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Baha’i’s Utah beginning: It started with a prophet’s trip
Centennial » 100 years ago, the son of the faith’s founder brought message of peace, equality and unity to Salt Lake.

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Abdu’l-Bahá’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.

At a glance

About the Baha’i faith

The monotheistic faith traces its roots to a Persian nobleman, called Bahá’u’lláh, 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-Bahá 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.

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That didn’t stop Abdu’l-Bahá 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-Bahá 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-Bahá 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 2½ 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-Bahá.

It also could have been the city’s "spiritual atmosphere," Stockman says. "I don’t know whether that is the case."

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Given that there were no Utah Baha’is in 1912, Abdu’l-Bahá’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.



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