239 Days in America

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

July 21, 1912
New York, NY
Storify Feature

Deeds, Not Words

THROUGHOUT HIS TIME in America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke on peace, social justice, generosity, and even thankfulness. In each case he stressed the need for practical solutions over mere words. “Those who do most good use fewest words,” he once commented.

On May 14, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá delivered a talk to the leaders of the peace movement at the Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration in the Shawangunk Mountains outside of New York. He laid out a number of principles necessary to peace, including the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty, and the need for harmony between the systems of science and religion. The next day, to a group of youth, he noted: “It is very easy to come here, camp near this beautiful lake, on these charming hills, far away from everybody and deliver speeches on Universal Peace. These ideals should be spread and put in action over there, [Europe] not here in the world’s most peaceful corner.”

Even as a prisoner under house arrest in ‘Akká, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá took action to provide solutions to the needs of the community. He set up a school to educate children, helped feed the poor and find them jobs, and encouraged his fellow exiles to attend to the sick, crippled, and aged, regardless of their religion. In America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continued this pattern, making a point of visiting the Bowery Mission in New York.

On May 30, 1912, at the Theosophical Lodge in New York, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá pointed out that knowledge is not enough to solve the world’s problems. “To admit that health is good does not constitute health,” he said. Knowledge must be applied, he said, “the remedy carried out.”

Even in such matters as thankfulness ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stressed the need for deeds over words. To an audience on the Upper West Side on July 15, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described two ways of giving thanks. “There is verbal thanksgiving, which is confined to a mere utterance of gratitude,” he noted. “This is of no importance because perchance the tongue may give thanks while the heart is unaware of it.” Real thankfulness, he offered, “expresses itself in the deeds and actions.” He told his audience to “render good deeds, be self-sacrificing, loving the servants of God, forfeiting even life for them, showing kindness to all the creatures.”

After reading a prayer about “renunciation,” Reverend Howard Colby Ives, an American who wrote a book that described his interactions with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, questioned the concept. Renouncing the world, he said, “smacked of papacy and the monkish cell.” But Ives soon discovered that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá meant he should act without attachment to material things — it had nothing to do with removing himself from society. Ives remembered that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told him that it was time for “great things.” “[W]ith literally flashing eyes and emphatically raised hand,” Ives wrote, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá exclaimed that “I should remember His words that This is a Day for very great things — VERY GREAT THINGS.”


  • Philip Cantor

    The best way to join the conversation today is to ACT in a way that we would not have acted before reading this article. Maybe the “conversation” on this one should be tomorrow, telling what we DID today. 🙂

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003295938534 Rob Sockett

      That’s an excellent point Philip. Or at least wait until the end of the day to converse here about what we did today! 

      For me, the question of why we find it easy to talk, but have difficulty acting, is simply because it’s far more difficult to act. Action requires a higher level of sacrifice, and brings us out of our comfort zone. Meaningful action also typically requires a long term commitment. 

      • Charles_Boyle

        We lack integrity when our actions and words mis-align, but the purpose of life is to expose ourselves to such mis-alignments, recognize them, make the necessary adjustments and move on.  The process has to be addressed purposefully.  
        Slowly, slowly, little by little.  
        Well, OK, maybe a little bit faster in my case…

    • Charles_Boyle

      Brilliant response.

  • Vicki Sadrzadeh

    Time, commitment, fear, distractions, immaturity.  When the fire of the love of God burns in our veins and through these veils, then we set out to do great things.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=33501390 Luke Danger Bolton

    I wonder if part of the problem is that people do not know how to act? We have given up much of our agency to politicians or to experts who “know better” and many often think that it is not their place to act. In addition, many of the fields of action, such as politics, seem corrupted and not worth participating in.

    • Loie Mead

      A significant  bit of wondering, Luke!
      When Tom Price shared his tapes and promoted deepening and consultation upon The Five Year Plan 2011-2016, at one point he compared politics to the plague.  He noted with humor that we would not want to go near someone who has the plague! 

