A 1912 Announcement of the Covenant?
Posted by Sen on January 13, 2011
This posting is about a story, according to which New York is the city of the Covenant because that is where Abdu’l-Baha announced the Bahai Covenant in the West, on June 19, 1912. The words of the important talk by Abdu’l-Baha, which has been called the ‘announcement,’ have been preserved in a surprisingly reliable form. As it is not published in sources such as Promulgation, I have reproduced it below. Reliable as it is, the text and the stories around this announcement, raise some questions: what exactly was newly announced, or revealed? Who named New York the city of the Covenant, when, and why?
Ramona Allen Brown’s Memories of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, page 15, reports the events of that day as follows:
When the Master went to New York, Lua traveled with the group. She told me that it was in New York City that ‘Abdu’l-Baha frst taught the American Baha’is about the protecting power of obedience to the Covenant of Baha’u’llah. There, on June 19, 1912, when the friends were gathered in the basement of His house, the translation of the “Tablet of the Branch” was read for the first time in this country. It is for this reason that New York is called the ‘City of the Covenant.’
On that day ‘Abdu’l-Baha was upstairs sitting while Juliet Thompson painted His portrait. Lua was seated nearby, and Juliet said to her: ‘ I think the Master is asleep! Perhaps we should let Him sleep.’ With those words ‘Abdu’l-Baha opened His eyes and in a powerful voice said to Lua ‘I appoint you the herald of the Covenant. Go down and tell the people I am the Center of the Covenant!’ The whole world must have shaken at those electrifying words. Lua hesitated and with tears streaming down her face said, ‘O Lord, not I! O my Lord, recreate me!’ He repeated His command to her, and she went down to proclaim to the friends the station of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.”
The above anecdote is preserved in Juliet Thompson’s Diary (pages 311-120, in Lua Getsinger: Herald of the Covenant by Velda Metelmann (pp 156-157), and in ‘Abdu’l-Baha in New York: the City of the Covenant: (1999 revised edition), by Eliane Lacroix-Hopson. The latter (page 25) says:
June 19th was an historic day for the Baha’is of New York . On that day, ‘Abdu’l-Baha named their city the “City of the Covenant.” Also, He spoke of the Tablet of the Branch revealed by Baha’u’llah in Andrianople, and proclaimed His own station as the “Center of the Covenant.
Yet it does not say when, where or to whom, he was speaking when he gave this name to New York. Hasan Balyuzi’s brief account (Abdu’l-Baha, the Centre of the Covenant, p. 219) is similar. Mahmud’s Diary (p. 137) says that a talk was given on June 18, 1912, but it is not uncommon for the days in that diary to be a day or two different from other sources, simply because Mahmud Zarqani and the Persian entourage were using the Persian calendar. It is striking that Zarqani apparently did not consider that talk particularly noteworthy.
This picture presents some historical problems. Baha’u’llah’s Covenant and its implications, and the Tablet of the Branch, had been known to the Bahais in North America since at least 1900, and presumably some years before. Robert Stockman’s The Bahai Faith in America (vol.2 page 21) notes a letter from Abdu’l-Baha to the Chicago community or Board of Council, dated “probably in the summer of 1900,” which begins,
O ye sincere, O ye firm and steadfast in the Testament of God!
I have read your letter signed by you, which shows your steadfastness and firmness in the Covenant of God and His Testament, which was confirmed by the trace of His Supreme Pen
(Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 350)
A similar tablet was addressed to the Baltimore Bahais in the same year. Also in 1900, Abdu’l-Baha selected some texts on the Covenant for a group of visiting American pilgrims, and these were translated and published as Prayers,Tablets, Instructions and Miscellany (available in Ocean). It includes Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of the Branch (where it is called a tablet to Mirza Aly Reza Khorazani), which in reference to Abdu’l-Baha states:
This Holy and Abha Temple, the Branch of Holiness, hath surely branched forth from the Sadrat-el-Montaha. May it be healthful to whosoever seeketh refuge under Its Shadow, and is of the reposers.
Say: The Branch of the Cause hath surely sprung forth from this Root which God hath made firm in the Ground of Will, and hath elevated Its Branch to a Station that hath surrounded all the existence. Then exalted be this Lofty, Blessed, Mighty and Inaccessible Creation!
