I ‘spirit of the age’ reflected some aspects of Bahá’u’lláh’s Teachings.

Greenwich Village was also home to free thinkers who had political leanings, most notably, anarchists, who saw governments as oppressive and emphasized personal freedom, and communists, who believed in a classless egalitarian society where government controlled the means of production to ensure social and economic equality. These kinds of political views had grown in response to the terrible conditions of workers in industrialized societies. There were also many trade unionists who advocated for workers’ rights. In his talks in the United States, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would bring a broader spiritual perspective to each of these issues by explaining the need for a Divine Educator, the nature of true spirituality, the necessity of both social justice and social order, and the meaning of true equality, among others.

Juliet Thompson chose to live in this powerful mix of new ideas and changing culture when she moved to W. 10th St. This house would also be home to other artists and writers during her many years there. The residents of the house often shared their work with each other. Salons sponsored by a patron where artist writers and thinkers could gather to discuss current topics of interest in art, spirituality and politics took place regularly in this part of the city. Juliet was a painter and a writer and had profound spiritual sensibilities. While she did attend the Church of the Ascension off and on, she trusted her personal experience when it came to matters of faith which helped her to respond to the Bahá’í message. Among Juliet’s closest friends was a well-known writer and artist and a fellow seeker: Khalil Gibran.

 

3

Back at the Ansonia, one of the many people who had come to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a reporter from the New York Tribune, Mary Williams, who went by the pen name, “Kate Carew”. Raised part of her childhood in the mining camps of the California Sierras, she had studied art at the San Fransisco School of Design and had become an illustrator for the San Fransisco Examiner. After she moved to New York City, Joseph Pulitzer hired her to work at the New York World where she specialized in illustrated interviews. Pulitzer had been engaged in an intense rivalry with William Randolph Hearst, who owned the New York Journal and whose mother was a follower of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Pulitzer and Hearst developed a sensationalist form of journalism called “yellow journalism” which sent newspaper sales rocketing; the circulation of the World, for example, increased 4,000%. Several times while in the United States, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá admonished journalists to be fair and accurate in their reporting

Over her career she would interview many of the famous people of the age such as actress Sarah Bernhardt, the writers Mark Twain and Jack London, the poet W. B. Yeats, the artist Pablo Picasso, the political leaders Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, the filmmaker D. W. Griffith, the banker J. P. Morgan, and the inventors the Wright brothers. She approached her work of interviewing and drawing caricatures of famous people with dark humor:

“One broiled live celebrity per week was the diet prescribed and rigorously enforced by my uncompromising editor, and he organized a staff of one, whose duty it was to hunt down the designated victims. The staff would make an appointment, and I would follow with the instruments of torture, consisting of an inquiring eye and a stub of pencil.”

Including her boss, Joseph Pulitzer—“Joseph Pulitzer is pre-eminently a publicist in journalism”

Politicians—“most of the victims were politicians and statesmen—unless it be true, as I am prepared to believe, that a statesman is only a politician who happens to be dead.”

And, of course, lawyers —

“the history of most of my interviews has been a frantic effort to penetrate beneath the crust of the politician in search of the man. In this process I have discovered many public men to have something almost human about them, and only when they are lawyers do they object to having it known.”

Now, she brought her breezy cynicism and caustic eye to her interview with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

“On my way to the more rarefied atmosphere of the upper floors I found myself hoping that the Baha would tell me I had a lovely soul. They say he finds out the strangest things about you. […] I felt all sorts of mystic possibilities awaited me the other side of the door. […] At my finger's pressure on the bell the door flew open with a most unholy speed. No fumes of incense, no tinkling bells, no prostrate figures and whispered benedictions. […]”

After she had waited awhile in the anteroom, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came in. Her cynicism began to ebb in the Master’s presence:

“He is scarcely above medium height, but so extraordinary is the dignity of his majestic carriage that he seemed more than the average stature. […] While slowly making the round of the room his soft, penetrating, faded eyes studied us all, without seeming to do so.”

The translator related to Mary how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wept during the play he had just seen, The Terrible Meek. She became aware of the power of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s sincerity and heartfelt, unencumbered directness:

“I can imagine repeating his phrases to some of my clever friends, who would be sure to say: "Why, that's as old as the hills. I don't see anything to make a fuss about in that." But the time honored words, even repeated by an interpreter, are so fraught with the Baha's wonderful personality that they seem never to have been uttered before. His meaning is not couched in any esoteric phrases. Again and again he has disclaimed the possession of hidden lore. Again and again he has placed the attainments of the heart and soul above those of the mind.”

