`Abdu'l-Baha's Visit To Canada, By Hugh Church
In 1912, Montreal was - by any measure - the most important city in the adolescent Dominion of Canada and its wealthy English-speaking population occupied the peak of Canadian "high society." They lived in the so-called Square Mile, the district west of downtown and between Sherbrooke Street and "the Mountain." Their homes were mock Highland castles, palatial neo-Georgian houses, faux Tuscan villas and massive brownstone mansions. They took their social cues from London. They took tea, rode to the hounds with the Montreal Hunt and gave palatial dinner parties. They were merchant princes (like the Birks and the Ogilvies) or captains of industry and commerce, such as the Molsons, Lord Strathcona, the Holts, Sir Mortimer Davis, the Holts, Lord Shaughnessy, the Van Homes and Lord Atholstan. These plutocrats lived in a neighbourhood which the Canadian humourist, Stephen Leacock (who was himself a Square Miler) called "Plutoria-under-the-Elms."
And on Pine Avenue, at the top of the Square Mile and right across the street from the Birks, lived a very successful architect and his lovely wife May. Mr. and Mrs. William Sutherland Maxwell, and their beautiful and adored two-year-old daughter, Mary. The Maxwells, who in their dress and in their residence and in their manner of living so closely resembled their wealthy neighbours were unusual in several significant ways. One was that they both were followers of a new," not-very-well-known religion, which in those days was often known as Bahaism." And on the Labour bay weekend of that year they were about to receive a very honoured, even august, visitor for whom they had entirely redecorated their home. This was `Abdu'l-Baha, the son of the man whom Baha'is recognise as the most recent of God`s manifestations to man, and the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith.
In 1912 `Abdu'l-Baha was 68 years old, and his was a "commanding presence," we are told. Time and again we read that people coming into his presence for the first time left describing feelings of awe at the meeting. But at the same time he seemed "intensely approachable." He had, after all, approved an advertisement in The Montreal Star which gave the Maxwell`s telephone number (Uptown 3015) and urged "any Montrealers who want to make an appointment with him" to do so. He had a ready sense of humour. He was not an ascetic. During part of his stay in Montreal, for example, he put up at the Windsor Hotel then the most expensive and luxurious in town. He always sought to avoid religious argument, but was uncompromising on his principles.
Later on in his travels in North America, he insisted that Louis Gregory, a black Baha'i, be seated next to him at a dinner in the then rigidly-segregated city of Washington, DC. He always wore the clothes he was most comfortable in those of a Persian gentleman of the nineteenth century - and in a day of waxed moustaches wore an unfashionable beard. He enjoyed music. He loved children. He did not speak English or any other European language, and therefore always spoke through an interpreter who accompanied him everywhere. One can only imagine the impression he must have made on passers-by or on members of his various audiences in Montreal in 1912. (In fact, Mrs. Maxwell noted with what must have been some amusement that the upstairs curtains of all her neighbours' homes were ported as `Abdu'l-Baha arrived on Pine Avenue in the evening of August 30th so that the neighbours could glimpse the white-robed "Persian prophet.")
This brief visit was to accomplish exactly what `Abdu'l-Baha had hoped. It gave the few scattered individuals in Canada who called themselves Baha'is an awareness of themselves as a community," and gave them as well a better understanding of the Faith. (At that time, we must remember, most Baha'is in Canada had no Baha'i writings or scripture to read for themselves, and often didn’t even know any other Baha'is. Their beliefs, therefore, were often an amalgam of turn-of -the-century liberal thought, "universalism," and socialism, and many identified their barely-understood religion with `Abdu'l-Baha rather than with Baha'u'llah. It was said that these Baha'is were better described as `Abdu'l-Baha'is.) His visit attracted a lot of attention, particularly in Montreal, where more than 2,500 people heard him or nine days and where all the newspapers English and French reported extensively on his visit and his views. There were seven informal and eight public meetings, including an address to 500 socialists at Coronation Hall on the topic of Economic Happiness." Abdul-Baha met eminent people throughout Canada and elsewhere - religious and political leaders, professors, scientists, etc. In Montreal these included the Roman Catholic archbishop Bruchesi, and Mr. William Paterson, the principal of McGill University. Invariably their subsequent attitudes toward the Baha'i Faith were positive.
Finally, everything that he said - both in private homes, in churches and in other great meetings in Montreal and elsewhere was added to and became an important part of the corpus of Baha'i writings. In Montreal there were two addresses which became almost universally known among Baha'is - his addresses on "The Oneness of Religion" at the Unitarian Church of the Messiah (a building, incidentally, designed by his host, William Sutherland Maxwell,) and on "Baha'i Principles for the Happiness of the Human Race" at St James Church, the so-called "cathedral of Methodism" on Ste-Catharine Street.
