239 Days in America

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

July 20, 1912
New York, NY
Storify Feature

The Secret of Divine Civilization

“IT IS A SPECTACLE never before witnessed,” William Jennings Bryan wrote from the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. He was surprised at how aggressively moneyed interests had entered the political process in 1912. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had first gone on record about leadership and corruption thirty-seven years earlier, when he was just thirty-one years old. In 1875 he wrote a long, open letter — called The Secret of Divine Civilization — to the people and government of Persia in support of the early modernization efforts of Násiri’d-Dín Sháh, the king who had banished Bahá’u’lláh and his family from Iran.


In The Secret of Divine Civilization, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá demanded a high standard of conduct from political leaders: “First,” he wrote, “the elected members must be righteous, God-fearing, high-minded, incorruptible.” “These give no thought to amassing enormous fortunes for themselves; they believe, rather, that their own wealth lies in enriching their subjects.” He added: “They take no pride in gold and silver, but rather in their enlightenment and their determination to achieve the universal good.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s open letter to the people of Persia engaged a wide range of national issues. In America, Social Gospel churchmen marched in the forefront of reform, but in Iran the clergy, and their arbitrary interpretation of the law, was a major barrier to progress. Two plaintiffs could go to two different religious officials about the same case and receive opposite decisions. “It may even happen that in one and the same case two conflicting decisions will be handed down by the same mujtahid, on the grounds that he was inspired first in one direction and then in the other,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote. “There can be no doubt that this state of affairs has confused every important issue and must jeopardize the very foundations of society.”

Much of the debate during the American election of 1912 was about the structure of political leadership — Should Senators be elected directly? What powers should the President have? — but ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was generally more concerned with the qualities of political leadership. “It is unquestionable that the object in establishing parliaments is to bring about justice and righteousness,” he wrote, “but everything hinges on the efforts of the elected representatives.”

In The Secret of Divine Civilization, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed the subject at length: “If these individuals prove to be pure and high-minded, if they remain free from the taint of corruption, the confirmations of God will make them a never-failing source of bounty to mankind . . . . If, however, the members of these consultative assemblies are inferior, ignorant, uninformed of the laws of government and administration, unwise, of low aim, indifferent, idle, self-seeking, no benefit will accrue from the organizing of such bodies.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá grasped the tendency of human beings to mishandle power. “[A]ny agency whatever, though it be the instrument of mankind’s greatest good, is capable of misuse,” he wrote. “Its proper use or abuse depends on the varying degrees of enlightenment, capacity, faith, honesty, devotion and highmindedness of the leaders of public opinion.”


  • Linda Leeb

    It’s clear how little things have changed in both the US and Iran.

    • Karridine

       In many ways, Linda, and yet where Iran could inflame the citizens to engage in pogroms killing more than 20,000 back then, today the Iranian government’s efforts to humiliate, hurt and harass the Baha’i community have BACKFIRED, bigtime, as the number of Baha’is in Iran was 400,000 in 2010, the oppression has now created at least another 300,000 Baha’is, native to Iran and counter to the government’s aims…

      Entry by troops? Maybe it is reaching critical mass, Linda… THAT may have changed… 😀

      • 239Days

        Karradine, I like that you used the word “pogrom”. I don’t get to see that used *properly* very often. Okay, I admit I’m a bit of an English geek. 🙂 That aside, you’re quite right about the Iranian government’s efforts to suppress and eliminate the Baha’i Faith generally failing to make any meaningful dent in its worldwide growth. I curious, however, to know where you got your data on the growth of the Baha’i Faith in Iran since 2010. I hadn’t seen those figures.

        One thing I might comment on is that the 239 Days project has a very wide range of readers, and not all of them are members of the Baha’i Faith. When you reference things part of what one might call the “internal” Baha’i lexicon (for lack of a better way of saying it), you may not be getting your point across to everyone who’s reading your comment. Just something to consider.

        Anyhow, thanks again for the great comment and I’ve enjoyed reading your previous contributions as well. 🙂


  • Luke Bolton

    This is such a hard question. I am torn on how to encourage good people into public service because the political system that we have seems to be structured in a way that even good people are forced to make compromises that they would not normally make. Is putting good people in a bad system the way to solve the problem? I struggle with this as a social studies teacher in high school when I want to encourage my students to act. What do I encourage them to do?

    • Nine

      I recall a Counselor saying that a difference between Baha’i Administration and other administrative systems is Baha’i Administration places imperfect people in a perfect system

  • Nickie

    Luke, I think the only thing we can do is vote our conscience in civil elections, and then spend the majority of our efforts focused on building up the new world order.  The old order is lamentably defective and I believe, doomed to failure.  The new world order will be the last refuge of a tottering civilization.

    • Karridine

       Concur your analysis, Nickie…
      And inasmuch as America has reached the limits of power (federal laws are being passed which CANNOT be enforced, even unfairly); the world has reached (2004 CE) a developmental stage where BILLIONS of humans have desktop or laptop access to all that exists in the online cyberspace; and the world’s poorest, the so-called ‘rising billion’ NOW have access to the internet through HAND-HELD DEVICES, humankind is reshaping its aims, goals, habits, biases and efforts.

