239 Days in America

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

Day
238
 | 
December 4, 1912
New York, NY
Storify Feature

At Home in America

BEFORE HE EVEN stepped off the ship, reporter Wendell Phillips Dodge had tried to peg him as a “Wise Man Out of the East.” Nixola Greeley-Smith, a columnist for the New York World, joked about his “regulation prophet’s whiskers,” adding to a chorus of early coverage that struggled to come to terms with the “exotic Easterner” in their midst. Yet quite quickly, America’s press realized that there was much more to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Evening Mail’s editorial page commented on “the strange anomaly of an oriental mystic who believes in woman suffrage and modern development,” noting that he was “as much at home on Broadway, in New York, as he was in the lonely cell at Acre.”

On his second day in America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was whizzing over the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn, then back again, taking in the rush hour traffic and the teeming masses, and telling one reporter that he was “beautifully tired.” It is unclear how long ‘Abdu’l-Bahá originally planned to stay in America, but after repeatedly extending his trip, he wound up staying 239 days. During this time he would travel the breadth of the nation, deliver over 400 public addresses, converse with thousands more in more intimate gatherings, grant hundreds of personal interviews, and receive coverage in more than 350 newspaper articles. Far from being an outsider looking in on American life, he succeeded in placing himself at the center of virtually all of the nation’s raging debates.

“The modern suffragette is fighting for what must be,” he said while still aboard the SS Cedric in New York Harbor. “The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the scales are already shifting — force is losing its weight and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy.”

In New York, prominent clergymen such as Percy Stickney Grant, a leading force in the Social Gospel movement, sought out ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and asked him to address their congregations. He shared their concern with social justice issues, and called on Americans to devote their time and means to helping the poor. In New York he also received invitations from peace advocates, and became a regular fixture in a network of leaders who shaped the movement in America, culminating in a major address at the Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration.

In Washington, DC, it was the city’s elite that sought ‘Abdu’l-Bahá out: members of the House of Representatives, of the Senate, and of the Cabinet; Justices of the Supreme Court; officials of foreign embassies; and men of science such as Alexander Graham Bell and Admiral Robert Peary. But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had more pressing issues to attend to in the nation’s capital. On April 23, he stood beside Louis Gregory, an African American lawyer and close personal friend, before 1,600 students, faculty, and guests at the nation’s leading black university — Howard University — and began a systematic assault on the nation’s color line that would last through to the end of his time in America. One week later the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to address their Fourth Annual Conference in Chicago.

At Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, on October 8, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá rejected the idea of “survival of the fittest,” and the notion that aggression is intrinsic to human nature. Over the next two months he would offer Americans a more complex model of human nature, defining human beings by the capacities that differentiate us from animals, asserting our free will, and affirming our ability to consciously choose to serve one another altruistically.

“Having traveled from coast to coast,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said in Cincinnati on November 5, the day of the presidential election, “I find the United States of America vast and progressive, the government just and equitable, the nation noble and independent.” During his time here, he reached across political, religious, racial, class, and gender lines to engage Americans in a conversation about their collective future. He praised “the optimism of this great country,” and the “quick perception, intelligence and understanding,” of the American people. “They are not content to stand still,” he said.

On his final night in America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke to the Theosophical Society in New York. He argued that the universe had a purpose — perhaps the type of talk Americans had expected of him when he first arrived. Then he told them that narrow religious dogma had no place in the modern age, and that humankind must transcend its lower nature, mired in jealousy, hypocrisy, greed, and injustice, and cultivate a world of justice, sincerity, faithfulness, and mercy. And then he said goodbye.

“[I] have traveled to all the large cities,” he said, “speaking before various assemblages, proclaiming to them the oneness of the world of humanity, summoning all to union, harmony and oneness. I have indeed received the greatest kindness from the American people. I look upon them as a noble nation, capable of every perfection.” Tomorrow, he would leave for Europe. “My happiness is great,” he told them. “I shall never forget you.”

ADD A NEW COMMENT

  • Loie Mead

    With conclusion of this social media documentary, my heart is too full to comment.
    Thank you “239 Days”.

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

    supreme gratitude;

  • Linda Khadem

    Greatest appreciation goes out to you and all who have been involved in this fabulous series. Every day has been illuminating, thought provoking and encouraging. Thank you very very much!!

  • Carla Jeffords

    With loving gratitude to everyone who made this internet journey such a delight. It gives us such hope that we can, as a nation do the things that ‘Abdu’l-Baha felt us capable. Thank you again for such a magnificent journey!

  • Anne Perry

    The Journey that Does Not End

    “I am always a traveller to America.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

    There is a mystery—something ever green,
    a cycle occurring again and again.

    He traveled, in 1912, and travels again
    each year, April to December—three seasons, then a
    dormancy. (No doubt He is packing for the next
    trip, preparing to greet another round of swooning
    admirers and curious onlookers.)

    But what if it was never just a physical journey,
    what if the lesson is not in the where and when and who and why
    but in a mystery folded and unfolded
    like a linen napkin at an elegant dinner party
    where there is always a new bottle of sparking elixer,
    fresh grapes upon pyramids of luscious fruits—

    But I have fallen into tangibles
    When I am TRYING to describe the eternal.

    “I am always a traveller to America,” He said,
    “and am assuredly associating with spiritual and illumined friends.”
    There’s the rub.
    How to be spiritual
    How to be illumined
    How to be a constant friend.

