239 Days in America

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

august 1, 1912
Dublin, NH
Storify Feature

Out and About in Dublin

IT IS THE AGE of calling cards and formal social visits. Agnes Parsons has called on many people and left many cards in preparation for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to Dublin.

On ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s second day in Dublin, Agnes takes him on a drive through the village in her carriage, along the Jaffrey Road, through MacVeagh Woods, and then out to the Lake. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Dr. Fareed, his translator today, stop at the Parsons’ boathouse, while Agnes continues on to the club where she tells the members that her Persian guest has arrived.

On the way home ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes sure that all bills concerning his stay will be sent to him; he insists on paying his own way in America. Day-Spring has become a home for the seven Persians and some guests, but after a few days ‘Abdu’l-Bahá takes a room down the hill in the village, at the Dublin Inn. Agnes says it’s because he’s not sleeping well in the cooler, windy air; Alice Breed and Dr. Getsinger think he’s tired of being waited on.

Even the children have noticed the man with the long white beard and flowing robes. “The venerable Persian, Abdul Baha,” the Peterborough Transcript writes, “bears so much resemblance to Santa Claus that two little tots begged to take out their go-cart and get it filled with presents from him. They had espied the supposed Santa Claus sitting on the piazza of the Wilcox Inn. . . .”

On the first of August seventy-five people arrive at the Parsons’ to listen to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s afternoon talk. When asked if he finds the people interested, he says: “They are very much alive. In this country an old maid of eighty will want to know all about politics.” In America, it seems, everyone wants to know about everything.

So ‘Abdu’l-Bahá settles in for his three-week stay. Although offers of motor car rides abound, he travels mostly by carriage or he walks. The Cabots, the Pumpellys, the Parmalees, and others invite him for lunch. At one home a cook wishes to hear him speak, so her employer tells her to sit out of sight behind a tree: she is black.

Amy Lowell, the poet, writes of Teatro Bambino, Joseph Lindon Smith’s open-air theatre:

How still it is! Sunshine itself here falls
In quiet shafts of light through the high trees
Which, arching, make a roof above the walls
Changing from sun to shadow as each breeze
Lingers a moment, charmed by the strange sight
Of an Italian theatre, storied, seer
Of vague romance, and time’s long history;
Where tiers of grass-grown seats sprinkled with white,
Sweet-scented clover, form a broken sphere
Grouped round the stage in hushed expectancy.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá walks across the lawn at the Teatro and finds a seat. Joe, a painter and archaeologist, fulfills his passion for dramatics by writing plays and performing them here every summer. Soon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá moves to the shade by a tree. Agnes says later that the play was somewhat risqué, and perhaps ‘Abdu’l-Bahá didn’t like it. However, when it’s over ‘Abdu’l-Bahá shakes hands with all the guests and tells Joe that he is a genius.

But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá does not hesitate to say those things which need saying in Dublin. On July 29, during his first afternoon talk at Agnes’s home where her wealthy friends have gathered, he tells them that they will become religious when religion and spirituality become a fad. “They want to be ‘it,’ whatever the fad is,” one listener reports.


  • Mariah

    I find it hard to believe that ‘Abdu’l-Baha would refer to any kind of woman as an “old maid.”  Would He refer to His sister as an “old maid”?  Has that quote been authenticated and verified?  

    • Nine

       I’m thinking that this is how the translator, Dr. Fareed, translated it and something was lost (or added) in the translation

      • Small 3

        That’s probably true.  But I wish that comment wasn’t included here in this article.  Any unsubstantiated comments that don’t align with ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s spirit and beliefs shouldn’t be included in a post like this in my opinion.  I mean, would you quote ‘Abdu’l-Baha using a semi-derogatory comment to refer to African-Americans or Jews or the disabled or any other minority group?  Why is it OK to refer to single women as “old maids”?

        • Malik

          It strikes me that the appearance of words in a historical article that have a pejorative connotation in a modern context is unexceptional. For instance, the words ‘colored’ and ‘Negro’ are generally considered unacceptable and archaic appelations for people of African descent at present. However, during the eras when their usage was common, they were regarded as respectable labels. They appear frequently in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s speeches and writings, and the appearance of those terms in quoted passages generally excites no comment, as it is understood that they are usages from another era.