Oh people! draw nigh unto It, and taste the Fruits of Wisdom and Knowledge from It,
The same 1900 booklet contains a prayer: “I beg Thee to preserve Thine Household from the evil of those who violated Thy Covenant and Thine Alliance, and denied Thy Right, and disbelieved in Thy Signs.“
The publication also includes ‘table talks’ (pilgrim’s notes) from the same group, in which Abdu’l-Baha explains the Covenant and speaks of covenant-breakers and the futility of their attempts. Among the miscellaneous questions that follow, one passage says (in words that will be echoed below):
Jesus Christ said only a few words to Peter, telling him that upon that rock He would build His church. He left no written instruction or will, and yet because it was the Word of God, it took root, and millions have obeyed it. And now, when the Covenant has been written and established, how can anyone be foolish enough to imagine that they can resist it? No, the Ensign of the Covenant has reached to the Supreme Heights, and its authority will be spread all over the earth. (Baha’i Prayers 9, p. 56)
The celebration of November 26 as the Day of the Covenant began in Chicago in 1901, or even earlier (Stockman vol. II p 56).
Stockman also notes the deepening work of Abdu’l-Karim-e Tehrani in 1900, in Chicago, Kenosha, and New York, which focussed on the Covenant. The talks he gave were published and distributed. In his list of five essentials for Bahai behaviour, his first point is “Believe in God and be firm to obey the Center of the Covenant.”
After Tehrani’s departure, American Bahais continued to teach the centrality of the Covenant to Bahai belief. A talk (later typed over, and presumably distributed) by Isabella Brittingham in 1905 is one example.
In short, Baha’u’llah’s Covenant, the texts of his Testament and Tablet of the Branch, the appointment of Abdu’l-Baha as Centre of the Covenant, and the concept of Covenant-breaking, had been known to American Bahais from 1900, if not earlier. The majority of the Bahais of 1912 must have entered the community after the Covenant had already become widely known. So was anything new announced on that day?
Shoghi Effendi’s mentions the events several times. In Citadel of Faith he writes:
It was to the members of this community, … that He, whilst sojourning in the City of the Covenant, chose to reveal the implications of that Covenant.
In his introduction to God Passes By he describes the third period (1892-1921) of the first Bahai century as commencing “with the announcement of the Covenant of Baha’u’llah, a document without parallel in the history of any earlier Dispensation,” and climaxing “in the emphatic assertion by the Center of that Covenant, in the City of the Covenant, of the unique character and far-reaching implications of that Document.” Later, he gives more detail:
… the dynamic affirmation by Him of the implications of the Covenant instituted by Baha’u’llah, following the reading of the newly translated Tablet of the Branch, in a general assembly of His followers in New York, designated henceforth as the “City of the Covenant”;
God Passes By, 288
A comparison with the other accounts of events, highlights some points:
- It is not the Covenant that is announced, in Shoghi Effendi’s versions, but rather its unique character and far-reaching implications
- the Covenant announcement occurred in 1892, when Baha’u’llah’s Will was opened,
- New York is called the City of the Covenant, and elsewhere Shoghi Effendi says that Abdu’l-Baha gave it that name.
- Shoghi Effendi says the Tablet of the Branch was newly translated, but this was not the first translation. This is likely to be the same as the anonymous translation of 190X (Collins 1.127). A new translation by Ali Kuli Khan was published in Star of the West Vol. 3 nr. 14. November 23, 1912; this is presumably the translation which Shoghi Effendi (GPB 288) says was read on June 19, 1912, “in a general assembly of His followers in New York.”
Abdu’l-Baha’s ‘announcement’ talk
The text of Abdu’l-Baha’s talk on the Covenant in New York, June 19, 1912, is available in two versions, which are substantially the same except for the beginning and ending. One I will call the Star of the West version, which changed slightly as it was republished in Star of the West, a total of seven times. It’s first publication was just months after June 19, in Star of the West Vol. 3, No. 14, p. 9 (Nov 23 1912). The first paragraph begins:
“Today, the most important affair is firmness in The Covenant, because firmness in The Covenant wards off differences. ..”
