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To be a Bahai: the recollections of Wendell Phillips Dodge

Posted by Sen on April 28, 2017

Abdu’l-Baha and a child in Haifa, Israel, courtesy of

When asked on one occasion: “What is a Bahai?” Abdu’l-Baha replied: “To be a Bahai simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.”

These words, often quoted in Bahai literature, are not authentic Bahai scripture, although the source is somewhat reliable. The words are among those supposedly spoken by Abdu’l-Baha on the Cedric as the ship arrived in America on April 11 1912. What happened is that a Bahai, Wendell Phillips Dodge, who was accredited with the New York City News Association, boarded the Cedric along with the customs officers and shipping news reporters, after the ship had been cleared the quarantine station. He interviewed ‘Abdu’l-Baha as the ship sailed into harbour.

An experienced Bahai translator and interpreter, Amin Farid (aka Mirza Aminu’llah Fareed), translated Abdu’l-Baha’s words into English, and Dodge wrote a report of what he had seen and heard, which was distributed through the Associated Press (see Alan Ward, 239 Days, p. 13). The various editors involved probably modified Dodge’s story, as is normal in newspaper reporting. However since the reporter, Dodge, was himself a Bahai – he was the son of Arthur Dodge who became a Bahai in 1897 and remained active until his death in October, 1915 (see Youness Afroukhteh, Memories of Nine Years in Akka, p. 433) – it is likely that it was Dodge’s original report that was submitted to the Bahai magazine Star of the West, which reprinted it on April 28, 1912 (Vol. 3, nr. 4. 3, p. 3). I have reproduced Dodge’s report from the Star of the West below. The Star of the West editors may also have polished it a little, but the weak links in the chain are the original interpreter – was Farid able to convey in English what he was hearing in Persian, and did he add his own colouring to it – and Dodge himself. When he writes “The chief cause of the mental and physical inequalities of the sexes is due to custom and training, which for ages past have moulded woman into the ideal of the weaker vessel,” and “the new age will be an age less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals,” is he reporting the actual words Fareed used, or, as I think, transforming what he understood, using the language of the suffragettes?

Whether the sentiment “To be a Baha’i simply means to love all the world….” and the remainder of the Dodge report, are like those of Abdu’l-Baha is a matter of opinion. But in the Bahai Faith, canonical authority is a historical question, based on objective criteria that are given in the Bahai writings themselves, and that have been interpreted by Shoghi Effendi. Abdu’l-Baha writes:

Thou has written concerning the pilgrims and pilgrims’ note. Any narrative that is not authenticated by a Text should not be trusted. Narratives, even if true, cause confusion. For the people of Baha, the Text, and only the Text, is authentic” (translated in Lights of Guidance, p. 438)

and Shoghi Effendi:

I have insistently urged the believers of the West … to quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 5)

The word translated as “narrative” in Abdu’l-Baha’s letter apparently refers to orally transmitted reports analogous to the “traditions” (hadith) of Islam, but I have not been able to locate the original for this tablet to check what word is used. Such “narratives” became known in the Bahai community as “pilgrims’ notes” because a large portion of the narratives that circulated in the early Bahai communities of the West originated as returning pilgrims’ recollections of the words they had heard from Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi in Palestine. Most reports of the talks that Abdu’l-Baha gave in his western journeys, reported in Paris Talks, Abdu’l-Baha in London and The Promulgation of Universal Peace for example, are also pilgrim’s notes. However in some cases, the English text is not based on what an interpreter said, but on a record of what Abdu’l-Baha said in Persian, authenticated by him and later translated into English. Some Answered Questions and Memorials of the Faithful were produced in this way, and I have begun to translated the authenticated Persian records of Abdu’l-Baha’s talks in the West on a separate blog, Abdu’l-Baha Speaks. Apart from such translations made direct from authenticated texts, all the talks of Abdu’l-Baha that we are so fond of are “narratives” and “pilgrims’ notes”: the Bahai equivalent of hadith. Such texts often circulate in various forms, as there is no original to check them against.