      Why would it be “that people do not know how to act” ?  In the Ridvan Message of 2011, the Universal House of Justice tells us to, “Set His [‘Abdu’l-Baha’s] example before your eyes and fix your gaze upon it; let it be your instinctive guide in your pursuit of the aim of the Plan.”  If ‘Abdu’l-Baha is our Example, what does that mean for us? for the many people who do not know how to act?

      • paul brady

        ‘struth Loie, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha acted at an advanced age, with little resources. Ruhiyah Khanum once said, take your mouldering bones to the pioneering field, or words to that effect. Look at the story of Ella Bailey, emiment pioneer to Africa who could not teach anyone. That’s like the example of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.
        “O that I could travel, even though on foot and in the utmost poverty, to these regions, and, raising the call of “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” in cities, villages, mountains, deserts and oceans, promote the divine teachings! This, alas, I cannot do. How intensely I deplore it! Please God, ye may achieve it.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of the Divine Plan)

  • Enrique Cantu

    If we could answer that, “Why the paralysis?”, understand the underlying reason, and take action for a change, the whole world would change. People would do all sorts of things, like lose weight, get out of debt, fight their addictions and bad habits, and in some corners of the world, people might even question why some old conflicts are perpetuated.

    • Charles_Boyle

      Hi Enrique, 
      I think we continue to act as we do because we perceive the “cost” of doing otherwise is greater than the cost of staying as we are: things happen to us and we interpret them even from our earliest of days and decide our patterns of thought on the basis of those experiences.  As we get older we reinforce these perceptions as they cascade down onto each other as we re-iterating the response (or reaction) but never take the opportunity to reflect on these events, because as we get older, we seek less and less to question our past judgements lest we reveal to ourselves what we imagine to be foolish decisions.  It all comes down to saving face with ourselves.  

      So many times does Baha’u’llah refer to this notably in the Hidden Words and in the Seven Vallies.  How insightful then that the Universal House of Justice calls us so emphatically to processes of personal and community transformation through the cycles of action and reflection for the individual acts upon the growth of the faith as much as the growth of the faith acts upon the individual.

      What perhaps we need is a more structured process of affecting our transformation: active participation in Baha’i community activities is very helpful because you can learn so much about yourself when facing the challenges from within and without: while we might imagine that “in the Baha’i Faith we have unity”, in reality we are no different to the generality of the world, for if we did have such unity, Baha’u’llah would not have need to call our attention to its necessity and provide the approaches to doing so.  Perhaps this will emerge through the institute process, perhaps Ruhi book #14, but most likely at least or the present, through individual initiatives supported and encouraged by the institutions of the faith.

      Not for nothing are we called to bring ourselves to account each day…

  • Kim

    Paralysis lies in the trials and tribulations of life, social pressures to wear certain things, buy certain things, be a certain way; illness and disease such as depression and other mental maladies,…all these and more hold us back. When we are afflicted, we pray for salvation and relief in order to do what is right, but when we walk out the front door there is an onslaught ahead of us to deal with. No matter how noble we make ourselves, there will always be something working to drag us down…its a lonely and complex existence. 
    Just like the bird, we work to set our souls soaring, but as we have feet of clay, -like the bird-, we need to get our rest, companionship, and sustenance here on the earth.

  • Charles_Boyle

    Without wishing to trespass on your time or goodwill or he purpose of this forum, might I invite a moment of your action:
    The Universal House of Justice calls us to engage in “elevated themes of conversation”, and “social discourse”.  Please suggest a question or questions that you think might stimulate an engaging and meaningful conversation with your friends, family and colleagues.  
    Suggestions will be collated and shared.
    Charles_Boyl@google-aabe286638639c11f830477e98ad0f56:disqus @homail.com

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Elham-Rabbani-Sockett/753094034 Elham Rabbani-Sockett

      Charles, that appears to be exactly the mandate of this website. I share the feature articles along with the questions they’re now adding, with my friends, family and colleagues via Facebook every day.

