1917 and all that
Posted by Sen on February 6, 2009
Amended April 3, 2011
The Bahai community has a tendency to get carried away with its enthusiasms for prophecies that supposedly give an insight into the immediate future. I’ve discussed one of these in Century’s end, about the expectation that “unity of nations” would be achieved by the year 2000. The story this time goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the Bahais were waiting for cataclysms to strike in 1917, followed by a world at peace in which “all nations shall be as one faith.”
The story is still relevant today because the ‘1917 prophecy’ I am looking at is printed in Baha’u’llah and the New Era, which means that it has been translated into many languages and become part of the Bahai lore around the world. Baha’u’llah and the New Era is also included in the search engine Ocean, so it appears ‘official’ and is widely used. As of today (6 February), this prophecy is on the wikipedia page for “Bahai prophecies.” As such it is used by skeptics as an example of failed prophecy on the part of Abdu’l-Baha. One could of course argue that 1917 was an important year in world history, and rather cataclysmic, but we should first see if Abdu’l-Baha did say something like this, and what exactly it was.
This story is also another useful illustration of the way texts change as they are transmitted (and therefore, the importance of going back to first sources), and of the unhealthiness of living in the future, and these are lessons that bear repeating.
Baha’u’llah and the New Era
In the 1980 edition of Esslemont’s
introductory book on the Bahai Faith, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, Chapter 14 contains a section of predictions concerning the Great War (World War I), including a remarkable prediction about 1917, when kingdoms will fall and cataclysms will rock the earth (pages 243-4).
It is unlikely that Abdu’l-Baha, speaking through an interpreter, would specify a year in the western calendar in this way: he used the Islamic lunar calendar and sometimes the Persian solar calendar, neither of which has years beginning on 1 January. This means that if Abdu’l-Baha said, ‘in the year 1335’ the interpreter would have to calculate and then translate this, ‘in 1916 or 1917,’ because 1335 in the Islamic calendar begins on October 28, 1916. (Try this calender converter, and remember to use the Gregorian, not the Julian, date).The source is also striking: Esslemont says “Reported by
Mrs. Corinne True in The North Shore Review, September 26, 1914, Chicago, U.S.A.” The North Shore Review was a feminist magazine printed in Evanston, Illinois. It ran from 1914 to 1916 and published articles submitted by Bahais. Several of these were reprinted in Star of the West (available on CD here), but this one was not. I have obtained a copy, thanks to the friendly efforts of the staff looking after the McCormick Special Collections at Northwestern University Library. In it, the interviewer asks,
“What are the two most important points in the teaching of Abdul Baha?”
“The oneness of humanity and the ‘most great peace,’ replied Mrs True promptly, adding: “Abdul Baha, in an address at Leland Stanford University in 1912 prophesied the present war. He said:
“We are on the eve of the battle of Armageddon referred to in the 16th chapter of Revelations. The time is two years hence, when only a spark will set aflame the whole of Europe. The social unrest in all countries, the growing religious skepticism antecedent to the millennium, already here, will set aflame the whole of Europe as is prophesied in the 1st of Daniel and in the Book of John. Before 1917 kingdoms will fall and cataclysms will rock the earth. Then all nations shall be as one faith, all men as brothers, and these fruitless strifes and ruinous wars shall pass away and the most great peace shall come; and man shall not glory in this, that he loves his country, but rather in that he loves his kind.”
True’s article is not cited in later articles in Star of the West. So how did Esslemont learn about it? True and Esslemont were both in Haifa in November 1919: presumably True had her box of clippings with her, and so the story found its way into Baha’u’llah and the New Era, without the last paragraph and with other changes.It is unusual – perhaps unique – for a newspaper article by Corinne True to be cited as a source for the Bahai teachings. Where did Corinne True get her information from?
True does not say, but perhaps other versions of the story will give us a source. The next datable occurrence I’ve found is an article written by Jean Masson, in the Helena Daily Independent, in Montana, February 2 1919, and republished in Star of the West vol. 10 no. 3, April 28, 1919. This differs in inserting ‘are’ before ‘already here’, which means that what was a parenthetic phrase is now the end of the sentence, which in turn has required the insertion of ‘only a spark’ before ‘will set aflame.’ In Masson’s version, the kingdoms “will be annihilated” rather than merely falling, as in True’s version.