Although Dodge’s report of Abdu’l-Baha’s words cannot be authenticated by a Persian record, it is very interesting and influential. The sentence beginning “: “To be a Baha’i simply means to love all the world …” was quoted by John Esslemont in Baha’u’llah and the New Era, first published in 1923, and is still included in the edition available at the new site of the Bahai Reference Library, although other pilgrim’s notes that Esslemont included in his first edition were removed by the editors of later editions. It is apparently a well-loved sentiment. It conveys the idea that what counts is not the religious labels we wear, but the deeds we do. That is a Bahai teaching, as Baha’u’llah writes:

Beware, O people of Baha, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds. (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 305)

… but it is not the whole story. Good deeds, without awareness, pure intentions and love, fall short of the Baha’i standard of conduct. In Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha is asked,

Those who do good works, who are well-wishers of all mankind, who have a praiseworthy character, who show forth love and kindness to all people, who care for the poor, and who work for universal peace what need do they have of the divine teachings, with which they believe they can well afford to dispense? What is the condition of such people?

He replied, in part:

Know that such ways, words and deeds are to be lauded and approved, and they redound to the glory of the human world. But these actions alone are not sufficient: they are a body of the greatest beauty, but without a spirit. No, that which leads to everlasting life, eternal honour, universal enlightenment, and true success and salvation is, first and foremost, the knowledge of God. It is clear that this knowledge takes precedence over every other knowledge and constitutes the greatest virtue of the human world. For the understanding of the reality of things confers a material advantage in the realm of being, and brings about the progress of outward civilization, but the knowledge of God is the cause of spiritual progress and attraction, true vision and insight, the exaltation of humanity, the appearance of divine civilization, the rectification of morals, and the illumination of the conscience.

Second comes the love of God. The light of this love is kindled, through the knowledge of God, in the lamp of the heart, and its spreading rays illumine the world and bestow upon man the life of the Kingdom. … Were it not for the love of God, the hearts of men would be bereft of life and deprived of the stirrings of concience. … Were it not for the love of God, estrangement would not give way to unity. …

It is clear that human realities differ one from another, that opinions and perceptions vary, and that this divergence of thoughts, opinions, understandings and sentiments among individuals is an essential requirement. … We stand therefore in need of a universal power which can prevail over the thoughts, opinions and sentiments of all, which can annul these divisions and bring all souls under the sway of the principle of the oneness of humanity. And it is clear and evident that the greatest power in the human world is the love of God. It gathers diverse peoples under the shade of the tabernacle of oneness and fosters the greatest love and fellowship among hostile and contending peoples and nations.

… The third virtue of humanity is goodly intention, which is the foundation of all good deeds. … Now, one can perform an action which appears to be righteous but which is in reality prompted by self-interest. For example, a butcher raises a sheep and guards its safety; but this good deed of the butcher is motivated by the hope of profit, and the end result of all this care will be the slaughter of the poor sheep. How many are the goodly and righteous deeds that are in reality prompted by self interest! But the pure intention is sanctified above such faults.

Briefly, good deeds become perfect and complete only after the knowledge of God has been acquired, the love of God has been manifested, and spiritual attractions and goodly motives have been attained. Otherwise, though good deeds be praiseworthy, if they do not spring from the knowledge of God, from the love of God, and from a sincere intention, they will be imperfect. …

In the world today we meet with souls who sincerely desire the good of all people, who do all that lies in their power to assist the poor and succour the oppressed, and who are devoted to universal peace and well-being. Yet, however perfect they may be from this perspective, they remain deprived of the knowledge and the love of God and as such are imperfect.