Another version, which for various reasons I think is more reliable, is found in an unsourced typescript and in a pamphlet published on November 12, 1912, and is reproduced below. This pamphlet version has also been used as a basis in Velda Metelmann’s book, Lua Getsinger, Herald of the Covenant, pages 165-6 (the changes there are minor: capitalisation, an ‘and’ inserted, and verb tenses). The full text of the pamphlet reads:
New York City, June 19th, 1912.
Translated by Dr. Ameen U. Fareed.
To-morrow I wish to go to Montclair. To-day is the last day in which we gather together with you to say farewell to you. Therefore, I wish to expound for you an important question, and that question concerns The Covenant.
In former cycles no distinct Covenant had been made in writing by the Supreme Pen; no distinct personage had been appointed to be the Standard differentiating falsehood from truth, so that whatsoever he was to say was to stand as truth and that whcih [sic] he repudiated was to be known as falsehood. At most, His Holiness Jesus Christ gave only an intimation, a symbol, and that was but an indication of the solidity of Peter’s faith. When he mentioned his faith, His Holiness said, ‘Thou art Peter’ – which means rock – ‘and upon this rock will I build my church.’ This was a sanction of Peter’s faith; it was not indicative of his (Peter) being the expounder of the Book, but was a confirmation of Peter’s faith.
But in this Dispensation of the Blessed Beauty (Baha’o’llah) among its distinctions is that He did not leave people in perplexity. He entered into a covenant and testament with the people. He appointed a Center of the Covenant. He wrote with His own pen and revealed it in the Kitab-el-Akdas, the Book of Laws, the Book of the Covenant, appointing him (Abdul-Baha) the Expounder of the Book. You must ask him (Abdu’l-Baha) regarding the meanings of the texts of the verses. Whatsoever he says is correct. Outside of this, in numerous Tablets He (Baha’o’llah) has explicitly recorded it, with clear, sufficient, valid and forceful statements. In the Tablet of The Branch He explicitly states: “Whatsoever The Branch says is right, or correct; and every person must obey The Branch with his life, with his heart, with his tongue. Without his will, not a word shall anyone utter.” This is an explicit text of the Blessed Beauty. So there is no rescue left for anybody. No soul shall, of himself, speak anything: Whatsoever his (Abdul-Baha’s) tongue utters, whatsoever his pen records, that is correct; according to the explicit text of Baha’o’llah in the Tablet of The Branch.
His Holiness Abraham covenanted with regard to Moses. His Holiness Moses was the Promised One of Abraham, and He, Moses, covenanted with regard to His Holiness Christ, saying that Christ was the Promised One. His Holiness Christ covenanted with regard to His Holiness ‘The Paraclete,’ which means His Holiness Mohammed. His Holiness Mohammed covenanted as regards The Bab, whom He called, ‘My Promised One,’ His Holiness The Bab, in all His books, in all His epistles, explicitly covenanted with regard to the Blessed Beauty, Baha’o’llah – that Baha’o’llah was the Promised One of His Holiness The Bab. His Holiness Baha’o’llah covenanted, not that I (Abdul-Baha) am the Promised One, but that Abdu’l-Baha is the Expounder of the Book and the Center of His Covenant, and that the Promised One of Baha’o’llah will appear after one thousand or thousands of years. This is the Covenant which Baha’o’llah made. If a person shall deviate, he is not acceptable at the Threshold of Baha’o’llah. In case of difference – Abdul-Baha must be consulted. They must revolve around his good pleasure. After Abdu’l-Baha – whenever the Universal House of Justice is organized it will ward off differences.
Now I pray for you that GOD may aid you, may confirm you, may appoint you for His service; that He may suffer you to be as radiant candles; that He may accept you in His Kingdom; that He may make you the cause of the spread of the light of Baha’o’llah in these countries, and that the teachings of Baha’o’llah may be spread broadcast.
I pray for you, and I am pleased with all of you, each one, one by one; and I pray that GOD may aid and confirm you. From Montclair I will come back to you. New York is favored, I go away and come back to it. The friends in New York must appreciate this. At present, farewell to you!
Published November 12th 1912
The ninety-fifth anniversary of the birth of Baha’o’llah.
