In the summer of 1911, `Abdu’l-Bahá, the eldest son and appointed successor of Bahá’u’lláh, embarked on a historic journey to the United Kingdom, Europe and North America – an act crucial to the establishment of the Faith in the West. For two years, in churches, mosques, synagogues, philanthropic organizations and informal gatherings, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá proclaimed the social and spiritual teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to multitudes across the entire spectrum of Western society. His presence amongst the early Western Bahá'ís also provided invaluable encouragement, consolidating their sense of identity and purpose.
`Abdu’l-Bahá visited the United Kingdom twice. On His first visit, He arrived in England on 3 September 1911. A guest at the home of Lady Blomfield in Cadogan Gardens, `Abdu’l-Bahá travelled throughout London, Surrey and Bristol.
`Abdu’l-Bahá's first visit to England included a weekend stay in the city of Bristol where He met Bahá'ís and their friends. What struck some of those present was his extremely natural and simple behaviour," wrote an observer, "and the pleasant sense of humour, which his long imprisonment and awful trials had not succeeded in destroying."
On 10 September 1911, at the invitation of Reverend Reginald John Campbell, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave a public address from the pulpit of the City Temple Church in Holborn, London, to an audience of over 2,000 people, proclaiming that, “This is a new cycle of human power…the gift of God in this enlightened age is the knowledge of the oneness of mankind and the fundamental oneness of religion.”
The following week, on 17 September 1911, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was invited by Albert Wilberforce, the Archdeacon of Westminster, to address the congregation at St John’s Church. Archdeacon Wilberforce, in his introduction, quoted Rudyard Kipling’s famous line, that, “East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” but insisted that, “they can and do meet on the common ground of love and here is the proof. Look at our wonderful guest tonight who has suffered 40 years of imprisonment for the sake of humanity ... because of His message of love and unity to all peoples.”
So impressed was the Archdeacon by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words about God, the need for Divine Educators to guide humanity and the oneness of these Educators, that he announced: “Truly the East and the West have met in this sacred place tonight.”
‘Abdu’l-Bahá left London on 3 October 1911 and continued with His travels to Paris. He spent much of 1912 in North America and made His second visit to Britain later that year.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in Liverpool on 13 December 1912 after crossing from New York City on the SS Celtic. Over a period of a few weeks, He visited Liverpool, London, Oxford, Edinburgh, Bristol and Woking, before leaving for Paris on 21 January 1913.
In His public talks, interviews and encounters, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed significant topics relevant to contemporary issues in Britain.
Throughout His travels to the West, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá proclaimed His unquestioning belief in the oneness of mankind. He urged people to eliminate all forms of prejudice, and to love all as brothers and sisters, no matter the “class…race or nationality…creed or colour, whether good or bad, rich or poor”.
He received hundreds of guests during His stay in Cadogan Gardens. It is recorded that from morning to nightfall, scores of people would arrive at the door, with the hope of meeting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and hearing Him talk. Among these visitors were the intelligentsia and the illiterate; the affluent and the impoverished; high ranking clergy and ordinary believers of various denominations; people of diverse nationalities and ethnic origins; members of Parliament, magistrates, social activists and artists. All, without distinction, were warmly welcomed.
These were the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His talk to over a thousand suffragettes at the Women’s Freedom League in London on 2 January 1913. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s address on the equality of women and men was received with resounding applause and enthusiasm.
During His visit, He also met with Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffragette movement. It is recorded that Mrs Pankhurst was “much cheered” by her interview with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá who, whilst urging the suffragettes to refrain from acts of violence, encouraged Mrs Pankhurst to continue her work steadfastly, assuring her that women would very shortly take “their rightful place in the world”.
On the equality of men and women He explained: “As long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs.”
In His meetings with society’s elite, Abdu’l Baha reminded the rich of their responsibility to the poor in their midst, and urged them to voluntarily support the disadvantaged who lived all around them. And in His encounters with the homeless and disadvantaged, such as His visit to the Westminster Salvation Army Shelter, on Christmas night 1912, His compassion served to empower as well as console.
One of the most prominent social messages that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ brought to the West was the need for international peace, which He called, “the most momentous question of this day”.
During His travels ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ warned against the seemingly inevitable catastrophe of the First World War, but also spoke constructively about securing prerequisites for universal peace such as women’s suffrage, a world tribunal, collective security, justice and religious unity.
He proclaimed that, “So long as prejudice—whether religious, racial, patriotic, political or sectarian—continues to exist among mankind, universal peace cannot become a reality in the world. From the earliest history of man down to the present time all the wars and bloodshed which have taken place were caused either by religious, racial, political or sectarian bias. Therefore, it is evident that so long as these prejudices continue, the world of humanity cannot attain peace and composure”.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke repeatedly and unequivocally during his time in the UK regarding the principle of the oneness of religion. He also challenged His audiences to consider that science and religion were ‘intertwined’, and stated that, “Every religion which does not concern itself with science is mere tradition”.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá further elucidated on the relationship between science and religion: “Religion and science are the two wings upon which man's intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.”
During His visit, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá showed great interest in the various philanthropic causes in the UK. Amongst various movements and organisations that He met with, He visited Passmore Edwards Settlement, Tavistock Place, where working women were supported, and where the first fully equipped classrooms for children with disabilities were pioneered.
It is a century since ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to the UK, yet his words are perhaps more relevant than ever. The prominent themes and concerns raised during His visit continue to be explored and shared by the UK Bahá'í community.
The Bahá’í community collaborates with government and civil society organisations on many of the challenges that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá raised, including education, advancing the equality of women and men, cultivating social cohesion and promoting religious freedom. Bahá’ís are also involved in interfaith work at national and local levels to continue to understand, along with co-religionists, the role of religion in today’s society.
In neighbourhoods and localities, Bahá’ís and their friends are gaining knowledge and experience through their community building activities, and are continuing to learn about the actions and capacities required for material and spiritual progress in the UK and worldwide.
An interesting post-script to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visits to the UK began shortly after His return to Palestine in 1913. With great foresight, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá began privately growing and storing large quantities of grain, so that when food shortages caused by the First World War occurred, He was able to assist the people of His city of Akka and prevent starvation.
In April 1920, the British government, in recognition of this humanitarian act, saw fit to bestow a Knighthood upon Him, a title He graciously accepted, but never used.
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