… The sun nurtures all earthly things and fosters their growth and development by its heat and light what greater good is there than this? Nonetheless, since this good does not flow from goodly motives and from the love and knowledge of God, it does not impress in the least. But when someone offers a cup of water to another, he is shown appreciation and gratitude. An unthinking person might say, “This sun which gives light to the world and manifests this great bounty must surely be praised and glorified. For why should we praise a man for such a modest gift and not yield thanks to the sun?” But if we were to gaze with the eye of truth, we would see that the modest gift bestowed by this person stems from the stirrings of conscience and is therefore praiseworthy, whereas the light and heat of the sun are not due to this and thus are not worthy of our praise and gratitude. In like manner, while those who perform good deeds are to be lauded, if these deeds do not flow from the knowledge and love of God they are assuredly imperfect.

Aside from this, if you consider the matter with fairness you will see that these good deeds of the non-believers also have their origin in the divine teachings. That is, the Prophets of old exhorted men to perform them, explained their advantages and expounded their positive effects; these teachings then spread among mankind, successively reaching the non-believing souls and inclining their hearts toward these perfections; and when they found these actions to be laudable and to bring about joy and happiness among men, they too conformed to them. Thus these actions also arise from the divine teachings. But to see this a measure of fair-mindedness is called for and not dispute and controversy.

The recollections of Wendell Phillips Dodge contain much more than the sentence beginning “To be a Baha’i simply means to love all the world …”. He reports Abdu’l-Baha’s words on the importance of accurate newspapers, on liberty, women’s suffrage and material civilization. How much of this is Abdu’l-Baha and how much is Dodge is an open question.

Star of the West III:3, 28 April 1912, from page 3

Abdu’l-Baha’s arrival in America

Wendell Phillips Dodge

Abdu’l-Baha, the eminent Persian philosopher and leader of the Bahai movement for the unification of religions and the establishment of universal peace, arrived April 11th on the steamship _Cedric from Alexandria, Egypt. It is his first visit to America, and except for a brief visit to Paris and London last summer and fall, it is the first time in forty years that he has gone beyond the fortification of the “prison city” of Acre, Syria, to which place he and his father, Baha’o’llah, the founder of the Bahai movement, were banished by the Turkish government a half century ago.

He comes on a mission of international peace, to attend and address the Peace Conference at Lake Mohonk the latter part of the month, and to address various peace meetings, educational societies, religious organizations, etc.

When the ship news reporters boarded the _Cedric down the bay Abdu’l-Baha was found on the upper deck, standing where he could see the pilot, his long, flowing oriental robe flapping in the breeze. He was clothed in a long, black robe open at the front and disclosing another robe of light tan. Upon his head was a pure white turban, such as all eastern patriarchs wear.

His face was light itself as he scanned the harbour and greeted the reporters, who had been kept waiting at quarantine for three and a half hours before they could board the ship with the customs officers, owing to a case of smallpox and several cases of typhoid fever in the steerage, which had to be removed to Hoffman Island for isolation, and the ship then fumigated. He is a man of medium height, though at first sight he seemed to be much taller. He is strongly and solidly built, and weighs probably one hundred and sixty-five pounds. As he paced the deck, talking with the reporters, he appeared alert and active in every movement, his head thrown back and splendidly poised upon his broad, square shoulders, most of the time. A profusion of iron grey hair bursting out at the sides of the turban and hanging long upon the neck; a large, massive head, full-domed and remarkably wide across the forehead and temples, the forehead rising like a great palisade above the eyes, which were very wide apart, their orbits large and deep, looking out from under massive overhanging brows; strong Roman nose, generous ears, decisive yet kindly mouth and chin; a creamy white complexion, beard same colour as his hair, worn full over the face and carefully trimmed at almost full length – this completes an insufficient word picture of this “Wise Man Out of the East.”

His first words were about the press, saying:

“The pages of swiftly appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world; they display the doings and actions of the different nations; they both illustrate them and cause them to be heard. Newspapers are as a mirror which is endowed with hearing, sight and speech; they are a wonderful phenomenon and a great matter. But it behoveth the editors of the newspaper to be sanctified from the prejudice of egotism and desire, and to be adorned with the ornament of equity and justice.