[for sale from the Bahai Assembly of Washington, at $1 for 25 copies ...etc ]
The stenographic notes give the following reference: “Talk given by Abdu’l-Baha in New York city, Wednesday morning, June 19, 1912. Translated by Dr. Ameen U. Fareed. Notes taken by E.C.M. Revised by Abdu’l-Baha and Dr. Fareed at Montclair, June 25, 1912. …
This makes it appear that Metelmann has taken the text direct from stenographic (short hand) notes, but I think it highly unlikely that even a skilled stenographer, reading someone else’s notes written 90 years previously, could produce a text identical to the pamphlet version, except for capitalisation and corrections. The meaning must be that, while the text is taken from the pamphlet, the stenographic notes also have additional information, presumably in long hand: the name of the translator, the stenographer, and most important, “Revised by Abdu’l-Baha and Dr. Fareed at Montclair, June 25, 1912.”
In response to my query, Velda Metelmann said that she was unable to remember the details, but the “the bulk of information came from the Baha’i archives in Wilmette.”
The revision of the English text by Abdu’l-Baha, immediately after the event and with the help of a translator, makes this text more trustworthy than the bulk of Abdu’l-Baha’s talks published in Star of the West, and certainly more reliable those in The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Paris Talks, or Abdu’l-Baha in London, where the sources are obscure and the editors have sometimes been quite creative. But the revision does not make the talk authentic Bahai scripture. Abdu’l-Baha writes,
Thou has written concerning the pilgrims and pilgrims’ note. Any narrative that is not authenticated by a Text should not be trusted. Narratives, even if true, cause confusion. For the people of Baha, the Text, and only the Text, is authentic.”
(‘Abdu’l-Baha: from a previously untranslated tablet, published in Lights of Guidance, p. 438)
And Shoghi Effendi remarks:
I have insistently urged the believers of the West to regard such statements as merely personal impressions of the sayings of their Master, and to quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue.
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 5)
Since we do not have a Persian text, checked and approved by Abdu’l-Baha, the talk is formally speaking a pilgrim’s note, but then an unusually reliable one.
Text criticism, in theology, is the study of the versions of a text, and what is known about it, to reconstruct its history, usually with the purpose of finding the most reliable version, and detected incorrectly attributed or interpolated texts. Some Bahais find the notion of applying it to Baha’i texts unsettling, perhaps partly because of the connotations of the word ‘criticism.’ I have even seen such work characterised as an ‘attack’ and ‘assault’ on the Faith. Nothing could be further from the truth: text criticism not only detects changes, interpolations and misattributions, it gives us a soundly-based reason for believing in the authenticity of a text.
As I said above, I think the pamphlet version of this talk is more reliable than those in the Star of the West. This judgement is based on a detailed comparison of the texts, and two main arguments:
1. The Star of the West version is missing the opening and closing paragraphs, which are in the nature of greetings and farewell to the audience. An editor might well omit these, as not being part of the talk itself, but it is most unlikely that the editor of the pamphlet would arbitrarily insert them.
2. The Star of the West version has an additional opening and first paragraph:
As the twenty sixth of November is known among the Bahais as the “Feast of the Appointment of the Center of the Covenant,” the STAR OF THE WEST devotes this issue to a presentation of the important question of the Center of the Covenant.
During Abdu’l-Baha’s sojourn in America, he awakened the friends to a realization of the greatness of this matter and the necessity of understanding it and turning to the appointed Center and remaining firm therein, saying:–
“Today, the most important affair is firmness in The Covenant, because firmness in The Covenant wards off differences.
When this was published in Star of the West volume 3, the last sentence above, beginning “Today, the most important affair” was printed in italics and separated from the main text that follows. It may be a citation from a pilgrim’s note, or it may be the editor’s own summary of a theme which did appear in several of Abdu’l-Baha’s talks. In later editions of the Star of the West, it is incorporated as part of the text that follows. Such an unintentional fusion of two texts is much more likely than the alternative – that the editors of the pamphlet, who otherwise give a complete text, would omit the first sentence.