An article written by Fred Mortensen, and published in the Montana Record Herald, February 18, 1919, then reproduced in Star of the West vol 10, no. 1, in March 21 1919, refers to the “two years” prophecy, but not the 1917 prophecy. It gives the source as a talk given by Abdu’l-Baha to the students of Stanford University, and says simply “Europe is like unto a powder magazine and one little spark shall set all the world aflame, and the time is two years hence.” The differences between this and Masson’s article, published two weeks earlier and also in Montana, indicate two different sources, or that Mortenson is speaking from memory.
Masson is unlikely to be basing herself on a printed version of True’s article. She would be unlikely to to change “fall” to annihilation, or to have inserted “are” and “only a spark.” So it seems most likely that True and Masson are both using another source, which is being passed from hand to hand, copied and recopied.
I also have a copy of a single typed page from a collection of materials that circulated in the early American Bahai community (Barstow Collection item 22), which is almost identical to True’s version. I have no evidence to date it, but it omits the reference to Stanford University, so I think it most likely to be typed from the ‘text box’ in True’s article, rather than being a source that True has drawn on.
The last paragraph of the True, Masson and Barstow versions (omitted by Esslemont) are recognisably words of Baha’u’llah reported by EG Browne in his edition of “A Traveller’s Narrative” page xl :
” …That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled — what harm is there in this?…Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the `Most Great Peace’ shall come… …..Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind.”
(online here, and cited by Shoghi Effendi in God Passes By)
Which in True’s version becomes:
“Then all nations shall be as one faith, all men as brothers, and these fruitless strifes and ruinous wars shall pass away and the most great peace shall come; and man shall not glory in this, that he loves his country, but rather in that he loves his kind.”
True or whoever she got her material from has simply selected some phrases from Baha’u’llah’s interview with Browne and attributed them instead to Abdu’l-Baha.
That still leaves the question of the 1917 prophecy, which in True’s version, dated 1914, reads ‘Before 1917 kingdoms will fall and cataclysms will rock the earth.’ Where did this come from?
True, Masson and Mortensen attribute this to a talk at Stanford University, but given the differences between their accounts, there must have been multiple differing reports attributing these words to Abdu’l-Baha, at least two of them saying they were spoken at Stanford University.
The talk that Abdu’l-Baha gave at Stanford University, on 8th October 1912, was translated by Dr. Ameen Fareed, with shorthand notes taken by Bijou Braun, and printed in the Star of the West Vol. 3 No. 12, October 16 1912. It contains not a word of this – no “powder magazine”, no “spark”, no “two years,” no Armageddon, no book of Daniel, or John, no 1917.
Unlike many such talks, this one can be authenticated, because Persian notes were taken and Abdu’l-Baha’s practice was to check and correct such notes before allowing them to be distributed. They are printed in the Persian section of Star of the West vol. 5 p. 16, and also in Khatabat-e Abdu’l-Baha vol. 2 p. 267. I’ve checked both: once again, there is no powder magazine, spark, two years, Armageddon, book of Daniel, or John there, and no prophecy of events in 1917.
Since the English version of the Stanford University talk was published in 1912, it is odd that True says that this talk is her source. She, and the Star of the West editors, could have checked and seen that Abdu’l-Baha was not recorded as saying these words or anything like them at Stanford University.
Let’s suppose then that the reference to a talk given at Stanford University is simply a mistake. Are there other possible sources for True’s account, and particularly for the 1917 prophecy?
The words “only a spark will set aflame the whole of Europe” do have a traceable origin, in a talk Abdu’l-Baha gave on October 26 1912, at the Hotel Sacramento (in Sacramento) about the paramount importance of International Peace. Dr. Fareed interpreted, and Bijou Straun took shorthand notes (there are no Persian notes), which were later worked up and printed in the Star of the West, according to which he said:
“The European continent is like unto an arsenal. It is a storehouse of explosives, ready for just a spark, and one spark could set aflame the whole of Europe, particularly at this time, when the Balkan question is before the world.” Star of the West, Vol. 5, p. 259, January 1915.
Note that there is no “two years” here, no “Armageddon.” If this is the source, it has been freely embroidered. The impending war was seen by North American observers of the time as an important part of Abdu’l-Baha’s message. For example, the headlines of a report in the Montreal Daily Star in August 1912 reads “Apostle of Peace here, predicts and appalling war in the old world.” Again, there is no mention of a time, but note that this prediction of war comes two years before the war began. Perhaps, after the start of the war, it was widely noted that Abdu’l-Baha had predicted it two years previously, and this awareness crept back into the reports of his words at the time.