“There are good and bad newspapers. Those which strive to speak only that which is truth, which hold the mirror up to truth, are like the sun: they light the world everywhere with truth and their work is imperishable. Those who play for their own little selfish ends give no true light to the world and perish of their own futility.”

Dr Ameen U. Fareed, a young Americanized Persian physician and surgeon, who is a nephew of Abdu’l-Baha, and who acted as interpreter, then told of how Abdu’l-Baha spent most of his time on the way across standing beside the wireless operator, himself receiving numerous messages through the air from his followers in America.

Talking to the reporters in his stateroom aboard the _Cedric, Abdu’l-Baha told of an incident which occurred in the Holy Land last winter, and it shows what a rare sense of humour this great world figure has. An enquirer, about to set off to Jerusalem, was one day discussing with Abdu’l-Baha the subject of pilgrimage:

“‘The proper spirit,’ said Abdu’l-Baha in his quaint way to the enquirer, ‘in which to visit places hallowed by remembrances of Christ, is one of constant communion with God. Love for God will be the telegraph wire, one end of which is in the Kingdom of the Spirit and the other in your heart.’
“‘I am afraid my telegraph wire is broken,’ the enquirer replied.
“‘Then you will have to use wireless telegraphy,’ I told him,” said Abdu’l-Baha, laughing heartily.

When the ship was abreast the Statue of Liberty, standing erect and facing it, Abdu’l-Baha held his arms wide apart in salutation, and said:

“There is the new world’s symbol of liberty and freedom. After being forty years a prisoner I can tell you that freedom is not a matter of place. It is a condition. Unless one accept dire vicissitudes he will not attain. When one is released from the prison of self, that is indeed a release.”

Then, waving adieu to the Statue of Liberty, he continued:

“In former ages it has been said, ‘To love one’s native land is faith.’ But the tongue in this days [_sic] says. ‘Glory is not his who loves his native land; but glory is his who loves his kind – humanity.'”

“What is your attitude toward woman suffrage?” asked one of the reporters.

“The modern suffragette is fighting for what must be, and many of these are willing martyrs to imprisonment for their cause. One might not approve of the ways of some of the more militant suffragettes, but in the end it will adjust itself. If women were given the same advantages as men, their capacity being the same, the result would be the same. In fact, women have a superior disposition to men; they are more receptive, more sensitive, and their intuition is more intense. The only reason of their present backwardness in some directions is because they have not had the same educational advantages as men.

“All children should be educated, but if parents cannot educate both the boys and the girls, then it would be better to educate the girls, for they will be the mothers of the coming generation. This is a radical idea for the East, where I come from, but it is already taking effect there, for the Bahai women of Persia are being educated along with the men.

“We have only to look about us in nature;” Abdu’l-Baha continued, “to see the truth of this. Is it not a fact that the females of many species of animals are stronger and more powerful than the male? The chief cause of the mental and physical inequalities of the sexes is due to custom and training, which for ages past have moulded woman into the ideal of the weaker vessel.

“The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the scales are already shifting – force is losing its weight and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals – or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more properly balanced.”

“What is a Bahai?” asked one of the reporters.

“To be a Bahai simply means to love all the world, to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for Universal Peace, and the Universal Brotherhood,” replied Abdu’l-Baha.

The ship now pointed its nose up the North River, and, gazing in a look of bewildered amazement at the rugged sky line of the lower city formed by the downtown skyscrapers, the “Wise Man out of the East,” remarked, pointing at the towering buildings:

“These are the minarets of Western World commerce and industry, and seem to stretch these things heavenward in an endeavour to bring about this Universal Peace for which we are all working, for the good of the nations and mankind in general.

