Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of Emanuel
Posted by Sen on July 25, 2016
There’s a Tablet translated in Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, selection 29, that begins “O thou who art captivated by the truth …” and in which the eighth paragraph says:
Emmanuel was indeed the Herald of the Second Coming of Christ, and a Summoner to the pathway of the Kingdom. It is evident that the Letter is a member of the Word, and this membership in the Word signifieth that the Letter is dependent for its value on the Word, that is, it deriveth its grace from the Word; it has a spiritual kinship with the Word, and is accounted an integral part of the Word. The Apostles were even as Letters, and Christ was the essence of the Word Itself; and the meaning of the Word, which is grace everlasting, cast a splendour on those Letters. …
It is our hope that thou wilt in this day arise to promote that which Emmanuel foretold. …
Regarding this Tablet Shoghi Effendi’s secretary wrote on his behalf, on 9 May 1938, “…this obviously refers to the Bab, as the text shows [it] clearly, and is in no way a reference to Swedenborg..”
The secretary has been misled by an earlier translation by Ahmad Sohrab, also known as Mirza Ahmad Esphahani, which says that Emmanuel was, “the forerunner of the second coming of His Highness the Christ.” The implicit reasoning is that the return of Christ is Baha’u’llah, and his Forerunner is the Bab. But the tablet of Emanuel is clearly about some lesser figure: Abdu’l-Baha uses the analogy of the relationship of the Apostles to Christ. This illustrates the danger of relying on a single word in a translation. As we will see, the Tablet of Emanuel is actually about the 18th century polymath and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg – with one ‘m’ in Emanuel.
This is interesting in two ways:
First, knowing that the tablet refers to the seer Emanuel Swedenborg makes the tablet itself understandable and consistent with Bahai teachings regarding the station of the Bab and Baha’u’llah. We can see how Abdu’l-Baha speaks to a Swedenborgian-Bahai who has found (Osbornian) relevance in a particular aspect of the Bahai teachings, and what Abdu’l-Baha has to say about this intermediate category of seers, those who have true heavenly visions that Abdu’l-Baha does not give the status of ‘a revelation direct from God’ or a new Law. This acceptance of the validity of seers is also relevant to the ‘divine philosophers’ such as Plato.
Second, the first letter on behalf of the Guardian elicited a reaction, because it was known in the American Bahai community that the letter was about Emanuel Swedenborg. We can see how successive letters from the Guardian’s secretaries cope with the fact that the first letter was incorrect, in fact and in theology. Something similar could be done with a series of letters on behalf of the Guardian by secretaries who thought that the Immaculate Conception is another term for the Virgin Birth of Jesus (a mistake the Guardian could hardly have made, given his Catholic education and interest in theology). In the process of people raising objections and getting answers, the initial error more or less gets sorted out, but is not explicitly repudiated.
The Tablet of Emanuel, background
The story of the tablet begins with Mr. E. E. Wrestling Brewster, a Swedenborgian attached to the New Jerusalem Church, a congregation of the New Church (Swedenborgian) in New York. Wrestling Brewster became a Bahai in 1906, and wrote a letter of declaration to Abdu’l-Baha, and received in reply a ‘letter of acceptance’ from Abdu’l-Baha, translated by Mirza Ameen Fareed, which Wrestling Brewster received in October 1906. Wrestling Brewster then wrote to Abdu’l-Baha regarding Emanuel Swedenborg. He later described the contents of his letter as:
… a query as to what is the relation between the Revelation of Emanuel Swedenborg and that of Baha ‘o ‘llah? The statement was given that the writer [Wrestling Brewster] was a deep student and disciple of the Swedish Seer and a communicant in the New-Church founded upon His doctrines; and further, that a resolve had been made to assist in spreading this spiritual philosophy before the masses.
In reply he received two letters, one from Abdu’l-Baha which is the subject of this posting, and one from the translator, Mirza Ahmad Esphahani (Ahmad Sohrab), who describes the Tablet of Emanuel as “one of the most wonderful Tablets that I have translated” and says that Abdu’l-Baha has instructed that it is to be translated “with the utmost correctness and … sent to the owner and [–] with the consent of its owner [–] to be printed and published.” Sohrab then asks for that permission. His covering letter is dated April 7, 1907. The full text of these letters has been posted as a separate text file.
Wrestling Brewster gave permission for the publication, and sent a copy of the translation to the Washington ‘assembly’ (a term that at that time could refer to a Bahai community rather than an institution), but it was not immediately published. In 1912, when Abdu’l-Baha came to New York, he met with Wrestling Brewster and enquired about the publication, saying, according to Wrestling Brewster, “That Tablet is intended for the world.”