However there is a separate source for the “two years” prophecy (given in 1912, looking forward to 1914). It is in the fourth of the Tablets of the Divine Plan, which was published in Star of the West volume 7 p 88, in September 8 1916. The translation is by Ahmad Sohrab, and that has been republished with minor changes since: it is page 22 of the current edition of Tablets of the Divine Plan. The Persian text is printed in Makaatib-e hazrat-e ‘Abdu’l-Baha volume 3, this part is at page 12. What it says there (in my translation) is:
In the days when I was in America, I cried out in every meeting and called the people to promote universal peace. I explicitly said, “The continent of Europe is like an arsenal, susceptible to a single spark, and this is near at hand in the coming years. After two years, that which is mentioned in the Book of the Revelation of John and the Book of Daniel will be fulfilled.” And so it was. This report was included in the San Francisco Bulletin, dated 12 October 1912. Refer to it …
True’s article appeared in September 1914, but the tablet from Abdu’l-Baha was not printed until 1916. So True must have had another source that referred to a talk containing the ‘two years’ prophecy: if we could find that, we might find the 1917 prophecy as well.
One possibility to check is that she might have had access to the account in the San Francisco Bulletin that Abdu’l-Baha refers to in the Tablets of the Divine Plan. There were in fact two, printed on October 12 and 13, 1912. Unfortunately neither mentions looming war in Europe, the Books of Revelation or of Daniel, what is to come in two years, or the date 1917. However the reporter, John D. Barry, says in both accounts, that while he was speaking to Abdu’l-Baha, there was always someone recording what was said. So it could be that Abdu’l-Baha did speak on these topics to the reporter, and later thought that these words had been published in the Bulletin, and that the notes which were taken by the Bahais in some way reached True. But we still haven’t found a paper trail leading to the source of the prophecy concerning 1917, before which date kingdoms will fall and cataclysms will rock the earth, to be followed by mass conversion and the most great peace.
1917 and all that
The date 1917 had a long history in the expectations of American Bahais. Kheiralla, who was the first systematic teacher of the Bahai message in North America, and Howard MacNutt, the editor or The Promulgation of Universal Peace wrote an introductory book in two volumes, called Beha ‘U’llah, published around 1900. It is available as an e-text at the web archive. MacNutt and Kheiralla had limited knowledge of the Bahai teachings, but did not let this hinder them: their work is important mainly as a window into the intellectual world of the early American Bahais. In volume 2, page 480, Kheiralla and MacNutt write:
In the 12th verse of Daniel’s prophecy, “Blessed is he that waiteth and cometh to the thousand three hundred five and thirty days.” The year 1335 from the Hegira, corresponds to 1917 A. D., at which time peace shall reign upon the earth and the wars of nations cease. Beha ‘U’llah prohibited war and ordered the settlement of national disputes by arbitration. He also promised that the “most great peace shall come.”
and on page 483:
Although the thousand years began with the departure of the Manifestation in 1892, the commencement of the “Great Peace” will be in 1917.
Kheiralla is not the only source for this prophecy. When Mrs. Finch and Fanny and Alma Knobloch visited Acca in November 1908, they were told by “Mirza Assad Ullah” (who is presumably the scholar Fadil-e Mazandarani):
All the days end in this day. In the year 1335 (see Dan.XII. 12), you shall see the great unfoldment. In other words, we have nine years (A. D. 1917), to witness the outcome of these events. Whatever major events were to take place in accordance with prophecy are to come now, and we will witness these great events. The climax is in the days of Abdul Baha; the culminating events will take place.
The lion and the lamb will lie down together. All the prophetic statements of the coming of the Kingdom will take place in these days.
This world has an owner, and Abdul Baha owns the world and all that is in it; …Flowers Culled from the Rose Garden of Acca, page 3
George Latimer was one of a group of Pilgrims who visited Abdu’l-Baha in November of 1919. His pilgrim’s notes are particularly valuable because Shoghi Effendi was the interpreter, and because Esslemont and Latimer have given us independent versions of what they heard from Shoghi Effendi’s lips. According to Latimer, Mr. Randall asked Abdu’l-Baha to speak about the fulfillment of prophecies, and Abdu’l-Baha said:
“There are many prophecies but we do not use them as proofs. We prove the appearance of the Blessed Beauty in other ways. For the sun is in no need of having others say that it exists. Is this not so? Is there need for any one to say the sun is shining? Its own appearance is sufficient. So the knowledge which appears from the Blessed Beauty is quite sufficient. …”
Mr. Randall: “What date was referred to in the Book of Daniel [12:12]: ‘Blessed is he who comes to the thousand, three hundred and thirty and five days?'”