“The bricks make the house, and if the bricks are bad the house will not stand, as these do. It is necessary for individuals to become as good bricks, to eradicate from themselves race and religious hatred, greed and a limited patriotism, so that, whether they find themselves guiding the government or founding a home, the result of their efforts may be peace and prosperity, love and happiness.”

The ship now reached its pier, where were anxiously waiting several hundred Bahais, as the followers of Abdu’l-Baha are called, who had been craning their necks down the river for a first sight of him since early morning. The ship docked shortly after noon, but, fearing that a demonstration in public would not be the best thing for the Cause, and not liking that sort of thing, the venerable Persian Divine did not leave the ship until the pier had been quietly cleared of his followers, who were told to meet him in the afternoon at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kinney, where he greeted them a few hours later.

Related content:
‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’
This great American democracy?
O God, refresh and gladden my spirit

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4 Responses to “To be a Bahai: the recollections of Wendell Phillips Dodge”

  1. Larry Rowe said

    Yes Abdul’-Baha gave voice to some very idealistic words. He also gave voice to words of deep division.

    “It is like leprosy; it is impossible for a man to associate and befriend a leper and not be infected. This command is for the sake of protection and to safeguard.”

    (Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 437)

  2. Sen said

    The words come from Abdu’l-Baha’s last tablet to America, which was only translated after Abdu’l-Baha’s death. It is discussed with notes on some minor textual variations on this blog here. The full text is on this blog here.

    Being unprejudiced does not mean being blind stupid. Both Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha preached against the divisions caused by religious, national and racial prejudices, and also warned that there are individuals who are better avoided. That is putting it mildly: humanity includes some quite despicable people, and only a fool would suppose that because all humanity is one, every individual must be altruistic and trustworthy. There is no logical contradiction between rejecting prejudices of class, race, religion, nation and sexual orientation, and choosing one’s associates with care (from people of all classes, races, religions etc.. Both are Bahai teachings.

  3. KomaGawa said

    I appreciate rereading this blog posting after so many years. it was with the original quote in mind that I have been communicating with a young woman in a far away country. I have shared most of the social principles, and many prayers always crediting the Author of the prayers, but I have not mentioned more than casually the word “Baha’i”. I have never met this young woman. I know that she was, or still is active in her Christian church, attending Sunday services regularly. She appears to agree with everything I have written, especially the prayers. Now the reason I took this strategy, is that I am helping her to establish a small business, and through that business I want her to become the center of a small community of Christian and Muslim working women through her contacts in both communities. I am still thinking that not bringing in the separation of the Baha’i community is a kind of insulation to criticism which at first might destroy any gathering of these two religious communities, who don’t associate with each other in her city, as far as I can tell from my limited research in English. However I am trying to always think ahead of where I am urging her to think about going. And I am now questioning how and when to talk about the Baha’i Faith as both the source of all that I have sent her, and as a separate religion. Oh there are some social laws which I have mentioned which she has singularly not responded to, so I am assuming that her lifestyle probably conflicts with those. I see that ahead of me is the primary responsibility of presenting the Author and His status, and His authority. But this seems rather daunting….as from my experience meeting people face to face here in Japan, doesn’t mean they are motivated to take this next significant step. I am encouraged to mention this to you because I appreciate your knowledge and common sense attitude, and also is that one of her favorite prayers is the noon-day obligatory prayer, which repeats the necessity to “know” and to “worship” God if we are to fulfill our true potentiality.
    Finally, She is fairly fluent in English, obviously. And because of family circumstances has been separated from them for several years. Her education was controled and overseen by her father, seoarated from the usual school system of her country. So her education is narrow and uneven. I believe there are other Baha’is in her country, but they are very few, and thus far i have not turned up any way to contact them in English. Secondly I am wary of introducing her to them at this stage.
    Your thoughts?

  4. Sen said

    I would say, you have given her a prayer she likes and uses, and other prayers as well. So you have met a need for her. It is not our place to decide that someone needs to be a Bahai. “Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 213) More literally, he says that every head (person) [has/hears] its own melody.

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