The Christian Century, Volume 74, Number 15 (April
10, 1957): pp. 449-451
"IF THESE BAHA'IS ever get going, they may take the country
by storm." So said a discerning Protestant minister as we talked one
evening about America's most "ecumenical" faith. He felt the
Bahá'ís were held captive on two counts: their insistence that a new prophet
had appeared in the person of Bahá'u'lláh, and their lack of emphasis on
a personalized faith.
This comment prompted me to take a second look at the Bahá'í group,
which has a $3 million temple in Wilmette, Illinois, an American membership
of perhaps 18,000, and sizable assemblies in most of our major cities.
All of which may be regarded as substantial for a religion which came to
the United States some sixty years ago.
Whenever a Bahá'í representative addressed a group of my students
there was a deep-seated response to the social and ethical teachings he
set forth. College students generally are as tired of sectarian squabbles
as they are tantalized by efforts toward spiritual unity. They liked the
Bahá'í emphasis and were interested not only by what Bahá'ísm is but by
what it may become. Also, they were not unwilling to accept the Bahá'í
claim that Woodrow Wilson in his plans for the League of Nations was influenced
by Bahá'u'lláh, that the steps toward world understanding might be the
result of Bahá'u'lláh's mystical presence, and that the development of
the United Nations might be the substance of the imposing shadow cast by
the Persian seer. So far so good. But when they learned that in order to
accept the precepts they must also accept the preceptor, that to become
true Bahá'ís they must recognise Bahá'u'lláh as the Promised One - this
simply spelled out another and new kind of sectarianism.
Cornerstone and Stumbling Block
It seemed that any second look would
only confirm the minister's contention of captivity: the Bahá'í cause is
held down by the unwillingness of Americans to accept seriously the claim
that another messiah has appeared or that Christ has returned. Though Bahá'u'lláh
might represent the cornerstone of Bahá'í faith, he was still the stumbling
block to Bahá'í growth throughout the Christian world.
I went to Israel recently, to the harbor city of Akka, for it was
there that Bahá'u'lláh, banished from Baghdad, spent his years of exile.
To this windswept land, where Francis of Assisi once walked, Bahá'u'lláh
came in chains in 1865. I went to the old prison where he was held captive
for 25 years and where his son, Abdul-Baha, was a prisoner for 40 years.
As I poked around behind the old walls and peered into the dungeons, the
Bahá'í story came to life. Bahá'u'lláh, like Jesus, had a forerunner who
called himself the Bab, which means "the Gate." In the midst
of the religious and political wrangling of Moslem, Christian and Jew,
the Bab said in effect: "A plague on all your houses. You have all
lost sight of your common origin." He preached that God is the Father
of all men and the Founder of all faiths, and that the time had come when
heaven would personify this truth. Like John the Baptist, the Bab announced
the coming of a messiah: Bahá'u'lláh, who proclaimed himself in 1863.
I went to Bahji, some six kilometers inland. Here is the sheik's
mansion where Bahá'u'lláh lived like a prince after his release from prison
and where he died in 1892. Here is the holy spot where Christians, Jews,
Moslems, Zoroastrians and Buddhists came to "lament the loss and magnify
the greatness of the herald of God." Bahá'ís even today do not speak
of the death of Bahá'u'lláh but, rather, of his ascension. In reverence,
I knelt beside the bier.
An Orientalist's Impressions
As I walked through the majestic rooms
I was reminded that it was here, years ago, that the noted Cambridge University
Orientalist, Edward G. Browne, visited Bahá'u'lláh. His impressions, widely
quoted, are precious to every ardent Bahá'í: "The face of him on whom
I gazed I can never forget. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one's very
soul.... No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before
One who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and
emperors sigh for in vain!"
This was Bahá'u'lláh whose power and grace Bahá'ís saw reflected
in his successor, Abdul-Baha, and which they see mirrored today in the
present leader, Shoghi Effendi, the eldest son of the eldest daughter of
Abdul-Baha, and a distant relative of the Bab. This was Bahá'u'lláh who,
as my minister friend insisted, "can never be sold to Americans; even
his name is against him."
But quietly in the heart of every Bahá'í there lives a feeling that
he and his fellows are children of destiny as well as children of light.
Bahá'u'lláh assured them in his writings: "Be not dismayed! Arise
to further my cause and to exalt my word among men..... We are truly almighty.
Whoso hath recognized me will arise and truly serve me with such determination
that the powers of earth and heaven shall be unable to defeat his purpose."
Cut to the Same Pattern
I have met Bahá'ís in many parts of the world.
They are all cut to the same pattern: heartfelt dedication to the cause
and person of Bahá'u'lláh, zeal in the advancement of their ideals. They
ask no salaries, want no honor, and are literally more interested in giving
than in receiving. Typical were two Bahá'í women I met in Chichicastenango.
They had been in this Guatemalan village for two years and had won two
converts among the Maya-Quichés. "Isn't this slow progress?"
I asked. "That all depends on how you figure it," I was told.
"Who knows the power or the value of one soul?"
For them it is unthinkable that anyone will ever rob Bahá'u'lláh
of his deification: he is the true reincarnation
of Christ. They plan to "get loose" from Christian
resistance to this claim through demonstration, through dedicated effort
in the cause which he proclaimed: the oneness of all mankind. How can he
be a stumbling block? How can he hold them captive? Many there were in
the days of Jesus who rejected him, and some there are who even today have
not accepted him. Bahá'ís believe that as Jesus brought the message of
the sanctity of the individual, so Bahá'u'lláh came to reveal the sanctity
of all races and faiths. God sends his prophets at stated periods with
a universal message for their time.