Abdu’l-Baha: “This date is reckoned according to solar time. From the declaration of Muhammad thirteen hundred thirty-five years will pass according to solar reckoning. There will be a very blessed Cause at that time, this is reckoning from the Hijrah.
Three or four years before 1917 the Jews interpreted it to mean the year 1917. They reckoned it according to lunar time. Now this reckoning according to lunar time is thirteen hundred and five years. Three years ago they were expectant. They wrote everywhere that the Messiah will appear. The Rabbis of the Holy Land wrote everywhere. Even a Persian Jew came to me. He said: ‘In the year 1335 the Messiah will appear. It is certain. All the Rabbis are agreed upon it.’ I said: ‘Your Promised One was Christ. He came nineteen hundred years ago.’ He said: ‘He has not come. He must come in 1917.’ I said: ‘If He does not come, what then?’ He replied: ‘Strike me one hundred times with a stick.’ In the beginning of the year (1917) I sent for him. He said: ‘Wait until the end of the year.’ The end of the year came and I sent for him again. He did not come. I sent for him several times, but he did not come. His name was Ishmael. He was a physician here, an oculist. No matter what I did he remained away until the poor fellow died.”
The narrative part of this, the story of the Jew who expected the Messiah in 1335/1917, and Abdu’l-Baha’s bemusement with him, comes through clearly. As for the interpretation of prophecy, it appears that Jews living in an Islamic-calendar environment had connected the 1335 days of Daniel to the year 1335 in the Islamic lunar calendar, beginning October 25, 1916. But Abdu’l-Baha is certain that it should be read according to the solar year. This is distinctly odd: in Some Answered Questions Chapter 10, he has used the lunar calender to interpret the previous verse, Daniel 12:11:
The beginning of this lunar reckoning is from the day of the proclamation of the prophethood of Muhammad in the country of Hijaz; and that was three years after His mission, because in the beginning the prophethood of Muhammad was kept secret, and no one knew it save Khadijah and Ibn Nawfal. After three years it was announced. And Bahá’u’lláh, in the year 1290 from the proclamation of the mission of Muhammad, caused His manifestation to be known. (Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 43)
The beginning of Muhammad’s preaching, at the end of the first 3-year period of his ministry, is about 7 years before the hejira (move to Medina). From there, 1290 lunar years takes us to 1283 after the hejira (AH): the year running from May 16 1866 to May 4 1867. Abdu’l-Baha is pointing out that there are 1290 lunar years between two equivalent events: the point at which Muhammad began to proclaim his message publicly (after previously telling only those closest to him), and the point at which Baha’u’llah began to do that, in Adrianople (after previously lifting the veil for his family and followers, at Ridvan 1863 in Baghdad). The events in Adrianople are described by Shoghi Effendi in chapter 10 of God Passes By, entitled “Proclamation of Baha’u’llah’s Mission in Adrianople.” (The footnotes in both the English and Persian editions of Some Answered Questions are misleading here.)
According to the Latimer notes, Abdu’l-Baha described what had happened in Palestine through the millennial expectation and the application of the lunar calendar to Daniel 12:12, but he did not go on to work out for the pilgrims what year would be indicated if one counted 1335 solar years, either from the beginning of Muhammad’s mission in about 619 AD, or from the Hijra (1954 or 1957, respectively).
It would appear that Abdu’l-Baha’s purpose was not to substitute his own calculation of the 1335 days for an incorrect one (1917): rather he tells the story to show how foolish it is to live in a world of arcane books and prognostications, in expectation that God will step in any day now. The story of the Persian Jew who expected the Messiah in 1917 is a cautionary tale for Mr. Randall and those like him, whose concern is to master the prophetic calculations and the esoteric language of symbols. The story implicitly puts a question to Mr. Randall: what will you do if God doesn’t meet your deadline? Will you too turn away, and die?
