On Sept. 29, 1912, Salt Lakers were astonished to see a Persian man in flowing gray robes, a full beard and a white fez strolling down city streets, followed by three devoted attendants.
The broad-browed religious leader stopped first at the Hotel Utah, but finding it too expensive, continued on to seek more affordable lodging a few blocks down Main Street.
The man was Abdu'l-BahÃ¡ and had come to America to spread the good news of the Baha'i faith the possibility of world peace, universal suffrage, equal rights and the elimination of poverty across the then-largely Christian and immigrant nation.
For 239 days, Abdu'l-BahÃ¡, son of the faith's founder, BahÃ¡'u'llÃ¡h, crisscrossed this country and Canada, visiting 50 cities, giving 140 addresses, reaching nearly 100,000 people. He laid the cornerstone of the future Baha'i House of Worship in Chicago. He endorsed the marriage of two Baha'is, one white and one black. He spelled out the "The Tablets of the Divine Plan," which became the faith's blueprint for global expansion.
The American visit of such a charismatic figure was symbolically important and historically crucial for a faith born a world away. And it is being celebrated this year by the country's Baha'is, including those in Utah.
Today, the Beehive State is home to about 750 Baha'is, including Iranian transplants, homegrown believers and local converts. They meet in nearly a dozen congregations, known as "local spiritual assemblies, or in 30 "registered groups," which have fewer than nine members older than 21.
They will celebrate the centennial of their leader's historic Utah visit next week with a public address Thursday by Robert H. Stockman, author of Abdu'l-BahÃ¡ in America, and by a private dinner.
The Baha'i movement was born in 1844, the same year Mormon founder Joseph Smith was killed. And it shares with that Utah-based faith a break with tradition and a history of persecution.
Prophetic beginnings • The Baha'i movement began when a Persian merchant declared that a new messenger from God was on his way and that people should be on the watch for him. That man became known as "the Bab," which means "gateway' in Arabic. He is considered a kind of Baha'i version of Christianity's John the Baptist.
The Bab's teachings were considered heretical by the government at the time. He was imprisoned and eventually executed. As many as 20,000 of the Bab's followers were massacred by Iranian authorities or by mobs.
Then, in 1863, Mirza Husayn Ali, an Iranian nobleman from Tehran, declared that he was the awaited messenger, the latest in a long line that included Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. He became known as BahÃ¡'u'llÃ¡h, which means "Glory of God" and his chief message was one of spiritual unity.
There is one God, Baha'is believe, but all religions have truth. Baha'i Houses of Worship have nine sides and nine doors to symbolize the many paths to God, who they say is continuously being revealed to humanity.
Baha'is preach equality of the sexes, the elimination of extreme poverty and wealth, universal education, the harmony of science and religion, a sustainable balance between nature and technology, and the establishment of a world federation system based on collective security and the oneness of humanity.
BahÃ¡'u'llÃ¡h, too, was imprisoned by the Ottomans in a penal colony near what is now Haifa, Israel, which is the central headquarters of the faith. He produced the faith's Sacred Scripture, which laid out the faith's tenets, answers to theological questions and laws and institutions.
In his will, BahÃ¡'u'llÃ¡h named his son, Abdu'l-BahÃ¡, as his successor.
When the son took over at BahÃ¡'u'llÃ¡h's death in 1892, the son continued to be imprisoned for nearly 20 more years.
Throughout that time, however, the Baha'i leader carried on a lively and extensive correspondence with his growing flock in the United States.
A cross-cultural journey • By 1900, there were about 2,000 Baha'is living in this country, mostly in coastal cities. They wanted to know what Abdu'l-BahÃ¡ thought on an array of spiritual questions. They wanted him to pray for them. They wanted to be showered with his wisdom.
They were thus thrilled to meet him in person on their own shores in 1912.
Abdu'l-BahÃ¡'s main message, says Stockman, who teaches religious studies at Chicago's DePaul University, was that "humanity is one organism, one race, and that we need to learn to treat each other as members of the same human family."
Though many Americans thought they already had embraced that message, it did not show in the country, where blacks had few rights, interracial marriages were forbidden, women could not vote and religions were divided among social and theological lines.
That didn't stop Abdu'l-BahÃ¡ from speaking out about such issues in every speech he gave. He said it was America's destiny to fulfill these aspirations, a prophecy that attracted large crowds in nearly every city he visited.
Newspaper reporters dubbed him "the Prophet of Peace, the Apostle of Universal Peace and Brotherhood, the Persian Prophet, and the new St. John the Baptist," according to an essay by Glenford E. Mitchell on the faith's website.
Abdu'l-BahÃ¡ hobnobbed with "prominent Americans like Alexander Graham Bell, Admiral Perry, Jane Addams, W.E.B. DuBois, Kahlil Gibran and Phoebe Hearst" as well as ordinary workers and citizens.
After arriving in New York on April 11, Abdu'l-BahÃ¡ made his way up and down the coast and then across the country.
He had no reason to stop in Utah on his way to San Francisco, Stockman says in a phone interview, other than to change trains.
Still, the Baha'i leader spent 2Â½ days in the Mormon heartland, visiting the Utah State Fair where he bought seeds to bring back to Haifa and dropping in on the National Irrigation Congress, which was being held in the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square.
Water is always a crucial issue to those who live in arid climates, Stockman says, so it might have been the Congress that attracted Abdu'l-BahÃ¡.
It also could have been the city's "spiritual atmosphere," Stockman says. "I don't know whether that is the case."
Given that there were no Utah Baha'is in 1912, Abdu'l-BahÃ¡'s visit did not have much impact on the state (though it was reported in The Salt Lake Tribune). Still, it did profoundly affect the Bahai's living elsewhere.
"They came to understand the teachings of their faith far more deeply than they had before," Stockman says. "And they responded by building up their Baha'i communities on these principles."
Utahn Marva Davis is among them. A former Mormon, Davis has been a Baha'i since 1979.
She was attracted, she says, by the faith's teachings about equality and justice ideas professed eloquently by a white-haired sage some 100 years ago.
About the Baha'i faith
The monotheistic faith traces its roots to a Persian nobleman, called BahÃ¡'u'llÃ¡h, who in the mid-1800s taught that all religions represent progressive stages in the revelation of God's will, leading to the unity of all people and faiths, according to The Associated Press. Followers believe in the possibility of world peace, universal suffrage, equal rights and the elimination of poverty. The religion has no clergy and is headquartered in Haifa, Israel. Spiritual assemblies, made up of at least nine members over age 21, meet weekly for devotions, during which they read and recite prayers, reflect on sacred writings and meditate. In March, they fast from sunrise to sunset for 19 days, ending on the Baha'i New Year, March 21.
Baha'i by the numbers
• About 5 million adherents worldwide.
• More than 170,000 in the U.S.
• About 750 Baha'is live in Utah.
• A million followers in India, the most of any nation.
• About 300,000 adherents in Iran, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in that country.
• Seven Baha'i Houses of Worship in Australia, Germany, India, Panama, Samoa, Uganda and the United States. The eighth will be in Chile.
Sources: Baha'i World News Service and Salt Lake City Spiritual Assembly
About Thursday's lecture
Robert H. Stockman will discuss his book, Abdu'l-BahÃ¡ in America, on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Salt Lake City's Main Library, 210 E. 400 South. The lecture is free and open to the public.