Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Preparing for the Centenary of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Visit to Montreal (2012)

“The time of the sojourn was limited to a number of days, but the results in the future are inexhaustible.”

The Visit: Evening of August 30 to Morning of September 9, 1912

September 9, 2007 marked the last day of the 95th anniversary of Abdul-Bahás nine day visit to Montreal, the Canadian leg of a much longer eight month ambassadorial speaking tour throughout the United States. Put in a larger context, Abdul-Bahás three‑year‑long mission to the Western world, in Shoghi Effendis judgement, was the greatest exploit ever to be associated with His ministry.

In September, 2004 the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baháís of Canada requested the Canadian community to begin preparations for a befitting observance of the centennial of the Masters visit. As run-up to the centennial, the NSA also requested that the event be celebrated annually between August 30 and September 9th.

Preparation for the annual remembrance and the upcoming centennial may be achieved in a number of ways that necessarily involve reading, reflection, study, prayer and research. A variety of relevant topics might include the content and nature of Abdul-Bahás public addresses, interactions with the press and public, spiritual conduct, method of teaching, the composition of the Montreal Baháí community in 1912, and His manner of demonstrating interracial, interreligious, intercultural and socially diverse fellowship. Researchers should keep in mind the spontaneous, inspired and natural techniques of the Master Teacher of the Baháí Faith, the one who remains the Ideal Model of every Baháí virtue. As the paradoxical Mystery of God (Sirullah), Bahá’u’lláh’s eldest son, while He was not endowed with prophethood, was nonetheless a perfect human being who possessed supernatural powers and abilities.

Mr. H.M. Balyuzi in Abdul-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant (1971) gives the dates of the visit as August 30-September 8, 1912 while both the National Spiritual Assemblys publication Abdul-Bahá in Canada (1962) and volume one of Mahmuds Diary by Mirzá Mahmúd-i-Zarqání (trans. 1998) give the dates as August 30-September 9, 1912. The discrepancy is explained by the fact that Abdul-Bahás departure, according to Zargání, occurred at 9:00 a.m. on September 9th. Mr. Balyuzi seems to have followed common sense in not counting September 9th as a full day. Even though Abdul-Bahá changed evening trains in Toronto on His way to Buffalo, New York, and walked along the platform of Union Station, the honour of being the only Canadian city that was blessed by a visit from Abdul-Bahá goes to Montreal. He was 68 years old at the time of His arrival in Montreal.

The Pearl of Great Price: Mrs. May Bolles Maxwell

It was no doubt the presence of the Maxwell family, particularly the illustrious May Bolles Maxwell, that drew Him there. In one of the tablets, Abdul-Bahá had described Mrs. Maxwell as a “…pearl, a real Baháí pure in heart and attracted in soul. The second tablet to Canada contains this reference to this luminary of early western Baháí history: One pearl is better than a thousand wildernesses of sand, especially this pearl of great price, which is endowed with divine blessing. Erelong thousands of other pearls will be born from it. When that pearl associates and becomes the intimate of the pebbles, they also all change into pearls. (February 21, 1917, Tablets of the Divine Plan, p. 95). The word pearl was no stranger to Abdul-Bahás vocabulary. Sometimes it served as metonym for the Baháí Faith itself. Its most famous allusion was to Shoghi Effendi. But in the above passage, a more personal relationship is indicated: spiritual intimacy and transformation. In Montreal, May Maxwell was the magnet and catalyst for both. Her role and station in Baháí history are great for she has won all the following distinctions: praise in the Tablets of the Divine Plan ; the spiritual founder of the first Baháí centre in Europe in Paris, France at the bequest of Abdul-Bahá; laying the foundations of the Baháí Faith in the Dominion of Canada; “the priceless honor of a martyr’s death (Shoghi Effendi) at her passing in Buenos Aires (1940).

The Arrival: Under a Full August Moon

In her journal of the Masters stay in Montreal, May Maxwell wrote, in a poetic phrase, that >Abdu=l-Bahá arrived at her home, on the flank of Mount Royal, under the full brightness of a summer moon. He came on the train from Boston and arrived late. The Master was met eagerly at the Windsor train station on Peel Street at 8:00 p.m. by Sutherland Maxwell with two carriages.Abdul-Bahá was accompanied on this occasion by only two members from his retinue: Mahmúd-i-Zarqání, who chronicled the Masters visit to North America and his interpreter, Ahmad Sohrab, who later broke the covenant under Shoghi Effendi.

