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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.  In the process of people raising objections and getting answers, the initial errors 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 “Emanuel 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 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? Another example is the words mistakenly attributed to Abdu’l-Baha beginning “You can never organise the Bahai cause…”. I have discussed their history in detail on this blog. They were a key reason for opposition to Shoghi Effendi’s efforts to establish the local spiritual assemblies and empower the National Spiritual Assembly in North America, and he criticized their authenticity and the strange idea they convey very vigorously in a letter to that Assembly in February 1929. Yet two or three years earlier, when he was editing The Bahai Yearbook 1925-1926 (Volume 1 of The Bahai World series), he included an essay that quotes these words (p. 146). Are we to suppose that he was at that time unaware that the system of Bahai administration derives its authority from the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and is specifically prescribed in unnumbered Tablets, and rests on the explicit provisions of the Kitab-i-Aqdas (to paraphrase his own words)? The idea is preposterous. So why did he allow the words to be republished (they had first appeared in a 1914 newspaper report)?

The simplest explanation in all these examples that Shoghi Effendi 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. (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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46 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.

  19. Gary Matthews said

    Your analysis, Sen, is admirably fact-packed. However, it seems to me you’ve overlooked some key information — notably a crucial part of the Guardian’s 9 May 1938 interpretation. This omission alters the meaning of the snippet you do quote, creating an illusion of conflict where none exists.

    Let’s start with some background about your incomplete quote.

    It’s quite true (of course) that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of Emanuel was prompted by an inquiry from E. E. Wrestling Brewster about Emanuel Swedenborg. This is well and widely known. (I don’t recall how I first became aware of this context, but I learned it many years before that Tablet was ever published in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s “Selections”.) You write as if the Guardian or his secretary somehow contradict this in the 1938 letter; they do not.

    In your post, however, you make it appear that they do — that they deny any Swedenborg connection. You state:

    “… 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’.” [emphasis mine]

    Here you’ve got the Guardian’s rep saying “this tablet”(your words) “is in no way a reference to Swedenborg” (secretary’s words). By using the sweeping expression “this tablet” in your paraphrase, you attribute to that 1938 letter a false claim that nothing in the entire Tablet of Emanuel has anything to do with Swedenborg — that it’s all unrelated to him. But nowhere do Shoghi Effendi or his secretary suggest such a thing. On the contrary, the interpretive letter addresses only the meaning of one isolated expression. Here is the letter’s relevant full text:

    “In connection with your question regarding the reference made by ‘Abdu’l-Baha to ‘His Highness Emanuel’ in Vol. III of His Tablets, this obviously refers to the Bab as the text shows it clearly and is in no way a reference to Swedenborg.” (Baha’i News #134, March 1940, p. 2)

    See the difference? Here the element that “is in no way a reference to Swedenborg” isn’t the Master’s Tablet, taken as a whole. It’s the specific identity of “His Highness Emanuel”, a reference buried deep within the Tablet. (To be clear, ‘Abdu’l-Baha mentions this “Emanuel” twice, once with and once without the “His Highness”.) The Guardian singles out this particular usage — and only this — as ‘Abdu’l-Baha alluding to the Bab and not to Swedenborg.

    Is this surprising? Sure! Why might the Master call the Bab “Emanuel” in a Tablet prompted by, and reacting to, inquiries about a different Emanuel (Swedenborg)? The question seems fair enough. Of course, even if we couldn’t see His reason, our lack of imagination wouldn’t invalidate the Guardian’s inspired interpretation. But there happens to be an obvious and perfectly logical explanation. Let’s first review a bit of Bible lore:

    As you know, the Bible in Isaiah 7:14 foretells the coming of a figure to be named Immanuel. (Hat-tip to Brent Poirier for first reminding us of this prophecy.) The New Testament applies this title to Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:23), explaining that what is intended is not the literal name, but its Hebrew meaning, “God with us”. In other words, the Manifestation or Christ-figure is the symbolic Presence of God, a presence to which Shoghi Effendi also alludes by calling His Advent the day when “God Passes By”.

    With this background, here is how I view the Emanuel Tablet:

    Wrestling Brewster writes to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, wishing to know the Baha’i attitude toward Swedenborg. ‘Abdu’l-Baha deftly sidesteps his question, addressing it only in a most general way, without committing the Cause to any official stance. He does acknowledge that the mystical influence of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation has inspired many progressive visionaries, just as the Apostles of Jesus received His reflected light. Presumably in this day those visionaries would include such thinkers as Swedenborg, Emerson, and many more — though ‘Abdu’l-Baha does not list them. His praise is real enough; but it is indirect and implied, not specific.

    Throughout His Tablet, however, the Master encourages Wrestling Brewster to shift his focus from Swedenborg to the newly revealed teachings of Baha’u’llah. This is a delicate and sensitive issue: ‘Abdu’l-Baha approaches it diplomatically with the utmost tact, caution, and courtesy. He isn’t confrontational. One way He softens His appeal is by borrowing Swedenborg’s given name, Emanuel, and using it as a (perhaps veiled) prophetic reference to the Bab. (I say “perhaps” because its biblical resonance would have been obvious to almost any reader of that era, especially one such as Wrestling Brewster.) His wording implies that the “real Emanuel” — a Divine Prophet who in this Day truly embodies “God with us” — is Baha’u’llah’s Herald and Forerunner (i.e., the Bab). He adds: “It is our hope that thou wilt in this day arise to promote that which Emmanuel foretold” — in other words, to promote Baha’u’llah’s Revelation, as foretold by the Bab.

    Would these intended meanings have been clear to Wrestling Brewster? Perhaps so; perhaps not. The Master lets him read into the text whatever he must, and take from it whatever he needs, consistent with his own evolving spiritual growth. By using Swedenborg’s first name to suggest a theological perspective from the Bible, ‘Abdu’l-Baha engages in the kind of subtle spiritual wordplay for which He was famous (as were the Bab and Baha’u’llah).

    We mask these rich nuances by taking an all-or-nothing, black-or-white view of the Master’s Tablet (and to the succeeding letters on behalf of the Guardian): Let’s not approach this as if it’s either all about Swedenborg, in every aspect — or none of it is! Reality isn’t so cut and dried: Some parts of this Tablet clearly are relevant to Swedenborg, but that relevance is mostly indirect. Others have nothing to do with him.

    The 1938 letter also says the Tablet’s reference to the Bab, rather than Swedenborg, is something its text “shows clearly”. How is this clear? Perhaps the Guardian deduced this from ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s usage of the term “His Highness”. I’m assuming this is the Arabic term “hadrat” or “hazrat” (more often translated as “His Holiness”). It’s an extraordinarily high honorific, one typically applied in Baha’i scripture to Prophets or similar sources of divine inspiration. I would not expect the Master to use it of any lesser figure such as Swedenborg. And why would He speak of Swedenborg in such lofty terms while trying to wean Wrestling Brewster away from him? The logical conclusion is that He is speaking of someone other than Swedenborg.

    Be that as it may, I find no clash between the Master’s Tablet and the 1938 letter, or between either of these and any other secretarial letter. Isn’t it time we breathe a sigh of relief, while scratching the Emanuel Tablet off our list of interpretive puzzles?

  20. Sen said

    Hi Gary, I will certainly look at the idea that there are two different Emanuels referenced here: I am pushed for time now as we are going to the Religious Studies seminar in Oxford. I hope you will attend one day. You make a good point that Abdu’l-Baha uses Emanuel rather than Swedenborg, perhaps to reference the Biblical passages.

    However the word “hazrat” is not used in this tablet in reference to Emanuel, only as a title of Christ, and in any case is it not exclusive to a Manifestation or God: in this collection of tablets Abdu’l-Baha uses Hazrat as a title for the Shah, Saint Peter, Zayn al Muqarabin, President Wilson, John the author of the Book of Revelation, and their imperial majesties (Shah and Sultan).

    In the first instance of “Emanuel” in this tablet Abdu’l-Baha says “Emanuel (no title) was indeed the herald (mubasher) of the second coming of Christ” and in the second case “I hope that today you will arise in that of which Mr. (jenaab) Emanuel gave glad tidings.”

    I don’t see either of these as appropriate language for even a minor prophet (as Kelsey said), or a possible reference to the Bab.