      The old odor is lamentably noisome, fowl, corrupted and unsupportable… it is falling and failing of its own weight, as the chickens come home to roost and the eagles soar to heights unattainable by the turkeys…

      This connectivity, note well, is leading to bonds of true affection between formerly ignorant, antagonistic and racially-bigoted peoples of the world… Facebook is a daily meetup place for 800 MILLION people, and the ‘Rising Billion’ are leap-frogging past desktops and laptops, to use ‘SmartPhones’ and Androids and iPods to directly access the info, data, news and friends they can meet NO MATTER what languages they speak, as English is nearly ubiquitous (as native, ESL or EFL) and online real-time translation is getting better every day!

  • Lauracorker

    The quote to the right starts out “not until the people are educated…”  I think encouraging good people to go into public service is a good start.  Not necessarily into elected office at this point, but how many people have we heard about lately that have great influence despite never having been elected to any office?  Karl Rove, Grover Norquist; I think they have been “outed” as undercover policy makers?  Good people are out there doing that, too.  This is a way to build a new, better world order outside of the glare of nasty politics.  I have felt that Obama has tried to stay above some of that, but have noticed his difficulty.  At some point, I believe there will be less and less difficulty in that, because most people don’t really like it in their leaders.  It feels icky to be governed by self serving people. 

  • Abreneman

    The Secret of Divine Civilization should be widely discussed, as a “White Paper”, which discusses serious concerns of the US government and the people in general , beginning with the members of Congress. Few people will be enthused to offer themselves for public service if the standards of society are frivolous and lacking interest in “the betterment of humankind”.
    So much time is spent on material interests and party competition, not to mention wealth, that basic foundations of every society, such as education, agriculture and the lifting of the downtrodden are often thrown aside, along with human dignity.
     Abdu’l Baha modeled for all countries and people how to set standards so that each generation can improve society and its capacities for unity and peace within an ordered and benevolent world. Every child should be seen as a potential solution to a problem facing humanity and encouraged to enjoy learning and advance his or her talents and abilities in order to be of service to humanity, rather than consumed with material acquisitions and personal entertainment. In addition, ever child should be considered a jewel to be loved and polished, whether at home, in school, or elsewhere.
     Abdu’l Baha in this very useful book also points out that if a society focuses on the development of children’s capacities in the early stages of their lives, we will have less need for building prisons. In the end we pay far more to house and feed prisoners than in the beginning to care for our children and provide an education at home, school, & community which will help each child to become the beginning of a new race of humankind.  ~A Breneman

    • janet cundall

      hi, can you give the page number/ ref where ‘society focuses on the development of children’s capacities in the early stages of their lives, we will have less need for building prisons..”  I’m an early childhood educator, have to run a business as well as teach and paid very little.

  • Craig_Shere

    Agree with Nickie. Can’t morally abdicate current social responsibilities just because the social construct is flawed anymore than we can isolate ourselves from humanity because it is not as evolved (as we are?).

    Victor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning about his observations/experiences in the concentration camps said that in dire circumstances rather than degenerating into a oneness of survival instinct (as predicted by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) we “unmask ourselves” and the saint is most clearly a saint and the brute is most clearly a brute.

    We must participate in the current system to dramatically reduce the occurance and scale of concentration camps (and similar brutality/injustice). We must also promote the new world order one person at a time to increase the number of “saints” that unmask themselves next time tragedy strikes (before the advent of the “most great peace”).

  • Richard Staller

    seems like a good discussion point! Firstly, since we have the Baha’i Administrative Order, let us really pay attention to our own Administrative elections. Even in our Faith there are probably people whose willingness to serve aren’t entirely egalitarian. We have secret ballots to ensure that our votes aren’t subject to influences other than prayerful thoughts. We can elect those individuals to our own offices and thereby act as an influence and beacon to the world at large, exhibiting the spirit of union throughout the world.

    • 239Days

      Richard, your post was a pleasure to read. The importance of Administrative elections as outlined in the writings of the Baha’i Faith (especially those of Shoghi Effendi) only become more important as time goes on. The secret ballots, of course, protect against a wide range of troubles, I agree. The one thing I would mention isn’t actually about what you’re saying, but to point out that this particular discussion forum is open to a wide range of people, and only some of them are Baha’is. Therefore, your specific references to some of the Baha’i institutional processes and World Order might leave a few people wondering what you’re getting at. 

      Thanks again for the post. Looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

  • Sandi

    Abdu’l-Baha’s letter, published as The Secret of Divine Civilization, is ground-breaking, far ahead of its time. 

  • Brian

    The ideals and principles put forward in “The Secret of Divine Civilization” are what the governments and peoples of the world need to study and then put into practice even if those principles may seem out of reach at the present time. They would be happy by just trying to achieve such a lofty ideal. Everyone makes mistakes but we also learn from our mistakes. We do not have to repeat the mistakes of past ages. The human race is indeed now mature enough to move forward towards a wider unity. Abdu’l-Baha himself has told us this is possible. Thank you for the wonderful, thought provoking articles you are publishing everyday. My wife and I hope to be in Montreal for the 100th anniversary of His arrival in that city at the end of August.
    loving greetings from Toronto