If Abdu’l-Baha had worked out the meaning of 1335, using solar years, it would surely have been noted down. (Esselmont, who was present, reported this talk in the first edition of Baha’u’llah and the New Era page 212; he too did not report Abdu’l-Baha working out a ‘correct’ calculation.) In the same way, in Some Answered Questions he shows that the 1290 days of Daniel 12:11 – using the lunar calendar – come to 1866/7, but he does not go on to draw the apparently obvious conclusion that exactly the same method, from the same starting date, if applied to the 1335 days would take us to 1328 AH or 1910. He appears to consider the 1335 days, which looks like a simple 45-day extension of the 1290 days of the previous verse, as something quite different. He specifically uses the lunar calendar in interpreting the 1290 days, but in the Latimer & Esslemont notes rejects its use for the 1335 days, and does not offer an alternative explanation in either of these accounts.
In a tablet in Makaatiib-e Hazrat-e Abdu’l-Baha vol. 3 page 223, he does give a reading of the 1335 days:
“these are solar years, not lunar, for by that date, an era [qarn] will have elapsed from the dawning of the sun of reality. The teaching of God will be established on the earth, really in authority, and lights will flood the easts and the wests of the earth, ‘on that day the believers will rejoice’ (Quran 3:4). However the 1290 days announced in the previous verse, until the revelation of all things, are by lunar reckoning, as explained in Some Answered Questions.”
I have discussed the meaning of qarn in ‘century of light’ and will not repeat that here: it could be a century, but Abdu’l-Baha usually uses it to refer to the dispensation of a Prophet. Why does Abdu’l-Baha switch from emphatically using the lunar calendar for the 1290 days, to using the solar calendar for the 1335 days? Could it be that the 1290 days refers to the dispensation of Muhammad, whose symbol is the crescent moon, while he reads the 1335 days as a reference to the dispensation of Baha’u’llah, who is the sun of truth, and whose calendar is solar? But in that case, he would be beginning the count with the declaration of Baha’u’llah in Baghdad, or his public proclamation in Edirne, and would therefore be looking forward beyond the year 3000. I won’t work out the exact year for you, because the Quranic verse appears to caution against too much of making deadlines for God. It says, “The decision is God’s, in the past and in the future, and on that day the believers will rejoice.”
Tempting as this interpretation is, it runs against another tablet, published in Ma’ideh Asmani vol 9 page 22 (page 20 in the typeset edition) which says:
O Servant of God! The 1335 years begin from the time of the hejira of his Holiness the Apostle Muhammad, the elect, blessing and peace be upon him, for in that period the spreading of his ineffable traces, exalted and sublime, from the Word of God, was accomplished.
If Abdu’l-Baha is being consistent, this rules out the idea that he saw the 1290 lunar days as the dispensation of Muhammad, and the 1335 solar days as the subsequent dispensation of Baha’u’llah. In this tablet he begins the 1335 days with Muhammad’s hejira (622 AD), and it is the period in which Muhammad’s message will spread, or flood, the world from the Word of God (the Qur’an).
The addressee here is presumably a Muslim, and would read this as saying that the 1335 days refer to the year 1335 of the Islamic calendar (1916/17). The tablet was presumably written after 1917, since the last verb is in the past tense. I do not know of any event in Islamic history at that time to which Abdu’l-Baha could have been referring as accomplishing or completing the spreading of Muhammad’s ‘traces.’ Perhaps the meaning is that the spreading of the ‘traces’ ended about then, followed by decline, with the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman empire and the occupation of much of the Middle East by European powers. However the Ottoman capitulation, in the Armistice of Mudros, did not occur until October 1918, and the Caliphate was not abolished until 1924.
So we have at last found something like a ‘prophecy of 1917’ in the writings of Abdu’l-Baha, but it was written after the fact, it refers to the fulfillment of the Islamic, not the Bahai dispensation, and from the date alone cannot have been the source of what True wrote in her 1914 article.
The search for a substantial source of True’s account has turned up evidence that Abdu’l-Baha may have said something like “The time is two years hence, when only a spark will set aflame the whole of Europe” at Sacramento in 1912, although there is no Persian source for this so it is just a pilgrim’s note. But I have found no substantial source for the second part of this, “By 1917 kingdoms will fall and cataclysms will rock the earth,” being uttered in 1912: it is not even a pilgrim’s note, for with pilgrim’s notes we know the date and circumstances, who was the interpreter, and who is saying “this is what I heard.”