239 Days in America

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

Day
135
 | 
August 23, 1912
Eliot, ME
Storify Feature

Sarah J. Farmer: One of America’s Great Religious Innovators

This is the second in a two-part feature on the life of Sarah J. Farmer. Read Part One here: The Battles of Sarah J. Farmer

SARAH J. FARMER SAILED from New York aboard the SS Fürst Bismarck on January 1, 1900, accompanied by her best friend, Maria P. Wilson, bound for Egypt and a cruise up the Nile. They met two other friends on board who, she soon found out, were keeping their destination a secret. They were traveling from Egypt to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Ottoman penal colony of ‘Akká. Sarah Farmer cabled ahead for permission to join them. When she returned to America on November 1, 1900, she returned as a Bahá’í.

More than ten thousand pages of source material trace the life of Sarah J. Farmer. It is impossible to summarize here even the major events of her last sixteen years. How her intellectual battle with Lewis Janes reached a climax, then ended (he died); how she averted Green Acre’s financial collapse; how fire destroyed her personal wealth when her home burned to the ground; how the New England press suddenly turned against her; how she was attacked by the special interest groups who feared that her embracing ‘Abdu’l-Bahá might curtail their freedom at Green Acre; how emotional exhaustion from the resulting turmoil finally felled her; and how she was eventually imprisoned in a private sanitarium for five years on the presumption that she had lost her mind, under the control of a man who drugged his patients to oblivion, censored her mail, prevented family from seeing her, and kept her locked up behind bars in a second-storey room on Middle Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, while battles for control over her person and her property raged in the courts and in the popular press — all of these things we must leave aside for another time.

It was that doctor, Edward S. Cowles, who sat in the front seat of the automobile on Tuesday, August 20, 1912, keeping watch lest the crowd at Green Acre swarm the car and remove Miss Farmer from his control. Although she had been away for three years, he didn’t even let her set foot on Green Acre’s grounds. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá got into the car and it whisked them off to Sunset Hill, a high plateau on the other side of Eliot that Miss Farmer had named Monsalvat after the sacred mountain in Wagner’s Parsifal where they kept the Holy Grail. Here she had planned to build a university and a second Bahá’í House of Worship, like the one whose cornerstone ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had laid near Chicago in May.

“When we were almost at the top of the hill,” an eyewitness on that day reported, “‘Abdu’l-Bahá took Miss Farmer’s hands in his and said very loudly, ‘This is hallowed ground made so by your vision and sacrifice.’”

It was important, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, that Sarah Farmer visualize the great university her efforts had made possible. He told Miss Farmer that the university would be built, the eyewitness said; he extended his arms to indicate that it would cover the whole plateau. Then he pointed to a spot where he said the House of Worship would eventually be raised.

Finally, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá turned again to Miss Farmer: “You will be revered above all American women one fine day,” he told her.

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In his 2005 book, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, historian Leigh Eric Schmidt names Sarah J. Farmer as one of the great religious innovators of America’s nineteenth century, alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. For sixteen years, between 1894 and 1909, she shepherded the parliament of religions at Green Acre. In the end she suffered the price of her choices, castigated by Green Acre’s advocates of unencumbered liberty for her embrace of a single path which, she believed, was the very definition of freedom.

In this way, Sarah Farmer is emblematic of one of the core dilemmas in America’s religious life, which even the philosopher William James wrestled with. “The struggle at the heart of Farmer’s spiritual journey,” Schmidt writes, “and James’s religious psychology — the tension between autonomy and self-surrender — has hardly disappeared from America’s contemporary seeker culture.”

What has changed is America’s willingness to accept a woman’s autonomy to make her own decisions.

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  • Michael Bruwer

    Thank you. Without your scholarship and reportage so much of my longing to know these wonderful stories would go unmet. What an exceptional person Sarah Farmer was. What an indictment of some psychiatric practices, which so clearly need to be illumined by the light of faith.

  • shirley

    This is an extraordinary tale, leaves me thirsting for more…

  • Anne Perry

    Wow! All I can say is YES! Thank you for your insights, articulation, and sagacity!

    • Loie Mead

      Anne, there is greatest wisdom, insight and articulation to be gleaned from study of “Century of Light” a book published under supervision of the Universal House of Justice. The book is available through the Baha’i Distribution Service. Visit http://www.Baha‘iBookstore.com.

  • Loie Mead

    As we in America receive a clear accounting of history we can see what dulled the sensibilies of ancestral Americans in 1912. I wonder if we today– being privileged with infused information and awareness of the past, will avert the ground holes before us to claim this nation’s spiritual destiny as we repeat the “exercise”. From where must the Guidance come to embolden millions of young adults to overcome today’s dark forces? Must we rely upon their nascent courage? OR is this the time when we veterans are required to demonstrate the gentle push? What would ‘Abdu’l-Baha do?

  • Kathy Edwards

    Thank you. Your Question is appropriate for this time, especially as I feel we are starting to backslide with women’s autonomy again. It seems there is still an underlying fear of acknowledging a woman’s innate ability to be equal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/estherbill Esther Bradley-deTally

    this is off topic, but was Sarah Farmer related to Fanny Farmer (cook book author)?

  • Marie

    The teachings of Baha’u'llah are not yet another single religious path among many. Baha’u'llah’s teachings are all-embracing, and they contain all religious truth. We need to think BIG and all-embracing, not small, singular, and narrow.

  • shahla

    Sadly progress has been slow: Political and corporate institutions are still male-dominated; violence against women has increased; even though more educated, financially well-off women appear to be reasonably independent, they still face great challenges. Male-dominated institutions, not able to control older, more educated women find it much easier to control the very young female. Women must begin respecting themselves and each other before we see much change in the male attitude. Of course, this does not mean we are not blessed with many good men and women with noble attitudes and behavior.

    • dina_trapp

      Do not despair, in the world of golf we now have two women who have broken into the Augusta Georgia male bastion and one day men and women will be as two wings of a bird there.

  • Craig Shere

    Clearly a women today (in most Western societies and much of Asia) are far more free to pursue an independent path than ever before. The idea of a woman leader of the U.K. (Margaret Thatcher) and Germany (Angela Merkel) would no doubt have stunned Sarah Farmer’s contemporaries. I believe women have gone into space from the U.S., Russia and China. This contrasts significantly with other current societies (see today’s CNN story: http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/23/world/europe/uk-honor-murder-zara/index.html?hpt=hp_c1). Of course, much depends on environment, upbringing/education, and personal choices. But generally speaking, a woman is free today in Western society to pursue any course she wishes (while being subject, as men, to the repercussions of her own choices). Of course, the greatest freedom is not in being seperate, but in being equally interdepent. I was quite taken by the story of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ asking a lady if she also dusted off her husband’s shoes (as he was doing for her, to make her presentable after a dusty trek to see the Master).

  • dina_trapp

    Totally unaware of the sacrifices of Sarah Farmer and must learn more about this extraordinary woman of Faith..

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  • Brent Poirier

    Hello friends, thank you for the well-done website. The last photo above is reversed; this is definitely the case and easily seen from photos of the Sarah Farmer Inn from that angle. Warmest Greetings —