    When His ship arrives or is always arriving
    When the train pulls into the station
    in D.C., Boston, or Philadelphia
    When the motorcar creeps between Dublin and Eliot
    When a young Mohawk boy falls off a fence in surprise,
    catching a glimpse of a wave and a turban,
    When an illiterate miner hears His
    words in Persian and understands them in English
    When a determined poor man rides under
    and above the trains to meet Him
    When a wealthy woman fetes him at her country estate
    When a portrait painter depicts His servitude to God
    and a disciple begs to be recreated
    When He heals the maladies of those who seek Him
    and dispels the cobwebs of superstition
    When He meets men of science
    and women intent on getting the right to vote
    When children encircle Him, fascinated
    When the black, brown, yellow, red, and white races
    are all embraced in His flower garden
    When gingko leaves flourish and fall
    When the moon of His life reflects the
    sun of his Father’s
    When stars dance with delight—

    I want to be there:
    standing with Him at Niagara,
    dining in the garden at Glenwood Springs,
    envisioning the future on Monsalvat . . .

    And all we have to do to entice Him to come again and again
    into the journey of ourselves:
    Be spiritual
    Be illumined
    Be a constant friend.

    Anne Gordon Perry

    • Karridine

      God is MOST-Glorious!
      I wish I’d written that…

    • Karl

      Thank you Anne for a most beautiful poem! AnD thank you to the authors of 239 Days! You have amazingly captured some of the most beautiful stories and connections of what will certainly come to be recognized as the most historical, spiritual and illuminating period of our nation’s history.

    • Yi Chi

      Our path is magnificent and never alone
      For thousands angels all way along
      Let’s accompany each other on this independent march
      Burned in pain of love
      Light the darkness and our world on

  • Bret Breneman

    Thanks for giving such vivid context to this immortal visit. There will never be a commemorative period like this one, though it’s true that our ancestors will see more of the forest than we are able to, here so close to the trees.

  • Mehran Kiai

    I express my heartfelt and sincere gratitude for this remarkable effort for putting this website together. The writing style, in addition for being scholarly, is also engaging. The socio-political context, masterfully collected and presented, illumins the mind to better appreciate the importance and timeliness of the utterances of the beloved Master in America. The site was enriched by many photographs, painstakingly selected and sourced, to make the site appear up-to-date yet, dignified and impressive. The pace of the presentation and the amount of the content perfectly adequate for a daily reading and contemplation. Congratulations and may the Beloved reward you abundantly for this exemplary effort.

  • Bill Clark

    Wonderful job. Thank you for doing this. I have followed since the beginning.

  • Ms. Locs

    Thank you so very much for the beautiful words and discription of ‘Abdu’lBaha’s visit!

  • Philip Cantor

    Dear Jonathan and 239 Days Team,

    Please accept my heartfelt gratitude for “239 Days.” It is a masterpiece of vision, insight and understanding and it was a joy to experience it as it unfolded day by day. Since it is a social media documentary of the Master’s historic journey in America in real time exactly 100 years after it occurred, it is endowed with special power and “moment;” and because the events it depicts and their significance are so vividly brought to life by photographs and historical
    records, the 100 years between then and now appears as a mere “wrinkle in time.”

    239 Days has been vast and enriching for so many reasons:

    +It provided a “living” and detailed context of time and place to accompany the
    reading of The Promulgation of Universal Peace;
    ·
    +It was like a pilgrimage to me because it brought me so close to the Master.
    ·
    +It helped me to know America’s history in the light of reality because reality is precisely the framework that Abdu’l-Baha brought to bear upon American history. The sharp focus on 1912 in the detailed context of the Master’s journey not only illumines the 20th century, but also the 19th.
    ·
    +It helped me to realize Abdu’l-Baha’s penetrating understanding and mastery of every situation along with His audacity, His courage, His tireless devotion,
    and His stupendous effort to bring His Father’s message of universal peace and the oneness and solidarity of humanity to America;
    ·
    +It helped me to appreciate the Master’s total reliance on the Holy Spirit and His
    profound attribution and gratitude to Baha’u’llah for all the victories and
    confirmations of His journey.
    ·
    +It helped me to realize that the world Abdu’l-Baha saw was not so different than
    the one we see today with its, buildings, cars, and electricity. The people He
    encountered are the same types of people we see today and we must approach them in the same way he did, using the same figures of speech, images, proofs, and arguments. Moreover, Abdu’l-Baha genuinely appreciated America and loved Americans, as we Baha’is, who happen to live in America, must also learn to do.
    ·
    +239 Days depicts Abdu’l-Baha’s sojourn in America, with a beginning (April 5, 1912) and an end (December 5, 1912) and a duration (239 days). Perhaps we can approach each “Cycle of Growth” (90 Days) with the spirit and zeal of a “Sojourn.”

    For me 239 Days has been a powerful instrument for the realization of the “great hope” of the House of Justice, expressed in its Ridvan Message of 2011, namely:

    “Our great hope is that frequent recollection, during
    this centennial period, of the Master’s matchless record will inspire and
    fortify His sincere admirers. Set His 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.”

    Let us one and all realize the great hope of our beloved House of Justice—that the Master’s “matchless record” and “example” will be our “instinctive guide” in our “pursuit of the aim of the Plan.” Now it is ours, as never before, to translate what has been so lovingly and freely given to us into action and reality.

    Thank you, Jonathan and 239 Days Team, for giving us such a wonderful means to vindicate and to continue Abdu’l-Baha’s epoch-making Journey in America.

    With loving gratitude,

    Philip Cantor