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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. …

A footnote explains the name Emmanuel, saying :

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 errors in both cases are more or less sorted out, but were not explicitly repudiated (or they were repudiated, but no editor has seen fit to publish a letter saying “disregard X, it is not correct”). Wrestling Brewster (centre) at Greenacre, August 1912

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:

newchurch-newyork … 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. emanuel_TABA2WB_00

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.

drummerFinally (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.

swedenborg_coverAbdu’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. emanuel-usbn-header

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: exclamation2

… 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 Ahmad-e Ahsai and Sayyid Kazim Rashti in the same light.

The last letter is dated September 26, 1943, and switches from ‘advanced stirrings’ to ‘a herald of this Day.’ The secretary writes:

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-sittingShoghi 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. shoghieffendi

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 according to Esslemont’s preparatory note to the 1923 edition (p.8) he “read through the whole of the manuscript (in English) and [gave] it his cordial approval.” 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. If this is his attitude, then his reading of outgoing correspondence served three purposes: as an opportunity to correct really serious errors, as an opportunity for him to add a personal postscript to the addressee without burdening himself with too much correspondence, and as a way for him to keep himself informed of what was being said. For some years, Abdu’l-Baha had adopted an even broader procedure, reading all outgoing mail of any type. Adib Taherzadeh reports:

During these four years ‘Abdu’l-Baha instructed that all letters written by the believers in the Holy Land addressed to the friends in Persia had to be submitted to Him for approval. He usually placed His seal on the letters if the contents met with His approval.During these four years ‘Abdu’l-Baha instructed that all letters written by the believers in the Holy Land addressed to the friends in Persia had to be submitted to Him for approval. He usually placed His seal on the letters if the contents met with His approval. (The Covenant of Baha’u’llah, p. 170)

He did this to prevent news of disunity within the family of Baha’u’llah filtering out to the Bahai community. Given the context, no-one would suppose that these letters bearing the seal of Abdu’l-Baha are equivalent to his own writing. Baha’u’llah also used a seal to authenticate answers prepared by, or answered in the words of, his secretary. In light of the context of that practice, these letters are regarded as equivalent to his own words.  The two entirely different cases show that we cannot assume that we know what Shoghi Effendi’s reading, and signing, of outgoing correspondence meant in the mind of Shoghi Effendi. His intention has to be investigated, and respected so far as we can discern it.

The perspective I have suggested, 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 that righteous certainty that so often turns differences of understanding into divisions about minor and mutable points, because ‘Shoghi Effendi said so.’

Related content:
Regarding letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi: one, two, and three.

Anything Shoghi Effendi said is Baha’i doctrine
Words of Grace

On other sites:
Bahai News (USBN)
Swedenborg on Wikipedia
Swedenborg’s works in electronic format.
Swedenborg’s life

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18 Responses to “Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of Emanuel”


    First, thank you for your intellectual work and for raising this interesting subject.

    I would like to offer a few thoughts.


    The Master referring to the Bab as “Emmanuel” brings to mind the same phenomenon in the Bible, when Jesus Christ is prophesied as having the name Emmanuel: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el.” (Isaiah 7:14)

    The Gospel of Matthew refers to Christ’s fulfillment of this verse, and clearly explains that the meaning of the name, not the name itself, was intended by Isaiah: “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.'” (Matthew 1:22-23)

    So perhaps the Master was speaking in the same spirit, referring to another Manifestation of God – the Bab – as “Emmanuel.”


    You express the view that in interpreting the “Letter” in the Master’s tablet as the Bab, “it is not credible that the Guardian would have assigned a subordinate status to the Bab in relation to Baha’u’llah.”

    It would be interesting if the Bab had, in His Writings, referred to Himself as a “letter” before Baha’u’llah. In fact, the Bab Himself did just that, and remarkably, so did Baha’u’llah.

