Abdu’l-Bahá - in Montreal

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Visit to Canada

An Address By Hugh Church (2852 words)

In 1912, Montreal was—by any measure—the most important city in the adolescent Dominion of Canada and its wealthy English-speaking population occupied the peak of Canadian "high society." They lived in the so-called Square Mile, the district west of downtown and between Sherbrooke Street and "the Mountain." Their homes were mock Highland castles, palatial neo-Georgian houses, faux Tuscan villas and massive brownstone mansions. They took their social cues from London.  They took tea, rode to the hounds with the Montreal Hunt and gave palatial dinner parties. They were merchant princes (like the Birks and the Ogilvies) or captains of industry and commerce, such as the Molsons, Lord Strathcona, the Holts, Sir Mortimer Davis, Lord Shaughnessy, the Van Homes and Lord Atholstan.  These plutocrats lived in a neighbourhood which the Canadian humourist, Stephen Leacock (who was himself a Square Miler) called "Plutoria-under-the-Elms."

And on Pine Avenue, at the top of the Square Mile and right across the street from the Birks, lived a very successful architect and his lovely wife May.  Mr. and Mrs. William Sutherland Maxwell, and their beautiful and adored two-year-old daughter, Mary.  The Maxwells, who in their dress and in their residence and in their manner of living so closely resembled their wealthy neighbours, were unusual in several significant ways.  One was that they both were followers of a new, "not-very-well-known religion, which in those days was often known as Baháism."  And on the Labour Day weekend of that year they were about to receive a very honoured, even august, visitor for whom they had entirely redecorated their home.  This was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the man whom Bahá’ís recognise as the most recent of God`s manifestations to man, and the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith.

In 1912 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was 68 years old, and His was a “commanding presence," we are told.  Time and again we read that people coming into His presence for the first time left describing feelings of awe at the meeting.  But at the same time He seemed "intensely approachable."  He had, after all, approved an advertisement in The Montreal Star which gave the Maxwell`s telephone number (Uptown 3015) and urged "any Montrealers who want to make an appointment with Him" to do so.  He had a ready sense of humour.  He was not an ascetic.  During part of His stay in Montreal, for example, He put up at the Windsor Hotel—then the most expensive and luxurious in town.  He always sought to avoid religious argument, but was uncompromising on His principles.

Later on in His travels in North America, He insisted that Louis Gregory, a black Bahá’í, be seated next to him at a dinner in the then rigidly-segregated city of Washington, DC.  He always wore the clothes He was most comfortable—in those of a Persian gentleman of the nineteenth century—and in a day of waxed moustaches wore an unfashionable beard.  He enjoyed music.  He loved children.  He did not speak English or any other European language, and therefore always spoke through an interpreter who accompanied him everywhere.  One can only imagine the impression He must have made on passers-by or on members of His various audiences in Montreal in 1912.  (In fact, Mrs. Maxwell noted with what must have been some amusement that the upstairs curtains of all her neighbours' homes were parted as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived on Pine Avenue in the evening of August 30th so that the neighbours could glimpse the white-robed "Persian prophet.")

This brief visit was to accomplish exactly what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had hoped.  It gave the few scattered individuals in Canada who called themselves Bahá’ís “an awareness of themselves as a community," and gave them as well a better understanding of the Faith. (At that time, we must remember, most Bahá’ís in Canada had no Bahá’í writings or scripture to read for themselves, and often didn’t even know any other Bahá’ís.  Their beliefs, therefore, were often an amalgam of turn-of-the-century liberal thought, "universalism," and socialism, and many identified their barely-understood religion with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá rather than with Bahá’u’lláh.  It was said that these Bahá’ís were better described as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ís.)  His visit attracted a lot of attention, particularly in Montreal, where more than 2,500 people heard him over nine days and where all the newspapers in English and French reported extensively on His visit and His views.  There were seven informal and eight public meetings, including an address to 500 socialists at Coronation Hall on the topic of “Economic Happiness."  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá met eminent people throughout Canada and elsewhere—religious and political leaders, professors, scientists, etc.  In Montreal these included the Roman Catholic archbishop Bruchesi, and Mr. William Paterson, the principal of McGill University.  Invariably their subsequent attitudes toward the Bahá’í Faith were positive.