    There is a link in the article to a Word document that has the Persian and English texts. Search down on the term “side by side” to find the link. In the Persian text, I have [not] corrected the double “m” in Emanuel – the original has just one “m”.

  21. Gary Matthews said

    Sen, thanks for bringing me up to speed on the usage of “hazrat” (His Holiness). I’m happy to walk back my earlier proposal, seeing as I now do that the title is a lot more broadly used than I had believed. Perhaps it’s comparable to “His Eminence” or “Your Lordship” or similar English honorifics.

    There’s a second point I need to walk back, as well: I mistakenly flagged you for leaving out a key portion of the 9 May 1938 letter written on behalf of the Guardian, the letter that interprets the name “Emanuel” in the Emanuel Tablet. On closer reading, I realize it wasn’t you who dropped the crucial section: It was the World Center! You simply cited the footnote directly and exactly as it appears in “Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha” (SWA).

    That footnote is the one that says “this Tablet” … “is in no way a reference to Swedenborg”. The secretary’s 1938 letter-on-behalf-of-the-Guardian states, with pinpoint precision, that it’s the isolated expression “His Highness Emanuel” that refers to the Bab rather than to Swedenborg. It says nothing about the Tablet broadly or in its entirety. But the World Center’s published footnote substitutes “this Tablet” — and by omitting part of the text, makes it appear that the letter is claiming the whole Tablet has nothing to do with Swedenborg.

    That’s seriously misleading; but it wasn’t you who dropped the ball. It was the World Center’s translation committee, or whatever editor worded the footnote. You just quoted the text as it appeared in SWA. (I’d like to see this clarified in a future edition.)

    Of course, it’s easy to see why they left out the missing verbiage: The current translation doesn’t say “His Highness”. To quote the entire May 1938 letter might therefore confuse the reader by referring to text that no longer is there. They trimmed it in order not to confuse the reader — any engendered more confusion!

    I have more thoughts on this mess, but will wait a while before sharing them. Maybe that way I’ll have fewer conjectures that require walking back. (And have a great trip to your conference!)

  22. Sen said

    Thanks Gary: the broad usage of Hazrat is a bit beside the point, as there is no “hazrat emanuel” in the tablet. It’s just “Emanuel” and then “Jenab-e Emanuel” – which tells the Persian reader it is not about anyone as exalted as the Bab. But the secretary was reading the English translation, and was, I am sure, mislead by the term “Forerunner.”

    The footnote was made by the translators of the tablet, not the book editor, I am sure, because the translation has been made around the assumption that it is about the Bab, and various bits make no sense without that assumption. So the tablet needs a new translation, not just a new footnote.

  23. Gary Matthews said

    Jenab-e-Sen — There are, as you know, many Persian readers who study the Master’s “Emanuel” reference and find it perfectly befitting of the Bab. So when you say His wording “tells the Persian reader it is not about anyone as exalted as the Bab” — isn’t that really a question of which ones, how many, what proportion, and so forth?

    A few thoughts:

    1. According to my Internet searches, “jinab” or “jinab-i” is a term of high respect. (See for example My sources equate it to the English “His Honor” or “His Excellency”. The translator of the original version appearing in “Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha Abbas”, Vol. III, rendered it “His Highness”.

    This title is less lofty than “Hazrat” (His Holiness). But it’s far above the generic and status-neutral English title “mister” (to which you’ve compared it elsewhere).

    2. If (as I believe), ‘Abdu’l-Baha here used “Emanuel” in its biblical sense, then the name itself is its own honorific. As a Hebrew token of the Messianic Spirit, it means “God with us”, thus connoting both the transcendent (God) and the immanent (with us). What language could possibly constitute a more reverent and exalted way of speaking about the Bab?

    3. The Guardian himself, as you’ve documented, consented to the reprinting and wide circulation of the 1938 letter identifying the Bab as “His Highness Emanuel”. It’s one thing to argue, as you have, that he sometimes allowed the mailing of careless or misleading interpretations he knew would do no harm. I don’t buy that, but never mind: Here you’re saying he knowingly authorized the publication, in his name, of an interpretation that not only was flat-out wrong, but irreverent and disrespectful to one of our Central Figures.

    Can’t we agree that he wouldn’t have done that? Or at least that this is far less plausible than the alternative — that he did interpret “His Highness Emanuel” as the Bab, and was right to do so?

    5. On reflection, I see a natural reason why ‘Abdu’l-Baha, in this instance, might have chosen a lesser title than “Hazrat” (His Holiness): Although He’s referring to the Bab, He’s doing so in an intentionally obscure, elliptical way. He’s surely aware that some readers — notably the Tablet’s recipient, Wrestling Brewster — could misconstrue His “Emanuel” as Emanuel Swedenborg. An extreme honorific like “His Holiness” would inevitably mislead certain readers to think Baha’is view Swedenborg as a saintly, holy, or perhaps even prophetic Figure. So it seems likely He’d adopt a more measured, though still deeply respectful, tone.

    There’s also the point I mentioned before: He is trying tactfully here to moderate Wrestling Brewster’s enthusiasm for Swedenborg, redirecting it to Baha’u’llah. Why risk subverting that agenda with an over-the-top honorific (assuming his reader might mistake the Figure to whom He’s referring)?

    6. Finally, you’ve insisted that if “His Highness Emanuel” refers to the Bab, then it’s bad theology. Yet the only thing ‘Abdu’l-Baha specifically says about this Emanuel (let’s assume it’s the Bab) is that He is the Herald of the Second Coming of Christ (i.e., Baha’u’llah).

    You’re of course free to regard this as bad theology. But good, bad, or indifferent, it’s standard Baha’i theology: Baha’u’llah fulfills the prophecies of the Second Coming of Christ; the Bab fulfills those about His Herald, Forerunner, and Predecessor. The Bab Himself claims to be the Herald of One whose revelation would be far greater, and calls Himself but “a ring upon the hand” of the One to come. Throughout His works He proclaims His own utter nothingness relative to “Him Whom God Will Make Manifest”.

    You of course know all this, just as you know that the Bab and Baha’u’llah also are mystically “one soul and the same person” (from the Iqan); Baha’u’llah is in a spiritual sense the Bab’s reappearance, while the Bab is His “own previous Manifestation” (from “Dispensation of Baha’u’llah”). Both perspectives are true, depending on one’s frame of reference.

    Personally, when I read the Master’s Emanuel Tablet, I don’t necessarily take His Letter-as-part-of-the-Word metaphor, or His Apostles-of-Christ analogy, as being about either the Bab or Swedenborg. I read these as His way of telling Wrestling Brewster that if he dedicates himself fully to Baha’u’llah, he can reflect Baha’u’llah’s light, just as the Apostles reflected the light of Jesus Christ.

    But even if I’m mistaken, and your take on them is accurate, I see nothing here that can’t easily be justified from the Bab’s own Writings. You of all people know that scripture has many sides, few (if any) of which reduce to all-or-nothing dichotomies.

  24. Gary Matthews said

    Sen, you say you’ll consider that maybe there are “two different Emanuels referenced here” in the Swedenborg Tablet. Please note, I’m not proposing two Emanuels: In my view, both mentions of “Emanuel” by the Master refer to the same person — the Bab. (They do so, admittedly, in a veiled and coded way.)

    Which negates none of the light the Tablet sheds on Swedenborg and his teachings. We know it was revealed in reaction to questions about him. But I say “reaction”, rather than “response”, because it seems to me that ‘Abdu’l-Baha mostly deflects the issue of Swedenborg’s status.

    As soon as He does mention “Emanuel” explicitly, His emphasis is on the “reality” that that name represents: Two of the three extant translations begin “In reality Emanuel was…” The current official rendering is “Emanuel was indeed…” We know that “indeed” is synonymous with “in reality” or “in truth”. To me, this wording suggests that He is raising the question of the identity of the “real Emanuel”: That is, who in this day truly embodies the biblical meaning of “God with us”, the Messianic Spirit? He answers that this “real Emanuel” is the Herald (i.e., the Bab) of Baha’u’llah, upon whom his correspondent should henceforth focus.

    Let me share an analogy. Imperfect though it is, Here’s hoping this may help some readers see what the Master is doing here.

    In the New Testament, Saint Paul refers to the hour of Baha’u’llah’s advent as the “last trump” and the “trump of God”. This is how Shoghi Effendi interprets these allusions in “God Passes By”: There are, however, many evangelical Christians who interpret this “trump of God” as the current President of the United States. Not all do so, by a long shot; and perhaps some speak this way only rhetorically; but I daresay most of them at least have heard such a claim. It has become part of current evangelical culture.