But for the Christian world this belief also presents a question
and a problem. Most Christians feel that the world has not caught up with
the teachings of Jesus, has not yet lived his life or met his challenge.
Bahá'u'lláh came too soon. Given time, we might somehow find the courage
and the will to live out the principles of Christ. And if we did that we
would automatically establish the kind of better world which Bahá'u'lláh
Bahá'ís do not agree that this can be accomplished through Christianity.
They contend that the truest and deepest teachings of Jesus are obscured
by the sectarian exclusiveness of the Christian faith. Christianity is
as divisive as Judaism, Buddhism or Islam. Bahá'u'lláh came to show us
a better way: we can find the treasure of true faith only by looking beneath
the "welter of intolerance and bigotry, formalism and hypocrisy, corruption
and misrepresentation, schism and contention." In other words, we
must accept a new prophet before we can rediscover the old. As of now it
is mockery to say, "In the spirit of Jesus we unite for the worship
of God and the service of man," since Christianity insists upon excluding
certain races and people and colors and creeds from its fellowship. So
say the Bahá'ís; and they add that this could never happen in the name
of Christ reborn, Bahá'u'lláh.
Nine Doors in the Temple
You will see a demonstration of this idea
at a Bahá'í service. It is an ecumenical service, without the benefit of
priest or cleric, a simple and solemn service with readings and music from
the living faiths of all the world. It is worship in which Protestant and
Catholic and every other Christian, Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu and person
of every other faith and race may participate. The temple in Wilmette has
nine doors, as if to declare that each of the world's great living religions
may enter through its own portal and unite with every other belief under
the single dome of God. Passages from Bahá'u'lláh's inspired writings adorn
each alabaster entrance and the words are always significant: "The
earth is one country and mankind its citizens"; "Make mention
of me on my earth that in my heaven I may remember thee"; "My
love is my stronghold; he that entereth therein is safe and secure."
But what about the second point of "captivity" which holds
back the progress of Bahá'í religion in America? What about the accusation
that it lacks emphasis in the area of the "personal gospel"?
Are Bahá'ís laboring under the illusion that people are more interested
in saving the world than in saving themselves? Do they realize that we
are in the whirr of the gospel of self-advancement? Haven't they caught
on to the fact that never before have so many in religious circles offered
so much to those who want more? Can't they see that the great masses of
people, weary of talk about the insecurity of the big world, are eager
to make their own little worlds safe and secure?
The Bahá'í answer to such impertinences has always been a patient
smile and a quiet word: "It is not what people want but what people
need that will save them. Life is intricately bound up with life. Individuals
are interwoven with individuals. The need of one is the need of all. The
concern of each is the concern of everyone. Your true self is every other
self, his love is your love and his peace your peace."
A 'Tenth Door' Opening?
But now a second look shows something quite
revealing: the opening - so it seems to me - of a "tenth door"
to the Bahá'í cause, a door for those who insist that religion must meet
their daily needs, help them over life's rough spots, and supply what so
many of our major faiths today promise their followers. This "tenth
door" is just now beginning to open slowly and silently, and the Bahá'ís
have a motto to engrave over its symbolic entrance: "The Power of
the Holy Spirit heals both material and spiritual ills!" And I hear
the voices of Bahá'ís saying: "Didn't you know that personal techniques
have always been basic in our teachings? Has it escaped you that we have
always believed in health and healing and help through the power of faith
Abdul-Baha had much to say on this matter, and just now his words
invite the modern searcher to investigate the Bahá'í claims. Let all who
are interested in the gospel of the abundant life take heed! It may be
that the Bahá'ís are coming.
"The healing that is by the power of the Holy Spirit needs no
special concentration or contact. Healing is through the wish or desire
and the prayer of the holy person.... as soon as that holy person turns
his heart to God and begins to pray, the sick one is healed." Thus
Bahá'u'lláh is being rediscovered in the area of mental therapy:
"Verily the most necessary thing is contentment under all circumstances....
Yield not to grief and sorrow, they cause the greatest misery. Jealousy
consumes the body and anger burns the liver."
Bahá'u'lláh is being found in the field of mental health: "Joy
gives us wings. In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect
Bahá'u'lláh appears in the arena of diet and health: "The food
of the future will be fruit and grain. Renouncing of tobacco, wine and
opium gives health, strength, intellectual enjoyment, penetration of judgement
and physical vigor."
Bahá'u'lláh speaks in the province of mystical prayer: "All
of us, when we attain to a truly spiritual condition, can hear the voice
These and many other injunctions covering the ethics of wealth, the
oneness of religion and science, the spiritual content of work and play,
the role of religion in education are part of the "tenth door."
From here on when someone cries out, "Poor me! All is lost! And you
want me to save the world?" the Bahá'í answer is clear: "Look
again and you will find in the teachings of our Prophet not only a way
to save the world, but a method to save
yourself as well." And, as in other instances of this kind,
the consciousness of need will be a definite factor in the consciousness
The Bahá'í faith may have been slow in getting started in America
because of its ambitious and altruistic world-uniting program. It may have
put the cart before the horse. It may have oversold Bahá'u'lláh on the
basis of the oneness of all faiths. But a second look shows that by way
of its devotion and the opening door, it may loose itself from captivity.
It may also be that the minister was quite right when he said, "If
these Bahá'ís ever get going, they may take the country by storm!"