It appears that this prompted Wrestling-Brewster to have the tablet printed himself, without waiting for the Bahai Publishing Society to include it in their volumes of collected tablets (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas). The Publishing Society had apparently prepared Volume 3, in which this tablet appeared, as early as 1909, but lack of funds prevented its publication until 1916. In the interim, Wrestling Brewster published the tablet, in a booklet entitled Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas to E.E. Wrestling Brewster. This is undated but was published after he met Abdu’l-Baha in 1912. It consists of the translation of the tablet of acceptance; Ahmad Esphahani’s covering letter as the translator of the Tablet of Emanual; a Foreword from Wrestling Brewster, and Esphahani’s English translation of the tablet of Emanuel, dated March 6, 1907.
The booklet is listed in the bibliographies of Bahai literature printed in The Bahai World from Volume 4 (1930-32), where it is incorrectly dated 1907. I received a scan of the booklet from Kurt Asplund, whose help has been crucial. I would also like to thank the participants at the July 2016 Bahai Studies seminar in Oxford for their feedback.
The contents of the Tablet of Emanuel
I have posted the three translations published English translations of the tablet, side by side, in a Word file here. The Persian text and my suggested translation are presented in parallel in another Word file here. The Persian text is available in Volume 1 of Muntakhabaati az Makaatib-e Hazrat-e Abdu’l-Bahaa, page 55, selection 29, and in two earlier collections of tablets: the Brazilian edition of Min Makaatib-e Hazrat-e Abdu’l-Baha vol. 1 p. 281 (selection 151) and the 1921 Egyptian printing of Makaatib-e Hazrat-e Abdu’l-Baha volume 3, p. 249.
The last of these names the addressee as Mr. Rosling Berestre-vod (رسلینگ برسته ود) in New York. This was the clue that led me to Wrestling Brewster and his booklet, and the certainty that the tablet is about Emanuel Swedenborg. This volume of ‘Makaatib‘ was published under Abdu’l-Baha’s supervision: its title page bears the signature of Abdu’l-Baha. In this text, but not in the more recent ‘Muntakhabaati az Makaatib‘ edition (the parallel text to Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha), Emanuel is spelled in the Persian with one ‘M’. This latest edition has changed the spelling to Emmanuel, to make it accord with the 1938 letter from a secretary quoted above. This is changing the evidence to match the conclusion: never a safe procedure.
I want to look just at a few points where the reading and translation is affected by knowing the tablet responds to Wrestling Brewster’s statements about Swedenborg. One section expresses the potential for the development of new branches of knowledge (علوم و معارفی) , so that “the lesson of spiritual stations will be read” (in my translation), or “the different planes of meaning be learned” in the World Centre translation. The Persian is درس مقامات معنوی خواند. I think this points forward to Abdu’l-Baha’s later explanation of the lesser spiritual station of Swedenborg, as compared to Christ or Baha’u’llah.
“Then will the cry of the Lord of the Kingdom be heard … and he will set out for the Kingdom of God, and hurry along to the realm of the spirit.” That is, when someone – such as Wrestling-Brewster – understands the lessons of spiritual stations, that person (not ‘humanity’, which is inserted in the World Centre translation), will not hesitate. This is illustrated with the metaphor of a fledgling bird: “once a bird hath grown its wings, it remaineth on the ground no more, but soareth upward into high heaven — except for those birds that are tied by the leg, or those whose wings are broken, or mired down.” This implies that if Wrestling-Brewster continues to devote his efforts to the New Church of Swedenborg, he will be like a bird with its leg tied. Rather he should relate the Bahai teachings to the “urgent needs of this present day.”
Then comes an exposition of progressive revelation, showing both the unity of divine revelation and the need to turn to the most recent revelation, since “the treatment ordered by wise physicians of the past, and by those that follow after, is not one and the same…” Abdu’l-Baha says that now, “teachings once limited to the few are made available to all.” (تعليم خصوصی عمومی گرديد) . In context, I think he is saying that there is now no need to follow a seer who gave advance glimpses of the New Jerusalem – it is now open to all. Then he gives a familiar interpretation, that “The descent of the New Jerusalem denotes a heavenly law.” In context, the point is that Swedenborg does not bring a new Law, which is required.
Finally (paragraph 8), he says “Emanuel was indeed the Herald (مبشّر = mobasher) of the Second Coming of Christ, and a Summoner [منادی = monaadi] to the pathway of the Kingdom.” These two terms affirm the legitimacy of Swedenborg and his visions, in the station of a servant.