    Now suppose an evangelical Christian, one whom I know is steeped in this sort of thinking, writes to me, asking the Baha’i attitude toward Donald Trump and his agenda. How to respond? Well, I might offer a tactful and circumspect reply, tiptoeing around the more problematic aspects, focusing on what common ground there is to be had, all the while striving to raise the consciousness of my inquirer. And knowing my inquirer’s biblical background, I might at some point write: “In reality the ‘last trump’ — the true ‘trump of God’ — is in this Day the One who revealed the Holy Law of God.”

    Now notice: I’m writing here with Baha’u’llah in mind. But I’m also doing so with a clear awareness that some readers (perhaps even my recipient) may fail to catch my reference. I’ve expressed it in a deliberately oblique way, hoping to stimulate searching thought and dawning realization.

    Now suppose my letter is translated into a different language, perhaps by someone not versed in the Bible, in evangelical theology, or in the political and cultural context. The resulting rendering might read: “The Divine Trump is the one who in this day has established Godly law and order.” Depending on who reads this translated letter, one might conclude that I hold the current regime in higher esteem than I actually do!

    Perhaps I’d be more likely to write in such vein if I knew I’d someday have an Inspired Interpreter with the power to intuit my meaning, one who could clear up any confusion as to my intent. Alas, I won’t have that. The Master, however, did. This strikes me as yet another instance in which His foresight is paying off.

  25. Sen said

    I am sure if you wrote about the real Last Trump you would write something appropriate to that Day, something that couldn’t be confused with Thursday. I don’t see anything in the tablet that could refer to the Bab, and I do see much that could not possibly be what Abdu’l-Baha or Shoghi Effendi believed about the Bab. compare in this Tablet:

    “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 …; and the meaning of the Word, which is grace everlasting, cast a splendour on those Letters. Again, since the Letter is a member of the Word, it therefore, in its inner meaning, is consonant with the Word.”

    with Shoghi Effendi’s :

    “… the Báb had been endowed with a potency such as no founder of any of the past religions was, in the providence of the Almighty, allowed to possess. That He was not merely the precursor of the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, that He was more than a divinely-inspired personage, that His was the station of an independent, self-sufficient Manifestation of God, is abundantly demonstrated by Himself, is affirmed in unmistakable terms by Bahá’u’lláh, and is finally attested by the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 61)

    Abdu’l-Baha’s tablet guides the addressee to understand that Emanuel’s station was subordinate and provisional: “the lesson of spiritual stations” must be read. He is not to be over-rated. Emanuel [Swedenborg] belongs to the past, and his teachings were limited to a few, but now it is the springtime of a new era and the divine physician has made his teachings available to all. Emanuel [Swedenborg] was – in reality – the Herald of the Second Coming of Christ, he was like an apostle who derives his teachings and light from his master. Today, the addressee will become a letter (of the same station as Emanuel thus) by the confirmations of the Holy Spirit.

    There’s nothing here about the Bab. I can only suppose that the secretary was mislead by the word “Forerunner,” and perhaps by “His Highness” (both facts created in translation), since these are the only things in the tablet I can see that could account for his or her writing, “regarding the reference made by ‘Abdu’l-Baha to ‘His Highness Emanuel’ in Vol. III of His Tablets, this obviously refers to the Bab as the text shows it clearly…”. The text does not show that at all: even we did not know that the question was about Emanuel Swedenborg, we would still know that it was about some other Emanuel — not the Bab.

  26. Sen said

    Dear Gary, the dog seems to have eaten some of my homework. I will try to recall what I wrote.

    As regards the term “jenab,” it is a term that Abdu’l-Baha uses for individual men, just as he uses khanom for individual women. If you look for the word جناب (jenab) in this tablet:
    you will see it appears once or twice on each line. The page is a long list of addressees of this message, and every one is called jenaab. The ones distinguished for special mention are “Jenabb-e Aqa (جناب اقا)”
    To refer to the Bab as “jenab” would be a shocking breach of propriety, for a Bahai. I searched for example on the phrase “jenab-e Abdu’l-Baha” (in Persian) and found that all the first hits were on notorious anti-Bahai polemic sites: Bahaism Iran, Adyan Net, Bahai Research, and the like. Jenab is appropriate for you and me, but to use it for a person of the prominence of Abdu’l-Baha is a calculated insult, designed to hurt the feelings of the Bahais.

    Yes, Shoghi Effendi presumably approved the publication of the 1938 letter to Willard Hatch, in the Baha’i News, No. 134, March 1940. We can assume this because in December 1935 he had approved a procedure under which the NSA, if it wished to print a letter addressed to an individual, would seek his approval first. But he must also have read and approved — or not disapproved — of the text for Volume 6 of the Bahai World, in which Olivia Kelsey says, “In a Tablet addressed to an American Baha’i, E. E. Wrestling-Brewster, Abdu’l-Baha gave to Emmanuel Swedenborg the significance of minor prophet.” (see p. 703). And he approved and promulgated Baha’u’llah and the New Era and praised it highly, although he later argued against it on some points.

    My conclusion is that Shoghi Effendi’s concept of leadership was rather “hands off,” – he like to be informed, but did not seek to control in detail. Therefore his “read and approved” does not add much weight to the authority of what is written, which rests primarily on the contents – the sources cited and the logic used – of what is written. This explains why he would be so dismayed when the editors of “Principles of Bahai Administration” failed to distinguish between his words and those of his secretaries. Here’s the whole of that paragraph, part of which is no doubt familiar to you:

    P.S. — I [the secretary] wish to call your attention to certain things in “Principles of Bahá’í Administration” which has just reached the Guardian; although the material is good, he feels that the complete lack of quotation marks is very misleading. His own words, the words of his various secretaries, even the Words of Bahá’u’lláh Himself, are all lumped together as one text. This is not only not reverent in the case of Bahá’u’lláh’s Words, but misleading. Although the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative, their words are in no sense the same as his, their style certainly not the same, and their authority less, for they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages. He feels that in any future edition this fault should be remedied, any quotations from Bahá’u’lláh or the Master plainly attributed to them, and the words of the Guardian clearly differentiated from those of his secretaries.
    (The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 260)

  27. Gary Matthews said

    Thanks for the kind updates, Sen, especially for background details on the usage of “jenab”. Please forgive me for reserving judgment until I can confirm your understanding with native-Persian experts. (This may take a few days or more, but I will endeavor to do this and let you know what I learn. More than once, I’ve found that even Persian linguistic authorities may hold widely divergent views on such issues.)

    Meanwhile, Wikipedia has an article: According to this source, Jenab — traceable to the Qajar Dynasty — is a rank title that “may be rendered as Excellency.” It adds that Jenab “was the style borne by senior Ministers of State, high ranking clergy, Grand Ministers of State, Governors-General of major provinces, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, etc.; it ranked above Amir or Khan” and a bunch of other high titles. I can’t imagine that it would ever have been applicable to the likes of me!

    If I’m understanding this article, the title’s loftiness also depends on context and on the way in which it may be combined with other titles. For example, I read that the compound style Jenab-i-Ashraf “was borne by prime ministers and can be translated as His Serene Highness”. This strikes me as similar to what you mention of Jenab-i-Aqa being used as a special honorific.

    Previously I noted that the name “Emanuel” is in its biblical sense a title (“God with us”) designating the highest possible station: i.e., the transcendent/immanent station of a High Prophet or Divine Manifestation. If Jenab as a “compound style” works as described in this Wikipedia article, then this context (“Jenab-i-Emanuel”) would imbue it with extraordinarily exalted connotations missing from its casual, standalone use.

    These conjectures of mine are at this point speculative. Stay tuned!

    As to approvals: To my thought, authorizing the publication of works by Kelsey or Esslemont would be one thing: These still reflect the views of their respective authors; Shoghi Effendi was in no way making of them channels for his interpretive authority, much less infallibility. It would be comparable to what you do when you approve a comment (e.g. this one) to appear on your blog. There’s no implied endorsement.