The Remarkable Press Coverage

The approximately fifteen believers and their friends living in Montreal had well prepared the ground for the Masters arrival. In fact, their advanced preparation may be taken as an example of efficient media and public relations. When Abdul-Bahá arrived at 716 Pine Avenue West (later 1548) on the evening of August 30th, He was met by a group of friends and reporters that included John Lewis, editor of the Montreal Daily Star. It is likely that editor Lewis was a Baháí because in Amine De Milles eye-witness account of the visit, he is included in the list of names of first servants to arise through the teaching of Sutherland and May Maxwell and mentioned among these earliest friends of the Faith in Montreal.

No less than six English and five French language newspapers covered Abdul-Bahás visit. Among others, reporters at The Gazette, the Montreal Daily Star, the Daily Witness and the ministers and members of the Church of the Messiah (Unitarian), and St. James Methodist Cathedral Church--now United--some socialist and labour activists, professors and societal friends of the Maxwells had been given advance notice of the imminent arrival of Abdul-Bahá.

The Montreal Daily Star gave the widest coverage with ten articles and one editorial. The press had typed the persecuted, majestic and venerable figure with such majestic titles as the “the venerable Apostle of Peace,” the “Eastern Sage” and the Oriental Seer.” Despite His best efforts to have the name withdrawn, journalists referred to Abdul-Bahá as the Persian Prophet.” Having learned of ‘Abdul-Bahá’s arrival, Turks and Arabs, in their splendid native dress, came to pay their respects to, adding colour and variety to the uniform group of Anglo-Saxons that attended the meetings at the Maxwell home and in the churches. Assembled in the meetings were Americans, French Canadians, Jews, Arabs, Turks, Persians and, of course, Canadians.

The numerous articles written about Abdul-Bahás visit to Montreal provided the best newspaper coverage of His western tour. He ordered copies to be sent back to the Middle East. It was fortunate that the Montreal Baháís were well connected to the press. They were assisted by three of their own: editor John Lewis and Mr. Archibald Archie Eddington, a Montreal Daily Star reporter, and his wife who played such an active part in securing the most outstanding newspaper publicity of Abdul-Bahás visit to America. Amine De Milles journal includes the Eddingtons among these earliest friends of the Faith in Montreal. Mr. Archie Eddington also took stenographic notes of the oral translations of Abdul-Bahá’s talks. The headline of John Lewiss editorial from the Montreal Daily Star of September 11, 1912 read: War Must Precede Universal Peace. It must have dismayed readers that Abdul-Bahá had predicated the great war that was to come. He was quoted as saying: “A great war in Europe is a certainty before permanent peace can be established. International peace can only be reached by an international agreement entered into by all nations.”.

The considerable publicity and the magnetic, irresistible personality of Abdul-Bahá brought such a flow of inquirers to 716 Pine Avenue West that the Maxwell home could not accommodate them all. Zarqání recorded that Abdul-Bahá, on Monday, September 2nd rented a suite on the 7th floorroom unknown--of the prestigious Windsor Hotel on downtown Peel Street, looking majestically continental on one corner of Dominion Square.

Public Addresses, Informal Talks and Private Interviews

Abdul-Bahá gave eight public addresses and seven informal presentations, totalling fifteen, for which six transcripts are extant. This does not include newspaper articles, private interviews and the Apilgrim=s notes@ recorded in Mahmúds Diary. Three talks were given in the Maxwell home and two in the churches; one public address was enthusiastically received by the Socialists and labour activists of the day. Of these talks, three were given the same day (September 1st), two of them in the Maxwell home; third was delivered in the Unitarian Church of the Messiah. His considerable energies were fully engaged during the entire visit. To have Abdul-Bahá speak at the Church of the Messiah must have been a singularly happy event for architect William Sutherland Maxwell for he designed the Unitarian church which had opened its doors just seven years earlier in 1905.