Mobasher is the word that Sohrab translated as Forerunner, leading Shoghi Effendi’s secretary to assume a reference to the Bab. In other texts, Shoghi Effendi translates this variously as Forerunner, herald, harbinger, foreteller (“foretold” in Iqan p. 64). It’s the same root as bisharat, glad tidings: a mobasher is someone who brings glad tidings. The new translation in Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha has ‘Herald’ here, other good alternatives would be ‘messenger’ and ‘announcer.’ Olivia Kelsey’s reading (see below), that it is the station of a minor prophet, is over-specified. Every prophet could be called a mobasher, but not every mobasher is a minor prophet. I have it on the good authority of Stephen Lambden that Abdu’l-Baha calls Cheyne a mobasher, which would be translated as promulgator, since he spread the news of the Bab’s revelation in his 1914 book The Reconciliation of Races And Religions. In Swedenborg’s case, we have a voice that arose before the event, and a person whose life and writings “summoned to the pathway of the Kingdom. Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha would have accorded Swedenborg the same status as the minor prophets of Israel, had he been asked. But to assert it as the meaning of this tablet narrows the range of possible meanings.
A monaadi is “a herald; a proclaimer or crier; also, a forerunner” according to Hayyim’s dictionary; or “A crier, herald, proclaimer; a small drum that is beat about to notify or proclaim anything” according to Steingass. In both cases, the point is that such a servant is not to be equated with the person he heralds.
Abdu’l-Baha then makes a new metaphor, saying “that the Letter is a member of the Word, and this membership in the Word signifieth that the Letter is dependent … on the Word,” … “it deriveth its grace from the Word; it has a spiritual kinship with the Word, and is accounted an integral part of the Word.” Abdu’l-Baha is appropriating Swedenborg for the Bahai revelation: Swedenborg is not only the founder of the New Church within Christianity, he is “an integral part of” the new revelation. The ‘Letter’ here is both Swedenborg, and the New Church that Wrestling-Brewster had said he intended to support. Abdu’l-Baha says that through Wrestling-Brewster’s efforts the Letter (Swedenborgian movement) may become the mirror of the Word (Bahai teachings). The Bahai teachings include all the perfections and teachings of the past, and in addition it proclaims (monaadi) the oneness of humanity.
Abdu’l-Baha then makes a second analogy: Swedenborg is to Baha’u’llah, as the Apostles are to Christ. They receive his reflected light. And he addresses Wrestling Brewster, saying “It is our hope that thou wilt in this day arise to promote that which Emanuel heralded (بشارت داده).” He directs him to read some central Bahai texts available in English, to see that today these teachings are the remedy for a sick world.
What happened next
Because of Wrestling-Brewster’s publication, some Bahais in America were aware that ‘Emanuel’ in this tablet referred to Emanuel Swedenborg. An article by Olivia Kelsey in The Bahai World Vol. 6 called ‘Glimpses of Sweden,’ says, “In a Tablet addressed to an American Baha’i, E. E. Wrestling-Brewster, Abdu’l-Baha gave to Emmanuel Swedenborg the significance of [a] minor prophet.” (see p. 703) Part of the tablet is then quoted. It is possible, but not certain, that Shoghi Effendi read this article, since these volumes were prepared under his supervision by an editorial board based largely in the United States. The volume was published in 1937; most of the contents would have been collected and edited in the period 1935-1937.
As I mentioned earlier, a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, on May 9, 1938, said that this tablet “obviously refers to the Bab [-] as the text shows it clearly [-] and is in no way a reference to Swedenborg.” The letter responds to a question put by Willard Packard Hatch (1878 – 1960), a Bahai author, traveller and speaker, and Secretary of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Los Angeles, and either a man with a colourful past or an early example of participant research. He became a Bahai before Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to North America, and wrote a history of ‘Early days in Los Angeles Bahai Affairs.’ It seems likely that he had a memory, if not a copy, of Wrestling-Brewster’s publication, so why would he ask Shoghi Effendi who ‘Emanuel’ was? One explanation is that the statement in Kelsey’s article was disputed by others, and Hatch wrote to the Guardian expecting him to say that Emanuel was Swedenborg.
This 1938 letter to Willard Hatch is the one cited in the footnote in Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha. While it was addressed to an individual, it was published in Baha’i News, No. 134, March 1940, p. 2, with the consent of the Guardian (see the image below). This implies that NSA members and editorial staff around 1939 were unaware of the Wrestling-Brewster publication, for if they were aware of it, they would not have asked permission to publish what was clearly a mistake. It also implies that the identity of Emanuel was considered a matter of community interest, which is to say, disagreements. It would be most interesting to know which networks within the community were reading the tablet as referring to Swedenborg, and which were opposing that reading.
