THE UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER rushed over the half-circled ledges of layered limestone and sandstone, pouring forward on its long journey toward America’s south. St. Anthony Falls was the focal point of a city that was the world leader in flour milling: Minneapolis, Minnesota. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke at the industrial center on September 20, 1912. He talked about the need for moral progress in addition to the material progress so evident in America.
“If we review history,” he told his audience, “we will observe that human advancement has been greatest in the development of material virtues. Civilization is the sign and evidence of this progression.”
Civilization in Minneapolis had been built on St. Anthony Falls, the only major natural waterfall on the Upper Mississippi River. Early on, the white settlers of the Minnesota Territory harnessed the power of the falls for industrial use. They built a dam — shaped like a “V” to divert water on either side of the river — and power mills along its banks. First came the sawmills, chewing through the logs of white pine that had floated down from the forests up north. During the 1870’s, the flour mills began to take over. Minneapolis soon became known as “The Flour Milling Capital of the World,” passing Budapest as the world’s leading processor of grain in 1897; by 1900 its mills produced over fourteen percent of America’s flour. The wheat came in by way of rail lines across the Northern Plains, was processed in Minneapolis, then shipped out to destinations in the Eastern United States for export and domestic distribution.
“Throughout the world,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said in Minneapolis, “material civilization has attained truly wonderful heights and degrees of efficiency — that is to say, the outward powers and virtues of man have greatly developed, but the inner and ideal virtues have been correspondingly delayed and neglected.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s audience in Minnesota could see the material power he discussed all around them, stemming from the unceasing march of the water that drove their mills.
As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá set out across America in 1912, Minnesota’s flour industry was reaching its peak. Culture and sophistication had followed. “Minneapolis has built for herself a social fabric that is in every way creditable to the high standard of Western civilization,” Harper’s Weekly had observed in 1890.
But today ‘Abdu’l-Bahá argued for more. “It is now the time in the history of the world,” he asserted, “for us to strive and give an impetus to the advancement and development of inner forces — that is to say, we must arise to service in the world of morality, for human morals are in need of readjustment.” “The minds of men,” he said, had to “increase in power and become keener in perception . . . so that the ideal virtues may appear.”
Minneapolis’s milling industry started to collapse after 1916. Steam power, and then electricity, surmounted the advantage which the water power of St. Anthony Falls had given Minnesota. Wheatfields along the Red River Valley exhausted themselves from repetitive planting. Farmers on the southern plains developed a new brand of winter wheat, which could be processed closer to the source in Kansas City. Finally, the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled that flour was a manufactured product, which should be shipped at a higher rate. This meant that it now made better economic sense to send unprocessed grain further east along the iron rails to be processed closer to market. Soon Buffalo supplanted Minneapolis as America’s flour capital.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá had begun his talk in Minnesota with a statement of intent. “There are many meetings in the world,” he said, “thousands of them perhaps being held at this very moment, mostly for social, political, scientific or commercial purposes; but our gathering here tonight is for God, for heavenly purposes.” If spiritual advancement was to occur, it necessitated its own structures, its own enterprises. The ideal virtues that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá discussed, which included “insight,” “memory,” “the power of love,” and the “ability to prove the existence of God,” would strengthen as these societal structures gradually emerged.