  • Loie Mead

    Paralysis grips us ever more forcefully if we neglect our daily prayers and reading the Word of God. This spiritual nourishment is vital.  Thankfulness must find expression in deeds and we long to carry forward the work of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.

    • Anneke de Lugt (Holland)

      I agree. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá aks everyone: Are you happy? Be happy, even in times with problems.
      I think, when we have a radiance face we can attract people from heart to heart.

      • Loie Mead

        Yes, it is wonderful to remember that ‘Abdu’l-Baha emphasized our need to be happy.  It seems that you have discovered the value of presenting a radiant face.  How did you discover this?

  • Loie Mead

    Suggested question to engage us in “elevated themes of conversation” and “social discourse”:

    In 2001 the Universal House of Justice gave us the “Century of Light”. As you re-read this book today, has your view of world history changed in any way?  Please share.

    Continuing to consider “Century of Light” (especially giving attention to the Forward through chaper III), is there a visual aid that will introduce to young students the sweep of the 19th and 20th centuries? 


    • 239Days

      I agree that book is a wonderful resource. My mother actually gave it to me as a gift the year it came out and I’ve always kept it close at hand. One thing worth mentioning, Loie: not everyone who visits this site is a Baha’i. While it’s possible some of them may have read “Century of Light”, I think beginning a conversation based upon a book they haven’t likely seen could be alienating. Anyhow, you reference a good resource. I’m thinking about taking it down off the shelf again to peruse. 🙂


      • Loie Mead

        Corey, you could be right in your advice about “Century of Light” and mentioning this book in the beginning of the discussion. It is a history that most of the people on earth have never read or they may have given it only a casual glance. When it came out in 2001 I read “Century of Light” as I was giving care to my mother who was terminal. She asked me to read from the Baha’i books of prayers and Writings. I finished reading “Century of Light” to her at her bedside, and not long after she was on her flight to the next world of God. I must share with you now that when I read to my mother in those circumstances, I had no real appreciation of what I was reading, Corey. I knew I loved the clear thoughts that were coming through, but I was already beginning to grieve for my mother. The second and later readings of “Century of Light” have changed forever my view of what we are doing on earth. May I suggest that you not waste your time [perusing}. Instead read “Century of Light” with the utmost care and discuss it with another person as you read aloud. You are reading from The Universal House of Justice!

  • shahla

    What a coincidence!  This morning I read the following Hidden Words (Persian #76)

    Guidance hath ever been given by words, and now it is given by deeds.  Every one must show forth deeds that are pure and holy, for words are the property of all alike, whereas such deeds as these belong only to Our loved ones.  Strive then with heart and soul to distinguish yourselves by your deeds.  In this wise We counsel you in this holy and resplendent tablet.

    As explained in the Promise of World Peace, the “paralysis of will” is caused by the general (but false) belief that man is inherantly aggressive and selfish; and therefore, we could not have justice, unity and peace even though we all may wish for it.

  • Rooplall Dudhnath

    Interesting discussion :much appreciated…thanks to all….. I am still learning

    • Loie Mead

      It is very inspiring to hear that you are “still learning”.  The guidance given at reflection meetings during the intensive program of growth is that we should share our teaching experiences and especially focus upon what we as Baha’is have learned. 

      • 239Days

        Rooplall’s comment reminds me of a quote (I think it was Socrates) who said “I am wise enough to know that I know nothing”. It’s inspiring, as you said, to see when someone sees the road ahead rather than the place where they stand in the moment. Particularly nice when we see that in ourselves. 🙂

        On another note: I wanted to mention that not everyone who visits the 239 Days site is a Baha’i, so language like “reflection meetings”, etc might not be understood by all who visit. Just a heads up. 

