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Undercover Bahais: Abdu’l-Baha tells the Manchester Bahais to lay low

Posted by Sen on August 31, 2014

Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi
When the young Shoghi Effendi was in England for his university studies, he went to Manchester, arriving there on October 1, 1921, and staying for six days. On the evening of October 2 he was at a meeting of the Bahais in home of Mr. and Mrs. Heald. Riaz Khadem (Shoghi Effendi in Oxford, p. 118) describes that meeting as largely musical. Shoghi Effendi shared some Persian poems by Abdu’l-Baha that could be used as hymns. There is more in Riaz Khadem’s account of Shoghi Effendi’s visit, but it is the mention of Samuel and Mrs. Heald that interests me here.

With a few days of his visit to Manchester, Shoghi Effendi sent a letter to Abdu’l-Baha in which he reported on the activities of the Manchester Bahais. He received the following tablet, dated October 1921, in response:

In the Name of God!
O Sincere Servant of the Blessed Beauty!

Your detailed letter has been received, and has been the cause of the utmost joy and gladness. Praise be to God! The loved ones are all astir and active, but prudence is necessary. You have rent the veil too widely asunder. Explain to the loved ones that the rending of the veil to such an extent will be the cause of great agitation, and the harm thereof will reach to the Holy Land. Great caution is necessary. Discourses in churches and great public gatherings are in no wise permitted as in this place enemies, within and without, are lying in wait and are bent on aggression. Prudence requires that activity should, for the present, be concealed and carried on with the utmost moderation. Convey to the loved ones, one and all, on my behalf, the greatest longing, love and kindness. Give a spiritual message from me to Mr. Healds and say unto him: “Peruse the Gospel, how His Holiness Christ – may my life be a sacrifice to Him – says, ‘Conceal it, that the Pharisees may not be informed thereof.’ Now the same condition prevails.” [Note 1]

This matter is of the greatest importance. On no account let them contribute articles to the newspapers, and so long as they are not sure of any soul, let them breath no word to him. Consider how the Freemasons have for two hundred years carried on their work, and unto this day they have not openly declared it to any soul. Not until they find a hearing ear will they speak. The loved ones too must proceed with the greatest prudence, lest serious difficulties be created. If any one should travel to the Holy Land, he must on no account declare to anyone by the way that his purpse is to visit us. The loved ones must, in the presence of strangers, speak forth simply the teachings of the Blessed Beauty and mention no word of the belief concerning Him. Should anyone enquire, “What is your belief regarding the Blessed Beauty?” let them answer: “We regard Him as the foremost teacher and educator of these later ages and Abdu’l-Baha as the Centre of His Covenant.”

A typescript copy of this translation was preserved in the Barstow Collection, where it is numbered 608. The translation appears to have been made by Shoghi Effendi himself. Riaz Khadem quotes part of another tablet to the Bahais of Manchester, which must have been written about the same time. The similarity in phrasing and content are natural, if Abdu’l-Baha wrote one letter to Shoghi Effendi with specific instructions regarding Mr. Heald, and another addressed to the Bahais in Manchester at large. The second tablet, quoted from E. Hall, Baha’i Dawn (The Beginning of the Baha’i Cause in Manchester, 1925). p. 27 reads:

To the beloved of the Lord in the city of Manchester:
………. Your letter hath been received, and the contents thereof have imparted the utmost joy and gladness. Praised be the Lord, ye have eyes that see and ears that hear. Ye beheld the Light of Truth and are accounted, even as Christ hath said, among the Chosen rather than among the Called… Wherefore, praise ye the Lord, that in the lamp of your hearts the Flame of Divine guidance is kindled and ye have entered the Kingdom of God. It is incumbent upon you, however, to act with utmost discretion and not rend the veil asunder, for the enemy, though he be near or afar, lieth in wait and stirreth the negligent to arise against His Holiness Baha’u’llah; Be ye prudent; be ye discreet.

A third tablet, dated October 20, was addressed to Samuel Heald, and was translated by Shoghi Effendi: It is quoted from O.Z. Whitehead, Some Baha’is to Remember, p. 63:

O son of the Kingdom of God!
………. Praised be the Lord, thou hast rent asunder the veil of the Pharisees and winged thy flight unto the Kingdom of God. Thou hast accepted the Teachings of His Holiness Baha’u’llah and been drawn unto the Holy Spirit. In truth, thy faith is now sincere and thou hast come to know Jesus Christ better…

From this it would appear that Samuel Heald was of Jewish background and had become a Bahai.