The presiding minister at the Church of the Messiah, who introduced >Abdu=l-Bahá with eloquence, solemnity and deference, was the Reverend F.R. Griffin. The minister drew the congregations attention to >Abdu=l-Bahá=s complete naturalnessBone reads between the lines, despite his oriental provenance--and the purity of His child-like outlook on life, despite His prolonged and severe incarceration. Reverend Griffin went on to say that although >Abdu=l-Bahá has been A...disciplined by long years in prison, his spirit has never yet been crucified by pain.

These six talks contain some of the great principles and tenets that are familiar to Bahá=ís as their fundamental teachings. The vital necessity for a Christ-taught Arebirth@ and the exemplification of Avirtues divine@ to fulfil the human beings potentially high spiritual station was emphasized in His opening address at the Maxwell home. Other basic teachings are found throughout these talks: the oneness of God the Father, the divine AShepherd@ of the flock of humanity; the necessity to recognize the unity of the human family; the oneness of the prophets and religion; that religion must be a Aremedy@ and not aggravate the disease of disunity; that the prophets are the divine educators, Athe gardeners of humanity@; the unity of the Orient and Occident; that materialist philosophies are hopelessly bankrupt and of no benefit to the human race. (As reported by the Montreal Daily Star, September 3, 1912)

Other basic teachings, once included in fireside talks among Athe twelve principles@ are presented, particularly in His addresses of September 1st at the Unitarian Church of the Messiah and the St. James Methodist Church on September 5th. Proofs for immortality were presented in the second talk at the Maxwell=s during the evening of September 1st. It was during this address that >Abdu=l-Bahá was so transported by His theme that His turban fell to the ground and lay there for an half-hour while He finished the talk. At the St. James Methodist Cathedral Church, >Abdu=l-Bahá was voted thanks by a lay person, Mr. Recorder Weir, who reckoned Him among the Along line of prophets@ that some believed had become extinct. (Despite the Masters distaste for the term “prophet”, it kept reappearing). But such was the impression created by the Centre of the Covenant. One reporter described Him as a serene, majestic figure, calm, commanding, austere and wise.@

Baháí Economics for Socialists, Strikers, Marxists and Labour Leaders

In one sense, the most original talk was Bahá=í Economics delivered to an audience of 500 Socialists, labour leaders, strikers and Marxists, some of whom were members of the Jewish community. The talk took place at Coronation Hall, 204 St. Lawrence Street, now 1074 St. Laurent Boulevard. >Abdu=l-Bahá=s public speaking strategy is noteworthy: the topic was well-suited to the audience. He did not expound abstruse theological or religious themes to this group of practically minded, this-worldly socialists who were concerned with what is called today social justice. He spoke to them on their own terms. But >Abdu=l-Bahá did not refrain from mentioning God and His Holiness Bahá=u=lláh.

>Abdu=l-Bahá outlined the Baháí plan to eliminate the extremes of wealth and poverty, a plan that necessarily excluded “sedition,” i.e. the overthrow of government and the use of armed force. Rather, as >Abdu=l-Bahá expounded it, Bahá=u=lláhs solution provided ..the greatest happiness, welfare and comfort without any harm or injury attacking the general order of things. It was Apractical politics,@ as the Gazette called it, for the equitable distribution of the surplus wealth of a nation. It was based on the primacy of the agricultural class as the foundation of the system, and set out tiered levels of “revenues” or graduated taxation, in both cash and kind, that would fill a general storehouse or community chest for the village and the nation.

The funds from this central bank would ensure that all members of the community would be delivered from hunger and poverty and guaranteed “the utmost welfare and well-being.” The poor, the orphans, the old, the blind, the deaf and the handicapped would all be amply provided for in such a system. In addition to the specifics of graduated taxation and the management of surplus wealth, >Abdu=l-Bahá emphasized the necessity for concerning oneself with the well-being of others, for self-sacrifice and the recognition of the interdependence and solidarity of the human family. Abdul-Bahás innovative, genial presentation, and the noble sentiments it evoked, struck a strongly responsive chord in this largely working-class audience. Both the talk and the question period were punctuated with spontaneous and enthusiastic applause, so intense that the walls of the building seemed to vibrate to the foundation.

A Puzzle: The Healing of Nine Year Old Geraldine Birks

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s historic visit, like all His visits, contains a number of touching anecdotes. The most moving of them was the healing of the nine year old girl who lived in the impressive home across the street at 715 Pine Avenue. Little Geraldine Birks was the grand-daughter of Henry Birks, the merchant who in 1879 founded in downtown Montreal the first of the Birks successful chain of 39 jewellery stores (2007). Her father John Henry Birks (1870-1949) had succeeded his father and had at the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit expanded the business to six stores. It was in the first Birks jewellers that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá purchased a number of rings and watches to distribute as gifts.