          • Loie Mead

            Malik, I appreciate the light you and “239 Days” share for our increased understanding of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit.  The more we investigate the Baha’i Revelation and come in contact with messages such as “Century of Light” (from the Universal House of Justice, 2001), the greater is our receptivity. As we learn of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s extraordinary role in God’s Plan for the world, we begin to sense the far-reaching purpose in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s words.  In “Century of Light” we read (p.17): “An appreciation of the circumstances in which the expansion of the Cause in the West occurred is vital…helps us abstract ourselves from the culture of coarse and intrusive communication that has become so commonplace in present-day society…”

          • Mariah

            The term “old maid” was never considered acceptable or respectable.  It was always used as a term of mockery, pity, or social rejection.  I believe anyone who continues to attribute the phrase “old maid” to ‘Abdu’l-Baha is doing Him a disservice.  He was always the most loving, respectful, and sensitive person.  

            When ‘Abdu’l-Baha used the words “colored” or “Negro” to refer to Black people, those were considered acceptable and respectable references at the time.  They were not meant to degrade or mock African-Americans.  To this day some people still use the words “colored” and “Negro” in a respectful way.  There is a big difference between those words and others like “darkie” or “nigger” which we all know have always been used to be derogatory, humiliating, and disrespectful.

            Similarly, “old maid” has always been used to humiliate and imply social rejection.  It was never used to refer to someone in a loving, respectful, and sensitive manner.  ‘Abdu’l-Baha would never have used that term, and we should not continue to perpetuate this mis-translation of His intent.

          • http://twitter.com/TheStruggleWthn Malik Nash

             Well, I can certainly see that you feel aggrieved about it. Personally, I only saw the use of the term “maid” in the sense of “woman”, and the adjective “old” referring to nothing more than age. I didn’t see any implication about the woman’s marital status. I hope you can accept that that is a legitimate alternative interpretation, even if it’s one that you strongly disagree with. I also hope that in the future you will trust that I can accept and understand your viewpoint as well, even if it’s one that I disagree with, without resorting to the use of racially inflammatory language to underscore your disagreement.

        • http://twitter.com/TheStruggleWthn Malik Nash


    • 239Days

      Thank you for your comment. To answer your question, the source is page 81 of Agnes Parsons’ diary. While none of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s words in America are actually authenticated in the way scripture would be, Parsons was reportedly very careful about conveying “politically incorrect” messages. If, therefore, the term carried a negative connotation in her day, she would not have likely written it so openly.

      It’s true that the term “old maid” may carry a pejorative meaning for some ears today, but, as is often the case with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the historical context is important, and it shows a much kinder interpretation. Though we don’t seek to explain the mind of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, it appears his point is that, in America, even old ladies are interested in what’s going on in the world whereas, in most other places, hardly anyone is.

      And ‘Abdu’l-Bahá often used the term “maid” to refer to women, whether they were married or not, and regardless of their age. He called many “handmaiden” or “maidservant,” and indeed, he even used the term to refer to his own sister, Bahiyyih. So, in this case, there is no reason to assume he was referring in any way to marital status.

      Thank you again for your thoughts and we hope this helps answer your concerns.

      • Mariah

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts.   However, no matter how we rationalize this, I highly, highly doubt ‘Abdu’l-Baha would use the phrase “old maid.”  I feel quite sure there is no other reference to Him using that phrase anywhere else in His talks, letters, books, writings, etc.  I have to believe that the words “old maid” are a reflection of the translator’s guess about the Master’s thoughts when He referred to older women, and in this case, I believe, quite inaccurately.  What if the translator had mistranslated ‘Abdu’l-Baha thoughts about, say, for example, “the blackies” or “the retards?”  Would that be acceptable to re-print and dissiminate?  I’m sorry to be argumentative here, but I don’t know if people appreciate the offensiveness of calling a person an old maid.

  • Sandi

    On fads. Some things never change–if it’s trendy, then we flock to it. When it’s outdated or seen as uncool, we abandon it. Any fad is a quick fix, superficial. Even a true religion can be a quick fix if the new adherent does not delve deeply into its beliefs and its Texts. What makes it a fad is how we view the new Faith, the depth with which we investigate it, and the extent to which we incorporate its teachings into our lives. Maybe you won’t like the analogy, but the difference is like that between a crush, an infatuation, and a deep and lasting love. The infatuation is fun, but short-lived; a deep and lasting love can be challenging as well as fulfilling. 
    Sandi Bean

  • http://www.facebook.com/charles.d.boyle Charles David Boyle

    I find the quotation of ‘Abdu’l-Baha hard to reconcile with present day attitudes, unless it is viewed less as an observation and more as a call to a standard.

