‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Canada
Abdu’l-Bahá, Son of Bahá’u’lláh and appointed Centre of His Covenant, journeyed to Europe and to North America in 1912 and 1913, after His release from over forty years of exile and imprisonment. At an advanced age, He undertook the strenuous journey both to meet the Bahá’ís and to proclaim publicly the message of peace and world unity which His Father had brought to humanity. His journeys brought him to Canada, from August 30 to September 9, 1912.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá was born on May 23 1844, the same night the Báb announced Himself as a Messenger of God. When, a few weeks later, His Father announced His support for the new faith, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, along with His family, was swept into the centre of a whirlwind of persecution which was never to abate. Driven as a small child, along with His mother and sister, from the mansion in Tihrán which was looted and burned by fanatical mobs, He faced a lifetime of suffering. When Bahá’u’lláh was released from His first imprisonment, ill and weakened by privation, He returned to the fierce devotion of an eight-year-old boy who had appointed Himself servant, companion and protector of His adored Father.
The path of exile on which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá followed His Father led from the comfort of the governing class in Iran to banishment to Baghdad in Iraq, followed by further exile to Constantinople and Adrianople. The culmination of these exiles was reached in the penal colony of ‘Akká in Palestine (now Israel), where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá cared for His Father until Bahá’u’lláh’s passing in 1892.
In the later years of Bahá’u’lláh’s life, as He withdrew from public life to devote Himself to the preparation of the system of laws which was the major task of His Revelation, the service required of His Son assumed new dimensions. The account written by the Cambridge Orientalist Dr. E. G. Browne after his meeting with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá suggests the impression made by Him on an erudite and cultured Westerner:
"Seldom have I seen one whose appearance impressed me more. A tall strongly-built man holding himself straight as an arrow, with white turban and raiment, long black locks reaching almost to the shoulder, broad powerful forehead indicating a strong intellect combined with an unswerving will, eyes keen as a hawk’s, and strongly marked but pleasing features – such was my first impression of ‘Abbás Efendi, ‘the master’…as he, par excellence, is called by the [Bahá’ís]. Subsequent conversation with him served only to heighten the respect with which his appearance had from the first inspired me. One more eloquent of speech, more ready of argument, more apt of illustration, more intimately acquainted with the sacred books of the Jews, the Christians, and the Muhammadans, could, I should think, scarcely be found even among the eloquent, ready, and subtle race to which he belongs. These qualities, combined with a bearing at once majestic and genial, made me cease to wonder at the influence and esteem which he enjoyed even beyond the circle of his father’s followers. About the greatness of this man and his power no one who had seen him could entertain a doubt."
[Edward G. Browne, ed. A Traveller’s Narrative, English translation and notes. (Cambridge University Press, 1891) Vol. II, xxxvi.]
Significantly, one of the first acts of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá upon His release from prison was to begin planning a lengthy journey to the West. The titles of His public addresses leave no doubt as to His desire to promote the teachings of His Father, and they are well-documented in the volumes Paris Talks, Addresses Given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris in 1911-12, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London, and The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá During His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. They covered subjects as broad as the issues of the equality of men and women, world economics, the elimination of racism, the foundations of world government, and many other issues of both a spiritual and material nature.
Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith and grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, has left us a poignant glimpse of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s triumphant progress through Europe and America: "Who knows what thoughts flooded the heart of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as He found Himself the central figure of such memorable scenes…what memories stirred within Him as …He sat at breakfast beside the Lord Mayor in London…or moved with a retinue of Oriental believers along the paths of the Trocadero…or walked alone in the evening beside the majestic Hudson…?"
Above all, His thoughts must have centred in Bahá’u’lláh, Whom He loved so passionately…the vermin-infested Síyáh-Chál…the bastinado inflected upon Him in Amul…His confinement behind the prison walls of ‘Akká…must have many a time overpowered Him with feelings of mingled gratitude and sorrow… “O Bahá’u’lláh! What hast thou done?”...He was heard to exclaim one evening…“O Bahá’u’lláh, may My soul be offered up for Thy sake! How full were Thy days with trials and tribulations! How severe the ordeals Thou didst endure! How solid the foundation Thou has laid, and how glorious the banner Thou didst hoist!”1
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit attracted wide attention in the media, and He was interviewed by numerous journalists who sought His views on the establishment of world peace and on the Great War which He saw approaching. He spoke to rich and to poor, in private homes, churches, halls, and hotels. He comforted children, demonstrated the principle of racial equality in all his actions, and encouraged the Bahá’ís to persevere in bringing the Bahá’í message to their fellow citizens.
His visit to Canada was especially rewarding. As He wrote later of His travels, in The Tablets of the Divine Plan, “‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His journey and sojourn through that Dominion obtained the utmost joy. Before My departure, many souls warned Me not to travel to Montreal, saying, the majority of the inhabitants are Catholics, and are in the utmost fanaticism, that they are submerged in the sea of imitations, that they have not the capability to hearken to the call of the Kingdom of God…But these stories did not have any effect on the resolution of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He, trusting in God, turned His face toward Montreal. When He entered that city He observed all the doors open, He found the hearts in the utmost receptivity and the ideal power of the Kingdom of God removing every obstacle and obstruction….” He expressed the hope that “…in the future Montreal may become so stirred, that the melody of the Kingdom may travel to all parts of the world from that Dominion and the breaths of the Holy Spirit may spread from that centre to the East and the West of America,” and He predicted that “the future of Canada, whether from a material or a spiritual standpoint, is very great.”
While His sojourn in Canada lasted only eleven days, as He Himself said, “Undoubtedly those seeds will grow, becoming green and verdant, and many rich harvests will be gathered.” Since those momentous eleven days, the Bahá’í Community in Canada has grown from a handful of devoted individuals to a size of approximately 20,000, with local governing bodies, called Local Spiritual Assemblies, in 350 towns and cities across the country, and smaller Bahá’í groups or individuals in over 1,000 additional locations. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s prediction is being realized, and Canadian Bahá’ís look confidently to the future developments of their blessed community.
– Source: Preface to the commemorative edition of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Canada, 1987.
– 1Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1970) 292-293.