Then it was her turn to have a private interview, and she was invited into ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s chamber. Now, she was able to observe the Master close-up, and she sensed the depth of his wisdom, the result of his close connection to the kingdom of God:

“His beautiful voice, like a golden echo, follows close the termination of each sentence. The master looks very spirituelle. He is in a relaxed attitude. […] So much more akin to the spirit world than this does he seem that I find myself often addressing Dr. Fareed personally, referring to him in the third person. "Do you think our luxury degenerate," I ask, "as in this great hotel?" Abdul Baha strokes his long white beard. "Luxury has a limit. Beyond that limit it is not commendable. There is such a thing as moderation. Men must be temperate in all things."

She moved through her questions and soon it was time to go:

“I noticed a trembling of the eyelids and that the gestures of arranging his turban and stroking his beard were more nervously frequent. Dr. Fareed answered to my inquiry, "Shall I go now?" "He has been giving of himself to every one since 7 o'clock this morning. I am a perfect physical wreck, but he is willing to go on indefinitely." Abdul Baha opened the half-closed eyelids to say: "I am going to the poor in the Bowery now. I love them."

‘Abdu’l-Bahá and friends made their way down the hall with the Master holding the urbane reporter’s hand:

“I was invited to accompany them […] Can you picture your Aunt Kate and Abdul Baha going to it, hand in hand, through the Ansonia corridors? Perhaps the guests didn't gurgle and gasp! Perhaps! I did feel rather conspicuous, but I braced myself with the thought of the universal brotherhood and really got along fairly well.”

They got into the car of Mountfort Mills, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reminded Mary about service, truthfulness—and the press:

"Remember, you press people are the servants of the public. You interpret our words and acts to them. With you is a great responsibility. Please remember and please treat us seriously."

 

4

The car of Mountfort Mills drove south down the avenues of New York City past Park Ave. and Fifth Ave. mansions of wealthy old American families from the novels of Edith Wharton who summered on their upstate estates, to the teeming tenements of the Bowery on Manhattan’s lower east side where hundreds of men awaited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s arrival.

The energy of this great port city came from the constant flow of immigrants who arrived by the hundreds of thousands from countries where economic opportunity had been hard to come by and where persecution had been plentiful. Huge boats disgorged Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks Bohemians, Russians, and Russian and Polish Jews, into tenements which often had unhealthy living conditions and towards jobs with often even more hazardous working conditions.

The plight of the city’s lower classes had been brought to light by Jacob Riis’s How the other half lives a book of shocking photographs documenting the lives of the poor. This set in motion studies, inspections and laws to improve living conditions in the tenements which were home to two thirds of the population of the city in 1900. The Tenement House Law of 1901 mandated better sanitary conditions, fire escapes, private toilets and access to light. By 1909, there had been progress in improving conditions and stopping the spread of cholera, typhus, and small pox, which resulted in a very high infant mortality. Still, in 1909, there were 96,000 rooms for rent in the city with no windows.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had commented on the possible ill-effects of living in such crowded conditions:

“America will make rapid progress in the future but I am fearful of the effects of these high buildings and such densely populated cities; these are not for the public health.”

Tenements were three to seven story buildings whose insides had been subdivided multiple times. What made them tenements was their location in undesirable neighborhoods near where the immigrants worked in factories, docks, slaughterhouses, and power stations, and by the number of years the immigrants had lived in the United States. In other parts of the city, these dwellings were called apartments. The use of the word tenement reflected the economic realities of those who lived in them. It derived from the Latin “ternere”—to hold—to pack in as many people as possible for economic reasons. The word ‘apartment’ derived from the Latin word ‘partare’—to divide—so that individual families could have privacy and greater comfort.