    But when he consents to having an interpretive letter published in his name, specifically as being “on his behalf” — surely that places it in a different sphere. You’re saying the letter in question not only constitutes “bad theology”, but actually disrespects one of our Central Figures. Were that letter actually as you claim, I feel pretty certain the Guardian would have guarded the Cause by prohibiting its publication.

  28. Gary Matthews said

    Sensei — you insist that neither ‘Abdu’l-Baha nor Shoghi Effendi could possibly have written, with regard to the Bab, anything like the Swedenborg Tablet’s passage that begins: ““the Letter is a member of the Word, and this membership in the Word signifieth that the Letter … deriveth its grace from the Word … “

    But the Bab Himself, as well as Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi, all have written *precisely* these things concerning the Bab! Sometimes in these very words, and at other times in even stronger words. A few instances:

    1. Shoghi Effendi, quoting the Bab, says the Bab “readily acknowledged that He was but ‘a letter’ of that ‘Most Mighty Book’ [Baha’u’llah], ‘a dew-drop’ from that ‘Limitless Ocean’ [Baha’u’llah], … ‘a ring upon the hand of Him Whom God shall make manifest’ [Baha’u’llah], Who ‘turneth it as He pleaseth’ …” (“God Passes By”, p. 98;

    2. The Bab thus addresses Baha’u’llah: “Out of utter nothingness … Thou hast … brought me forth and raised me up to proclaim this Revelation …” (“World Order of Baha’u’llah”, p. 101;

    3. Conversely, Baha’u’llah identifies Himself as the One “around Whom the Point of the Bayan hath revolved”. Shoghi Effendi, in quoting this passage, interprets the “Point of the Bayan” as referring to the Bab; i.e., the Bab revolves around Baha’u’llah. (“God Passes By”, p. 98;

    4. In a prayer, the Bab (addressing Baha’u’llah) describes Himself and “all that pertaineth unto me” as “puny and contemptible” without Baha’u’llah’s grace, adding: “Grant that through the assistance of Thy grace whatsoever pertaineth unto me may be acceptable in Thy sight.” (“World Order of Baha’u’llah”, p. 101;

    5. This theme — His dependence on the sustaining grace of Baha’u’llah — pervades the Bab’s Writings. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, in “A Traveler’s Narrative”, says His very title (Bab/Gate) was intended to convey “that He was the channel of grace from some Great Person [Baha’u’llah] still behind the veil of glory … by Whose will He moved … And in the first book which He wrote in explanation of the Surih of Joseph, He addressed Himself in all passages to that Person unseen from Whom He received help and grace…” (TN p. 4)

    Please note the striking parallel: These scriptures portray the Bab as a grace-dependent “letter” in the “Most Mighty Book”. The Swedenborg Tablet (by your reading) portrays “Emanuel” as a grace-dependent “letter” in “the Word”. Both the “Book” and the “Word” are equivalent symbols representing Baha’u’llah in His role as the Second Coming of Christ.

    There’s thus no reason — logical, theological, or spiritual — why “Emanuel” can’t be the Master’s way of referring to the Bab, just as Shoghi Effendi interprets HIm.

    You say “Emanuel” can’t represent the Bab because our Interpreters would never have said such things about the Bab. But they *did* say such things about the Bab — these very things, using the very words we find in the Swedenborg Tablet. These are indisputable scriptures from the pens of our Central Figures, as translated and interpreted by the Guardian himself.

    You’ve cited Shoghi Effendi’s supposedly contrary statement that the Bab’s station was that “of an independent, self-sufficient Manifestation of God” — that He was on the same plane as Baha’u’llah. That’s also true. This might seem puzzling at first blush: Doesn’t the Guardian here contradict these scriptures that outwardly portray the Bab as dependent, subservient, subordinate?

    You know, of course, that he doesn’t. There’s no conflict: These are just complementary perspectives — differences of emphasis — opposing sides of a single coin. Baha’u’llah wrote the Iqan precisely to resolve such scriptural paradoxes. I won’t presume to harmonize these divergent assertions for you, because you already know how; probably you could explain their agreement better than I could.

    But here’s what we also both know: By reconciling the Guardian’s statement you quoted with these scriptures about the Bab, you’ll also reconcile it with his interpretation of “Emanuel” as a reference to the Bab. You can’t have it both ways! Such identically-worded doctrines can’t be “bad theology” in the Swedenborg Tablet, and good theology everywhere else.

  29. Roland said

    In addition to Gary’s excellent points re complementary perspectives in the context of difference of emphasis and *precisely* what the Central Figures wrote about the Bab it seems to me that it is also worth noting the following.

    1. In The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh the Guardian delineates the Bab’s station as being both the Herald of Bahá’u’lláh and an independent Manifestation of God. What is very striking re your first point that the Bab “readily acknowledged that He was but ‘a letter’ is this statement in which Bahá’u’lláh also refers to Himself as a ‘letter’: “Of all the tributes which Bahá’u’lláh’s unerring pen has chosen to pay to the memory of the Báb, His “Best-Beloved,” the most memorable and touching is this brief, yet eloquent passage which so greatly enhances the value of the concluding passages of that same epistle. “Amidst them all,” He writes, referring to the afflictive trials and dangers besetting Him in the city of Baghdád, “We stand life in hand wholly resigned to His Will, that perchance through God’s loving kindness and grace, this revealed and manifest Letter (Bahá’u’lláh) may lay down His life as a sacrifice in the path of the Primal Point, the most exalted Word (the Báb). (WOB, p.125) He also identified Himself as the Bab and refers to the Bab’s Revelation as His own prior Revelation. There is a great deal one could cite from the Iqan re this relationship between the Manifestations. Dr. Nader Saiedi does an excellent job of examining these complex issues in both Logos and Civilization and Gate of the Heart.

    2. Olivia Kelsey assertion in Volume 6 of the Bahai World“ that Abdu’l-Baha gave to Emmanuel Swedenborg the significance of minor prophet” was not a letter written on behalf of the Guardian but a subjective opinion in one of many essays published in those Volume during several decades. It is therefore subordinate to the letter written on the Guardian’s behalf which categorically states that “In connection with your question regarding the reference made by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to ‘His Highness Emanuel’ in Vol. III of His Tablets, this obviously refers to the Báb as the text shows it clearly and is in no way a reference to Swedenborg.” Gary’s statement re the Guardian’s consenting to having an interpretive letter published in his name, specifically as being “on his behalf” is the correct perspective.

    3. Attempts to substitute one’s own understanding, as in Sen’s claim about the validity of the pilgrim’s notes in his essay on the use of music in the House of Worship, are contrary to both Abdu’l- Bahá’s and the Guardian’s guidance and undermine their authority. “Thou has written concerning the pilgrims and pilgrims’ notes. Any narrative that is not authenticated by a Text should not be trusted. Narratives, even if true, cause confusion. For the people of Bahá, the Text, and only the Text, is authentic.” Abdu’l- Bahá: from a previously untranslated Tablet. “The instructions of the Master and the Guardian make it very clear that Pilgrims’ notes are hearsay and cannot claim the authority and binding power of the Sacred Text…. Moreover, the fact that the pilgrim writing of his experience is a reliable or well-known believer, or that the reported statement seems to be repeated in the notes of several pilgrims, does not in itself confer authority upon the pilgrim’s note in question.” From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, January 23, 1980

    This guidance drives home the fundamental point that letters written on the Guardian’s behalf are in a completely different category from books by Esslemont and Townsend however highly praised by him (ergo also essays written for Volumes of the Bahaí World): “Regarding the notes taken by pilgrims at Haifa. The Guardian has stated that he is unwilling to sign the notes of any pilgrim, in order that the literature consulted by the believers shall not be unduly extended… This means that the notes of pilgrims do not carry the authority resident in the Guardian’s letters written over his own signature. On the other hand each pilgrim brings back information and suggestions of a most precious character, and it is the privilege of all the friends to share in the spiritual results of these visits.” From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States: Bahá’í News, No. 281, p. 4, July 1954.

  30. Roland said

    Re my last paragraph it’s very late my time and written in haste so I realize I just realized that he refers to letters written over his own signature. I’ll therefore modify my comment to emphasize that this letter written on his behalf drives home the point that pilgrims’ notes, like books and essay written by Baha’s however prominent and distinguished, cannot be used as a substitute for the Texts and the Master’s and Guardians interpretation of them as well as the UHJ’s elucidations.

