Baha'i News -- Mystery man brought new faith to city

Mystery man brought new faith to city

By DEAN SHALHOUP
shalhoupd@telegraph-nh.com


He strolled into town, a sight to behold with his long, flowing white beard and unusual dress of ground-length robes and a sash, his head covered by a turban.

The curious fellow, leading an entourage that included his personal physician and an interpreter, made his way on foot down Nashua’s Main Street to The Tremont House, a playhouse and hotel that once stood at the corner of Main and West Pearl streets.

The hot day had forced many residents and merchants to outside benches and stoops hoping for a cool breeze, giving the mystery man’s arrival quite an audience. After all, there was no air conditioning – it was the middle of August 1912.

From their various perches, all eyes probably followed this seemingly odd gent and his band, who even carried their own food. The curious locals later learned that after securing a room, the visitors asked permission to pick out their own dishes, then immediately prepared the food and ate off the floor – all up in their room.

Directly after lunch, they exited the hotel and left the city, as quietly as they had arrived.

Their arrival and dining preferences were the subject of a front-page story in The Telegraph of Aug. 16, 1912, headed “Notable Persians.” Secondary headlines read: “Party stopped at Tremont House today. They select their own dishes and eat off the floor . . .”

The locals soon learned, though, that the mystery man named Abdu’l-Baha embodied the spirit of generosity, kindness and compassion. He was the son of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the present-day Baha’i faith and was in the midst of a tour of the United States to spread word of his and his father’s religion.

At that time, the appearance and rituals of this man probably was at least a strange, maybe even scary, occurrence. A few may have even thought they had seen some sort of apparition.

That would account for why the story’s writer put such emphasis on the visitors’ unusual appearance and the way they ate lunch, things that were inconsequential in the great scheme of his visit.

That’s also the interpretation of Peterborough resident Julie Swan, secretary of a group of Peterborough Baha’is and an eloquent historian of the faith.

“It almost sounds prejudicial,” Swan said of the story, adding that the opposite is true. “In reality, Abdu’l-Baha and his followers were noted for how well they fit into Western culture,” she said.

It was a time when the faith was in its infancy in America, and the purpose of Abdu’l-Baha’s mission here was to consolidate its foundation and expand its reach.

“He felt it imperative to visit Western countries because the whole religion is about the unity of the East and West,” Swan said.

It was in Dublin – a tiny, picturesque Monadnock Region town between Peterborough and Keene – that Abdu’l-Baha stayed for three weeks during his tour, Swan said. To mark the anniversary of the holy visit, services and a social were held Sunday in two Dublin locations that are teeming with Baha’i history.

First, Swan said, Baha’is gathered to pray and hear history of the faith at the Dublin Community Church, the same house of worship at which Abdu’l-Baha delivered a sermon at the invitation of the church clergy 90 years to the previous day. The reception that followed was held at the Dublin Inn, where Abdu’l-Baha actually stayed for most of his Dublin visit. Many photographs of him hang in the inn, now owned by a Baha’i family, Swan said, adding that it’s considered a highly spiritual place by followers.

It was after he departed Dublin that his travels took him through Nashua – he was on his way to Eliot, Maine, to visit a spiritual visionary, Sarah J. Farmer, whose name continually surfaces in early Baha’i references.

Farmer owned and managed an inn on the Piscataqua River that welcomed people of all origins and races who were seeking spirituality. The inn was the first incarnation of the Green Acre Baha’i School, which stands on that spot now.

Those Dublin, Nashua and Eliot stops were part of an itinerary of thousands in a two-year journey to Europe and America. Abdu’l-Baha spoke at countless churches, societies, trade union halls, colleges and universities to as many journalists, politicians and members of the public as possible, proclaiming his father’s message of social justice.

Abdu’l-Baha’s work apparently caught on. Today, there are 6 million Baha’i members in more than 150 countries worldwide, 145,000 of them in the United States. The faith, considered the second-most widespread of independent world religions, is still growing.

Baha’is envision a global society, free of division between peoples and nations, and believe humanity is a single people with a common destiny. Its system of administration, which forbids creation of a priesthood or clergy and empowers each member to participate equally, makes it unique. Baha’i means “follower of the glory,” or light, Swan said. The “i” at the end means “belonging to.”

At the heart of every organized Baha’i community, there is a nine-member leadership group called the Spiritual Assembly of the Universal House of Justice. The Nashua assembly was incorporated in 1971. George W. Adams is its public information officer.

The roots of Baha’i go back to Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha’s father, who was born in 1817 to one of the great patrician families of Persia, now Iran.

He grew up living on vast estates. He turned away from the lavish lifestyle as an adult and with his wife, Navvab, devoted himself to care of the country’s poor.

That decision cost Baha’u’llah dearly – he was persecuted by Persian rulers and imprisoned for 30 years for his new beliefs, let out only when he was so frail and ill he was deemed no longer effective in his teachings.

Abdu’l-Baha – who was born Abbas Effendi in 1844 but as a young man adopted his holy name, which means “servant of the glory” – carried on his father’s ministry. Soon, he earned the respect and love of many of his countrymen, who considered him the ideal Baha’i leader.

But the rulers’ disdain for his family also continued, and he, like his father, was tossed in prison. His sentence was 40 years.

The disciples of Abdu’l-Baha were free, however, and didn’t sit still. Through a loyal following of the men, their message was getting out, even before Abdu’l-Baha’s release in 1908. Soon, he, too, would travel.

He embarked upon his two-year pilgrimage to Europe and America in 1911, where he proclaimed his father’s message of social justice to church congregations, societies, trade union members, colleges and universities, journalists, politicians and as much of the public as possible.

Before he died in 1921, Abdu’l-Baha had consolidated the foundations of the Baha’i faith and expanded its reach. And while Swan, 61, isn't a lifelong Baha’i, having adopted the faith in her late 40s, she is very devoted. “It’s a miraculous movement,” she said. “It confirms to me that God is with us – we just have to be led to see the way.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6523.


©Copyright 2002, The Telegraph of Nashuai (New Hampshire)

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