Who was `Abdu'l-Bahá, and why did He come to the West?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

January 6, 1913 Edinburgh!

Charlotte Square Photo: Hari Docherty

 Earl Redman writes (in 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Our Midst):

‘Abdu’l-Bahá planned to visit Edinburgh, and on 1 January the Bahá’ís of Edinburgh sent a schedule they had devised for Him. Ahmad Sohrab wrote in his diary, ‘The plan of Edinburgh is presented to the Master. He says I have not been there yet, and they have already planned what I must do in every hour. Then He jokes with them about these . . . customs, and date-fixing of this so far ahead . . ‘. 
Alexander Whyte
            At 8 a.m. on 6 January, Ahmad Sohrab, Mírzá Mahmúd, Hájí Amín and Siyyid Asadu’lláh-i-Qumí left for the station, followed by the Master. Lotfullah Hakím (who later was elected to the first Universal House of Justice) joined the party at the station. The train left at 10 o’clock and at about 5 p.m. pulled into the Waverley Station in Edinburgh. [A local historian told us it was probably Princess Station, which is no longer there. AP] The group was met by Jane Whyte, Isabel Fraser (who had come up from London to help) and several other friends. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stayed at the home of Mrs Whyte and her distinguished husband, Dr Alexander Whyte, Moderator of the General Assembly Free Church of Scotland and principal of the Divinity Faculty of Edinburgh University, who were instrumental in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visiting Edinburgh.

Medallion of Rev. Whyte
Jane Elizabeth Whyte, formerly Jane Barbour, may have been the first Scottish Bahá’í. She was married to Reverend Alexander Whyte, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, professor of New Testament literature and principal at New College, Edinburgh. Jane was a good friend of Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper and in March 1906 they had visited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for two brief days in ‘Akká. On her return, she wrote:

The pilgrim to ‘Akká is asked many questions on his return. Is this a prophet? A manifestation of divinity . . . Is it enough of Divinity to see love made perfect through suffering a life-long patience, a faith which no exile or imprisonment can dim, a love which no treachery can alter, a hope which rises a pure clear flame after being drenched with the world’s indifference through a lifetime? If that is not Divinity enough for this world, what is? . . . What greater sign can you ask than the power to flood this old world with love and aspiration, with patience and courage? . . . His life, as the prisoner of the Sultán, was in continual danger by any sudden pressure from Constantinople and at that time it was not considered wise that visitors from the west should be too much in evidence. So it came that we could not have the farewell conversation we had promised ourselves. Instead I left a letter for him. In due time an answer came . . .

In ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s reply to her letter, He called Jane a ‘captive of the love of God’ and an ‘honoured lady’. She had written, ‘I am a Christian’. The Master responded with, ‘O would that all were truly Christian! It is easy to be a Christian on the tongue, but hard to be a true one’. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote that ‘the unity of truth, through the power of God, will make these illusory differences to vanish away’. At the end of this Tablet, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá listed the seven candles of unity: unity in the political realm, unity of thought in world undertakings, freedom, unity in religion, unity of the nations, unity of the races, and unity of language. These would all, He stated, ‘inevitably come to pass’.[iii]
            Upon her return from ‘Akká, Jane Whyte spread the Bahá’í teachings to her family and friends. She was able to see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London in 1911, and wrote to Him the following year saying, ‘If the time should come for him to visit Edinburgh, the Outlook Tower Society will welcome him warmly’.[iv] He accepted her invitation.

*     *     *
Photo: Hari Docherty
‘Abdu’l-Bahá would have preferred to stay at a hotel, but Mrs Whyte was insistent that He stay in her home at 7 Charlotte Square, so ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and His interpreter Ahmad Sohrab stayed in the Whytes’ home while the others in His party were accommodated in a nearby hotel. One Edinburgh resident remembered the three who stayed in the hotel:

His company consisted of three people, and they were entertained in a hotel within a stone’s throw of the house where he was . . . the most personal attendant was called, in translation, the ‘Lion of God’ [Asadu’lláh], an old man, picturesque in appearance and of a most attractive spirit, whose after-dinner stories were a great delight. There was a young man, an interpreter, who was not of the inner company, I think, and who had a more or less permanent home in London (Lotfullah Hakim). Then there was a very handsome, cultured man, who was a poet of some distinction, according to the interpreter, and whose talk, even in translation, was deeply interesting, spiritually discerning and beautifully expressed [Mírzá Mahmúd].
At 8.30 on the morning after their arrival, Ahmad Sohrab heard a bell:

When I went down to the Library I saw principal Whyte with the members of the family standing on one side and all the maids which were seven I think, standing on the other side, each having a hymn book in the hand. Mrs Whyte gave me one of these books and she went to the organ. All of us [sang] the songs and afterward Rev. Whyte prayed while all of them knelt down. It was a very new experience to me. Of course this is their daily custom for the Master and the servants to pray to God every morning before starting their daily labors. This is a very lovely custom and affords one a few moments whereby to commune with his Creator. After the prayer we had breakfast and I carried up Our Beloved’s tea to his room.

Some of the Edinburgh Bahá’ís were worried about how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would handle the cold of a Scottish winter. Surprisingly to the locals, when the Master arrived in Edinburgh, the city experienced four days of sunny weather with mild temperatures. Even so, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was not well-dressed for the climate and did suffer from the cold. He did not mention it to anyone, but one of His attendants informed Mrs Whyte and she took Him out and ‘a forenoon was spent in providing for His greater comfort – to the interest and admiration of several shopkeepers unaccustomed to oriental dress and speech’.   [The story we heard in Scotland: He went out to shop for woolen underwear in a department store. Endearing, eh? AP]
            The Whytes had managed to publicize ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s coming with an article in a local newspaper on 13 December, and articles in two different papers on 3 January, so when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived, the reporters were there to ensure that His visit was well reported.
            After dinner with the Whytes, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá met with the Secretary of the Esperanto Society, the general Secretary of the Theosophical Society, several professors and many clergymen with their wives. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá then spoke about his trip from Alexandria to New York and how some had insisted that he sail on the Titanic instead of the older and smaller Cedric. He talked about his address to the Jews at Temple El-Emmanuel in San Francisco, which ‘created a tremendous effect, because most of these people are very devoted Christians’, wrote Ahmad Sohrab, adding that ‘An old scotch song was sung after the Master’s address which was very sweet and effective. The Master bade them good bye and went to his room’.
Florence Altass met the Master in Edinburgh and recalled:  Of course when I saw Him I knew who He was. Oh, you couldn’t mistake Him. And that heavenly smile! It was a perpetual smile, and yet it wasn’t, if you can imagine; it looked as though He smiled at everyone, and yet the smile seemed always to be there. And His eyes looked as if they were looking through you. He had the most gentle voice; I’ve never heard a voice like it . . . He embraced a good many people; He didn’t me, He just shook hands. Several of us He just shook hands with. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá shook hands with me, He seemed to transmit something to me, and I’ve never been the same since.
There was an interpreter – who spoilt the whole show! It wasn’t that His voice didn’t suit me, it was that although ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke in Persian, you understood; you knew what He was saying, somehow. One was so enamoured of His voice that one sort of felt what He was saying.
[End of Redman's account]   See also:  http://www.travelstothewest.org/

When we were there, last week!
Having just BEEN in Edinburgh, and having GONE to the house at 7 Charlotte Square, I can imagine all of this more fully!   Our photos are from a collection by Hari Docherty, unless noted. 
Tim, climbing a hill to take footage
Photo: Joseph Sheppherd

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