        In the mean time, looking forward to seeing more posts for you. Take care. 🙂


        • Rooplall Dudhnath

          Corey……..Henry Kissenger is recorded to have stated when  asked “what is diplomacy” replied….that  “Diplomacy is the art of plunging into trouble waters without a splash”

          I do enjoy learning from 239 days…its fun too! wish more comments are forthcoming!

          • Rooplall Dudhnath

            Should be ” without MAKING a splash” sorry!

          • 239Days

            “Diplomacy is the art of plunging into trouble waters without making a splash”
            That’s brilliant. 🙂


  • Linasmithson

    It is clear only good deeds are expected, excellently explained, thanks.

  • MCO

    Possible typo, second-to-last sentence of article? (Ives commented that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told him that it the time for “great things.”)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003295938534 Rob Sockett

      Yes… thanks for pointing that out MCO. We’ll get it fixed.

  • janet cundall

    The Earth needs us to plant more trees whichever local community we are in, also to increase the blue green algae in oceans and freshwaters so that more carbon can be fixed and more oxygen produced. We also need more electric charging stations to encourage more electric cars or inventions like air cars and magnesium engines to take off.  I just read that Germany generated as much solar power electricity as 22 nuclear power plants in recent summer days.  Even in winter they are getting close to 50% of energy requirements met from renewables.

    In the lake catchment where I live, a company has applied for a permit to allow dumping of contaminated fill, the stream feeding the lake is on the edge of the dump site.  To stop this kind of dumping needs a united community action which takes education for awareness.  also inventions to treat the contaminated waste where made or to make biodegradables instead.Wish I knew how to galvanize a community into action in a positive solving, not conflict way. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/sharon.j.hickey Sharon Jane Hickey

    The paralysis is due to the law of inertia.  Self-doubt and lack of direction reinforce the tendency to inaction.  Many Baha’is I know are active in teaching/bringing others to the Faith.  That was a clear mandate from the Founders of the Faith, but so was tending to the sick and poor and doing other good works.  Most of the Bahai’s I know are wonderful people; people of the Faith have created many beautiful gardens and structures for inspiration and worship.  But is that what the Faith wants to be known for?  Converting others to the Faith and building buildings?  As an aspiring Baha’i, I would not be embarassed to see myself (and the Faith) identified as a public servant, or just a plain “do-gooder.”  As a social worker, I am familiar with the process of providing for the good of society — it’s as simple as identifying a need, finding a way to fill it, and proceeding.  Every Baha’i community is capable of that, if they have the will for that.

    • Loie Mead

      Sharon, what you write about being a social worker, that is, being “familiar with the process of providing for the good of society… identifying a need, finding a way to fill it, and proceeding”, is a most timely reminder. I also like the thought that each of us AND the Faith stand to be “identified as a public servant”. I feel that your question may lead us to an answer; it would be very unfortunate if the Baha’i Faith were merely known for creating many beautiful gardens and inspirational structures for worship. In the United States,we continue to be conditioned to advertising and publicizing through powerful forces; the result is that we confuse commerical interests with public education. It seems likely that until a spiritual education overtakes public education, we may stumble in our efforts to truly serve the Cause of God. Currently, we are called upon to create neighborhood children’s classes and what can be a surer way to alter the present course in achieving this nation’s destiny? It seems most vital to the work that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ initiated during His visit to North America.

  • paul brady

    It just occurred to me, thinking about the Ella Bailey story, that another reason we don’t act is we don’t appreciate the spiritual nature and spiritual forces called into effect by our actions. We couldn’t possibly understand that just for opening our lips and mentioning the name of our Lord, that the hosts of Divine inspiration would descend upon us, and the Concourse on High would descend upon us each bearing aloft a chalice of pure light. So, we think our actions are ineffectual. I told someone and he didn’t accept, or react positively, so, it must not be worth doing. I’m not making a difference. We are attached to the outcome, perhaps.