Finally, everything that He said—both in private homes, in churches and in other great meetings in Montreal and elsewhere—was added to and became an important part of the corpus of Bahá’í writings.  In Montreal there were two addresses which became almost universally known among Bahá’ís—His addresses on "The Oneness of Religion" at the Unitarian Church of the Messiah (a building, incidentally, designed by His host, William Sutherland Maxwell,) and on "Bahá’í Principles for the Happiness of the Human Race" at St James Church, the so-called "Cathedral of Methodism" on St-Catharine Street.

Before turning to those two talks, though, I'd like first to deal with an aspect of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to Montreal which became a very minor footnote in Canadian literature, and which, as Stephen Leacock`s biographer wrote many years later, for a while "... must have given hurt ... to a small number of Bahá’ís."  It interests me as a former literature teacher rather than as a Bahá’í.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá`s visit had not escaped the notice of Leacock, who two years later published a satirical short story in his famous anthology Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich. The story to which I refer is one called "The Yahi-Bahi Society of Mrs Resselyer-Brown." Certainly Leacock was a neighbour of the Maxwells, but it is clear from the story that he did not know and did not trouble himself to learn anything either about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—Who figures in his story as Mr. Yahi Bahi—or about the Bahá’í Faith - which he calls Boohooism. Yahi Bahi spouts an unsettling mishmash of Hindu, Buddhist, ancient Egyptian and Islamic terms, but he seems to have absolutely no religious or ethical principles to impart and is in fact, a scam artist and a thief. It must be remembered that at the time there were a lot of very well-known and very fashionable religious and occult "gurus" about—such as Annie Besant and Theosophy, for example—who were more-or-less the "pets" of society ladies with too much time on their hands and of self-described intellectuals. Leacock and others often scoffed at them and their followers. I don’t think that present-day Bahá’ís need be offended by this parody because it is so obviously wide of the mark. There is simply nothing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá or of the Bahá’í Faith in it. (And we all must remember that Leacock could be savagely funny in his comments about Anglican priests and Presbyterians as well.)

So let me now turn to matters of greater "gravitas" and of much greater significance.

In the pulpit of the imposing Church of the Messiah, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá essentially offered His audience a summary of the basic tenets of the Bahá’í Faith, without announcing that this was what He was about to do. Therefore this address can in no way be construed as an attempt at proselytizing, something which as the Guardian of the Faith He never did, and which Bahá’ís today are warned against doing as well. Nothing of what He said would surprise Bahá’ís today, and ninety-two years ago ‘Abdu’l-Bahá apparently understood that in a Unitarian church He was unlikely to be misunderstood or to startle anyone either.

The church’s minister, the Rev. F R Griffin, in fact said in introducing ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that "The strangest part of all about him is that nothing is strange." This is, of course, a reaction that Bahá’ís often encounter when they have the opportunity to explain their Faith to non-Bahá’í friends and acquaintances. The Montreal Gazette reported that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His opening sentences said. "God the Almighty has created all humanity from earth, from the same element."

The paper went on to note that the visitor spoke of His father, Bahá’u’lláh, having proclaimed that "religion must be the means of love and fellowship. If ‘religion’ is the cause of hatred it has no meaning: it is not religion but irreligion…."

The audience might have been intrigued when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá argued for a universal language to "help the cause of international peace and goodwill," as this certainly would have been a somewhat novel idea in 1912. In fact, unfortunately, it still is. The Gazette said that "both in matter and in style" the message was "unique ..." On the other hand, The Montreal Daily Witness, a Socialist paper, carried an article by a local clergyman expounding the view that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s "oriental doctrines are not new," in what was obviously intended as a criticism of the Bahá’í speaker’s ideas.

Present-day Bahá’ís should probably be able to see the point of both descriptions, since we see our Faith as both "unique" or "new" and as "not new" at one and the same time. To us this is not only not contradictory but is the only logical way of regarding the history of the spiritual development of all of mankind. Our only quibble would probably be with the use of the adjective "oriental" since we and I believe most of the world’s people today agree with us Bahá’ís about this - see nothing either "oriental" or "occidental" in the principles which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke of in the pulpit of the Church of the Messiah and everywhere else throughout His life.