  31. Sen said

    Hi Roland,

    When Baha’u’llah speaks of himself as a “this revealed and manifest Letter” in the Baghdad period, he is concealing his identity as the Word.

    I agree entirely with you on Kelsey’s assertion being unfounded, even though Shoghi Effendi in some sense approved its publication and – what is more relevant here – knew therefore that the Tablet of Emanuel is about Swedenborg. I have stated both of these points clearly in the blog posting.

    There is no ttempt “to substitute one’s own understanding” – it is simply that my understanding apparently differs from yours. I hope you may be persuaded, not by me as such but by the simple fact that the tablet was in fact about Swedenborg.

    I agree that pilgrim’s notes are not a source of Bahai doctrine, they are not scripture. This is stated in this posting and numerous times throughout this blog – simply search on “narratives” to find how often I have quoted the same tablet that you have quoted to me.

    The difference between the pilgrim’s notes and letters on behalf of the Guardian, in my view, is that the latter had authority and — where they were not simply advice to an individual — had to be implemented by the Bahai institutions. The pilgrim’s notes on the other hand claim to show us the thinking of the founders of the Faith,

    Naturally the letters Shoghi Effendi wrote himself — his general letters to the Bahais and letters to national communities, such as the World Order letters for example — are in a different category to both pilgrim’s notes and the letters of his secretaries. That the pilgrim’s notes and letters written by his secretaries both have a lesser status is affirmed by the letter on his behalf that you yourself have quoted:

    “The Guardian has stated that he is unwilling to sign the notes of any pilgrim, … This means that the notes of pilgrims do not carry the authority resident in the Guardian’s letters written over his own signature. ..” (on behalf of the Guardian to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States: Bahá’í News, No. 281, p. 4, July 1954.)

    And the sharp distinction he drew between the letters over his own signature and those of his secretaries is affirmed by his secretaries. For example:

    “As to the Scout movement, … This of course is my own personal view.”
    (published in Shoghi Effendi, Arohanui – Letters to New Zealand, p. 88)

    A letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States (November 16, 1932, see Baha’i News #71, Feb 1933, pp. 1-2) says:

    As regards Shoghi Effendi’s letters to the individual Baha’is, … whenever he has something of importance to say, he invariably communicates it to the National Spiritual Assembly or in his general letters. His personal letters to individual friends are only for their personal benefit and even though he does not want to forbid their publication, he does not wish them to be used too much by the Baha’i News.

    This tells us something about the scope of authority of letters written to individuals: they are intended as guidance for the addressee.

    The best published work to date on the problems in using letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi is Gerald Keil, Textzusammenhang und Kritik: ein Fallbeispiel anhand eines Briefes von Shoghi Effendi, in Beitrage des Irfan-Kolloquiums 2007/8. Gerald concentrates mainly on the issue of contextuality: a letter may be clear and say the right thing, to the person who asked a particular question, but appear to us to say something different or to be unclear. He demonstrates this very well, using a letter for which he has been able to get partial information about the questions put to the Guardian and what was going on in the American Bahai community at the time.

    In most cases the interpretations of scripture in these letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi reference a prior authoritative interpretation or text, and one uses the secretary’s letter as a pointing finger: follow it to the source, then you don’t need the finger. Where a letter on behalf presents what seems to be a novel interpretation, I would hesitate to regard it as either authoritative or infallible. I would file it in the “to be resolved” pile because there is always the chance that it is based on an authoritative text or interpretation that I don’t know about.

    Similarly, as regards letters written on behalf of the House of Justice (those via the secretariat), I do not know of any case in which they constitute legislation, but they may point to legislation by the House. They are also not infallible, as Abdu’l-Baha specifies in Some Answered Questions that it is only when they are consulting together that the members are protected from error. Letters on behalf of the House of Justice are drafted by someone and circulated among the members of the House for five signatures. Since legislation by the House of Justice is protected from error, I conclude that only the House of Justice collectively can legislate.

  32. Roland said

    Sen – You claim that the Shoghi Effendi must also have read and approved — or not disapproved — of the text for Volume 6 of the Bahai World, in which Olivia Kelsey says, “In a Tablet addressed to an American Baha’i, E. E. Wrestling-Brewster, Abdu’l-Baha gave to Emmanuel Swedenborg the significance of minor prophet.” (see p. 703). You also claim that he “in some sense approved its publication and – what is more relevant here – knew therefore that the Tablet of Emanuel is about Swedenborg.” This is debatable in my view as inclusion of articles, did not, ipso facto mean he necessarily approved of very detail in them. In The Priceless Pearl Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum states that even though he tried his best to give editorial input to what was prepared by the American NSA “he always deplored the fact that the material was not of a higher standard.” (p.216) If the 31 articles and reviews which are in my edition of Volume 6 are all completely accurate from a doctrinal an factual perspective what are we to make of the four which are in German, one in Esperanto and one in Italian? Are you suggesting that the Guardian also read and approved the assertions in those articles and that all 31 of them were infallible in relation to the doctrines of the Faith from an interpretive perspective despite him deploring the fact that the material was not of sufficiently high standard? Are you claiming that his fluency in those languages was sufficient for him to fully grasp what was written and have the authority of what was written on his behalf by his secretaries especially considering how meticulous he was regarding translations? You have not written anything to persuade me that what he stated which is that the reference to Emmanuel in the tablet was about the Bab.

    The best source for understanding whether or not letters to individual believers are simply for their personal use is not a book by Gerald Keil or even the Guardian’s reference to those letters being for an individual’s benefit. The fact that such letters were for the benefit of individuals is obvious as it would have been written in response to their queries. However, this is not a logical argument for claiming that they have no interpretive doctrinal validity: what is for the benefit of one individual can also be for the benefit of many. In order to understand this it it is necessary to examine the scope of these letters. They include matter such as the Scout movement which you cited. However, they also include a vast range of topics topics of profound doctrinal, administrative and other significance familiar to those who have read Lights of Guidance and several other compilations of his thousands of letters. One cannot simply dismiss them all without seeking the elucidations of the UHJ regarding their importance.

    In my comment on your Copper to Gold article, I pointed out that your metaphorical interpretation of the passage in the Iqan was incorrect because the Guardian had given a literal interpretation: “Considering that a century ago, nobody knew the nature of matter, and couldn’t split any kind of an atom, it should not surprise the scientist that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states that copper can be transmuted into gold.

    “There may come a time, for all we know, when the mass of many atoms can be changed by scientists. We have no way of proving or disproving at present the statement of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Just because we cannot demonstrate a contention in the Bahá’í Teachings does not mean the contention is not true.

    “The same holds true of the statement of Bahá’u’lláh in the Íqán, regarding transmutation of copper into gold after seventy years, under certain conditions.

    “We as Bahá’ís must assume that, as He had access to all knowledge, He was referring to a definite physical condition which theoretically might exist. Because we don’t know what this condition is in scientific terms does not refute Bahá’u’lláh’s statement at all.

    “The Guardian hopes that Mr. … will not let so small a thing stand in his path. The principle of Faith is to accept anything the Manifestation of God says, once you have accepted Him as being the Manifestation. That is really the crux of the whole matter. It is a question of confidence.”

    (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, March 14, 1955

    This letter to an individual amply illustrates my point that what was of great benefit to the individual to whom it was addressed is also of immeasurable benefit to all individuals. Benefit to an individual does not logically exclude benefit to others. No theologian will succeed in substituting their own interpretation of the Texts as a substitute for what has been interpreted by the Master and Guardian.

  33. Sen said

    Yes I do think he approved its publication, even though he knew that Kelsey’s opinion was not theologically sound, and what is more important, because he had read it, he knew that the tablet it question was written to “an American Baha’i, E. E. Wrestling-Brewster” and that it was in response to a question about Emanuel Swedenborg. That tablet cannot be said to give Swedenborg the status of a minor prophet, because the use of honorifics such as hazrat (his Holiness) before the name of even a seer, let alone a prophet, is culturally obligatory. But Shoghi Effendi was not someone who tried to get every chair in the hall lined up straight. Kelsey was wrong, but the principle of free expression is central to the faith, and the development of an intellectual life in the community requires that the believers work out and present their ideas, however wrong they may be. So he approved its publication, even if he may have wished there was better material to publish. So I agree entirely that his approval — of articles, of books, and of letters written on his behalf — does not mean “ipso facto mean he necessarily approved of very detail in them.” That is precisely my point ! I am not suggesting that the articles he approved “are all completely accurate from a doctrinal an factual perspective” or that “all 31 of them were infallible in relation to the doctrines of the Faith.” I am arguing precisely the opposite of the ideas you attribute to me – I argue that they are NOT always correct, and although Shoghi Effendi wanted to be informed of everything being published, he did not endorse these things in detail. That was his character and his working method – to only address the errors of others in the Bahai community when they had caused actual problems in the community.