The tenants of the tenements worked ceaselessly to build new lives and keep their homes as clean as they could under such crowded conditions. Laundry flapped in the wind across the streets and courtyards. The delicious smell of foods from all over Europe mingled in the halls. In the kitchens people bathed in the sink or portable tubs with water heated on the stove. In larger buildings, a widow had the job of cleaning the halls and sweeping the sidewalk out front in return for living there rent free. Everyone did their best to battle the mice, rats and roaches that scurried about by the hundreds of thousands in the dark recesses of the building—it hadn’t been that long ago that pigs roamed the streets. In the evenings, the streets were lively with the tenants preferring to be outside rather than inside their hot rooms.

Another constant bustle in these neighborhoods was that of families moving as much as one to six times a year as they sought to go from ‘tenements’ to ‘apartments’ and, if they were fortunate, to New Jersey or Long Island; some less fortunate were going in the other direction—from tenements to less desirable tenements, to rooms, to the street.

The Bowery was a neighborhood which held the promise of immigrant life as well as the reality of its poverty. For two generations, the Bowery had experienced a great rise in crime and homelessness. So, when the Rev. Albert Gleason Ruliffson was looking in 1879 for a mission field where he could carry out the social mission of rescuing the poor in imitation of Christ, he chose the Bowery rather than go to faraway countries.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had spent his whole life in near eastern societies that had no health inspectors, no codes that could be enforced, no governments who responded to the needs of those they governed, no system for improving the common good, no soup kitchens, no homeless shelters, no independent judiciaries. These societies had long allowed the initial civilizing and humanizing influence of Islam to become degraded. If you were poor, sick, homeless, alone, and you lived in ‘Akká, Palestine, you were on your own, unless ‘Abdu’l-Bahá knew you, in which case, you would be visited and provided succor by his own hand.”

 

5

In these talks of May/June 1912 and others, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá laid out an entirely new vision of religion, one which freed the Divine Teachings from the man-made forms in which they had become trapped. He acknowledged the religious forms of the past while challenging the listener with the claim that these outward forms were transitory and that a new Divine Revelation had appeared—that God was alive and that His Spirit was moving in the world. This can be seen in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explanation of the Divine Reality of Jesus which allowed the Christian to hold on to the Divinity of Jesus while being able to consider that the Christ-Spirit had returned in the human figure of Bahá’u’lláh. And while ‘Abdu’l-Bahá challenged Christians and others, he never belittled the value of the work of their churches and organizations.

As a teacher, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke in a straightforward manner using simple metaphors and analogies to explain deeper truths. He used different approaches depending on the audience to which he spoke and used these approaches as bridges over which the listeners could cross into a deeper understanding of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation. When he spoke at the Brotherhood Church in Jersey City, NJ, a non-denominational church organized by Howard Colby Ives who was a Unitarian minister, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá focused on the meaning of true brotherhood and then used that to show how Bahá’u’lláh had caused true brotherhood between His followers and the importance of spiritual over material bonds. To the Theosophical Society, which believed that humans were parts of a spiritual whole and could improve through conscious awareness, he spoke of the ability of people to advance spiritually through “knowledge, volition, and action” when aided by the Divine Power. At the Church of the Ascension on June 2nd, he began by speaking about the church building as a center for unity, and then he compared this kind of center of unity to the person of the Manifestation of God who was the collective center for the unification of the whole human race.

In these weeks after the Lake Mohonk Conference, the Master also made important predictions and statements about the future. During a rare question and answer session at the Church of the Ascension on June 2nd, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá suggested that “the United States may be held up as the example of future government—that is to say, each province will be independent in itself, but there will be federal union protecting the interests of the various independent states”, and that “to cast aside centralization which promotes despotism is the exigency of the time”; despotism had been the history of the Kingdoms of the Near East including Persia—in the early 1900’s the verb ‘to elect’ did not even exist in the Persian language. He also asserted emphatically that woman’s suffrage was key to the establishment of international peace. The movement for woman’s suffrage paralleled the lifespan of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: the women’s movement began officially at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and the constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote was passed in 1920, not long before the ascension of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. At this same question and answer session, someone asked the extraordinary question, “What will be the food of the united people?” The Master answered that in time people would eat less meat and more grain as this is what human bodies had been designed to do. On the evening of June 11th at 309 West 78th St., while stressing the primary importance of the spiritual life, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also emphasized the moral necessity and value of work:

“In this great Cause the light of guidance is shining and radiant. Bahá’u’lláh has even said that occupation and labor are devotion. All humanity must obtain a livelihood by sweat of the brow and bodily exertion, at the same time seeking to lift the burden of others, striving to be the source of comfort to souls and facilitating the means of living. This in itself is devotion to God. Bahá’u’lláh has thereby encouraged action and stimulated service. But the energies of the heart must not be attached to these things; the soul must not be completely occupied with them. Though the mind is busy, the heart must be attracted toward the Kingdom of God in order that the virtues of humanity may be attained from every direction and source.” (Talk at 309 West Seventy-Eighth Street, New York, June 11th)

Issues concerning labor—safety, pay, hours, working conditions, child labor—were very important social issues in the early 1900’s, especially in a place like New York City with its millions of workers, many of them unskilled.”

 

6

Many of the early American Bahá’ís were steeped in Christianity; the first teaching of the Faith in the 1890’s had been about the Faith as fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. It was not unusual for Bahá’ís to continue to be involved in their churches. Hymns were a regular part of any worship. By the 1900’s American Bahá’ís generally approached the Faith in two different ways. One group understood sacred scripture to be the absolute and only standard for knowing and understanding truth. The other group—especially prominent in the case of New York City—were people who tended to have highly developed personal ideas regarding society, spiritual truth, and politics, and who emphasized their own personal experience as a guide to belief rather than scripture or church. The New York Bahá’ís were made up of successful businessmen, artists, and writers, who tended to have confidence in their own views. These Bahá’ís held numerous beliefs that were ‘alternatives’ to church teaching, Biblical teaching, and the Bahá’í Writings, with which many were not yet familiar since few Writings were actually available to them.

Among these beliefs was reincarnation, which had been taught by Ibrahim Kheiralla and which interested other believers who had studied Hinduism on their own. Thornton Chase, the first American Bahá’í, had believed in reincarnation prior to being corrected by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá; Chase was very obedient to the Master and was able to let this belief go. Chase’s letters, though, show that many other Bahá’ís continued to believe in reincarnation. Howard MacNutt had been very interested in Hindusim and, even after becoming a Bahá’í, he tended to combine his understandings of Hinduism with the Bahá’í teachings. For example, he taught that Bahá’u’lláh would bring unity in the world by blending religions together and, in his book, Unity Through Love, he put forth pantheistic beliefs that God is in nature and imminent in humanity, meaning the Divine Will would appear in the human soul. As a result of this inaccurate description of the Bahá’í Teachings, few of his talks were recorded or printed. Over time, there were fewer requests for him to speak publicly about the Faith. Of course, MacNutt was expressing his own understanding and meant no malice, nor did he intend to distort the teachings of the Faith which he believed in deeply.

In another example of alternative beliefs among Bahá’ís, Charles Mason Remey remembered an active Bahá’í in New York City who told people that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was sending her tablets by telepathy; this continued until ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in New York City and told her to stop. Percy Woodcock, one of the most active New York Bahá’ís, was fascinated by astrology, asceticism, and Egyptian pyramids; he believed that the building of a House of Worship would attract the ancient power of the pyramids. This presented a challenge to the Board especially as Percy was a well-liked teacher of the Faith. Isabella Brittingham had to give a talk multiple times around 1905 entitled “The Phenomenal World” to counter prevalent beliefs in psychics among Bahá’ís. She taught that psychic powers existed but were different from the spiritual perceptions which lead one nearer to God, and that spiritual growth came from knowledge of Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God, obedience to the Divine Laws, and service to others, exactly as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had taught.

Believers like Isabella Brittingham helped the Bahá’ís gain a truer understanding of the Faith. She descended from an old American family that included a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Deeply rooted in Biblical prophecy, she became a Bahá’í in 1898, after coming to believe that the Bible had predicted the coming of Bahá’u’lláh in symbolic terms. She made a first pilgrimage to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in ‘Akká in September, 1904, after the Master had been incarcerated again in the ‘Akká prison, and a second in 1909. She became an ardent teacher of the Faith and traveled with the support of her husband James, also a devout Bahá’í. Beginning in March of 1910, she served on the Unity Band whose members were to correspond with Women’s Assemblies of the Orient. Dr. Susan Moody, a believer whom Isabella had deepened, and her niece, Elizabeth Stewart, moved to Iran where they founded a medical practice for the poor. Isabella wrote an essay, “The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh”, that contained accurate descriptions of the Bahá’í Teachings, including the Station of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. She described the station of the Master as being the Center of the Covenant, “He who knows no station save that of servitude, humility, and lowliness to the Beloved of El-Baha”.