However, I agree with Will van den Hoonaard’s endnote comment in The Origins of the Baháí Community in Canada: 1898-1948 that there is something “puzzling” about this story. The puzzle lies in the strange lack of coherence between May Maxwell’s written account, which devotes roughly a quarter of its content to the healing, and the recollections of Geraldine Birks herself when asked about it some 79 years later in 1991.

May Maxwell describes Geraldine as a “sick child.” Both the young girl and her mother, Annie MacNeill Birks, are referred to as “invalid”; hereditary transmission probably figured into Geraldine’s illness. According to Mrs. Maxwell’s account, the mother entreated ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to come and visit them because they were unable to do so; when the Master offered to heal the child, “the reply was an ardent appeal.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s instruction to the parents countermanded the doctor’s orders. He urged the parents to allow Geraldine to go out of doors in the middle of the day. Nine months later, according to May’s account, in the early springtime, “this beautiful child came out of her prison house and walked upon the ground, gradually becoming perfectly healthy, strong and well.“ However, when interviewed about the healing at the age of 88 years, Geraldine Birks could not recall the incident. Surprisingly, she did not remember ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit at all, although she did recollect being “sick”--not invalid. She did recall her family saying that Mrs. Maxwell “had invited a guru from India” to visit.

What can one make of this discrepancy? We cannot know with certainty, but the simplest explanation would be that Geraldine simply suffered from the defective memory that sometimes affects the elderly. However, another clue may be taken from the filmed interview of ‘Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhíyyíh Khanúm. When asked about this incident--and this is my impression recalled from having seen the film years ago--Ruhíyyíh Khanúm expressed disappointment that her cousin did not seem to appreciate the significance of either the greatness of her visitor or the divine healing that had been bestowed upon her.


Will C. van den Hoonaard, The Origins of the Baháí Community in Canada: 1898-1948 (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996)

Mírzá Mahmúd-i-Zarqání, Mahmúd’s Diary, translated by Mohi Sobhani (George Ronald Publisher, 1998)

H.M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh (George Ronald Publisher, 1971)

National Spiritual Assembly of the Baháís of Canada, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Canada (The Forest Free Press, 1962)


Gerald Fernandez-Mayfield said...

You have a replaced many apostrophes with =s.

Robin Edgar said...

It should be noted that the Church of the Messiah is more commonly known as the Unitarian Church of Montreal. In fact Montreal Unitarians recently voted to change their legal name to the Unitarian Church of Montreal. This in spite of the fact that Rev. Ray Drennan, the former fundamentalist atheist "Humanist" minister of the Unitrian Church of Montreal, is on record as declaring that it is "false advertising" to call the Unitarian Church of Montreal a "church". . . He was, and still is, quite correct.

Montreal Unitarians are outright fraudulent in calling their social club a "church" when many if not most of the members are atheists, and some of these U*U atheists are even intolerant and abusive anti-religious bigots. Not the least of them being Rev. Ray Drennan himself who preached Sunday sermons declaring that God is a "non-existent being" and that believe in God "seems primitive". Rev. Ray Drennan is also on public record as declaring that most religious rituals of any and all world religions (excluding Unitarian*Universalism aka U*Uism of course) are "meaningless."

When Abdu'l-Baha visited Montreal about a century ago it may have been legitimate for the Unitarian Church of Montreal to call itself a "church" and even "the Church of the Messiah" but that is no lomger the case. The so-called Unitarian Church of Montreal is now better described as a "Church of Fraud" than a bona fide Church of God and it has been spitting in God's eye for well
over a decade now.

J.A. McLean said...


It is, of course, true that Unitarian churches today are of non-theistic character, but not exclusively. Atheism or agnosticism is not a requirement of membership. A lot of people are drawn to the UC because of their social justice involvement. The theistic or non-theistic orientation of a particular UC would be determined by the minister and the congregation.

In the Unitarian church in Ottawa where I live, the congregation is roughly 50% theist and 50% non-theist. Recently, one of my friends left the Unitarian church because, as a former Catholic, she did not find God present.