    It is not my writing that should persuade you that the tablet is about Emanuel Swedenborg. Rather, I have presented the booklet by Wrestling Brewster
    which says, among other things “The main Tablet is a reply to 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 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.”
    This is a fact — it exists without any argument of mine.

    You say, “One cannot simply dismiss them all ” (i.e., the letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi). I agree – I did not dismiss them all. I think they can be very useful, although as I said in the “Implications” section, “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.” And further : “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.”

    No general dismissal then. But I make a strong plea for approaching these letters using a rational, critical and systematic method (ie, “scientific method” as that applies in the humanities).

    The text you quote about the “copper to gold” article is not from Shoghi Effendi, it is written by a secretary acting on his behalf, in response to an individual’s questions. That individual may have been asking about the physical possibility of transmutation, which is a separate question to what Baha’u’llah meant in the Iqan. He refers there to “the transformation wrought” in the lives of believers, a “mystic transformation” by which “their agitation was turned into peace, their doubt into certitude.” “Such is the potency of the Divine Elixir, which, swift as the twinkling of an eye, transmuteth the souls of men!” etc.. and he says “the touch-stone [he, himself] is at hand” to distinguish gold from copper.”

  34. Roland said

    “The text you quote about the “copper to gold” article is not from Shoghi Effendi, it is written by a secretary acting on his behalf, in response to an individual’s questions.” What an astounding assertion! You might want to try explaining that to the UHJ which uses letters written on the Guardian’s behalf in its elucidations. It was most certainly approved by the Guardian.

    There are also these references in the comments section, refuting your metaphorical interpretation, which are cited as being complementary to the Guardian’s unerring interpretation of the literal meaning of Bahá’u’lláh’s statement re copper and gold in the Iqan:

    1. “Consider the doubts which they who have joined partners with God have instilled into the hearts of the people of this land. “Is it ever possible,” they ask, “for copper to be transmuted into gold?” Say, Yes, by my Lord, it is possible. Its secret, however, lieth hidden in Our Knowledge. We will reveal it unto whom We will. Whoso doubteth Our power, let him ask the Lord his God, that He may disclose unto him the secret, and assure him of its truth. That copper can be turned into gold is in itself sufficient proof that gold can, in like manner, be transmuted into copper, if they be of them that can apprehend this truth. Every mineral can be made to acquire the density, form, and substance of each and every other mineral. The knowledge thereof is with Us in the Hidden Book.” (GWB, p. 197)

    2. “The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land; nothing short of His wholesome medicine can ever restore it. The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society; what else but the Elixir of His potent Revelation can cleanse and revive it? Is it within human power, O Hakím, to effect in the constituent elements of any of the minute and indivisible particles of matter so complete a transformation as to transmute it into purest gold? Perplexing and difficult as this may appear, the still greater task of converting satanic strength into heavenly power is one that We have been empowered to accomplish. The Force capable of such a transformation transcendeth the potency of the Elixir itself. The Word of God, alone, can claim the distinction of being endowed with the capacity required for so great and far-reaching a change.” (GWB, p. 200)

    As was noted in the comments section there is nothing metaphorical about the possibility that every “mineral can be made to acquire the density, form, and substance of each and every other mineral” or about “constituent elements of any of the minute and indivisible particles of matter”. Indeed, some progress has already being made (as the Guardian foresaw) in particle physics where it is suggested that all that is needed is a particle accelerator and a vast supply of energy (e.g. this report re turning lead into gold ( We must be very grateful that the Master and Guardian provided infallible interpretations on a broad range of fundamental issues which will protect and guide the Bahaí community as it continues its worldwide growth in the centuries to come.

    Finally, although in a very different category altogether, it is worth noting that many of Bahá’u’lláh’s (e.g. the Iqan in response to questions submitted by an uncle of the Bab) and Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet’s were revealed as replies to questions from individuals but now provide guidance and spiritual sustenance to many other individuals. The Guardian’s letters to individuals serve a similar purpose.

  35. As promised, Sen, I’ve discussed your “jenab” argument with a Baha’i linguist who is a native Persian speaker.

    He agrees with you that “jenab”, used with an ordinary proper name, can apply very broadly. He compares it in this respect with the English term “sir”. However, he agrees with me that this situation changes whenever “jenab” is conjoined with some other, much more exalted title — as it is here. In that case it further elevates the latter by adding a note of formality.

    Here — as my source reads it — ‘Abdu’l-Baha prefixes “jenab” to the biblical title “Immanuel”, meaning “God with us”, signifying the Divine Messiah who embodies the symbolic Presence of God of earth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; cf Baha’u’llah’s interpretation in His Book of Certitude). Viewed in this light, “Jenab-e-Emanuel” can reasonably be translated “His Divine Highness the Manifestation of God”. There’s then no disrespect, no “breach of propriety” as you claim.

    This is an example of what Wikipedia (as I noted before) calls a “compound style” ( The latter article cites “jenab-e-Ashraf” (His Serene Highness), uniquely designating the Prime Minister.

    You yourself, Sen, to your credit cite an even closer-to-home example of this compound usage: “jenab-e-Aqa”. Baha’u’llah always insisted that ‘Abdu’l-Baha be addressed and referred to as “Aqa” (Master). The believers generally, including ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s family and closest associates, complied. Indeed, we do this today, even in English: He’s always “the Master”. But if one were to augment this honorific by calling Him “Jenab-e-Aqa”, that would not constitute an insult: It doesn’t diminish, dilute, or belittle the title it modifies. It rather enhances it with a rhetorical salute. It would be like saying “Esteemed Master” or “Honored Master” instead of simply “Master”.

    As to “Emanuel” being used here as a stand-in for the biblical “Immanuel” (God With Us) — my linguist friend grilled me closely as to whether the Master’s correspondent would have been acquainted with this Old Testament terminology. I assured him that Wrestling-Brewster was intimately familiar with this reference; it’s certain as the sun! Swedenborg and his followers were fascinated by, and deeply versed in, messianic prophecy. This particular connection is Prophecy 101: It would “leap out” at them, especially given the coincidence of Emanuel Swedenborg’s first name. My friend’s reasoning is that ‘Abdu’l-Baha was using that coincidence to give his reader a strong hint, one he was more than capable of deciphering. (Whether he actually ever did so is a different question.)

    My adviser further argues that if “Jenab-e-Emanuel” referred to Swedenborg (rather than to the Bab, as Shoghi Effendi indicates), ‘Abdu’l-Baha probably would have included his last name: Jenab-e-Emanuel Swedenborg or perhaps simply Jenab-e-Swedenborg. To the Persian reader (he says), the casual, offhand use of a first name alone might well seem jangling with an honorific title as deferential as “jenab”. He sees this as one more reason to interpret Emanuel/Immanuel as a high title (presumably the biblical one).

    What’s clear is that nothing in the wording “Jenab-e-Emanuel” gives us any reason to question Shoghi Effendi’s interpretation — that this phrase, in this instance, is ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s way of referring to the Bab. In all fairness to you, Sen, you yourself don’t place much stock in your own “jenab” argument: You never mention it in the body of your article. You tossed it into the comments more as an afterthought or throwaway. Perhaps as a trial balloon? If so, your lack of confidence was well placed, because this balloon doesn’t fly.

  36. Gary Matthews said

    Well, my Persian-linguist friend has now changed his mind! At least in certain key respects. After several days of reflection on, and restudy of, the Swedenborg Tablet, he called me this morning to share his latest thinking. He now feels much more drawn, Sen, to your reading.

    To be clear, my source hasn’t renounced his conclusions about the term “jenab”. (But his, as I indicated, were always somewhat in line with yours anyway.) What’s changed is, he now finds it hard to believe that ‘Abdu’l-Baha would refer to the Bab as “Jenab-e-Emanuel” in a Tablet written in response to questions about a different Emanuel (i.e., Emanuel Swedenborg). He feels it would be out of character for ‘Abdu’l-Baha to write something so potentially confusing to, or subject to misinterpretation by, his correspondent. (For reasons I’ve already explained, I don’t feel that that correctly characterizes the situation. But here I’m transmitting someone else’s conclusions, not my own.)

