239 Days in America

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

December 1, 1912
New York, NY
Storify Feature

Religion: The Driving Force Behind Human Civilization

THE CHURCH OF THE ASCENSION in New York’s Greenwich Village hosted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s first public talk in America. “Since my arrival in this country I find that material civilization has progressed greatly,” he told them on April 14, 1912, “but spiritual civilization has been left behind.” It was a message that resonated strongly with the congregation. The church was a leading force in America’s Social Gospel movement, a cause born of a belief that Christians must be active agents in the world, devoted to such social justice issues as the alleviation of poverty, and the rights of exploited workers and minorities. Walter Rauschenbusch, its most prominent theologian, argued for “collective salvation.” He contended that Jesus did not die as a substitute for original sin, but rather “to substitute love for selfishness as the basis for human society.”

The imperative of the modern age, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told the congregation, is to establish a just and peaceful society on a global scale. He noted that political power would never be equal to the task. Faith in racial or national identities would similarly fail. Nothing short of the power of religion, he said, could establish the motivational or ethical foundations needed for a unified world.

Two weeks later, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was in Chicago laying the cornerstone for a temple to be built along the western shore of Lake Michigan. A crowd of four hundred joined him for the groundbreaking ceremony. The institution of the Bahá’í House of Worship, he told them, as defined by Bahá’u’lláh, was not only a place to pray, but the central edifice in a complex of buildings that would be devoted social, humanitarian, educational, and scientific pursuits. Thousands of them would be built around the world, he said, serving as a model of religion in the service of humankind.

During his first month in America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also began an aggressive and sustained critique against religious traditionalism. “Consider the record of religious warfare,” he told an audience in Eliot, Maine, “the battle between nations, the bloodshed and destruction in the name of religion.” When he arrived in America, a war in Tripoli had just broken out. As he was leaving eight months later, the Balkans were under siege. To a congregation at the All Souls Unitarian Church in New York he said that “The greatest cause of human alienation has been religion.” At the Metropolitan Temple on Seventh Avenue at 14th Street he argued: “The counterfeit or imitation of true religion has adulterated human belief.”


‘Abdu’l-Bahá took the leaders of religion to task, whom, he argued, had substituted the ethical and transformative power of religion with dogma, along with politicians who hijacked it in the interests of power and national aggrandizement. “Leaders of religion, in every age,” his father Bahá’u’lláh had written “have hindered their people from attaining the shores of eternal salvation, inasmuch as they held the reins of authority in their mighty grasp.” “Should the lamp of religion be obscured,” Bahá’u’lláh explained, “chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness and justice, of tranquility and peace cease to shine.”

On October 12, at the Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá put religion to the test. He asked the congregation to help him consider the record of religion, to see whether it is “the animating impulse of all human advancement,” or “a detriment and a source of degradation to mankind.” They would go to the source — to the founders of religion — to “review the story of Their lives, compare the conditions preceding Their appearance with those subsequent to Their departure.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá outlined the central events of Jewish history. He emphasized the four hundred years of slavery the Jews suffered at the hands of the Egyptians before Moses led them from captivity. “When a movement fundamentally religious makes a weak nation strong,” he argued, “changes a nondescript tribal people into a mighty and powerful civilization, rescues them from captivity and elevates them to sovereignty, transforms their ignorance into knowledge and endows them with an impetus of advancement in all degrees of development . . . it becomes evident that religion is the cause of man’s attainment to honor and sublimity.”


But even as religion transforms civilization, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá argued, it too must change. While its moral core remains the same throughout time, he explained, its social laws are designed for a specific age. When stubbornly clung to, they become a source of irrationality and decay. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá discussed how the religion of Moses had been renewed by Jesus, and again by Muhammad. Each time the pattern was the same: these founders of the great religions were born into decaying societies, and effected a wholesale transformation in their moral, cultural, educational, and economic character.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá argued repeatedly in America that nothing short of the unifying power of religion could generate global peace and justice in the modern age. His father, Bahá’u’lláh, had re-voiced religion’s eternal teachings, and brought the social guidance needed for an age in which the unification of the planet was within reach. Bahá’u’lláh had abolished the priesthood, challenged people to investigate truth independently from outside influences, urged them to banish all forms of superstition and prejudice, and affirmed that service to the entire human race was the highest form of worship.


  • Arie

    While I have hardly ever participated in the discussions here, your daily articles have provided much information, inspiration and invitation to deepen and study- both within the Faith and history. Thank you!

    • Karridine

      “Those who are ignorant of history, condemn themselves to repeat the mistakes of their forefathers…” paraphrased… but yes, studying our shared history can help us investigate the truth, and the truth sets us free…!

  • barbara

    In full agreement with Arie. Very grateful indeed for this daily dose of fact and insight that give fuller appreciation of the Master’s visit and His message to us all.

  • Anne Perry

    It’s hard to think about these 239 days being over–on Wednesday! Thanks to all who have worked on this site. Any chance you will want to follow Abdu’l-Baha to Europe? I will continue my own blog–provided I can find the resources needed to support it.

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

      Good to hear from you Anne. There is no plan to continue beyond the American portion of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s western tour. However, the archive will remain online indefinitely. We will continue to promote it and plan keep the conversation going in the discussion forums beneath each feature.

  • Loie Mead

    In complete agreement with Barbara and Arie…This daily “dose of fact and insight” works to connect us with His Story and increases our awareness of the role we are to play. In a society so disjointed and prone to novelties of the moment, we desperately need the unifying effect of this daily communication. It provides a hotline to reality.

  • Sharon Lund

    I, too, am inspired each day by these intimate glimpses into how we, too, might live our lives and exemplify the virtues of our Beloved Faith. I hope there is a way to continue… I will have ‘withdrawl” otherwise.

  • Dru

    Everyone who has commented has also expressed my thoughts as well. How long will these stories be accessible in an archive? I have reread several throughout these 235 days. Excellent job.

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

      Dru, we plan to leave this archive online for years to come.

      • Linda


        • Karridine

          More YAY! These articles and their podcasts are a valuable resource, indeed.

  • Rebecca

    I am delighted to learn that these daily posts will be archived and available for years to come. Have often thought that they are wonderful bits of information to share with those, both Baha’i and not yet, about the very early days of the Baha’i Faith in America. Another warm thank you for all the work you have done to bring this to us each day.
    Postscript… I had the pleasure of hearing Kathryn Jewett Hogenson speak for two days at Desert Rose recently on stories of the first Pilgrimage – stories from her recent
    book on the subject. Her stories, and your daily posts, have given me, after being a Baha’i for over 30 years, a clearer perspective on those critical early days. Fascinating both. Again, thank you…Rebecca

  • Shahla

    I share these features with a large number of friends who are not Baha’is, and am hoping all conversation is clearly intended for the general public.