At St James Church, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continued His exposition of His Father’s religious teachings. Here The Gazette mentioned His call for the "independent investigation" of religious truth, and His contention that it is the lack of such independent investigation that leads to rancour and dissension. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke of the necessity of education, and the folly of racial and patriotic strife. As He had at other venues, He expressed His fear of the arms race in which all the European nations were then engaged, and which would make the soon-to-come Great War such a catastrophe for all those nations and for the rest of the world. He said, "Europe is a storehouse of explosives awaiting a spark. All the European nations are on edge, and a single flame will set on fire the whole of that continent."

Today we can only regard His words as prescient. His remedy was the establishment of an international tribunal to settle international disputes. At the end of His address, the Recorder of St James, Mr. Weir, paid ‘Abdu’l-Bahá the high compliment of saying that “while some people believed the race of prophets had become extinct, . . . it was a pleasure to listen to one who was in the lofty succession of the long line of prophets." Even more moving, perhaps, was an editorial the next day in the usually very sober-sided Gazette, part of which said:

"‘Abdu’l-Bahá has preached universal peace for fifty years. . . In a word, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the great protagonist of Peace in the world today. To bring about its accomplishment is the practical corollary of the two tenets which are the foundation of his creed - the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. For forty years he was persecuted for preaching it, for twenty years imprisoned."

It is, of course, not only ironic but tragic - in every sense of that word - that just two years later The Gazette’s pages would be filled with accounts of terrible battles, of warplanes, of gas attacks, and - worst of all - with lists of hundreds of names of the young Montrealers and Quebeckers killed or maimed in what now seems to many an entirely inexplicable and pointless war.

It is clear from everything that we know about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that He never wasted time. In fact, He seems to have been the kind of person who maintains such a constant and rigorous schedule, such an unchanging and unrelenting momentum, that He appears to the casual observer not to be busy at all - rather like the Queen when she is "on tour." May Maxwell described her guest as `serene" and "calm," but during the nine days that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá remained in Montreal, He seems either to have been preparing to speak or speaking, giving interviews, receiving guests, or paying calls upon people whom He felt would understand and should hear His message. While "resting" at the Maxwell residence, He spoke to small groups of guests on such subjects as “Immortality” and “The Nature of Man."

When He ran out of time answering questions after His public addresses, He invited people to come to him to continue their discussions. Amine de Mille, an American Bahá’í, tells us that early on the first morning of His stay in Montreal ‘Abdu’l-Bahá began to receive a stream of guests, and that all day, visitors flowed in and out. . . .  " He was able to make each person feel as if somehow he or she was the very individual whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had come to Montreal in order to see.” (But the number of visitors was so great that after four days He felt His presence had become a problem in the Maxwell house, and He insisted upon moving into a suite at the Windsor Hotel. There even larger audiences continued.) He even found time, we know, to visit a sick child at 715 Pine Avenue, across from the Maxwell house. This was Geraldine Birks, the daughter of the "Jewellery store" Birks. (Seventy-nine years later, Geraldine didn’t remember that it was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá who visited her, but did remember the "Indian guru" whom the Maxwell`s had invited to visit them.)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to Montreal was exceptionally well-covered by the city’s newspapers. Some of the headlines seem quite touching to us today, or - sometimes - quite amusing. One paper described Him as the head of a "worldwide "Bahá’í" peace cult," for example. He was variously described elsewhere as an "apostle of peace," a "Persian teacher in flowing robes," as a "venerable apostle from [the] Orient," and as a "leader of [a] great universalist movement." The Gazette never used the word "cult" in its coverage of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit, and in fact made the point that His faith was "not a religious cult, but [an] effort for Good which has grown despite Persian persecution." In a city which in 1912 was not noted for its religious and/or linguistic tolerance, or for its lack of class consciousness, both the English and French-language newspapers seemed to understand that this was a man with serious and important ideas and admirable principles. La Presse mentioned His call for religious unity and universal peace. Most of the papers, including The Star, somberly note His "prophecy of a world war, and of the inadequacies of both socialism and materialism," and Le Devoir emphasized His idea of the necessity "to establish an international tribune to solve the problems among the civilised people of the world."

To us Bahá’ís today, it seems thrilling that so much attention was paid to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and to what He said in a city which, at the time, was known mainly for its material wealth and economic and political power. It may also, however, strike us as quite sad that so little has changed in our country and in our world since He made that brief visit to Canada ninety-two years ago. But I think we have to remember that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s frame of reference was never ours. He spoke, of course, for the ages. It is up to us to take note of progress wherever it has been made in our lifetimes, to build upon that progress wherever it may be found, and to keep on working.