It will be noted that the pamphlet has the publication date November 12, while the first Star of the West version is November 23, 1912, just 11 days later. If the editors of the Star of the West were using the pamphlet itself as a source, they worked very quickly. It could be that they had access to the source text for the pamphlet, before November 12. This would presumably be the text as corrected by Abdu’l-Baha and Dr. Fareed. In any case, the minor changes made for Star of the West volume 3, as compared to the pamphlet version, are only those one would expect if an editor was regularizing the usage and grammar, and adding explanations for readers: they are not so great as to suggest that the editors of Star of the West had a separate source.
In what sense was this a new announcement?
The text of the talk does not contain anything which would have been new to the Baha’is, given that the Tablet of the Branch had been published in English in 1900. If fact there is a tablet from Abdu’l-Baha which parallels the talk in contents, but I do not know whether it was written or published before 1912:
His Holiness Abraham, on Him be peace, made a covenant concerning His Holiness Moses and gave the glad-tidings of His coming. His Holiness Moses made a covenant concerning the Promised One, i.e. His Holiness Christ, and announced the good news of His Manifestation to the world. His Holiness Christ made a covenant concerning the Paraclete and gave the tidings of His coming. His Holiness the Prophet Muhammad made a covenant concerning His Holiness the Bab and the Bab was the One promised by Muhammad, for Muhammad gave the tidings of His coming. The Bab made a Covenant concerning the Blessed Beauty of Baha’u’llah and gave the glad-tidings of His coming for the Blessed Beauty was the One promised by His Holiness the Bab. Baha’u’llah made a covenant concerning a promised One who will become manifest after one thousand or thousands of years. He likewise, with His Supreme Pen, entered into a great Covenant and Testament with all the Baha’is whereby they were all commanded to follow the Center of the Covenant after His departure, and turn not away even to a hair’s breadth from obeying Him.
In the Book of Aqdas, He has given positive command in two clear instances and has explicitly appointed the Interpreter of the Book. Also in all the Divine Tablets, especially in the Chapter of The Branch — all the meanings of which mean the Servitude of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, that is ‘Abdu’l-Baha — all that was needed to explain the Center of the Covenant and the Interpreter of the Book has been revealed from the Supreme Pen. Now as ‘Abdu’l-Baha is the Interpreter of the Book He says that the “Chapter of The Branch” means ‘Abdu’l-Baha, that is, the Servitude of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and none other.
(Baha’i World Faith, p. 358; from a Tablet translated from the Persian)
One thing familiar to us today, is missing – the Guardianship. One rather unorthodox Bahai has even renamed the text of the June 19 talk “the 1912 Covenant,” as if the announcement of the Covenant could be a substitute for the Covenant itself. The motivation for inflating the talk’s importance is precisely the lack of mention of a Guardian. But this silence is simply enough explained: first, this talk was not some uniquely important explanation of the Covenant, so there is no reason why Abdu’l-Baha would want to make it comprehensive. The Covenant rests on written texts, such as Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-e Aqdas, Tablet of the Branch and his Will (Kitab-e `Ahd), and on Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament (the first two sections of which had been written before Abdu’l-Baha left for the United States). It does not rest on a talk given to some believers in New York. Second, Shoghi Effendi was born on 1 March 1897, so he was just over 15 years old in June 1912. Abdu’l-Baha kept his appointment as Guardian secret, even from Shoghi Effendi himself, to allow his character to develop without the burden of a sense of entitlement, and to protect him from the adulation and attacks of Abdu’l-Baha’s own friends and enemies.
If the contents of the talk are so unsurprising, in what sense was it an announcement? It could be simply that June 19 in New York was the first time, during his trip to the United States, that Abdu’l-Baha spoke publicly of the Covenant? He had been speaking of the Covenant, and the Tablet of the Branch to American pilgrims since 1900, and had been writing tablets about it, but I have not found any recorded talk on the topic, in North America, prior to June 19. He takes up the theme again on 16 September, 31 October and 1 November 1912 in Chicago (the latter quite similar to the June 19 talk above, see Promulgation, page 385), and again on 2 December 1912 in New York.
Why one wonders was the June 19 talk not printed in Promulgation? One possibility is that the editor thought that the pamphlet, whose text I have given above, was so widely available and used that a reprint in Promulgation would have been redundant.