    Any further information about the play? 

    The term “Old maid” refers here to an elderly spinster and the term is no longer in popular use.  The expression was of course meant to signify that anyone, even those you might least imagine, take an interest in politics. 

    Translation will always throw up occasional oddities like this.

    • 239Days

      Also, historical context creates some oddities. For instance, Abdu’l-Baha referred to all women as “maids” or “maidens”, married or not and irrespective of age. In the full context of his life, it seems much less like he’s singling out elderly unmarried women and using a casual, pejorative term. Without that historical context, it sounds like he’s flippant and even a little condescending. It’s important to bear in mind that we don’t all speak with the same voice, and what we say is highly contextual in a historical sense.

  • Craig_shere

    This is an interesting question and, to some degree, one I have now and again w/my wife (a Chinese immigrant who came to the U.S. for her 2nd grad degree). Growing up under communism, my wife had always been atheist. Her view is that many Chinese (especially older ones) join Churches in America just because of the social experience. I’m from a Jewish background (having become Baha’i late 2010), and my wife often historically pointed out the “social” nature of most Jews (contrasting with my own stubborn efforts to minimally keep dietary and other restrictions) she met through work and school in Manhattan. I’d hardly call the ancient Jewish religion begun by Abraham & Moses and fostered by mllenia of well documented Rabbinic thought to be a “social” club, but it’s undeniably true that Jews today (outside of the minority Orthodox) are probably more Jewish by heratege and culture than true religious conviction (and the “conviction” is clearly less grounded than it was millennia ago). At one Yom Kippur service at an Orthodox organization, a young Rabbi said to me that his Jewish life would be worthless if the Messiah did not come as predicted by the year 7,000 (a couple hundred years from now). Of course, the same is true of western Christians, only they don’t have a “heritage” or “culture” so closely alligned with their faith – hence the methodical decline of church attendance.
    I think a “fad” is more like Madanna checking out Kabbalah. But is a mostly culturarl Jew who doesn’t independently pray and only attends temple on high holidays participating in a “fad”. Is someone who identifies themselves as Christian participating in a “fad” if they only celebrate Easter and Christmas at home (mostly with presents and chocalate bunnies) and don’t attend church? What of parents that suddently engage a temple/church only because they feel they need to share some faith with their young kids (even if they don’t believe in every or most aspects of the religion)?
    I guess this is the beauty of the Baha’i faith. We’re privileged to be so close to the source (in time and in modern communications) so it’s difficult to be a “dabbler” in the faith. It’s a faith based on reason, so we’re not caught up in unsolvable “leap of faith” issues. We have no clerics, so there are no irrational/barbaric fatwas and horrific examples of licentiousness among an entrenched leadership that can shake our faith.
    Weather “fad” or “dabbler” or some other less than committed term is used for popular religious observance – the key issue I’d think is not how committed people are but what they are committed to (in other words, how can one be committed to something inherently faulty, irrational, or even depraved). Of course, the origins of these many religions are on very solid ground and there are still those exaulted souls who even this day still “get the point” despite the obscuring cloud of most current day religious “leadership.”  These, unfortunately, are a minority of humanity. The rest of us, barring exposure to Baha’u’llah’s message, are simply caught in the random drift of waters that long before had erupted from the dayspring of divine utterance. 

  • Jlrthomas

    Perhaps some of the “old maid” discussion is in the age of the reader? I married in 1984 at age 33 and was considered to be (and in some cases called) an “old maid.” I therefore let that comment fly right past me. 

    I do agree, though, that the term sounds a bit “slangy,” not just for ‘Abdu’l-Baha, but for that time period. It is much more likely that the word “spinster,” a completely appropriate designation at that time, was used and was converted by someone to its more contemporary equivalent of “old maid.” (An aside–when my 1st husband’s aunt passed away in 1990 at 100, she had lived her entire life in Pennsylvania and had never married. The State of Pennsylvania exacted a “Spinster Tax” from her estate. I do hope that sometime in the last 22 years that particular tax has disappeared…)