In God Passes By (page 256) Shoghi Effendi refers to the brief mention that was made of the Bahá'í Faith by the Rev. Henry Jessup at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.
Many Bahá'ís have taken to calling this the first public mention of the Faith in the West. Although it may well have been the first public mention of the Faith in North America, the Bahá'í Faith had already been the subject of lectures in Britain.
The religion of the Bab was brought to prominence by the Comte de Gobineau in his book Les Religions et Les Philosophies dans l'Asie Centrale which was published in 1865. At least one public reference to the religion of the Bab was made as a consequence of this book.
The famous writer and critic, Matthew Arnold, made a brief reference to the Faith in an address that he gave to the Birmingham and Midland Institute on October 16th 1871 (See M. Momen, Babi and Bahá'í Religions). However, the great interest caused by Gobineau's book makes it certain that if we were to search hard, other more extensive references based on Gobineau could be found. This however, only relates to the religion of the Bab.
The fact that the religion of the Bab had transformed itself into the Bahá'í Faith was somewhat slow in reaching the West. The person to bring this to the attention of the people of this part of the world was Professor Edward Granville Browne of Cambridge University.
Browne spent almost a year in Iran in 1887-88. On his return to England in September 1888, he began to organize the information he had collected about the Faith. Then in early 1889 he began to write up his findings regarding the Bahá'í Faith for an academic paper.
Cambridge, Newcastle, and London
During research on E. G. Browne at Cambridge University Library it was discovered that Browne made a number of presentations about the Faith in England. On February 25th 1889, he gave a lecture to Pembroke College Literary Society - known as the 'Martlets' - during which the Faith was discussed at length. This was a semi-private meeting, but it qualifies as the earliest mention of the Faith.
In the Easter vacation that year, he returned to his family home in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There, on March 29th 1889, he gave a presentation on the Faith before the Essay Society.
Later the same year he presented two papers to consecutive meetings of the Royal Asiatic Society in London on April 15th and June 17th 1889. The two papers were entitled The Babis of Persia, I: Sketch of their History, and Personal Experience amongst Them and The Babis of Persia, II: Their Literature and Doctrines.
These two papers were published in the Journal of the Society in July and October of the same year.
In 1890 the South Place Institute invited Browne to speak at the South Place Chapel, Finsbury, London. The South Place Ethical Society was started in 1793 as a Universalist church but later followed Unitarian doctrine, becoming an independent establishment in 1833.
Two ministers dominated its nineteenth century history. From 1817 until 1864 the minister was William J. Fox. A preacher, writer, journalist, editor, MP, political orator, and social reformer, he introduced a parliamentary Bill for national secular education and campaigned for the Anti-Corn Law League. A 12-volume memorial set of his work was published posthumously.
In February 1864, Monclure Daniel Conway, American preacher and abolitionist, disciple and friend of Emerson, was appointed as minister. He was part of the New England Group that included Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was a prolific writer and biographer whose most famous work was on Thomas Paine.
South Place became associated with, amongst others, Robert and Elizabeth Browning; Thomas Carlyle; Charles Dickens; George Eliot; the Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell; the musical Novello family; Dr. J. T. Kirkland, President of Harvard; Keshub Chunder Sen, the Indian religious reformer; James Legge, the first professor of Chinese at Oxford; George Bernard Shaw; and J. Ramsey Macdonald. Of special note to Bahá'ís are Benjamin Jowett of Baliol and Ernest Renan.
Although at first the South Place meetings were fairly standard church services, during Fox's ministry outside speakers were increasingly invited. Conway used to give only 30 sermons a year. It was during the two years after Conway returned to the United States that the famous Sunday afternoon free lectures, open to the public and well attended, took place.
A series of Sunday afternoon concerts and recitals started in 1887. These supported young performers and composers such as Vaughan Williams, John Barbirolli, and Hamilton Harty.
South Place was the first truly non-conformist institution in London and it became an important centre of liberal thought. Browne's 10,000 word lecture, one of a series by speakers such as Rev. Professor H. C. Shuttleworth, J. E. Carlyle, and Annie Besant on 'The Religious Systems of the World' was devoted entirely to the Faith and was delivered on Sunday February 15th 1891 at four o'clock. It was entitled "Babiism".
It is worth reviewing a few points from the lecture.'.... all the rest accepting Bahá'u'lláh,' Browne said, 'as the final and perfect manifestation of the Truth. ... The essence of their teaching is, in reality, one and the same; for the same universal wisdom speaks, and the divine will acts through all of them.' Browne quoted the Bab: ' If today anyone believes in the Beyan [sic] he is seated on a throne of glory, though he be seated in the dust.'
Browne explained the Faith's social beliefs: 'War must cease, nation's must mingle in friendship, justice must become universal, all must be as brothers'. He then quotes Bahá'u'lláh: 'Ye are all the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch Religious hatred and rancour is a world-consuming fire.'
Of the Faith the lecture's opening paragraph states '.....whatever its actual destiny may be, (the Bahá'í Faith) is of that stuff whereof world religions are made. And to this rank does it claim, demanding nothing less than universal acceptance and undisputed sway not only in Persia.... but throughout the whole world.'
The lecture ends with this: ' But what I cannot hope to have conveyed to you is the terrible earnestness of these men, and the indescribable influence which this earnestness, combined with other qualities, exerts on anyone who has actually been brought in contact with them.' This happened some two and a half years before Jessup's paper in Chicago and qualifies as the earliest popular public mention of the Bahá'í Faith in the West.
The full text of the lecture is preserved on pages 333 to 353 of the collected South Place lectures. The collection entitled The Religious Systems of the World was first published in 1892 and ran into several editions.
This seems to have been the first popular publication of the Bahá'í Faith or the words of Bahá'u'lláh in the West.
On February 23rd 1891, Browne apparently repeated the lecture to the 'Martlets' at Pembroke College, Cambridge. The detailed description of the lecture is unique in the Society's minute book (1880 to 1902).
This paper was prepared by the Bahá'í Information Office (United Kingdom) for the U.K. Bahá'í Centenary 1998-99 and is based on research and articles by Dr Moojan Momen (Bahá'í Journal, September 1989) and Derek Cockshutt (Bahá'í Journal, March 1993).
A valuable source book for information about these early times is The Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts by Moojan Momen (Published George Ronald, 1981).