239 Days in America

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

September 6, 1912
Montreal, Canada
Storify Feature

‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Montreal’s Not-So-Yellow Press

‘ABDU’L-BAHÁ HAD BEEN warned about Montreal. “The majority of the inhabitants are Catholics,” he had been told, who “are in the utmost fanaticism,” covered by “impenetrable clouds of superstitions. . .”  Percy Woodcock, a Canadian who had traveled with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to North America aboard the SS Cedric, had advised him in these terms against traveling to Montreal. Yet the concerted response of the Montreal press to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during his stay in Canada’s largest city proved Percy Woodcock wrong.

Montreal’s newspaper industry was highly competitive by 1912. At least fourteen newspapers, in both English and French, were published daily. Another fourteen weekly magazines, which focused on smaller, special interest groups within Montreal, provided the city’s inhabitants with plenty to read. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited Montreal during Labor Day and the visit of Prime Minister Robert Borden. Still, as Will C. van den Hoonaard recorded in his book, The Origins of the Baha’i Community of Canada, 1898-1948, twenty-five English language articles, and nine French language articles were published, a substantial number for a nine-day stay.

It wasn’t only the quantity of the articles that distinguished them, but their content as well. The English language publications of Montreal lacked the sensationalism that characterized several major American newspapers of the time. Literacy rates in America had rapidly increased, meaning that newspapers no longer had to rely on a small, educated readership for revenue. They began to sell the masses stories of adultery and crime, often told in hyperbolic, charged language and intentionally controversial. This became known as the Yellow Press.

It was in this climate that journalists were challenged to write about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. On June 30, 1912, The New York Times published the article “Prophet’s Dash For Train,” about how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá nearly missed his train at Lackawanna Station in Montclair, NJ. It was dramatic. Nixola Greeley-Smith wrote a colorful article for Pulitzer’s The New York World: “Of course nobody could be named Baha without having a beard,” she joked, admitting that she had tried to interrupt ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talk “in the interest of those who seek lighter reading,” and was consequently “squelched.” One headline simply reads, in a reductive pun, “Hopes to Convert U.S.”

Canadian newspapers were delayed in taking on the methods of the Yellow Press. In the days before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in the city, detailed and accurate articles about his life, the Bahá’í faith, and his position in it were published. The Montreal Daily Star printed an article on August 24, 1912, six days before his arrival, and got most of its facts right. Of the religion it wrote: “It has no clergy and no ritual. It is not a cult. . .” “The one point insisted upon,” read the article, “is that the fundamentals of spiritual teaching shall be universally admitted and practically applied to the affairs of daily life and in the social, business and political life of nations.”

When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did arrive, the content of his talks, rather than his identity as an Easterner, was the main focus of all the articles. The Montreal Daily Star published an account of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talk at Coronation Hall. Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of an economic system based on mutual support and cooperation, but far from the oppressive rigidity of socialism, was described in full detail. Canadian newspapers called ‘Abdu’l-Bahá an “Oriental Seer,” a “Persian Preacher,” and an “Eastern Sage,” but rarely a prophet.

The French press coverage was of a different tone. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talks had to be translated into French to be published. This could be one reason why they focused more on the impression ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s appearance made on them than on the content of his speeches. One article titled “Le Prestige de l’Exotisme,” (The Prestige of Exotic Things), published in La Patrie, according to van den Hoonaard, “attributed  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s success to the fact that he was an oriental, rather than to the ‘deep, but old truths’ he set forth.” Le Canada focused on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s economic teachings, summing them up as an “admixture of socialism and Christianity.” The most biting article was published in Le Nationaliste. “Caliban [the writer] explained how one must have an ‘unusual’ name like ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,” van den Hoonaard wrote, “not an ordinary one, before he can call himself a ‘prophet.’”

“Many souls warned me not to travel to Montreal,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote several years after his journey. “But these stories did not have any effect on the resolution of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. [He] turned his face toward Montreal. When he entered that city he observed all the doors open, he found the hearts in the utmost receptivity…”


  • Louise Profeit-LeBlanc

    Montreal is still the city of love and openness to the world! Thanks to Abdul’Baha’s response to May Maxwell’s invitation that this city has been blessed by His presence. My hope is that many more enter this city with that same spirit!

  • Marta

    What type of news stories better the life of communities? Ones that give an accurate and factual account of a situation, person, issue, or thing, and that leave the reader with constructive analyses and ideas about how to move forward with hope for the betterment of all.

    • http://twitter.com/MasterCopyWrite Karridine

      Excellent response, Marta… today’s ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality is growing old, and many youth are joining their elders in demanding accurate, factual yet uplifting, ennobling reportage in this day…

      Today’s podcast of ‘Abdu-l Baha in Montreal’s Not-So-Yellow Press’

  • http://www.facebook.com/craig.shere.7 Craig Shere

    Fortunately, most western papers try to segregate “news” sections from “editorial” sections. But some of the deepest, thoughtful articles I’ve found are sometimes in the “editorial” section, where once in a while a cogent thesis supported by objective facts is presented. Problem is that these are not the articles that sell newspapers. Public supported news programming (such as PBS) are certainly heads and shoulders above the mainstream press in terms of depth of analysis, bringing attention to less followed stories, and trying to present all sides. But it’s the news with a clear political/philosophical slant (as on FOX) that seems to sell the best. The challenge is finding a way for us to talk to ourselves in a manner that upholds freedom of choice but at the same time contributes to personal growth and a broader perspective. Frankly, I’m not sure how that would be done (though I’m sure the Master would have some great ideas if he were physically present today).

    • http://twitter.com/MasterCopyWrite Karridine

      Shoghi Effendi, in his writings, WARNED US about the ‘…entrenched orthodoxies…’, and may well have included a lapdog press (government-controlled press) among those. Fortunately, the Internet has come to empower We, the People of this world, and we can now fact-check quickly and accurately… a reality that is proving especially bothersome to today’s big-promise politicians, heh!

      Today’s podcast of today’s ‘Yellow Press’ article: http://bit.ly/RHvYgO

  • Dean Hedges

    fellowship fellowship love love unity unity … these are the things that inspire me …. weddings and sand castles ; funerals and eulogies, births and naming ceremonies, to honor our parents; God Country Family ….

    Viva la Montréal

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