Before turning to those two talks, though, I'd like first to deal with an aspect of `Abdu'l-Baha`s visit to Montreal which became a very minor footnote in Canadian literature, and which, as Stephen Leacock`s biographer wrote many years later, for a while " ... must have given hurt ... to a small number of Baha'is." It interests me as a former literature teacher rather than as a Baha'i.
`Abdul-Baha`s visit had not escaped the notice of Leacock, who two years later published a satirical short story in his famous anthology Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich. The story to which I refer is one called "The Yahi-Bahi Society of Mrs Resselyer-Brown." Certainly Leacock was a neighbour of the Maxwells, but it is clear" from the story that he did not know and did not trouble himself to learn anything either about `Abdu'l-Baha - who figures in his story as Mr. Yahi Bahi - or about the Baha'i Faith - which he calls Boohooism. Yahi Bahi spouts an unsettling mishmash of Hindu, Buddhist, ancient Egyptian and Islamic terms, but he seems to have absolutely no religious or ethical principles to impart and is in fact, a scam artist and a thief. It must be remembered that at the time there were a lot of very well-known and very fashionable religious and occult "gurus" about - such as Annie Besant and Theosophy, for example - who were more-or-less the "pets" of society ladies with too much time on their hands and of self-described intellectuals. Leacock and others often scoffed at them and their followers. I don’t think that present-day Baha'is need be offended by this parody because it is so obviously wide of the mark. There is simply nothing of Abdul-Baha or of the Baha'i Faith in it. (And we all must remember that Leacock could be savagely funny in his comments about Anglican priests and Presbyterians as well.)
So let me now turn to matters of greater "gravitas" and of much greater significance.
In the pulpit of the imposing Church of the Messiah, `Abdu'l-Baha essentially offered his audience a summary of the basic tenets of the Baha'i Faith, without announcing that this was what he was about to do. Therefore this address can in no way be construed as an attempt at proselytizing, something which as the Guardian of the Faith he never did, and which Baha'is today are warned against doing as well. Nothing of what he said would surprise Baha'is today, and ninety-two years ago `Abdu'l-Baha apparently understood that in a Unitarian church he was unlikely to be misunderstood or to startle anyone either.
The church’s minister, the Rev. F R Griffin, in fact said in introducing `Abdu'l-Baha that "The strangest part of all about him is that nothing is strange." This is, of course, a reaction that Baha'is often encounter when they have the opportunity to explain their Faith to non-Baha'i friends and acquaintances. The Montreal Gazette reported that `Abdu'l-Baha in his opening sentences said. "God the Almighty has created all humanity from earth, from the same element."
The paper went on to note that the visitor spoke of his father. Baha'u'llah, having proclaimed that "religion must be the means of love and fellowship. If "religion" is the cause of hatred it has no meaning: it is not religion but irreligion. . . ."
The audience might have been intrigued when `Abdu'l-Baha argued for a universal language "to "help the cause of international peace and goodwill." as this certainly would have been a somewhat novel idea in 1912. In fact, unfortunately, it still is. The Gazette said that "both in matter and in style" the message was "unique ..." On the other hand, The Montreal Daily Witness, a Socialist paper, carried an article by a local clergyman expounding the view that `Abdu’l-Baha’s "oriental doctrines are not new," in what was obviously intended as a criticism of the Baha'i speaker’s ideas.
Present-day Baha'is should probably be able to see the point of both descriptions, since we see our Faith as both "unique" or "new" and as "not new" at one and the same time. To us this is not only not contradictory but is the only logical way of regarding the history of the spiritual development of all of mankind. Our only quibble would probably be with the use of the adjective "oriental" since we and I believe most of the world’s people today agree with us Baha'is about this - see nothing either "oriental" or "occidental" in the principles which Abdul-Baha spoke of in the pulpit of the Church of the Messiah and everywhere else throughout his life.
At St James Church, `Abdu'l-Baha continued his exposition of his Fathers religious teachings. Here The Gazette mentioned his call for the "independent investigation" of religious truth, and his contention that it is the lack of such independent investigation that leads to rancour and dissension. `Abdul-Baha spoke of the necessity of education, and the folly of racial and patriotic strife. As he had at other venues, he expressed his fear of the arms race in which all the European nations were then engaged, and which would make the soon-to-come Great War such a catastrophe for all those nations and for the rest of the world. He said,
"Europe is a storehouse of explosives awaiting a spark. All the European nations are on edge, and a single flame will set on fire the whole of that continent."
