14 Jan
Posted in: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, History, United States
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An Unexpected Beginning

On April 11th 1912 the steamship Cedric arrived on the shores of New York City, marking the beginning of ‘Abdul-Bahá’s historic travels in the United States.  Moved by the “outburst of systematic and sustained activity[1]” by the Bahá’ís residing in the West “‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself resolved that, as soon as He should be released from His prolonged confinement in ‘Akká, He would undertake a personal mission to the West.[2]”  Remarkably, not a single Bahá’í resided in the United States just twenty years prior to His journey[3]. In the brief span of twenty years, the Bahá’í community in the United States developed from a state of nonexistence to a vigorous and vibrant community, inspiring ‘Abdul-Bahá, who at the time was sixty-eight years old, to undertake the arduous journey to the West.  Although the early believers would later be praised for their “systematic and sustained activity,” the circumstances surrounding the introduction of the Faith in the United States could be characterized conversely as both serendipitous and haphazard.

On September 11th 1893 the World Parliament of Religions took place as part of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. The historical significance of this event will forever be remembered not only as the first attempt in United States history to bring members of diverse religions from all over the world together in one forum[4] but also the first occasion that the Bahá’í Faith was ever announced publicly in the Western Hemisphere.  Members of diverse religions from around the world were invited to present papers in the parliament that was dominated by English-speaking Christian representatives.[5]  Of the 194 papers presented, 152 speakers represented Christianity, 12 speakers represented Buddhism, 11 Judaism, 8 Hinduism, 2 Islam, 2 Parisis religion, 2 Shintoism, 2 Confucianism, 1 Taoism and 1 Jainism.[6]  Absent from the invitees was a representative from the Bahá’í community.

The first public announcement of the Bahá’í Faith in the United States was not made by a Bahá’í scholar or even a Bahá’í for that matter, but rather by a Christian reverend named Dr. Henry H. Jessup.[7]  Despite the fact that his entire presentation was about Protestant Christianity, he ended his speech with the following sentiment of Bahá’u’lláh, published by Edward Grandville Brown:

That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease and differences of race be annulled; what harm  is there in this? Yet so it shall be. These fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come. Do not you in Europe need this also? Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind.[8]

It was these words that resonated in the heart of William H. Hoer, a Chicago businessman who was in the audience listening to Dr. Jessup’s talk, causing him to investigate and accept the Faith. It resonated with Thorton Chase, the first American Bahá’í, who would later read the talk in a newspaper.[9] It was these words that began the process of the Faith’s expansion in the United States, creating a community which twenty years later would be immeasurably blessed with the presence of the Master himself.

[1] Shoghi Effendi God Passes By p 259

[2] Ibid p 259

[3] Hogenson, Kathryn . Lighting the Western Sky. Oxford: George Ronald, 2010. 14.

[4] Ibid p 19

[5] [5] Seager, R. H. 1986. “The World’s Parliament of Religions, Chicago, Illinois, 1893 : America’s Religious Coming of Age.” Ph.D. Diss., Harvard University.

[6] Ibid

[7] Hogenson, Kathryn . Lighting the Western Sky. Oxford: George Ronald, 2010. 19.

[8] Stockman, Thorton Chase pp 116-117

[9] Hogenson, Kathryn . Lighting the Western Sky. Oxford: George Ronald, 2010. 20

Photo from www.ramakrishna.org

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