City of the Covenant
It will be noted that none of these talks designated New York as the City of the Covenant. The term is also not used in any of Abdu’l-Baha’s tablets that I know of, although one Bahai historian wrote to me that had seen an unpublished tablet dated 1904 in which Abdu’l-Baha designates New York the City of the Covenant. I think it unlikely, since the phrase did not catch on at the time: I have not found it in any early pilgrim’s notes, and Star of the West magazine does not contain any use of the term, either before or after 1912. But then, Star of the West was edited in Chicago, not New York, and emphasizes that Chicago’s Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is called the House of the Covenant. So perhaps the idea that New York had been given a special designation – whether or not it was based on something from Abdu’l-Baha – was popular mainly among the New York Bahais.
The designation ‘city of the Covenant’ might also have arisen from a misunderstanding. The term “city of …” appears quite often in Baha’u’llah’s writings, and in the names of at least three of his works: ‘The City of Radiant Acquiescence,’ ‘The City of Unity’ and ‘the City of Patience’, an alternative title for the Lawh-e Ayyub (Tablet of Job). In the Gems of the Divine Mysteries, Baha’u’llah speaks of the progress of the soul through “the City of Search,” “the City of Love and Rapture,” “the City of Divine Unity” and eventually “the City of Immortality.” In all these, the ‘city’ is metaphorical. To live in the city of patience, is to make patience one’s habitual orientation in life. In one of his letters, to the Bahais of Fair Hope, Abdu’l-Baha writes:
Those who had seeing eyes found the Most Great Glad-tidings, … became so intoxicated with the cup of the love of God, that, wholly forgetting themselves and the world while dancing, they ran with utmost joy and ecstacy to the city of Martyrdom, sacrificing their minds and their lives upon the altar of Love.
Perhaps the designation ‘City of the Covenant’ arose from taking such a metaphor as a reference to the literal city. There is also a prayer of Abdu’l-Baha for New York, which in a recent translation says:
I eagerly anticipate the day when New York will become a blessed spot from which the call to steadfastness in the Covenant of God will go forth to every part of the world, thus making that city outstanding from every point of view.
Bless Thou, O King of Kings, the city of New York! Cause the friends there to be kind to one another. Purify their souls and make their hearts to be free and detached. Illumine the world of their consciousness. Exhilarate their spirits and bestow celestial power and confirmation upon them. Establish there a heavenly realm, so that the City of Baha may prosper and New York be favoured with blessings from the Abha Kingdom, that this region may become like the all-highest Paradise, may develop into a vineyard of God and be transformed into a heavenly orchard and a spiritual rose garden.
(Cited in a letter to an individual from the Universal House of Justice, 2001 Oct 9)
The interesting point is that this letter from the Universal House of Justice also indicates that an earlier version of the prayer provided to it, is inaccurate. Perhaps if that inaccurate version surfaced, we would see why the New York Bahais claimed this title. Or perhaps they were simply compensating for Chicago’s pre-eminence. For now I have only a negative finding to report: the designation does not appear to have been used by the New York Bahais during the life of Abdu’l-Baha himself. Yes Shoghi Effendi says that the term originated from Abdu’l-Baha:
Most certainly and emphatically must the lead be given by the two focal centers of Baha’i activity … the one as the mother city of the North American continent, the other named by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá the City of the Covenant. (Citadel of Faith, 128)
That leaves us with two possibilities: New York was designated the City of the Covenant by Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi knew this directly from Abdu’l-Baha or from another source that has not yet come to light, or Shoghi Effendi’s statement was not based on something from Abdu’l-Baha himself, but on the secondary sources available to him, which might be mistaken. While American Bahais do not appear to have known of the designation during Abdu’l-Baha’s lifetime, this only tells us that Abdu’l-Baha probably did not speak of New York as the City of the Covenant during his western tours, or to Western pilgrims. But he might have done so in later discussions of his travels in the West, with Shoghi Effendi or with Persian pilgrims.
[Updated May 2014: date of the Ali Kuli Khan translation of the Tablet of the Branch, published in Star of the West]
Thanks to Steve Cooney for assistance in finding some of the sources used. Additions and corrections are welcome.
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