239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

May 23, 1912
Boston, MA
Storify Feature

“Free” Religion?

‘ABDU’L-BAHÁ LOOKED OUT upon an audience of 1,000 Unitarian ministers and 2,000 guests on the evening of May 22, 1912, in the largest church in the New England region. Religion, he told them, was fundamentally dead. “The essential realities, which the Prophets labored so hard to establish in human hearts and minds, while undergoing ordeals and suffering tortures of persecution, have now well nigh vanished.”

It was the eighty-seventh anniversary celebration of the American Unitarian Association, a week-long event held at Tremont Temple in Boston.

The Unitarians had heard it before. Seventy-five years earlier one of their own, Ralph Waldo Emerson, delivered an address at Harvard Divinity School and told the graduates that their true calling was to breathe new life into the cold and rotting religious forms of their age.

Yet Emerson’s talk on that day also removed the traditional church from the equation. The only way to restore things, he said, was to empower individual souls to “go it alone.” It was a truly American take on religion that placed personal freedom above everything else. But it was only 1838, and most Unitarians called for Emerson’s head.

By 1860 the Unitarians were disillusioned: they had become just another conservative Christian denomination.

Then a rebellion broke out at the conference of the American Unitarian Association in 1866. Reverend William James Potter cried out for a “spiritual anti-slavery society.” He wanted a movement that would capture what he thought had been the essence of the Protestant tradition – a radical resistance to authority. It would take the freedom that Emerson had called for to its logical conclusion: a complete openness to any and all beliefs.

The next year, on May 30, 1867, the “Free Religious Association” was born, during the annual Unitarian Anniversary Week. They designed it to be inclusive. Among those in attendance were Lucretia Mott, a Quaker abolitionist and women’s rights activist, who had started the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Rabbi Isaac Wise, a Reform Jew; and, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson.


But their openness soon proved to be their greatest problem. It was one thing to challenge religious orthodoxy, but quite another to build a model of “free religion” from the ground up. In other words, it was simple to list all the things it shouldn’t be, but not so easy to decide exactly what it was. Potter insisted that the organization could not and should not take any positions — theological, social, or political.

By this point he was even refusing to be called a Christian in spite of leading a Unitarian congregation. He objected to any supernatural claims for religion, and understood God as simply an impersonal force hidden in the universe. He grew highly suspicious of Christians, or adherents of any other organized religion.

Potter managed to hold the organization together in spite of the radical individualism of most of its members, until he died in 1893. The Free Religious Association eventually fizzled out. It became a ragtag collection of eclectic individuals, many of them agnostics, some even atheists.

Then, on May 24, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood in front of what was left of them.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá didn’t speak in general terms about reform, renewal, and progress, as he had to the Unitarians two days earlier. To the Forty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the Free Religious Association he was very specific. He spoke in favor of the one thing the Reverend William James Potter had rejected: the authority of the prophets of God.

“The prophets of God,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá argued, “have all promulgated the same foundation; they have given fundamentally the same teachings, and the teachings of the prophets of God are pure spirit, are pure religion, are pure love, are pure unity.” He mentioned, among them, Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster, Buddha, Muhammad, and Bahá’u’lláh. It was one thing to challenge the religious authority held by church officials, but something quite beyond the pale to dethrone the prophets of God.

“Is it meet for us,” he asked the embattled Free Religionists, “to leave aside the wisdom of God and to create certain imaginary distinctions and to hold tenaciously thereto and to cause enmity among humanity? God forbid.”


  • Roberta Bulling

    Thank you to all persons associated with  the work ofpresenting us with the background information on the persons addressed by ‘Abdul-Bahá on his journey here in the west.

  • Roberta Bulling

    Many thanks to all the persons who have worked to present the background information
    and beliefs of persons addressed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during his journey in the west.

  • Alice mahomes

    I thank the person or person’s who labor and a servant to publish, this 239days, I am learning so much. Thanks again. 

    • Rob Sockett

      Alice — the “About” page on the site has a full list of the people contributing to “239 Days in America”. Thanks for your encouraging words!

  • Robertahodgin

    The importance of the prophets of God.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lina.smithson Lina Smithson

    Important to learn about the background into which Abdu’l Bahá was introduced

  • Hawgwildlm

    God forbid!!! How right, how amazing a person. What a teacher, the Master.  

  • Claudette

    I am thoroughly enjoying each day’s account of our Blessed Master’s trip across the United States. The stories and photographs bring it all alive for the readers and the most special part of all is that this took place when my grandparents were young adults! To have the bounty of such a spiritually enriching experience in “our own backyard” is huge, beyond our comprehension. Blessings to the creators of this information being compiled and shared with the world and Blessings to the world of humanity!

  • Michael

    I never thought “The essential realities…have well nigh vanished” meant that he saw religion in it’s form at the time as dead. But after thinking about it in context that makes sense… The Master spoke so eloquently it seems the audience didn’t really know they were being chastised!! I think the love in his heart was really strong so people took what he had to say not as a bitter pill, but rather as candy! Oh, I would love the Master to be alive today so I could see how he would handle America today.

  • http://www.facebook.com/estherbill Esther Bradley-deTally

    The writing on these posts is superb.  Who are the writers? Various I assume?  One? Maybe?

    • Rob Sockett

      Thank you for your kind words Esther. The author’s name for each article is listed directly beneath the title at the top of the page.

    • Karridine

       Robert Sockett, John Menon and Caitlin Shayda Jones are the writers, so far. If you look directly UNDER the headline of each report, you can find the name of the article’s writer. And yes, they worked on these for some time PRIOR to this blog beginning… they took no chances on being caught without a report/article for some given day… all 239 reports researched and fact-checked some time ago, I daresay… and WELL DONE, too…

  • Rebecca Wilson

    I would like to add my thanks for all the wonderful research and composition being done to bring us this information every day. What an ingenious way to celebrate the Master’s visit to America! Thank you so much!

  • Sguillaume

    Unity Church of Calgary is part of the Unity movement of Charles Fillmore in the US. One of those people trying put into words and a church that is all inclusive. What Charles did was form the organization but not a new religion. As he felt their is enough learning in all religious text or any other books to find what we need to live the life we choose. And for the stuff that doesn’t work to better your life discard….but always be willing to discard what is no longer working for you and bring in the new stuff….Always shifting always evolving…..that’s what makes life fun!!! But very hard to right dogma (rules in which religions are governed by. 

  • Sbentler

    Once again, an invaluable reminder of the fomencroc a rapidly changing society. I have always felt grateful to read of the welcoming reception ‘Abdul Baha received in North America. This daily blog enriches that sense gratitude.

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