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The Centenary

The Master’s Visit to London

 The City of London in the decade following the visits of 'Abdu'l-Bahá to the United Kingdom in 1911 and 1912-13.

The opening years of the twentieth century witnessed Europe’s entry into a tunnel of crises—crises sufficiently powerful to affect its political role and the leadership that had determined the lot of vast populations, change its moral values, breach the unity of its nations, increase the number of conflicting minorities within its borders, and confirm the shift in its religious loyalties to a belief in the ultimate power of science and money to solve the emerging problems and fill the void created by the collapse of trust in religion, crises that delivered the European population hostage to materialism and sensationalism, and finally led them into a series of wars and a destruction without parallel in world history.

This is a very rough model describing the negative legacy inherited from the Industrial Revolution. Without denying the remarkable benefits this revolution gave the world, it is only fair to recognize the confinement of its changes to a mainly material frame. Without the counterbalance of spiritual values and humanitarian principles, it led to a grave imbalance in modern civilization, namely a new inequality within the industrialized nations and between them and the helpless populations of their colonies. This impeded the adequate reconstruction of the world on the basis of new values, and made inevitable a certain degree of confusion and extremism.

It is also fair to say that opportunities were lost that might have avoided some of the catastrophies, this because the leaders of the world at the time did not heed the voice of wisdom that warned of subsequent upheavals unless some moderating measures were urgently envisaged.

It may be in order to recall some examples of the manifest signs of those crises. From these may be drawn an approximate picture of the conditions in Europe at the time of the Master’s visit:

From the very early years of the twentieth century, Europe was actively engaged in an armaments race in preparation for a possible war in face of German and Russian challenges to the French and British domination of the international markets and the latter‘s control of the open seas, both of which practically closed the overseas markets to German industry. In addition, the French and British intervention on Turkey’s side half a century earlier in the Crimean war had deprived Russia from obtaining a warm water port. As a result of these compounded, growing tensions, France and Britain were already taking the unusual steps of harmonizing their military plans as the risk of the possible war increased.

In the arena of national politics, constitutional governments were rapidly replacing absolute monarchies, and reached even the most despotic of kings: the Sultan of Turkey ’Abdul-Hamid II (1909) and the Persian monarch Ahmad Mirza (1908). Cunning and talented politicians were, however, able to transform the hopes of their peoples into a mirage, and thus avoid substantial change. Most of the new systems thus successfully retained the grasp of power in the hands of the old governing classes, allowing the return of a privileged elite and a continuance of corruption.

At the time, Europe had drawn a clear line separating religious institutions and beliefs from public life and politics in general. This was in contrast to the countries of the East, where movements arose that called for the greater involvement of the dominant religion in public life. Europe was not without its own extreme tendencies—in the arts and literature. Literary and artistic movements appeared promoting extreme nationalism and militarism, among which the “futurist” movement announced by the Italian poet and writer Marinetti is an important example. Such campaigns promulgated the creation of new concepts of beauty inspired by the dynamic character of the twentieth century brought about, they believed, by the speed of machines. Little did they know their ideas were nourishing the roots of Italian Fascism and would later influence Nazism.

In social life, the challenges to traditional beliefs raised by the socialist ideology led to the active participation of civil society in social reforms to fill the vacuum created by the restrictions brought to the activities of religious institutions as a result of the losses they suffered in financial and human resources. This in fact brought to the fore a collective social consciousness that the society as a whole is responsible for the welfare and dignity of its members. Nevertheless, government resources could not meet the cost of all demands, nor did industry want to pay the price. The gap between social consciousness and actual government means added to the existing social tensions, which have not stopped augmenting.

Marconi‘s successful transatlantic wireless transmission from western England to Saint John‘s in eastern Canada in 1901 marked a new age in wireless telegraphy that paved the way for the instant circulation of news around the world, and was an important factor in widening the exchange of ideas and bringing different cultures a step closer to each other. The effects, whether good or bad, depended on the maturity and the degree of education of different populations.

The ideas of Sigmund Freud brought new understanding to mental and physical health, the unconscious and dreams, but their impact was felt above all in social relations and the social structure. In addition, they extracted the discussion of the soul, spirit and mind from philosophy and placed it in the domain of science. Besides their contribution to the field of medicine, they caused shock waves among many, especially those working to improve society, because of the denial of the role of religion in the formation of the personality of the individual, as a source of his behavioural education and as means for his empowerment to control his instincts. Those opposed to the existent rigidity in the religion of the time felt this abandonment of religion, even in individual life, would be a release from the source of the guilt and inner struggles preventing people’s development and the full use of their natural capacities and creativity. While Freud’s ideas evolved following their introduction in the early years of the twentieth century, they had in that time already without a doubt stirred up much controversy.

These conditions together were enough to throw Europeans into a trouble- and anxiety-filled ocean—under the pressure of an armaments race and preparations for war; competition between the industrialized nations over foreign markets; struggles within all nations between the various classes—the poor and the rich, and the workers and the industrialists and the investors; rebellions among colonized peoples because of the injustice of colonization; increasing tensions between governors and governed because of their different interpretations and application of constitutional provisions; open conflicts between those calling for the abandonment of religion in both the public and private life and those still cleaving to it; and, most salient, the manifest regression of the power of religious institutions and the fast-winging progress of secular and socialist thinking and the new scientific theories.

These symptoms were already sufficient to indicate that challenging years were on their way when ’Abdu‘l-Bahá visited Europe in 1911. As soon as He arrived in London on the 4th of September, the news spread throughout the city, and soon waves of curious and longing visitors began their pilgrimages to His residence, eager to listen to His views, be comforted by His love, and extend invitations to Him to speak, meet dignatories and workers, and come to their homes and places of worship. “[T]hey came from every country in the world! Every day, all day long, a constant stream. An interminable procession,” wrote His host.1