Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Hearst Pilgrimage

As you may be able to guess, I'm reading a new book right now. And wow, is it amazing. It is called Lighting the Western Sky, The Hearst Pilgrimage and the Establishment of the Baha'i Faith in the West.

It's wonderful. Not only does it tell the story of that first encounter the West had with the venerable figure of 'Abdu'l-Baha, it spends ample time placing the story within a historical context.

Although I have read virtually everything I can get my hands on regarding the early development of the Faith, this book is adding much more detail to a lot of the stories I already knew. And besides, it reads like a great novel. It's not dry at all.

Nor is it overly academic.

In this book, there are a number of things that I have suspected for some time which are rather confirming for me, and a number of other things that I now see in a clearer light.

To show what I mean, I would like to look briefly at two very different people, and see just a single thing we can learn from each of them.

The first is Ibrahim Khayrullah. Just in case you are not familiar with his name, he was the second Baha'i to step foot in North America, Anton Haddad being the first. But Khayrullah has the distinction of having very successfully brought most of the early believers in the West into the Faith. Reading the list of names of people who were enrolled in his classes is like reading a who's who of the early Baha'is of North America.

One thing that I had long thought is that, despite his egotism, Khayrullah must have been quite brilliant in his own way. He had been sponsored by some of the Baha'is in Egypt, presumably one of the earliest instances of deputization, to head over to the United States, along with Haddad.

Unfortunately Khayrullah began his career of teaching the Baha'i Faith with a lie. He said that he had met both Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha, neither of which was true. In fact, he would not meet the Master until a few years later, on that Pilgrimage described in the book.

He was also quite enamoured with the Masons, and so was very much taken with the idea of secret teachings. This also fit in well with the caution that was used to teach the Faith in the Middle East. Of course, no such caution was needed in the West, but it is understandable that he kept up this habit.

But here I think there may have been a divine wisdom in it. This secrecy that he used at the time was very appealing. Not only did he succeed in capturing the people's attention, their desire to "figure out" the secret kept their interest.

And yet, as you can no doubt imagine, there were many drawbacks to this, too.

The major one is that no one that he taught was allowed to teach anyone else without first getting it okayed by him. This seems to have been his way of keeping himself in the very centre of things. Not a good place to have tried to be.

Now I have to wonder what it is that we can learn from this (besides steadfastness in the Covenant, of course). One thing that I think is useful to note is that he really studied his audience. He got to know how to best approach the Americans, and then devised a series of lectures that would appeal to their interests. He knew the American mentality quite well, and was able to use that to his great advantage in devising his courses.

Fortunately for us, today, we have the Ruhi books, so we don't have a lot to worry about there.

So, he knew whom he was teaching. But he kept himself at the centre. This proved to be his downfall when he was unable to properly put 'Abdu'l-Baha in the centre.

That is the lesson I take away from this. Keep the Central Figures in the centre. As a teacher of the Faith, we really need to ensure that we are kept out of the way, so to speak. I mean, of course the friendship is there, and we dearly love those with whom we are sharing the Writings, but it is always Baha'u'llah at the centre of whatever we do.

The second person was a young lady who was in poor health. For some unknown reason, when she was 20 years old, she suddenly found her health broken, and this seemed to crush her. Going from being a very energetic young lady, with a keen mind and a beautiful spirit, to one who was almost always bedridden drove her to depression. Even the slightest physical exertion wore her out.

Her mother sought help from many physicians, all to no avail. No one could figure out how to help.

When Edward and Lua Getsinger went to Paris on their way to Haifa, this young woman, her mother and brother were all staying in Phoebe Hearst's apartment. Naturally, her mother asked Edward to see her, as he was reputed to be a fine physician. After just a few moments, he returned, saying that there was nothing he could do. It was her spirit, not her body, that needed help. And so he sent in his wife, Lua. He knew who could best help her, even though he, too, knew as much about the Faith as she did.

Now, this young woman had always been deeply attracted to religion. When she was 11 years old, she had a dream in which she saw a light so bright that she was physically blind for an entire day. Later, she had another dream in which some angels took her flying. She realized that she was able to see the planet from above, and there, spread throughout the world, she saw banners flying everywhere. On each of these banners was a single word. When she awoke, all she could remember was that this word began with the letter B, and had an H in the middle.

When she met with Lua, she was told about the Baha'i Faith in only a few moments. She sat straight up in bed, and exclaimed, "I believe. I believe." And then she promptly fainted.

This was how May Maxwell became a Baha'i.

What can we learn from this? Well, I don't know about anyone else, but it is a reminder to me that we never know who has been made ready to hear about this Faith. Lua would have had no way of knowing that all this had happened in this woman's life. But she mentioned the Faith, and in that moment, one of the greatest Baha'is declared.

It doesn't have to take years, or even months, if the person is ready. Sometimes even days are too long. For May, it took only a few moments.


  1. Brilliant two points.
    I hope you share them with the friends as widely as you can... in this centenary year.

  2. Is there much about Phoebe Hearst in the book? I am doing some research on her for the centenary. Do you have any suggestions for reading? I appear as "Anonymous" because I don't know how else to make this comment appear!

  3. Hi Peggy! There is quite a bit about her in this book, but I would actually suggest starting with wikipedia. There is so much info about her, the real question is what aspect of her life do you want to know more about?