    The Bab refers to Himself as a “letter” before Baha’u’llah in His Second Letter to Him Whom God will make manifest: “May the glances of Him Whom God shall make manifest illumine this letter at the primary school.” (Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 5)

    This humility and sweetness characterized the spirit of each of the twin Manifestations towards the other. In like manner, in the closing paragraphs of the Iqan, Baha’u’llah refers to Himself as a Letter before the Bab: “Amidst them all, We stand, life in hand, wholly resigned to His will; that perchance, through God’s loving kindness and His grace, this revealed and manifest Letter may lay down His life as a sacrifice in the path of the Primal Point, the most exalted Word.” (The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 252) Interestingly, this passage was an after-reflection, written by Baha’u’llah in the margin of the final original manuscript of the Iqan. (Giachery, Shoghi Effendi: Recollections, p. 148)

    I suggest that seeing Abdu’l-Baha as referring to the Bab as a “Letter” is not a theological mistake, but a restatement of the expressions of both of the Manifestations demonstrating their love and submission to the other – each expressing discipleship to the other. The Master writing that the meaning of the Letter is “consonant with the Word” and “an integral part of the Word” seems to me to fit exactly with both the Bab and Baha’u’llah referring to themselves as Letters before the Word, and in keeping with the Guardian’s conclusion that these passages are “in no way a reference to Swedenborg.”


    You offer the conjecture that with respect to some questions from the believers, Shoghi Effendi may have “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.” You also point out that the World Center translation renders Emmanuel as the “Herald” of Baha’u’llah but that Ahmad Sohrab had incorrectly earlier translated this word as “Forerunner” of Baha’u’llah, and that Shoghi Effendi’s “secretary” may have been misled by this mis-translation. If Shoghi Effendi’s approval of the May 1938 letter written on his behalf was insufficient (and the secretary’s letter almost certainly contained Shoghi Effendi’s own signature as well), we have in addition the fact that the publication of this letter was, as your own photograph from the 1940 Baha’i News shows, published with the “consent” of Shoghi Effendi. This shows another endorsement of its contents by Shoghi Effendi. Rather than viewing the letter to Hatch as entirely the product of the flawed mind of one of the secretaries who “composed these letters themselves according to their own understanding”, to me, knowing that Shoghi Effendi enjoyed fluency in the original language of the Master’s tablet, and having twice approved the contents of the letter to Hatch, I see it as an expression of Shoghi Effendi’s mind and purpose.

    Thank you for raising these interesting points and encouraging delving into the writings


  2. Thomas Linard said

    Hi Sen,

    “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).”

    If we believe that, this extract of Promised Day Is Come is meaningless:

    “Count Mastai-Ferretti, Bishop of Imola, the 254th pope since the inception of St. Peter’s primacy, who had been elevated to the apostolic throne two years after the Declaration of the Bab, and the duration of whose pontificate exceeded that of any of his predecessors, will be permanently remembered as the author of the Bull which declared the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin (1854), referred to in the Kitab-i-Iqan, to be a doctrine of the Church, and as the promulgator of the new dogma of Papal Infallibility (1870).”
    (Promised Day Is Come, p. 53, 1941)

    From there, it seems to me that there are only two possible interpretations:
    – Shoghi Effendi asked Baha’is to believe in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, as defined by Pope Pius IX: “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.”
    – Or: Shoghi Effendi himself confused the two doctrines.

    The last possibility, for shocking it is, avoids twisting the texts and logic beyond reason.

  3. Sen said

    In reply to Thomas
    I understand as you do that Shoghi Effendi affirmed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary: she was ma’sum in the same sense as Fatimah and the Imams were ma’sum, meaning immaculate, free from sin, sometimes translated as infallability.

    However when asked about this, the secretaries supposed that the question was about the virgin birth of Jesus.

    This requires a separate treatment, putting all the secretaries’ letters in chronological order and looking for the questions that were posed. I don’t have time to do that at the moment, and rather hope that someone else will do the work for me 🙂

  4. Sen said

    In reply to Brent
    Your ideas are interesting, but I have presented documentary evidence that the tablet came in response to a question from a Swedenborgian about Emanuel Swedenborg. I will put the full text of Wrestling-Brewster’s booklet online when I get a chance, and a parallel Persian-English text of the tablet.

  5. Thomas Linard said

    In reply to Sen
    But the matter is not about ma’sum, or about letters written “on behalf”, it’s about the Promised Day Is Come (are we agreed on the author?) and the very explicit reference to the promulgation of the Catholic dogma “referred to in the Kitab-i-Iqan”.