 

7

Newspapers and visitors often described ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with words such as “dignified”, “Christ-like”, “Divine”; those who were able to spend more time with him personally also experienced his emotional expressiveness and affection, his naturalness and spontaneity and his practical approach to living.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá readily expressed his emotions from the welcoming smile with which he greeted people to laughter and, even, tears. For example, one Friday afternoon in July, Dr. Percy Grant came to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Grant was in a combative mood possibly due to his jealousy over the devotion Juliet had to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Master greeted him with a warm welcome. As they spoke, Grant kept questioning and debating ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at one point making a very emphatic point with, according to Juliet Thompson, the air of a victor. Rather than be offended or reactive, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá burst out laughing and offered another point of view. Gradually, Grant’s combativeness lessened when confronted by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s humble good humor. One afternoon in Montclair, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá retold the story of the martyrdom of ‘Abdu’l-Vahháb-i-Shírází. As he remembered the suffering of this young martyr, the Master’s entire countenance became ecstatic, and he began singing the “Martyr’s song”. He felt sorrow keenly as well, especially when he thought of his Father. When the hotel manager asked him in early July if he would like a tour of the rest of the large hotel, he declined telling the believers:

“When I see magnificent buildings and beautiful scenery, I contrast them with memories of the prison and of the persecutions suffered by the Blessed Beauty and my heart is deeply moved and I seek to avoid such sightseeing excursions.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was so genuinely affectionate that he was able to pierce through the barriers of social convention and touch people’s hearts. When Howard Colby Ives began to shed tears during their first encounter, the master wiped these tears away with his own fingers. After Kate Carew, the hardened reporter, had finished her interview with him, he led her down the hall through the lobby while holding her hand—much to her astonishment. When Juliet Thompson’s maid, Mamie, wanted her little boy, George, to be blessed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Master picked up the little boy and without ceremony placed him on his knee and caressed and played with him; this boy went on to practice medicine.

The Master responded to people with open-hearted friendliness—the race, appearance, disposition, class or gender of a person made no difference whatever. He met two African American youth in early July and encouraged them in their spiritual lives, giving them Persian names—‘Mubárak’, for the man, ‘Khush Ghadam’, for the woman. Though the United States during these years was steeped in racial segregation, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá disregarded these social conventions completely and actively set an example of inter-racial fellowship during his visit to Washington DC. Another day in early July, he went out for a stroll and a Greek man came up to him and brought over his friends as well. The Master spoke to them about Greek philosophers and encouraged their own moral improvement. On an especially hot July day, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had consented to visit the Natural History Museum. After the visit, he sat under a birch tree in an area where people were not supposed to sit. The elderly Jewish watchman who had let the Master’s party in earlier approached and said he would like to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá because he seemed like a great man. As the watchman approached him, the Master turned around, smiled and invited the elderly man to sit next to him. He replied that he couldn’t because of the rules but that the Master could. So as to be able to speak with the elderly watchman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood up and turned to him. In another incident, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was walking on the sidewalk towards the home of the Harrises on 95th St.. Many children were playing, jumping rope and hula hooping outside. When they saw ‘Abdu’l-Bahá pass by, they all followed him with his powerful stride and long white robe and beard. Once the Master had gone into the building, the children all waited around the stoop, and Juliet Thompson spoke to them. Her friend Rhoda Nichols went inside to let ‘Abdu’l-Bahá know what was happening out front. She returned with an invitation for the children to come the following night to the Kinneys for dinner.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá moved according to the spirit, and this made him very spontaneous. Edward Getsinger had to plan many of the Master’s appointments, an exhausting job. Edward wrote to Agnes Parsons, a Bahá’í in Washington DC:

“Now one more important thing: - We have tried to have ‘Abdu’l-Bahá say that he would for certain be your guest, but without avail. He said “I cannot be bound in any place or arrangement before the day arrives. The spirit arranges to set the contingencies.” I said “then if you might want an apt. by yourself, it is best I write to have one found. He said “very well, but do not engage it, if I like it when I see it, I will choose it, if not, then I don’t want it”.