I have searched for the original text of the letter to Shoghi Effendi, in the Persian section of the Bahai Reference Library, using the word “pharisees” ( فریسیان / القریسیسیین / الفریسیون ), but I have not found it. The translation is therefore not authenticated Bahai scripture, until an original text is found. However it is reliable as a source of history, since both the language and the contents are consistent with the letter to the Manchester Bahais published in Baha’i Dawn (The Beginning of the Baha’i Cause in Manchester) in 1925 and with Shoghi Effendi’s translation style. The letter to Shoghi Effendi does not introduce any new Bahai teaching, but it leaves quite a few historical loose ends to tidy up.
– Are there other tablets from around that time with a similar message? For example, were similar instructions given to the Bahais in North America?
– What had Mr. Healds and other Manchester Bahais been doing?
– Is there some relationship between this message to Bahais in the United Kingdom, and the British Mandate rule in Palestine?

Please feel free to fill in the blanks using the comments section below.

[Updated February 13, 2015: the Persian/Arabic original has not been found.]
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16 Responses to “Undercover Bahais: Abdu’l-Baha tells the Manchester Bahais to lay low”

  1. Sen said

    Note regarding the words “Conceal it, that the Pharisees may not be informed thereof” which Abdu’l-Baha attributes to Christ. They are not literally a Gospel quotation, but see Mark 1:43-45. Early in his ministry Jesus heals a leper, and tells him “See thou say nothing to any man: but go show thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing the things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. But he went out, and began to publish it much, and to spread abroad the matter, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into a city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter.”

    Again in Mark 8:29-30, following Peter’s declaration “Thou art the Christ,” Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone else about this.

    This motif in the Gospel of Mark is known as the “Messianic Secret.”

  2. Very interesting! I’ve never heard of this and am fascinated by the possible implications! I do not doubt the wisdom, of course just curious as to why! I am a fan Mr McGlinn!

  3. Tim Watts said

    It would be great to find out who the people were that were lying in wait, that last instruction “Be ye prudent; be ye discreet.” gives me goose bumps.

  4. Sen said

    This is pure speculation on my part Tim, but it makes me think that perhaps Abdu’l-Baha’s position vis-a-vis the British Mandate administration might have been somewhat uncertain. As I recall, the British camp was divided as to the future of Palestine, and the administrators who were there when Abdu’l-Baha was awarded the knighthood were shoved aside by another group soon after the end of the war. Is there a historian in the house ?

  5. I don’t know, but Abdu’l-Baha could have been trying to protect Shoghi Effendi from Covenant breakers.

  6. Sen said

    I very much doubt that Shoghi Effendi was threatened by Covenant-breakers, but you raise a good point. The fact that Shoghi Effendi was living in the UK changed the picture. If the UK Bahais were the focus of any media attention, good or bad, that attention would inevitably include Shoghi Effendi, as the highest-ranking Bahai in the country. That would be at least inconvenient, considering that he felt the need to concentrate on further studies. In Mark 1:43-45, which is possibly referenced by Abdu’l-Baha in this tablet, Jesus tells the leper to keep his miraculous cure a secret, but the ex-leper tells everyone, and Jesus is then forced to avoid the towns because of the press of sensation-seekers.

  7. Gerald Keil said

    I remember seeing, towards the end of 1980, a letter from Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’í community in Manchester, framed and displayed in the Bahá’í Centre on the corner of Wilmslow and Lorne Roads. It hung to the left of the doorway leading from the meeting room to the entrance hall. It would be interesting to learn from a friend from Manchester if this letter is still on display, and if so, whether the content has anything to do with the correspondence to which Sen is referring.

  8. Fraidoon said

    Dear Sen,

    He has said the reason :” as in this place enemies, within and without, are lying in wait and are bent on aggression.”
    Therefore , If there is any concern it should be over his safety rather than him getting popular and distracted from school

  9. Fraidoon said

    I do not believe Jesus had ever concern about his missions safety, nor he was concern about pharisees,and meanwhile conforming and suggesting Freemasons ways as right way him by saying:

    “Freemasons have for two hundred years carried on their work, and unto this day they have not openly declared it to any soul Not until they find a hearing ear will they speak. The loved ones “too” must proceed with the greatest prudence.”

    Is way different than how Jesus approached the darkness of this world ,
    ones God had sent would never stay in dark till some one shows ears to hear ,
    Jesus has describe word of God as rain water which has to be expose to open , now, God would decides who would win his word ,who would not.

    “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John 3:19-21

  10. Sen said

    There are times for shouting from the rooftops, and times for great prudence. Wisdom is knowing which is when. As I have pointed out in comment #1 above, Jesus in some circumstances was also prudent. In fact there’s a theme known as “the messianic secret” that we see particularly in the Gospel of Mark, 8:22 onwards:

    And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought.And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town. And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am? And they answered, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets. And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ. And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.

    This tablet is interesting precisely because it is atypical, which leads to the question: what was it that made Abdu’l-Baha advise the Manchester Bahais to lay low? I suspect it may be a combination of Abdu’l-Baha’s position in British-ruled Palestine having become difficult, Shoghi Effendi being in the United Kingdom, and some particular activities or planned activities on the part of the Manchester Bahais that, in the circumstances, were unwise. There are a number of historians working on Bahai history in the UK, and I have some hope that one of them will give us the answers, now I have posted Abdu’l-Baha’s letter.