  6. Sen said

    In reply to Thomas
    Consider also the possibility that Shoghi Effendi knew just what he was saying. It was indeed the doctrine known as “the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin” that was declared dogma in 1854. It was not the Virgin Birth, which had been undisputed dogma for centuries. The exact question in the Bull of 1854 (ineffabalis deus) was whether it was Mary’s immediate conception that the Church had for centuries celebrated, or a sanctification that occurred later, even a moment later (hence the terms primary and secondary conception). This question had been disputed, and the Pope comes down not just on the side of the conceptionists, but more, says that Mary was intended and set aside for this purpose before time. The preamble to the Bull sets out the more general doctrine of the station of Mary, that “From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother …. far above all the angels … so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts [ a reference to the verse “Hail Mary, full of grace” ~Sen] … that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, … would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity….”

    The question then is, is this doctrine referred to in the Iqan? The fact that the virgin birth of Jesus is referred to in the Iqan is interesting, but it does not exclude the possibility that Shoghi Effendi also saw in the Iqan an indication that Baha’u’llah knew of and endorsed the doctrine set out in the Bull. There were after all 16 years between the Bull and the Iqan, and the doctrine defined in the Bull was not new, although it was given with new clarity. It is not unlikely that the Bull or at least the doctrine would have been known and discussed in Baghdad (I have a memory of a dispute within one church that was divided by an internal wall, and one side of that dispute supporting the new doctrine, but I do not have time to research that now). The essence of the doctrine, translated into Shiah terms, that Mary had been officially declared ma`sum, immaculate (possessing the “fullness of holy innocence and sanctity”).

    Note that while the Bull is called “the immaculate conception of Mary” it embraces and assumes as a given the virgin birth of Jesus, and the teaching that Jesus “brothers” in the Gospels are not in fact children of Mary, but at most half-brothers. These doctrines are covered under the word ever highlighted above. So we are looking for three doctrines: one that Mary was a special creation, immaculate before her conception; two that she remained immaculate throughout her life and that Jesus’ conception was miraculous; and third that the brothers of Christ are not sons of Mary. It appears to me that Shoghi Effendi found all of these in the Iqan, in the words aan mukhaddareh-ye baqaa, translated as “that veiled and immortal countenance.” Mukhaddareh has the meaning of set aside from the world: in women it connotes chastity and piety, in medicine it means anaethetized! This word alone would be sufficient to refer to Jesus’ miraculous conception by the breath of the Spirit. Baqaa’ means eternal continuance, especially subsistence in God. It corresponds to the word *ever* in the Bull. It is this, I think, that suggested to Shoghi Effendi that Baha’u’llah taught not just the virgin birth of Jesus, but also that Mary was immaculate and continued to be both morally immaculate and a virgin. This requires three Marys in the New Testament, for Mary the mother of Jesus cannot also be Mary the mother of Jacob. This was certainly Abdu’l-Baha’s belief, and we may assume (pending evidence to the contrary) that it was Baha’u’llah’s belief. Abdu’l-Baha writes, for example:

    O ye maid-servants of God and leaves of the Tree of Eternal Life!
    Blessed are ye for attaining to that which was the greatest hope of Mary the Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jacob! This gift was shining on the face of the Virgin Mary like unto a brilliant gem glistening on the great crown of glory.
    (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, 662)

    Also, in a talk for which we have the Persian text, Abdu’l-Baha says that many women have appeared, who excelled men:

    For example, her holiness Mary excelled men, and Mary Magdalene was a model for men to emulate, and Mary the mother of Jacob was the exemplar for men, … (my translation, from Khatabat-e Abdu’l-Baha vol. 2 page 135; in the version given in Promulgation of Universal Peace p 175, Mary mother of Jacob is omitted.)

    As in the Catholic tradition, Abdu’l-Baha regards Mary, the mother of Jacob and Joses, as a different person to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Jacob and Joses are not full brothers of Jesus. This other Mary, the mother of Jacob, is mentioned by Matthew:

    … many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children. (Matt 27:56)

    (English translations usually refer to James rather than Jacob. The change was apparently introduced in the King James Bible, perhaps in honour of King James. )

    From this evidence, I propose that the Bahai teachings do indeed endorse what is the known as the immaculate conception of Mary, in the sense that that teaching embraces both the immaculacy of Mary (placing her on a level with Fatimeh), the virgin birth, and the belief that Jesus’ brothers were not sons of Mary — the three elements of that doctrine.