A second letter, dated October 1939 and again written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, tacitly admits that the 1938 letter to Willard Hatch was wrong:
… concerning Emanuel Swedenborg and his writings; while ‘Abdu’l-Baha praised the man and his noble efforts for social and religious reconstruction there is nothing in the Master’s Writings that can justify the believers in giving him any special station or importance beside that of an enlightened and constructive thinker of wide spiritual vision. There can be therefore no official Baha’i attitude in respect of the man or his work.
Was the writer of this letter still unaware that the ‘Tablet of Emanuel’ was about Emanuel Swedenborg? The Tablet of Emanuel does not in fact praise the “noble efforts for social and religious reconstruction” of Swedenborg, but rather the efforts of Wrestling-Brewster. It praises Swedenborg as a mystic and seer. So this October 1939 letter, which does not refer directly to a ‘tablet,’ might be a response to differences of opinion in the community about Swedenborg’s ideas, rather than an answer to a question about the Tablet of Emanuel. But since the 1938 letter to Willard Hatch is about the Tablet of Emanuel, and identifies Emanuel incorrectly as the Bab, and this letter follows just 18 months later, it appears very likely that this letter comes in response to an objection to the error in the 1938 letter, and the words “Abdu’l-Baha praised the man ..” refer to this same Tablet of Emanuel. In that case, why do the words of Abdu’l-Baha, that “Emmanuel was indeed the Herald of the Second Coming of Christ, and a Summoner to the pathway of the Kingdom” and his subsequent qualifiers on this, not constitute an official Bahai attitude to Swedenborg and his work?
The next event is the March 1940 republication of the 1938 letter, in the US Bahai News, saying that ‘Emmanuel’ refers to the Bab and not to Swedenborg. Why would the NSA do this, rather than printing the October 1939 letter which is more accurate? The most plausible explanation is that the October 1939 letter was not to a North American Bahai, so the NSA there did not get a copy.
Four years later we get two more letters on behalf of the Guardian to individuals. On May 6, 1943 a secretary writes:
…The teachings of such spiritually enlightened souls as Swedenborg, Emerson, and others should be considered as the advanced stirrings, in the minds of great souls foreshadowing that Revelation which was to break upon the world through the Bab and Baha’u’llah. Anything they say which is not substantiated by the Teachings, however, we cannot regard as absolute truth, but merely as the reflection of their own thoughts.
This is a fair summary of the contents of Abdu’l-Baha’s tablet. In place of a “forerunner” of Baha’u’llah, Emanuel Swedenborg is an ‘advanced stirring’ of the Twin manifestations. Shoghi Effendi treats Shaykh Abmad-e Ahsai and Sayyid Kazim Rashti in the same light.
Swedenborg, because of the extreme progressiveness of his teachings may, in a way, be considered a herald of this Day. …
With the exception of the first letter in 1938, and the decision to republish it in 1940, these letters suppose that Abdu’l-Baha’s “Emanuel” is Emanuel Swedenborg, not the Bab. That gives us a rule of thumb: when dealing with contradictory letters written on behalf of the Guardian, we should give the most weight to the last letters, since the earlier ones may have initiated a feedback process from knowledgeable believers that has given the Guardian and his secretaries better information to work with. If we do not have multiple letters over a period, the letters we do have must be treated with caution because they may not be the last word.
The letters on behalf of the Guardian about the Tablet of Emanuel, and those about the Immaculate Conception, and the secretary’s letter that says that “this is the day which will not be followed by the night” refers to a never-ending line of Guardians, and the letter that says that “saying grace … is not part of the Baha’i Faith, but a Christian practice…”, and the letter that says that “The Universal Court of Arbitration … will be merged in the Universal House of Justice,” and the letter that says: “as to whether people ought to kill animals for food or not, there is no explicit statement in the Baha’i Sacred Scriptures (as far as I know) in favour or against it…,” or the letter that says that “The Prophets never composed treatises,” or the letter that says that “words Israel, used throughout the Bible, simply refers to the Jewish people and not the Chosen ones of this day” – whereas Shoghi Effendi himself reports, in God Passes By p. 116, a tablet of Baha’u’llah “in which Israel and his children [are] identified with the Bab and His followers respectively” — all these letters suggest that the Guardian’s secretaries in some cases, and perhaps in general, composed these letters themselves according to their own understanding and the knowledge available to them. In the case of ‘the day not followed by night,’ the secretary’s interpretation in 1948 contradicts Shoghi Effendi’s previous interpretation in 1944, in God Passes By, and uses a slightly different translation.