  11. Stella Herbert said

    It was, of course, only about a month before ‘Abdu’l Baha’s passing, of which, some stories suggest, he had an intimation. Perhaps this is why he did not want the Faith highlighted while Shoghi Effendi was in the U.K. Or as suggested above, it could have been to do with the machinations by Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and co working behind France’s back, to install their choice of heads of state in the area, so that the British presence could withdraw and save the cost of keeping troops there.

  12. Sen said

    Thank you Stella, very perceptive. One factor might well have been that Abdu’l-Baha was concerned that he would not be there to deal with any trouble that might arise.
    In fairness to Churchill and co., “bring the boys home” was not just economically attractive. It was asking a great deal of the soldiers and their families to keep them stationed as the world’s policemen in distant countries.

  13. Stella said

    The more I think about it, the more I think that the reference to enemies within relates to the situation which Abdu’l Baha anticipated arising after his passing, the dispute about property and non acceptance of the successor. (In early November Abdu’l Baha asked Shoghi Effendi’s parents to telegraph him to return immediately, but they decided to send a letter instead which arrived too late, as we know). There were almost certainly existing and future covenant breakers in the UK at that time. Also there were no local or National Baha’i institutions as we know them, and according to Rob Weinberg’s book Ethel Jenner Rosenberg, after the war the Baha’is in Manchester and London were disunited and depleted in number, so there were several reasons why it would not have been a good time to court publicity or new friends. It may not be too far fetched to suggest that covenant breakers or other enemies of the Faith could have infiltrated the groups, and potentially been elected to the National Assembly when it came into being. Abd’ul Baha also seemed concerned about travellers to the Holy Land and asked them not to say they were visiting Him. Ethel Rosenberg went on pilgrimage around this time (the Master passed away while she was in transit) but there is nothing in Rob’s book to throw light on the Masters concerns. Possibly it had something to do with the fact that already the Palestinian Arabs were getting angry at the influx of Jews and Abd’ul Baha did not want to give the impression of encouraging immigration, although this seems unlikely.

  14. Stella said

    Sorry to keep adding to this. I just found my copy of O.Z.Whitehead’s Baha’is to Remember and he gives a very positive account of the Baha’is and their activities after the end of the war, including weekly meetings held by Mr Jacob Joseph in his office in the evenings, which were very successful and attended by several seekers. In late Sept 1920 Edward Hall received a tablet from ‘Abdu’l Baha praising the activities but also saying:”Strive as much as you can in explaining the heavenly teachings to every seeker ……. All your talks must be confined to the spreading of the Divine Principles and not about your religious belief, because the people are still weak. …” hence the Oct 1921 letter was not an anomaly.
    According to Whitehead, In May 1921 a local vicar who had met and been very attracted by Abdu’l Baha’s talks when he visited London in 1911- which led to his (Revd Johnson) becoming a minister and a friend of the Baha’is – gave a talk on the history of the Faith at his church and afterwards Edward Hall spoke more about the Cause to the nearly 200 people in the church! Several of the Manchester Baha’is held regular meetings in their home, including Mr Heald.
    To add some further context to this thread, it should be born in mind that before, during and after WW1 Jews had been coming to the UK to escape persecution in Russia and Europe, and there was a thriving Jewish community in Manchester. One of the leaders of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann, was a lecturer at Manchester University and had close ties with Lord Balfour, being instrumental in persuading him to grant the Jews a national home in Palestine.

  15. Sen said

    I am very grateful for your input Stella. Your information explains the situation, and this situation also illustrates a general principle of interpretation: we cannot assume that every tablet of scripture, or every letter of Shoghi Effendi, can be generalized as principles for Bahai behaviour. This also applies to other religions. For example, the verse “Kill the polytheists wherever you find them, and take them prisoner …” (9:5). If this were a generalized principle, it would authorise Muslims to kill and capture anyone they thought to be joining partners with God, which is a very broad group. Sunnis sometimes include the Shia as polytheists, because of the veneration of the Imams. But if this verse is a specific instruction given at a time when the Muslim community was at war with a group they called “the polytheists,” then it tells the Muslims to suspend hostilities during “the forbidden months” and then take up arms again.

  16. Lillith Osborn said

    I wonder if the Healds might have been trying to recruit Jews to the cause, hence the suggestion they deepen their knowledge of Jesus, it would keep them out of trouble. Manchester was the centre of British Zionism, there would have been frequent communication between Palestine and Manchester and stories that the Baha’is were attempting to convert potential Zionists would not have been welcome. It is interesting that the Joseph brothers who were of Jewish heritage chose to settle in Manchester. The links between the Bah’is and Zionists were complex, Wellesley Tudor Pole was involved with the British Israel Movement and quiet what his role was during and after the war is rather vague 😉

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