    My friend also is influenced (he says) by the fact that nowhere else in the Master’s writings does He refer to the Bab as “Emanuel”. At least not to my friend’s knowledge. (With typical humility, he quickly quickly emphasizes the limits of his knowledge, which he characterizes as miniscule, but which I see as very extensive.)

    He also disagrees with my previously-stated impressions of the terms “Aqa” and “Jenab-e-Aqa”. He says that neither of these is a term by which ‘Abdu’l-Baha would have been addressed or referred to by the believers generally. Rather, a composite term such as “Sarkar-i-Aqa”. He says there is more than one Persian word by which ‘Abdu’l-Baha was addressed, which in English we translate “Master”. So unless and until I learn differently, I withdraw that as an example of the usage I was illustrating.

    Taking the Swedenborg Tablet by itself, on its own terms, my linguist friend tends to read it more or less as you have. He does emphasize that he might change this feeling if new information comes to light — but that’s where he is at the moment. And for that reason, he’s open to the idea that the secretary misunderstood the Guardian’s interpretation, perhaps mistakenly sending out the letter before the Guardian had seen or had a chance to correct it.

    One reason I shared my friend’s thinking was as a counter-example to your generalization about how “the Persian reader” would likely react to the expression “Jenab-e-Emanuel”. However, he doesn’t currently count as a counter-example! When we mess up, we ‘fess up. 🙂

  37. James baulsch said

    Gary, You state that your linguist friend is “open to the idea that the secretary misunderstood the Guardian’s interpretation, perhaps mistakenly sending out the letter before the Guardian had seen or had a chance to correct it.” Yet you must be aware of this statement: “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.”

    Are you suggesting that you, your friend and Sen are in a position to evaluate when these exceptions were made? If so, are you not opening a crack in a door for many to decide what hermeneutical principles are applicable to Shoghi Efffendi’s interpretations? In your excellent book, The Challenge of Baha’u’llah, you discuss Baha’í unity and the failure of all attempts to create schism (p.77-79). It seems to me that once Baha’is are able to determine based on their own assumptions which letters were approved or not they are, ipso facto, opening the door to schism by enabling a wide range of Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations to be questioned and rejected. Have you considered consulting the UHJ about this particular topic?

    The basis for interpreting these passages is not linguistic expertise or a vast degree of any other type of academic expertise. Once one goes down that road many Baha’í scholars dating back to Mirzá `Abul-Fadl should therefore be able to authoritatively determine what specific passages by the Central Figures mean. We are then on a slippery slope just like Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other religions in which any scholar (theologian) can become an authority and create schism.

    This is one of thousands of examples of letters written on the Guardian’s behalf: ““Regarding the four and twenty elders: The Master, in a Tablet, stated that they were the Báb, the eighteen Letters of the Living, and five others who would be known in the future. So far we do not know who these five others are.” From letter written on behalf of an individual believer, July 10, 1939: Baha’i News, No.162, p.5, April 1943. Is a linguist, theologian, philosopher, historian, et al in a position to state that this categorical statement was (to paraphrase what your linguist friend asserts) mistakenly sent out before the Guardian could approve it? If so, how do we reconcile this with his assertion that “there is no exception whatever to this rule.”?

    I find it very difficult to believe that Shoghi Effendi, a Branch specifically created by the Father to ensure doctrinal unity, would be so careless about a vast range of topic which have profound doctrinal significance not only for the unity of the Faith but also for the way in which Bahais should view many fundamental issues. A Guardian is a defender, protector, or keeper. He or she is also a person who looks after and is legally responsible for someone who is unable to manage their own affairs, especially an incompetent or disabled person or a child whose parents have died. Are you suggesting that Shoghi Effendi was so careless about his ultimate responsibility of ensuring the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth that he would let secretaries interpret passages for him without his approval? If so, we might as well have different sects as there are Bahaís who use precisely this argument to buttress their views on a range of issues which are opposed to Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations and the UHJ’s elucidations.

    I hope you and Sen will reflect deeply on this passage: And yet, in the sight of God, these common people are infinitely superior and exalted above their religious leaders who have turned away from the one true God. 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!” The Kitáb-i-Íqán p. 233 Nowhere does it stipulate a requirement for linguistic expertise.

  38. Sen said

    It was you who raised the “jenab” argument Gary, when, based on Sohrab’s translation, you cited the tablet as saying “His Highness Emanuel.” This is the translation that the secretary is responding to. Given that the translation also refers to “His Highness Christ,” it would be reasonable to assume that the original must say hazrat-e Emmanuel. But that is a product of the translation process: there is no “His Highness Emanuel” in the Persian text, which is why it has been removed from the Bahai World Centre translation. (“It is our hope that thou wilt in this day arise to promote that which Emmanuel foretold” rather than “that which His Highness Emmanuel has predicted.”)

    But it’s not just the titles used, and the spelling Emanuel rather than Emmanuel, that tell us that it is a lesser seer who is being discussed. It’s the whole tablet: the addressee has been “a student in the school of spiritual progress” which is good, but “if these schools of progress lead to the all-embracing school of the Kingdom” the result will be better: “learning and scholarship through which a man (or woman) may … perceive all created things as letters and words, and read the lesson of spiritual stations.”

    Abdu’l-Baha is not leading someone from Babism to Bahai belief, but from Swedenborg’s New Jerusalem church to the Bahai Faith. From esoteric euro-centric and christo-centric arcania to the open book of a new Revelation. ..”teachings once limited to the few are made available to all.” He leads the addressee from the lesser to the greater “Any bird that is fully fledged does not remain fixed to the ground: it takes flight to the realms above. But any bird whose legs are bound, or those whose wings and feathers are broken, or mired with water and clay.” Christianity (and its Swedenborgian derivative) no longer meets the needs of the age. Emanuel is analogous to the Apostles. And so forth … the general meaning is clear even without knowing that the addressee is a Swedenborgian Bahai who had asked “what is the relation between the Revelation of Emanuel Swedenborg and that of Baha ‘o ‘llah?” and had told Abdu’l-Baha that he had resolved “to assist in spreading this spiritual philosophy [Sedenborgian ideas] before the masses.”

  39. Sen said

    What you have expressed, James, is an argument from consequences: if we acknowledge the plain facts the sky will fall, the Faith will be divided etc etc.. It’s not a valid argument (see Neither is casting vague aspersions at scholars.

    We do in fact know the name of a 20th Elder. To quote Adib Taherzadeh, “The Vakilu’d-Dawlih was a distinguished believer who was designated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as one of the ‘four and twenty elders which sat before God on their seats’ …. Of the other 23 ‘elders’, only 19 have been named by ‘Abdu’l-Baha i.e. the Bab and the 18 ‘Letters of the Living’ ” (Adib Taherzadeh, The Child of the Covenant, p. 240)

    The secretary expressed his or her own knowledge at the time: only the Bab and the 18 Letters of the Living being identified. But the words of the Guardian’s secretaries do not represent the sum total of all possible knowledge, but rather a state-of-the-art snapshot from a time. The secretary himself may have learned about Vakilu’d-Dawlih later, and future generations may learn more than is known today.

    The same process can be seen as regards the Tablet of Emanuel: the initial response comes from a secretary who was not aware the Tablet was about Swedenborg and was written to Wrestling-Brewster, but feedback from the North American Bahais who did know led to corrections to the initial mistaken response.

  40. James baulsch said

    There is nothing in what you have written, Sen, which undermines the facts of what the secretary wrote on behalf of the Guardian. As has been stated several times, these letters were approved by the Guardian and are authoritative though having a lesser authority than those of the Guardian’s. If the secretary’s letter asserting that there are 19 Elder’s is incorrect, then you will have to argue that ‘Abdu’l-Baha was also incorrect because there are three Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha that mention the name of the Elders; two mention nineteen names, and a third twenty names.

    The Research Department of the UHJ has explained the issue: “…the Guardian was “cognizant” of the contents of the “well-known Tablet of the Master”.
    “No doubt at the time the beloved Guardian wrote this letter, he did not consider it proptious to enter into such details for the friends in the West.” ( So in the same way that ‘Abdu’l-Baha mentioned 19 Elders the secretary writing on the Guardian’s behalf did the same: there is no inconsistency.

