239 Days in America

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

July 5, 1912
New York, NY
Storify Feature

The Lesson of the Titanic

“IT TAKES A TERRIBLE WARNING to bring us back to our moorings and our senses,” the Senator declared, referring to the Titanic disaster.

It was May 28, 1912, and the Senate hearings into the Titanic were in full swing. Senator Isidor Rayner of Maryland took the floor and summarized the lessons the shipwreck offered the nation. After commenting on maritime law, legal jurisdiction, and safer navigation, he allowed himself a personal flourish.

“There is another lesson,” he noted, “of far greater and more overwhelming significance than the lesson of corporate responsibility, and that is the lesson of religious faith.” For the Senator the Titanic served as a reminder to the wayward nation, which he felt was “abandoning the devout and simple lives of our ancestors.”

Rayner’s speech was printed along with the Senate report, buried amidst 1,100 pages of text. It would never have seen the light of day, except that on July 7, 1912, in a ‘Letter to the Editor’ of the New York Times, a reader brought it to the attention of the paper’s 100,000 subscribers.

Three months had passed since the Titanic had disappeared beneath the sea. “The mind stands aghast and appalled as these calamities come thick and fast,” Senator Raynor told his colleagues. But it was more than just a ship and its passengers that had stunned the public in both Great Britain and America – it was the very idea of the wreck.

Fifteen thousand people had labored for more than three years to bring the Titanic into being. It was the largest construction project since the creation of the pyramids. In the opening decade of a new century, it symbolized the ingenuity and technological know-how that would propel humankind into a new age.

Then she sank on her maiden voyage.

The day after the disaster the stock markets plunged. In New York, thousands of people wandered the streets in tears. “We forget in our moments of sorrow that it never was intended that the intellect of man should reason out such a problem,” Senator Rayner said.

Rayner was sixty-two years old when he addressed the hearings. He was nearing the end of a long career of public service, and was a devout Jew. “We are to a large extent today defying the ordinances of God,” he stated. “[T]he sooner we awaken to a . . . sense of our responsibility the better it will be for the spiritual elevation of the country.” The nation, he felt, was “running mad with the lust of wealth and of power and of ambition.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who had been offered tickets on the Titanic, had spoken about the tragedy in Washington just as the Senate hearings began. “Although such an event is indeed regrettable,” he said, “we must realize that everything which happens is due to some wisdom.” He was consoled, he noted, “by the realization that the worlds of God are infinite . . .”

Like Senator Rayner, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá perceived a deeper meaning in the Titanic disaster. “We are living in a day of reliance upon material conditions,” he stated. “Men imagine that the great size and strength of a ship, the perfection of machinery or the skill of a navigator will ensure safety, but these disasters sometimes take place that men may know that God is the real Protector.”

Yet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was also pragmatic. “Let no one imagine that these words imply that man should not be thorough and careful in his undertakings,” he said. “[H]e must provide and surround himself with all that scientific skill can produce. He must be deliberate, thoughtful and thorough in his purposes, build the best ship and provide the most experienced captain; yet, withal, let him rely upon God and consider God as the one Keeper.”

Senator Rayner, for his part, concluded with a warning: “If this disaster teaches no lesson or points no moral, then let us pass it by with stoical indifference until the next disaster comes, and in the meantime let the carnival go on.”


  • Anne Breneman

    I like the balance of this story of the Titanic and the Master’s perspective. 1st, Abdu’l Baha could have been one of the passengers were it not for the circumstances which influenced him to decline the gift of some of the friends in the US to ride this incredibly high-tech-for -the day
    ship and take another instead. While commenting that we must always rely upon God, regardless of our tendency to rely upon the latest technology, the Master pointed out that we should still search for the most scientifically stable means to the end (travel to the US in this case)~ Anne Breneman, West Pt VA

  • Nickie

    I’m impressed with Isidor Raynor’s perceptions about materialism, greed, and lust and how in the U.S. we are ” … running mad with the lust of wealth and power and ambition.”  He really hit the nail on the head.  And then he concluded with the prophetic words, “… in the meantime, let the carnival go on.”  My goodness … what insight!

  • David Bulman

    this is so interesting. i wonder what the full range of circumstances where which influenced ‘Abdu’l-Baha not to take the Titanic. I cannot help wondering also… if He had taken the Titanic, things might have worked out differently, and would the ship have ended up sinking on its maiden voyage. Of course, we cannot know…

  • MrRiccles9

    “It was the largest construction project since the creation of the
    pyramids. In the opening decade of a new century, it symbolized the
    ingenuity and technological know-how that would propel humankind into a
    new age.” (Your quote)
    Now we read that tests on the plates and rivets show that slag was used; they shattered like glass. No, the designers and planners bear a huge responsibility.
    Insufficient lifeboats played a major role in the majority of deaths. As in the case of Aberfan in Wales there were many opportunities to prevent those deaths.