239 Days in America

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

July 13, 1912
New York, ny
Storify Feature

“Every Child Is Potentially the Light of the World”

DURING HIS STAY in America 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed governance, peace, gender equality, and the role of religion. Yet one underreported subject that he spoke about often was children, and this in a country still struggling with child labor.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was an advocate for the youngest members of society. When speaking to the International Peace Forum in New York on May 12, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá shed light on an often neglected consequence of war. “Consider what is happening in Tripoli,” he said, “children, made fatherless; fathers, lamenting the death of their sons; mothers, bewailing the loss of dear ones.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had four daughters of his own, and attended many children’s gatherings in America. Whether listening to them sing, commenting on their work in classrooms, or writing age-appropriate prayers for them, he treated them with respect.

On April 19, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was heading to the Bowery Mission in New York when a group of boys saw him and his Persian entourage and began to throw sticks at them. One of his hosts, Mrs. Kinney, explained to the boys that he was a “holy man” going to see the poor. The boys decided that they wanted to join him, but instead, Mrs. Kinney gave them her home address and told them to visit.

When they arrived, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood at the door and greeted each boy personally. The Reverend Howard Colby Ives explains: “Among the last to enter the room was a colored lad of about thirteen years. He was quite dark and, being the only boy of his race among them, he evidently feared that he might not be welcome.”

When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá saw him, Ives wrote, “His face lighted up with a heavenly smile. He raised His hand with a gesture of princely welcome and exclaimed in a loud voice so that none could fail to hear; that here was a black rose.” Ives continued: “The other boys looked at him with new eyes. I venture to say that he had been called a black – many things, but never before a black rose.”

“Every child is potentially the light of the world,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would argue, “and at the same time its darkness.”

“Training in morals and good conduct is far more important than book learning,” he said. “The child who conducts himself well, even though he be ignorant, is of benefit to others, while an ill-natured, ill-behaved child is corrupted and harmful to others, even though he be learned.” Of course, he commented, instilling both moral education and book learning in children would be preferable.

“Give them the advantage of every useful kind of knowledge,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote on the subject of child rearing. “Let them share in every new and rare and wondrous craft and art.” Yet he wasn’t suggesting a life of indulgence. “Bring them up to work and strive,” he added, “accustom them to hardship. Teach them to dedicate their lives to matters of great import, and inspire them to undertake studies that will benefit mankind.”


  • William Maxwell

    One hundred years later not one institution on the planet has implemented these suggestions. I say this having traveled to over sixty nations including throughout America.  How dull and unresponsive are we as a species?

    William Maxwell

    • http://www.facebook.com/caitlin.s.jones Caitlin Shayda Jones

      Hi William,
      We definitely have a long way to go, but I think moral and character education is something that many educational and governmental, as well as religious institutions are trying to figure out. I think people are aware that a moral education is necessary, and it’s becoming clear that many issues the world is faced with today have an ethical dimension, but what is unclear is how to provide a moral education and who has the authority on moral issues. I have been reading some articles in the New York Times that deal with parenting and ask questions like “How hard should we push our kids to succeed?” and “Are our children spoiled?” This inspired me to see what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had to say on the matter. I like how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says that we should “inspire” children, not force them, and “accustom them to hardship.” I think this adds to the conversation.

    • Neil D. Chase

      While in the Philippines from 1969-1972, I was amazed and delighted to see that the public schools, in every grade, included classes in Good Manners and Right Conduct. The children there appeared very happy and had far fewer of the problems seen here in America.

  • Abreneman

    What could be more important in this world and in our country which is proud of its democratic freedom than children? But are we really providing every child the gift of a moral education?