    I regret that you misunderstood my reference to scholars. Scholarship is highly regarded in the Faith. I appreciate several of your essays and the work of many Bahaí otherscholars. My reference was to scholarship and academic expertise which is used to challenge the definitive interpretations of the Master and Guardian and therefore risk creating schism and undermining Baha’i unity. This is why I referred to Gary’s emphasis in his book on the inability of anyone to do this. The attempt to discredit letters written on behalf of the Guardian which were approved by him poses a risk of schism. Roland has already referred in this thread to the Guardian’s authoritative interpretation of copper to gold through his secretary which is supported by modern science.

  41. Roland said

    Very sad to read all of this Sen. The Guardian’s secretaries writing on his behalf were correct about copper and gold in the Iqan being literal, the Tablet of Emmanuel being about the Bab and the 19 Elders about whom the Master revealed two Tablets that there were 19 and one that there were 20 ( James is absolutely correct. Persisting down this path for so many long in defiance of the Guardian and Master is unworthy of your exceptional academic ability. Further, where does it stop? I will continue to pray that you can bring yourself to humble yourself sufficiently to obey them both as you have much to offer. The Supreme Manifestation did not leave any possibility for a scholar or anyone else to undermine their authority in this Dispensation.

  42. James baulsch said

    Your failure to allow my refutation of your comment on your website shows clearly your true agenda to undermine the Guardian’s authority. The reference I provided clearly demonstrates that the secretary did not err writing on the Guardian’s behalf as the Master twice referred to 19 Elders. He or she also did not err writing on the Guardian’s behalf re the Tablet of Emmanuel being addressed to the Bab as the Master states clearly that “Emmanuel was indeed the Herald “(i.e. the Bab) of the second coming of Christ (i.e. Baha’u’llah).

    The secretaries letters were written on behalf of the Guardian and are authoritative. Abdu’l Baha also used multiple secretaries. FFor the final time: “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.”
    “Although the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative, their words are in no sense the same as his, their style certainly not the same, and their authority less, for they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages.”
    (25 February 1951 to the National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles)

    It is a good thing that the internet will easily enable readers to research and quickly find the correct explanations. Frankly, I have now completely lost interest on your website. Your link to the Bahai Rants website, which I have reviewed, is quite disturbing.

  43. BRENT POIRIER said

    Sen’s relationship to the Faith is complex. He is a long-time supporter of the Baha’is in Iran and quite a number of times has demonstrated his desire to lessen their suffering under persecution. He makes a deep study of various aspects of the Teachings, and often makes significant contributions to Baha’i scholarship. On the other hand, at times he has in my personal view taken a dismissive approach to certain aspects of the guidance from the House of Justice and from the Guardian, particularly in letters on the Guardian’s behalf. My view is that we can courteously yet vigorously express our differences, while realizing that a person who is not a member of the Baha’i community cannot be expected to uphold the standards of faith in the doctrines and obedience to the Head of the community that a person within the Baha’i community can be expected to uphold.

  44. Sen said

    Thanks Brent. I have followed the method recommended by Shoghi Effendi, in response to a student who had completed advanced studies related to the Bahá’í Faith, he wrote (through his secretary): “It is hoped that all the Bahá’í students will follow the noble example you have set before them and will, henceforth, be led to investigate and analyse the principles of the Faith and to correlate them with the modern aspects of philosophy and science. Every intelligent and thoughtful young Bahá’í should always approach the Cause in this way, for therein lies the very essence of the principle of independent investigation of truth.”

    In my case, the “philosophy and science” leans heavily on philology and text and source criticism. I think there’s a difference between interrogating the sources (which always have a history and a context), and dismissing the sources. As you can see from the comments on my blog, some people find this very helpful, some think it undermines the sources of authority. The different responses don’t bother me, as they are only to be expected. I write for those I can help, and those who don’t like my approach will go elsewhere.

  45. Sen, no one can miss the note of triumph with which you keep saying the Swedenborg Tablet was “about Swedenborg”. Or the air of finality with which you drive the point home: We know this! It’s a fact! It doesn’t depend on Sen’s say-so! Why, even the Guardian acknowledged this in later letters! (Hence your claim that he rescinded — “walked back” — the interpretation he’d earlier given to Willard Hatch and published in Baha’i News.)

    Your whole case here rests on an implied-but-unstated false premise. It’s a premise so bizarre you don’t dare spell it out, yet so central you can’t disavow it. Either way, your house of cards would collapse. So you just keep insinuating it, hoping your reader will adopt it unconsciously without noticing.

    Your premise is, that if a composition is “about” some particular person, then nothing within that composition can mention or refer to anyone else. You thus argue that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Swedenborg Tablet, being “about” Swedenborg, can’t make even a passing reference to the Bab!

    Here’s why your argument depends on this flawed premise:

    * Neither the Guardian nor his secretary ever suggested that the Swedenborg Tablet was “about” anyone other than Swedenborg. (You of course know this.)

    * Specifically, neither one ever stated or implied that the Tablet was “about” the Bab. (You know this too.)

    * What the Guardian does say is that at one point in the Swedenborg Tablet (near the end), ‘Abdu’l-Baha refers to the Bab as “Emanuel”. It’s a single expression, used twice, and confined to one isolated section. Shoghi Effendi says nothing to indicate who or what the Tablet itself is about. (You certainly know this.)

    Yet you keep saying ‘Abdu’l-Baha couldn’t have mentioned the Bab because “the Tablet is about Swedenborg”. (You argue this way in your latest posting about the Tablet, as well as in recent comments.) That would make sense if, but only if, a long piece about one person can’t ever say anything about anyone else.

    Which simply isn’t true. The Swedenborg Tablet is of course ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s reaction to questions about Swedenborg. But in it, He refers to lots of other people: to Himself, to His addressee, to Baha’u’llah, to Jesus Christ, to Christ’s Apostles, and — according to Shoghi Effendi — to the Bab. (Come to think of it, I can’t find in this Tablet any actual direct reference to Swedenborg!)


    You do raise a few auxiliary arguments, none of which work either:

    >>> You say it’s “bad theology” to call the Bab a “Letter” in the divine “Word”. Yet the Bab, Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi all do this in other sacred texts (as three of your commenters have noted).

    >>> You likewise call it “bad theology” to designate the Bab a “Herald of the Second Coming of Christ” (as the Swedenborg Tablet does, if we accept the Guardian’s interpretation). But again — all our Central Figures, plus the Guardian, do just that in many other sacred texts.

    >>> You say it would be an “insult” for ‘Abdu’l-Baha to call the Bab “jinab” (which you translate as “the honorable”). But the title He uses isn’t just “jinab”: It’s “Jinab-i-Emanuel”, where “Emanuel” equals the Hebrew “Immanuel” — a biblical title meaning “God With Us” and denoting the Divine Manifestation. In this context, “Emanuel” functions not as a name but as the highest title one can imagine.

    It’s standard Persian usage to prefix any such lofty honorific with “jinab” as a formal token of further respect. Wikipedia calls this a “compound style”. In an earlier comment, I’ve provided the link (with examples), and you yourself confirm it by offering “Jinab-i-Aqa” as a further example.


    To your credit, you’ve recently been distancing yourself from these “auxiliary arguments”. Or perhaps you’re just emphasizing them less? The primary argument you drove home from the outset — the one you’re now doubling down on — is that a Tablet “about” Swedenborg can’t anywhere mention the Bab. But we know it can. You need a better argument.

    One final point: A Baha’i doesn’t need to prove Shoghi Effendi’s interpretation correct. Nor does Shoghi Effendi! Being the Guardian, he is the only one with the authority to make that call; and he has no need to justify his verdict. If someone disagrees with his interpretation, it’s that person’s burden to prove him wrong. You’ll never clear that bar by harping on “who the Tablet was about”, since that isn’t part of his interpretation.

  46. Sen said

    I am cool with people reading it differently Gary, but for me, and for your Persian interlocutor, it’s not an open question. The reading you put on the tablet is stretched for the reasons you, speaking for your Persian interlocutor, have explained. I gather you have read the integrated translation I have recently provided: if you still think that it is partly about Swedenborg and partly about the Bab, that’s your reading. I don’t think there’s any more to say.

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