Today we can only regard his words as prescient. His remedy was the establishment of an international tribunal to settle international disputes. At the end of his address, the Recorder of St James, Mr. Weir, paid `Abdu'l-Baha the high compliment of saying that while some people believed the race of prophets had become extinct, . . . it was a pleasure to listen to one who was in the lofty succession of the long line of prophets." Even more moving, perhaps, was an editorial the next day in the usually very sober-sided Gazette, part of which said:
"`Abdu'l-Baha has preached universal peace for fifty years. . . In a word, `Abdu'l-Baha is the great protagonist of Peace in the world today. To bring about its accomplishment is the practical corollary of the two tenets which are the foundation of his creed - the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. For forty years he was persecuted for preaching it, for twenty years imprisoned."
It is, of course, not only ironic but tragic - in every sense of that word - that just two years later The Gazette’s pages would be filled with accounts of terrible battles, of warplanes, of gas attacks, and - worst of all - with lists of hundreds of names of the young Montrealers and Quebeckers killed or maimed in what now seems to many an entirely inexplicable and pointless war.
It is clear from everything that we know about `Abdu'l-Baha that he never wasted time. In fact, he seems to hove been the kind of person who maintains such a constant and rigorous schedule, such an unchanging and unrelenting momentum, that he appears to the casual observer not to be busy at all - rather like the Queen when she is "on tour." May Maxwell described her guest as `serene" and "calm," but during the nine days that `Abdu'l-Baha remained in Montreal, he seems either to have been preparing to speak or speaking, giving interviews, receiving guests, or paying calls upon people whom he felt would understand and should hear his message. While "resting" at the Maxwell residence. he spoke to small groups of guests on such subjects as Immortality" and The Nature of Man."
When he ran out of time answering questions after his public addresses, he invited people to come to him to continue their discussions. Amine be Mille, an American Baha'i, tells us that early on the first morning of his stay in Montreal `Abdu'l-Baha began to receive a stream of guests, and that gall day, visitors flowed in and out. . . ." He was able to make each person feel as if somehow he or she was the very individual whom `Abdu'l-Baha had come to Montreal in order to see. (But the number of visitors was so great that after four days he felt his presence had become a problem in the Maxwell house, and he insisted upon moving into a suite at the Windsor Hotel. There even larger audiences continued.) He even found time, we know, to visit a sick child at 715 Pine Avenue, across from the Maxwell house. This was Geraldine Birks, the daughter of the "Jewellery store" Birks. (Seventy-nine years later, Geraldine didn’t remember that it was `Abdu'l-Baha who visited her, but did remember the "Indian guru" whom the Maxwell`s had invited to visit them.)
`Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to Montreal was exceptionally well-covered by the city’s newspapers. Some of the headlines seem quite touching to us today, or - sometimes - quite amusing. One paper described him as the head of a "worldwide "Baha'i" peace cult," for example. He was variously described elsewhere as an "apostle of peace," a "Persian teacher in flowing robes," as a "venerable apostle from [the] Orient," and as a "leader of [a] great universalist movement." The Gazette never used the word "cult" in its coverage of `Abdu'l-Baha`s visit, and in fact made the point that his faith was "not a religious cult, but [an] effort for Good which has grown despite Persian persecution." In a city which in 1912 was not noted for its religious and/or linguistic tolerance, or for its lack of class consciousness, both the English and French-language newspapers seemed to understand that this was a man with serious and important ideas and admirable principles. La Presse mentioned his call for religious unity and universal peace. Most of the papers, including The Star, sombrely note his "prophecy of a world war, and of the inadequacies of both socialism and materialism," and Le Devoir emphasized his idea of the necessity "to establish an international tribune to solve the problems among the civilised people of the world."
To us Baha'is today, it seems thrilling that so much attention was paid to `Abdu'l-Baha and to what he said in a city which, at the time, was known mainly for its material wealth and economic and political power. It may also, however, strike us as quite sod that so little has changed in our country and in our world since he made that brief visit to Canada ninety-two years ago. But I think we have to remember that `Abdu’l-Baha’s frame of reference was never ours. He spoke, of course, for the ages. It is up to us to take note of progress wherever it has been made in our lifetimes, to build upon that progress wherever it may be found, and to keep on working.
We have an obligation to continue to trust that mankind’s progress toward the future which Baha'u'llah prophesized - and which `Abdu'l-Baha taught in Montreal and everywhere - is unstoppable. That is a very, very important part of what it means to be a Baha'i - just not allowing ourselves ever to feel defeated or to be pessimistic any more than `Abdu'l-Baha ever was. We have to act as if we really believe that those nine days which he spent in Montreal are, for Canada, among the most significant in our country’s life, because we still have the opportunity to act upon what he said then and to build a country and a world worthy of his words and Baha’u’llah’s vision. When `Abdu'l-Baha left Montreal, he said, "The time of the sojourn was limited to a number of days, but the results in the future are inexhaustible." That, of course, is still true, and we must never doubt it.