We first met African American Professor George W. Henderson in an earlier installment in this series, “The First Baha’i College.” In that article, part of a Tablet by Abdu’l-Baha was quoted from The Bahá’í World, Vol. VIII (1938–1940), p. 901. Let’s revisit that Tablet, and read it in full:

Washington:

To his honor, Mr. Louis G. Gregory; unto him be the Glory of God, the Most Glorious.

HE IS GOD!

O thou true Bahai!

The letter that thou hast written in the beginning of December 1920 has been received. Its contents contained very good news, indicating that his honor, Prof. George W. Henderson, has established a Baha’i College in one of the cities of the South; that now that college has developed, and the students are studying the divine Teachings and also the necessary sciences and arts.

That revered Professor has been and will always be favored. The meetings which are formed at that college are bestowed upon with an emanation from the meetings of the Supreme Concourse. Such are also the meetings for teaching the children. These meetings are spreading eternal graces and are supported by the breathings of the Holy Spirit.

His honor, Prof. Henderson, has in reality arisen in the service of the Kingdom. The fruits of this service are eternal bounty and everlasting life. Through the graces of God do I cherish this hope, that he at every moment, will receive a new confirmation.

The answer of the friends of God is enclosed; forward it to them! Convey the most wonderful Abha greeting to the maidservant of God, Mrs. Gregory!

Unto thee be the Glory of Abha!

(Sig.) abdul Baha abbas

April 9, 1921

Original tablet to Professor George W. Henderson from Abdu'l-Baha

Original tablet to Professor George W. Henderson from Abdu’l-Baha

This particular piece of correspondence, from the leader of the Baha’i Faith at that time, was probably dictated, although it could have been written by hand, on April 9, 1921. The original Persian document from which the translation was made doubtless is preserved in the International Baha’i Archives in Haifa, Israel.

Abdu’l-Baha, highly aware of and alive to the problem of forced racial segregation (under the Jim Crow laws) and strife in America, traveled across America for 239 days in 1912 on his speaking tour. So it’s no surprise that the subject of race relations is a frequent topic of discourse in his talks.

Note that “a Baha’i college,” as described here, is a far cry from a theological seminary. Although “the students are studying the divine Teachings,” they were also engaged in acquiring skills in “the necessary sciences and arts,” thus demonstrating that skill development can be both spiritual and material in a fully integrated curriculum. That may well be an important reason why Abdu’l-Baha characterized Henderson Business College as a “Baha’i college”—not just because the founder and president was a Baha’i (not to mention some of the staff and students), but that the course of study was Baha’i-inspired as well.

Abdu’l-Baha writes that the classes and meetings at Henderson Business College were favored with “an emanation from the meetings of the Supreme Concourse” and “are supported by the breathings of the Holy Spirit.” The mechanism of this divine inspiration and celestial guidance is not disclosed, but one may understand that it suggests some sort of spiritual communication between the souls of the next world and people on this earthly plane of existence.

Professor George W. Henderson

Professor George W. Henderson

This ideal interaction benefits from subtle influences emanating from the realm beyond which, it would appear, are somehow still connected with this world. Moreover, there appears to be a parallel between the meetings taking place in Memphis and meetings occurring in the realm above, so to speak. The “Supreme Concourse” is understood as the celestial assembly of those departed souls that have attained such spiritual progress in that immortal world that this mortal world may benefit from their influence. This is yet another added dimension — call it a “Fourth Dimension,” if you will — to human experience, from a Baha’i perspective.

On the one hand, it may be superstitious to believe in gods and demons as distinct principalities; we must disenchant ourselves of such phantoms and banish them into the dustbin of superstition. That said, however, it is perfectly obvious that human beings are real and, if their consciousness survives physical death, as Baha’is believe, then it is only perfectly natural to assume, if not to expect, that human souls in the realm beyond should continue to take an interest in matters here on Earth.

This reciprocal influence gives new meaning to the expression, “heaven on earth.” This may be one reason why Abdu’l-Baha describes the Henderson Business College (and the other Baha’i-inspired and Baha’i meetings then taking place in Memphis) in celestial, paradisiacal terms. Abdu’l-Baha’s terms of reference are far more than metaphorical; indeed, they may be actual, albeit subtle.

We can certainly credit Abdu’l-Baha for knowing what he was talking about. This Tablet cannot merely be “poetic.” It is speaking to a spiritual (yet no less real) reality that cannot readily be realized until one contemplates the fact that human consciousness is essentially a nonphysical reality, even though connected with this physical world during its earthly lifetime.

Strange to say, but Henderson Business College, as a result of the efforts of Professor Henderson, who “has in reality arisen in the service of the Kingdom,” was doing its part to help bring about the Christ-promised “Kingdom of God on earth” at a particular place and time. That social interaction, so far ahead of its time, demonstrates that nothing short of divine teachings and angelic inspiration could have achieved such social and spiritual progress in Jim Crow America.

Praise be to God, today the splendour of the Word of God hath illumined every horizon, and from all sects, races, tribes, nations, and communities souls have come together in the light of the Word, assembled, united and agreed in perfect harmony. Oh! What a great number of meetings are held adorned with souls from various races and diverse sects! Anyone attending these will be struck with amazement, and might suppose that these souls are all of one land, one nationality, one community, one thought, one belief and one opinion; whereas, in fact, one is an American, the other an African, one cometh from Asia and another from Europe, one is a native of India, another is from Turkestan, one is an Arab, another a Tajik, another a Persian and yet another a Greek. Notwithstanding such diversity they associate in perfect harmony and unity, love and freedom; they have one voice, one thought and one purpose.

Verily, this is from the penetrative power of the Word of God! If all the forces of the universe were to combine they would not be able thus to gather a single assemblage so imbued with the sentiments of love, affection, attraction and enkindlement as to unite the members of different races and to raise up from the heart of the world a voice that shall dispel war and strife, uproot dissension and disputation, usher in the era of universal peace and establish unity and concord amongst men. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 292.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

2 Comments

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  • Jan 15, 2016
    I'm a bit confused. I found a news story from Memphis about the college. The columnist, Vance Lauderdale, had found a 1950 catalog for the college in which it said Mr. Henderson started the school in 1912 in Knoxville, moved to Nashville then opened in Memphis in 1938! Maybe the catalog misquote & meant the move to its last address. Anyway, the college began to lose students in the 60s & finally closed in 1971. The "fine old buildings " are now a parking lot. Sadly, the article makes no mention of Baha'i.
    Nancy Moore
    nancymoore19@hotmail.com