As was pointed out by Robin Edgar, during 'Abdu'l-Baha's visit to Montreal in 1912, the Unitarian Church of the Messiah would still have been a (theistic) church in the original sense of the word, i.e. a community that believes in God.

But since roughly 1890, Unitarians began admitting non-theists to their congregations and since then some authorities say that atheists and agnostics outnumber theists.

Unitarianism began originally as a rejection of trinitarianism, a fundamental belief of most Christian churches. Other fundamental beliefs have since been jettisoned, including the divinity of Christ--he is viewed simply as a great moral teacher and for some Unitarians, a prophet. The divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible are also rejected, as are the virgin birth. This latter doctrine is not to be confused with the immaculate conception which refers to the Roman Catholic belief in the essential sinlessness of Mary.

Peter Terry said...

Dear Jack,

It is wonderful that you engage in dialogue with those who comment on your blog! I named one of my blogs bahai-dialogue hoping for a free flowing exchange of ideas, which haven't yet materialized, but for everything there is a time.

Has anyone collected all of the textual sources for 'Abdu'l-Baha's visit into one volume? You cite multiple newspaper articles in multiple newspapers, in French and English, Zarqani's notes, notes made of some of His talks...have all of these sources been assembled and published as a collection?

Also, has anyone worked on providing the historical context for this visit? Current events of the day, analysis of the culture and economy and politics and religious beliefs of the residents of Montreal in 1912? Photographs of the city and its inhabitants during that year?

Thank you for bringing up this topic and reporting on the web that the NSA of Canada has called for the annual commemoration of this visit. I had no idea that this was in the works until you reported it in your blog. Next year in Montreal!

Jack said...

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your interesting suggestions about possible future publications on the Master's visit to Canada, especially in light of the upcoming centenary in 2012. To answer your question--no, not all of the historical and scriptural sources regarding 'Abdu'l-Baha's visit to Montreal have been collected under one cover. But sociologist and professor emeritus, Will van den Hoonaard, gets the credit for doing in-depth research into the newspaper articles, published talks, Max Maxwell's journal, etc. pertaining to the visit. His findings are published in The Origins of the Baha'i Community of Canada: 1898-1948. But undoubtedly the archives would benefit from another look and possible revision of current materials. So, I agree, there is a book-in-waiting. The NSA of Canada's 'Abdu'l-Baha in Canada (1962) published photocopies of some of the newspaper articles with their contents. That publication also included excerpts from May Maxwell's journal account which recorded the healing of nine year old Geraldine Birks.


John Taylor said...


Congrats on a great blog!

One comment on what you said here:

"The discrepancy is explained by the fact that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s departure, according to Zargání, occurred at 9:00 a.m. on September 9th."

There is an endnote in the latest edition of Mahmud's diary that explains this. It seems that he got his dating out of whack by one day in the spring and did not correct it until October or so. For that reason, we are to take the dates given in Promulgation as accurate.

Anne Perry said...

Jack, I am thrilled to see your blog, especially because it focuses on the Canadian part of Abdu'l-Baha's travels. Did you know that I have a blog following each day of the journey? See I will list your blog as a resource there. Also, we are working on a film and hope to come to Montreal to shoot some footage! An informal blog about the film is at We've just named our film "Luminous Journey" and are almost finished with a trailer for it. I'll be going to ABS--will you?

Peter mentioned the context of the journey of Abdu'l-Baha--there is so much to discover and ponder. So many of us can offer facets of it--the territory is immense. Write on!

Jack McLean said...

Dear Anne,

I am delighted to hear from you! How sophisticated you are in the digital world, with your picture and all! This Luddite can't even get my picture up on Facebook. My blog is not really a blog--I suppose. A friend told me it should not be essays and I haven't really kept it up. I trust you and yours are well. BTW, watch for my forthcoming book which I began in 1997 and finished in 2006. BPT of India. It's called A Celestial Burning: A Selective Study of the Writings of Shoghi Effendi. It's about 500 pages of a combined literary critical and theological study of the Guardian's writings. If you can't sleep some night, just pick it up and it will make a wonderful sleep aid!

Yes, I am signed up for your daily blog on 'Abdu'l-Baha's journeys in America. Wonderful idea and so timely. Many congrats! Warmest, Jack

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