We have an obligation to continue to trust that mankind’s progress toward the future which Bahá’u’lláh prophesized - and which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá taught in Montreal and everywhere - is unstoppable. That is a very, very important part of what it means to be a Bahá’í—just not allowing ourselves ever to feel defeated or to be pessimistic any more than ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ever was. We have to act as if we really believe that those nine days which He spent in Montreal are, for Canada, among the most significant in our country’s life, because we still have the opportunity to act upon what He said then and to build a country and a world worthy of His words and Bahá’u’lláh’s vision. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá left Montreal, He said, "The time of the sojourn was limited to a number of days, but the results in the future are inexhaustible." That, of course, is still true, and we must never doubt it.

In the afternoon of that first day, the Master went for a ride through Montréal at Sutherland's invitation. When they reached the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame (Marie-Reine-du-Monde) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said he would like to see it. Everything was quiet and no one was in sight. The Master alighted and went in to see the huge building. With rapt attention, He gazed. After wandering through the church, He noted that the church was present in Canada, so far away from where Christianity had started in Galilee and Calvary, because of the sacrifice of the early Christians who had traveled the world to spread their faith.

Earl Redman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 182

Montréal was, in a religious sense, a divided city, between English-speaking Protestants and French-speaking Catholics. One day the Master was talking with a group about the early days of Christianity. One of those present, a Protestant, asked a question about St. Paul. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá immediately thundered "Peter, not Paul!" May said that the house almost shook with the emphasis the Master put on the name Peter. He refused to talk about Paul and would only talk about Peter.

Earl Redman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 183

Some years after his visit to Montréal, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote the believers in Canada: “Many souls warned Me not to travel to Montréal, saying, the majority of the inhabitants are Catholics, and are in the utmost fanaticism, that they are submerged in the sea of imitations, that they have not the capability to hearken to the call of the kingdom of God, that the veil of bigotry has so covered the eyes that they have deprived themselves from beholding the signs of the most great glory”… But these stories did not have any effect on the resolution of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He, trusting in God, turned His face toward Montréal. When He entered that city He observed all the doors open, He found the hearts in the utmost receptivity and the ideal power of the Kingdom of God removing every obstacle.

Earl Redman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 180

Sometime that summer at the pressing invitation of the friends in California, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá decided that He would, after all, visit the Western part of America. But there was somewhere He wanted to go first. May Maxwell, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's beloved handmaid, distinguished disciple had established the first permanent Bahá’í community in Canada, after having established the first Bahá’í community in France a decade earlier. On the occasion of her move from Paris to Montréal as the bride of the talented young architect Sutherland Maxwell, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had written to her, “Thou wert as pure gold and didst enter the fire of tests… Gird up then thy loins, strengthen thy resolve, and arise with a mighty heart to promote the Word of God in that remote region.” Now, there was a small but thriving Bahá’í community in Montreal.

Earl Redman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 179

Sutherland, although greatly involved in the Maxwell brothers' architectural firm, a good sportsman and a member of many clubs in Montréal, particularly those connected with the arts, was a reserved person who did not enjoy a lot of attention. All his sensitive Scots reticence shrank from the publicity and limelight that would be thrown upon him as the host of such an attention-attracting guest as the Persian Prophet and His entourage. He explained to May that although he wanted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be their guest, he really didn't want the Master to stay in their house and would book a suite for him at the Windsor Hotel. The day before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived, however, Sutherland rushed into the bedroom and looking critically at the furniture declared: "this is not good enough for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. I am going right down to Morgan's to buy a new set", then rushed downtown and bought a whole new suite just for the Master. Sutherland met the Master at the railway station and humbly begged Him to stay in the Maxwell home. The Master accepted.

Earl Redman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 181

The French language newspaper "Le Canada" was for the rich and comfortable. It's reporting of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá concentrated on the economic well-being of people and described the Master as "an aged man who had some resemblance to a Muslim priest". The "Daily Herald" was more interested in His teachings about international peace and amity. Another French-language newspaper, "Le Nationaliste", carried a story by Caliban that said that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood a good chance of becoming a prophet because He had traveled so far. Caliban sneeringly wrote that someone needed an unusual name like ‘Abdu’l-Bahá before he could call himself a prophet. He called ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's teachings "sentimental communism". That, however, was not the majority reaction.

Earl Redman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 183