A century ago, the historic journeys of 'Abdu'l-Baha transformed a fledgling faith

In Brief: 
  • A century ago, the leader of the Baha’i Faith embarked on an historic series of journeys outside the Holy Land, noteworthy for their impact and lasting legacy
  • Baha’i communities around the world will over the next few years commemorate ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visits to Egypt, Europe, and North America
  • The journeys launched a fledgling faith into a world religion

HAIFA, Israel — One hundred years ago, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh and His appointed successor as head of the Bahá’í Faith, embarked on a series of journeys which, over the course of three years, took Him from the Holy Land to the Nile delta, from the Pacific coast of North America to the banks of the River Danube.

Despite the advanced age of 66, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá set out in August 1910 to present Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings about the dawning of a new age of peace and unity, to high and low alike. These historic journeys launched a fledgling faith on its way to becoming a world religion.

This historic journey will be commemorated in the coming years by Bahá’í communities around the world, and especially in those countries outside the Middle East where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited.

Following the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, all prisoners of conscience of the Ottoman Empire — including ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and His family — were set free. Two years later He left the confines of the Holy Land, heading first to Egypt where he stayed for one year.

Then, in August 1911, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá set sail for Europe, spending a month in London and two months in Paris. After returning to Egypt for the winter, He set off again in March 1912 for an eight-month tour of North America, followed by second visits to London and Paris, as well as to Austria, Germany, Hungary and Scotland.

Breakthrough to new cultures

“From the time of Bahá’u’lláh’s passing [in 1892], the Bahá’í Faith’s spread to North America and Europe had been a very significant development,” said Moojan Momen, a historian based in the United Kingdom, “but these communities were rather few in number.”

“So ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visits not only saw Him generally proclaiming the Bahá’í teachings further afield, but also consolidating the religion’s breakthrough into new cultures.”

At ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s first ever public talk — given at the City Temple church in London on 10 September 1911 — ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told the congregation, “The gift of God to this enlightened age is the knowledge of the oneness of mankind and of the fundamental oneness of religion.”

Paris-based writer Jan Jasion, who is researching ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s travels in Europe, said: “Over and over again, He stressed the need for understanding between people, for bringing religions together, for world peace. He wanted to bring people closer to God and for them to understand the reality of religion and rid themselves of superstitions.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was also able to participate comfortably in discourses about themes that lay outside of the Middle Eastern experience. “For example, the great dangers of racism;” said Firuz Kazemzadeh, emeritus professor of history at Yale University, “the relationship between capital and labour, and the conflict between worker and employer; the impending Great War; and federalism as a solution to the problems among the States.”

For three years, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tirelessly addressed thousands of people — including clergymen, journalists, academics, diplomats, philosophers, suffragettes, and social reformers. He also met with and attended to the needs of the poor.

Among those deeply impressed by Him was Dr. David Starr Jordan, the American scientist and university administrator, who famously said, “’Abdu’l-Bahá will surely unite the East and the West, for He walks the mystical path with practical feet.”

Dr. T. K. Cheyne of Oxford, the celebrated theologian, spoke of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as the “Ambassador to Humanity.”

“What is striking is that, while ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a great deal of praise for progressive thinkers, He was also very clear-eyed and uncompromising in His assessment of the ways in which they fell short of their own ideals,” said Kenneth E. Bowers, the current Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States. “He challenged people to rise above their own understanding of reality, to a higher level of realization a spiritual level as well as the social.

“He carried Himself remarkably well in cultures that were entirely alien to Him. I think one of the things we should remember about Him — and which we sometimes forget as a characteristic of a ‘spiritual’ figure — is that He was someone who was extremely witty and charming,” said Mr. Bowers.

A major religious event”

By the time ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s travels came to an end, the nascent Bahá’í community had received a wider vision of its faith, and citizens of nine countries, on three continents, had been informed of the Bahá’í teachings for the first time.

“At the beginning of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s ministry, the Bahá’í Faith was a fairly obscure religious movement. There was very little accurate information about it anywhere,” said Dr. Momen. “By the end of His life, not just in Europe and North America but all over the world — in Asia, the Pacific, Australia, South Africa, South America — large numbers of people knew about the Faith and had a positive impression of it.”

“His travels were certainly a major religious event of the 20th century,” said Dr. Momen. “They had much the same sort of effect as St. Paul’s journeys which had a sizable impact on the spread of Christianity.”

Mr. Bowers believes it is impossible to conceive of today’s American Bahá’í community, for example, without taking ‘Abdul-Bahá’s visit into account. “Through His life and words, He was the personification of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings. He inspired the first handful of Bahá’ís not only to spread their Faith but, just as importantly, withstand all sorts of tests. In a very tactful, loving and wise way, He set the example to be followed.”

As a result of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s journeys, the Bahá’í community began to propagate His ideas further and these became reinforced in the general population. “This is where the real impact of His visits lies,” said Dr. Kazemzadeh, “in the capacity of the community He raised to continue what He taught them after all these years.”