  7. Thomas Linard said

    In reply to Sen

    You miss entirely the point of the dogma (and, there centuries ago, you would have burned for your heretic presentation of the dogma 😉 ). It’s, like you said, not about the Virgin Birth of Jesus (not even in the Catholic sense of a hymen remaining intact antepartum, intrapartum and postpartum) because the Virgin Birth is already in the Nicene Creed (4th century).
    The promulgation of the Immaculate Conception dogma resolves a very old disputatio (Thomas Aquinas was against it): the core of the dogma is a conciliation between two dogmas (the original sin, inflicting all mankind since Adam and Eve, and Jesus Christ only savior of humanity) and the old belief in Mary never tainted by the original sin, because she’s Mother of God.
    And Aquinas was right: Mary immaculate and saved by herself is anathema.
    So, the solution chosen by the dogma was to save Mary by Jesus beforehand (sort of Back to the Future, if you like — I should have burned too, I know).
    So, believe in the Immaculate Conception requires to believe in the original sin, in Jesus Christ only saviour of humanity, and in a very peculiar conception of Mary, unique to Catholic Christianity (the Orthodox Churches believe that Mary was Mother of God despite the original sin). Otherwise the Immaculate Conception dogma, and his promulgation in 1854, is irrelevant.

  8. Sen said

    In reply to Thomas

    Alternatively, when Baha’u’llah heard an account of the 1854 Bull, while he was in Baghdad, he understood it to mean that Mary was specially ‘created’ to be immaculate, and that she remained immaculate throughout her life, never sinning, and he knew the Christians in Baghdad were split on this, and it caught his interest, so he makes this passing reference in the words aan mukhaddareh-ye baqaa, maeaning that she like the Imams and Fatimah was destined before the creation to be ma`sum, and remained ma`sum throughout her life. And Shoghi Effendi spotted the implications of the word baqaa, related it because of his own Catholic education and theological interests to the context of the Bull promulgated just before the Iqan was written, and mentioned it in The Promised Day is Come.

  9. Thomas Linard said

    In reply to Sen.
    If it was only this, the Orthodox conception of the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, worthy of hyperdulia, is sufficient. Nothing to do with the dogma promulgated in 1854.

  10. Roland said

    Excellent Brent. Thanks!

  11. Tom said

    Following up on Brent’s point re the Guardian’s approval of this interpretation: With regard to your questions about the authority of letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, particularly those sent from the Holy Land during the latter part of his ministry, there is no justification for summarily dismissing the authoritative guidance contained in this body of correspondence. If concerns arise in relation to specific messages or topics addressed, clarification can be sought from the Universal House of Justice.”

    “Reference is made to statements on the Internet which apparently infer that the Guardian discontinued the practice of reviewing all letters written on his behalf when the amount of correspondence increased. Mr. __ seeks confirmation of the fact that Shoghi Effendi continued to review all letters written on his behalf until the end of his life. The Research Department sets out below the only information it has, to date, been able to locate on this subject.

    In a postscript appended to a letter dated 7 December 1930, written on his behalf to an individual believer, Shoghi Effendi described the normal procedure he followed in dealing with correspondence written on his behalf:

    I wish to add and say that whatever letters are sent in my behalf from Haifa are all read and approved by me before mailing. There is no exception whatever to this rule.

    I strongly suggest that the ‘problematic’ issues you have been banging on about for decades re secretaries letters on behalf of the Guardian are so only for you. Your insistence on prerequisites such as literary metaphorical analysis are very wide of the mark. In the Iqan we are given the criteria for understanding these texts: “The understanding of His words and the comprehension of the utterances of the Birds of Heaven are in no wise dependent upon human learning. They depend solely upon purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit. This is evidenced by those who, today, though without a single letter of the accepted standards of learning, are occupying the loftiest seats of knowledge; and the garden of their hearts is adorned, through the showers of divine grace, with the roses of wisdom and the tulips of understanding. Well is it with the sincere in heart for their share of the light of a mighty Day!” Of course, the Guardian was the ultimate embodiment of “purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit”and the chosen Branch who alone can correctly interpret the sacred Texts. This will continue to ensure Bahai unity despite the efforts of those who in the past, present and future attempt to undermine it.