 

8

On November 12th, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá granted a private meeting to one of the most influential of all Americans: Andrew Carnegie. Born in Scotland, Carnegie grew up poor because his father, a weaver, was made redundant by new steam-powered looms which put many weavers out of work. The knowledge that his father had to beg for work deeply affected him, and his mother decided to move the family to Pittsburg, PA, to try making a better life. Carnegie worked his way up the Pennsylvania Railroad and then moved into the iron and steel business where he showed his genius for seeing where things were going in the world. By 1900, his company was producing more steel than Great Britain. While he had the drive and talent for making money, Andrew was also deeply interested in the rights of workers, though the Homestead Strike in 1892 in which his workers were killed, damaged his image, and in international peace—he was one of the first prominent citizens to call for the League of Nations. He endowed the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, which today houses the World Court. He sold his steel company for $480 million to J.P. Morgan, another titan of American industry, who, by his sixties, may well have been the richest man in the world. He was determined to contribute his money to the betterment of society and went on to give away $350 million by building thousands of libraries—an employer’s small library which he had used to educate himself had been available to him as a teenager—and endowing institutions of higher learning (Carnegie Mellon University), cultural institutions (Carnegie Hall, NYC), think tanks (Carnegie Endowment for Peace), research institutions (Carnegie Institute of Washington for scientific research), trusts to directly assist people (Carnegie Dunfermline Trust to assist the residents of Dunfermline Scotland where Carnegie was born), among many others.

Carnegie’s interest in the rights of workers, international peace and the betterment of society, may well have led him to seek an interview with the Master. After this private interview, the two corresponded and one of these letters was the basis of an article published in the New York Times in 1915, though it was written just a year and a half before World War One exploded:

“To the noble personage, his Excellency Mr. Andrew Carnegie:

May God assist him!

… All the leaders and statesmen of Europe are thinking on the plane of war and the annihilation of the mansion of humanity, but thou (Carnegie) art thinking on the plane of peace and love and the strengthening and reinforcement of the basis of the superstructure of the human world. They are the heralds of death, thou art the harbinger of life. The foundations of their palaces are unstable and wavering and the turrets of their mansions are tottering and crumbling, but the basis of thy structure is firm and unmovable …

…Today the most important object of the kingdom of God is the promulgation of the cause of universal peace and the principle of the oneness of the world of humanity. Whosoever arises in the accomplishment of this preeminent service the confirmations of the holy spirit will descend upon him …

… Therefore, before long a vast and unlimited field will be opened before your view for the display of your powers and energies. You must promote this glorious intention with the heavenly power and the confirmation of the holy spirit. I am praying in thy behalf that thou mayest erect a pavilion and unfurl a flag in the world of peace, love, and eternal life …”

 

9

He sat back down in the corner of the large cabin room. Bahá’ís came up and crowded around him. Off to the side, Juliet Thompson wept quietly.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had gone across the American continent and back, spoken with people from the highest positions to the humblest positions in American society, exemplified in every aspect of his behavior the unity of the human race and, most of all, explained the Teachings of His Father.

The words he had spoken during these months would be memorialized in writing, and they would be a source of inspiration to people long after he had passed away.

The waves slapped the hull of the Celtic. The wind blew hats off some of the onlookers. The Master’s light colored cloak and fez and long white beard contrasted with the grey background of the boat as he stood on the ship’s deck. He looked out over the crowd below and raised his hand like a benediction.”

 

About the Authors

Dr. Hussein Ahdieh was born and raised in Nayríz, Iran, a sixth generation Bábí/Bahá’í. In his teens he moved to USA where later he earned a Masters degree in European Intellectual History and a Doctorate in Education. He was one of the founders of the world renowned Harlem Preparatory School in New York City, and the Director of Higher Educational Programs at Fordham University. For many years, he served in different Baha’í institutions. He is author of another book, Awakening: A History of the Bábí and Bahá’í Faiths in Nayriz, as well as numerous websites and articles.

Mr. Hillary Chapman is a fourth generation American Bahá’í. He earned a Bachelors Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Education. He was a teacher at the highly ranked Chapin School in New York City. He served as the secretary of the Assembly of the Bahá’í’s of the City of New York, and of Nashville, TN. He has had many songs and poems published.

Copyright © 2017 by Hussein Ahdieh. All rights reserved.