In the case of the Tablet of Emanuel, the secretary clearly did not know that it was about Emanuel Swedenborg, and perhaps the Guardian had not read Kelsey’s article in The Bahai World, or had forgotten it, and was also ignorant on this point. That is, the factual mistake might have come from the Guardian’s instructions to the secretary. However it is not credible that the Guardian would have assigned a subordinate status to the Bab in relation to Baha’u’llah, analogous to that of the Apostles to Christ. The theological mistake has clearly come from the secretary’s limited understanding and not from instructions of the Guardian. So how did the Guardian go about handling his English correspondence? What was the procedure, and what was his thinking about the correspondence he assigned to a secretary?
Shoghi Effendi wore two ‘hats’ – that of the Guardian who is the Interpreter, and that of the Head of the Bahai Community. In my opinion, there is a plausible explanation for the various secretaries’ letters about the Tablet of Emanuel, and the other questions I have mentioned briefly: that when Shoghi Effendi received these questions about the Bahai writings and teachings, he judged that they did not warrant his attention as Interpreter, and assigned them to a secretary to deal with as a pastoral or administrative matter. An individual’s question about some aspect of the Writings naturally has these two dimensions: the meaning of the text, and the needs of the believer who asks the question. A query from an NSA about the application of a text or principle is both about meanings, and about the institution’s need for a policy to follow. So pastoral and administrative matters can involve interpretations, without requiring an Interpretation with a capital I.
I suggest, as a rule of thumb, that where a letter has been assigned to a secretary to answer, we should assume that the Guardian has not put on his “Interpreter” hat, unless the letter itself indicates otherwise, and I do not know of any such exception at present. This is not to say that the letters written on behalf of the Guardian can never be a source of Bahai theology, rather that they cannot be the sole source for any point of interpretation. In the great majority of cases, the interpretive element in these letters is confirmed by the Writings, or by earlier or later writing by the Guardian himself. In a handful of cases, the interpretive element is incorrect.
Related to this is the thinking of the Guardian about his own reading and approval of an outgoing letter. We may assume, because it was the general procedure, that Shoghi Effendi saw and approved the letter written in May, 1938, that said that the Tablet of Emanuel “obviously refers to the Bab, … and is in no way a reference to Swedenborg.” A year or two earlier, he probably saw and approved the article by Olivia Kelsey which says that this Tablet is a response to Wrestling-Brewster’s question about Emanuel Swedenborg. Are we to suppose that he had forgotten this by 1938? Or that he skimmed the contents of The Bahai World without attention for details? But then we could just as well conclude, that he had skimmed the contents of the secretary’s 1938 letter without taking in its implications. Likewise, we could suppose that he didn’t really read the letter about the Immaculate Conception, the day not followed by night, saying grace, killing animals, composing treatises and so on. We could deal with all of these by saying Shoghi Effendi was sloppy, or he became tired from overwork.
An alternative is to suppose that he was careful and diligent about his own writing and his work as Head of the Faith and especially as the authorized Interpreter, but he was not a controlling personality. He allowed his secretaries and the national and local Spiritual Assemblies, and essay writers in The Bahai World, and authors and Bahais in general, to have their opinions and their areas of expertise and ignorance, to do their work according to their own lights and to bear responsibility for it, without consistent and detailed correction from the Guardian. Rather than supposing that he overlooked matters of which he could hardly have been unaware, we can suppose that he saw, and often decided that his intervention was not warranted. He praised JE Esslemont’s Baha’u’llah and the New Era and urged its speedy translation in many languages, but he could not have been unaware that it relied at some points on pilgrim’s notes, a source that Shoghi Effendi had warned against from his earliest days as Guardian. He must have known that Esslemont believed in the “mystic unity” of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha (p 68 of the 1923 edition), yet he did not refute the idea until February 1934, in The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah, and in the interim he had urged and guided translations into 33 different languages. Why did he not correct the English text regarding this ‘mystic unity,’ in a corrigenda if not in a new edition, before he had it translated? The simplest explanation is again, that he was not a controlling personality, and was content to let others have their opinions and bear responsibility for them, intervening only after a problem had resulted for the Bahai community.
This perspective on the personality of Shoghi Effendi, and on his method and meaning in assigning issues to a secretary or dealing with them himself, has far-reaching implications for the Bahai community today. Letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, along with pilgrim’s notes, bad translations and unauthenticated texts, play a large role in the questions that divide the community. Placing a question mark beside the authority of interpretations contained in these letters will I hope soften the righteous certainty that turns differences of understanding into divisions about minor and mutable points, because ‘Shoghi Effendi said so.’
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