  12. There is a logical problem with the second analogy. The Apostles were actual followers and contemporaries of Jesus, so his light was shining for them to have reflected it. During Swedenborg’s time, the most recent Manifestation to have shed his light was Muhammad, and he was a follower of a heavenly apparition of Jesus that happened sometime in the seventeenth century. That is not to mention the whol flawed nature of the concept of analogically reasoning or appeal to analogy as well. Despite the analogy, I’ve never seen Emanuel Swedenborg being counted as a Letter of the Living or an Apostle of Bahaullah.

  13. Sen said

    Indeed, Swedenborg comes before Baha’u’llah in history. Yet once we know from the historical context that the tablet is about Emanuel Swedenborg, it is clear that Abdu’l-Baha is saying that Swedenborg fits into the Bahai schema of religious history as an apostle of Baha’u’llah avant la lettre, just as Sayyid Kazim and Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa’i are reckoned as precursors of the new age.

    Analogies and metaphors never work in every respect, unless we say that a lion is like a lion (tautology). As soon as we say a man is like a lion, we make a demand on the reader to deduce what characteristics of the man are like what characteristics of the lion.

  14. Brent Poirier said

    Regarding Swedenborg as a precursor of the New Day is explicit in the Guardian’s letters – but so is his statement that the Master’s tablet about Emanuel is not about Swedenborg.

    “…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 Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. 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.” (From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, May 6, 1943; Lights of Guidance, p. 509 #1719

  15. BRENT POIRIER said

    Sen, an important part of your argument rests on your inference that the secretary was misled by Sohrab’s incorrect translation. The secretary wrote the letter at the direction of Shoghi Effendi, who didn’t rely on someone else’s translation, rather than on the original text itself. Ruhiyyih Khanum describes the Guardian’s practice:

    “The Guardian was exceedingly cautious in everything that concerned the original Word and would never explain or comment on a text submitted to him in English (when it was not his own translation) until he had verified it with the original.”
    (The Priceless Pearl, p. 204)


  16. Sen said

    I am sure that is correct Brent: Shoghi Effendi would not issue an interpretation of the scripture without checking the original. If he thought the query did not warrant checking the original, he would delegate the answer to a secretary. He seems to have been quite “hands off” as regards ‘correct’ doctrine, until it caused some problem in or for the Bahai community, as which point he would intervene using his insight, his authority, and of course the original texts. For example, the “mystic unity” idea (of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha) was a problem for the Bahai community, because it gave ammunition to the followers of Muhammad ‘Ali who said that Abdu’l-Baha had claimed to be a Manifestation of God. So Shoghi Effendi addressed it.

    I have not found any instance in which Shoghi Effendi delegated his interpretive authority to a secretary. From what I understand of his mind and character, the idea would never have occurred to him, with the result that he did not foresee that later generations of Bahais would start to attribute interpretive authority to letters written on his behalf by his secretaries.

    However the argument that this tablet is about Swedenborg is not based on inferences, it is a fact. Wrestling Brewster sent Abdu’l-Baha “a query as to what is the relation between the Revelation of Emanuel Swedenborg and that of Baha ‘o ‘llah?” with further references to Swedenborg and his church. That’s Fact. Abdu’l-Baha answered with a tablet about Emanuel which is available in the original Persian, and compares him to the apostles of Christ or the relationship of a letter to the word: “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.” Again, that’s Fact. Clearly the Emanuel that Abdu’l-Baha is talking about is dependent for inspiration on a greater figure, who is the Word.

  17. Hasan said

    There is a contradiction between the letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi and facts/writings, it is time to recognize that. In this case (and in other cases) we have to take the scientific approach and use Occam’s razor, so the most probable thing that happened here is that the secretaries committed inaccuracies, mistakes, and blunders (errors from low to high like in Chess), after all of them were simple fallible human beings. It is a fact that the Tablet of `Abdu’l-Bahá was about Swedenborg, he was asked about Swedenborg, so I agree with Sen here, but it seems Swedenborg was a seer, much less important than Sayyid Kazim or Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa’i.

  18. Hasan said

    So, for me, the main problem of misunderstanding here was twofold: language and context. To understand the authoritative writings I really think we need both: the letter which asks the question and the answer which is the Authoritative writing. It is incredible how today many misunderstandings exist due to dogmatic positions.

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