Even before the appearance of Baha’u’llah, the world’s nations had begun taking steps to eventually become a more globalized community. However, in this case, that world limited itself solely to European colonialism.
After the 15th century Renaissance, European countries became the collective powerhouse of the world, not only economically but scientifically and culturally, as well. Never before had one relatively small region so dominated the whole globe. Because of its plentiful natural resources, Europe’s economic, political, and military might grew to overwhelming levels, and its cultural and technical powers had a dominating influence over all the world’s continents. Its widespread colonialism enslaved entire peoples and regions, and its violent militaristic practices decimated opposing forces. The Baha’i writings put it like this:
The peoples of Europe have not advanced to the higher planes of moral civilization, as their opinions and behavior clearly demonstrate. Notice, for example, how the supreme desire of European governments and peoples today is to conquer and crush one another, and how, while harboring the greatest secret repulsion, they spend their time exchanging expressions of neighborly affection, friendship and harmony.
There is the well-known case of the ruler who is fostering peace and tranquillity and at the same time devoting more energy than the warmongers to the accumulation of weapons and the building up of a larger army, on the grounds that peace and harmony can only be brought about by force. Peace is the pretext, and night and day they are all straining every nerve to pile up more weapons of war, and to pay for this, their wretched people must sacrifice most of whatever they are able to earn by their sweat and toil. How many thousands have given up their work in useful industries and are laboring day and night to produce new and deadlier weapons which would spill out the blood of the race more copiously than before. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 61.
The European empires did produce significant advances in civilization’s development, but they all had one common feature: each European country existed on a contiguous landmass. To expand, they spread out across the planet.
When the 15th century Spanish Empire developed, for example, it invaded, conquered, and incorporated the lands and peoples in present day Central and South America. Similarly when the Dutch Republic Empire in the 17th century developed, it forcibly established colonies in the Caribbean and far away in Indonesia. The British Empire developed colonies in Africa, North America, and India, and claimed that the sun never set on the British Empire. Each of the major European countries set up colonies in the other parts of the world, and developed imperialistic foreign policies to meet their objectives.
During this expansionist period, a second sea change occurred in the influence and power of Christianity. In the early days, when the Roman Catholic Church began to organize, they adapted the hierarchical organizational structure of the Roman Empire – but instead of an Emperor at the top, they created the position of the Pope. In order to teach their Faith, they developed a clergy education program in their monasteries, which in turn taught the faith to the mostly illiterate people found at almost all levels of society at the time. In the ensuing centuries, the Roman Catholic Church grew into a dominant force in every facet of everyday life in the global West, becoming a powerful political force, as well. Its leaders held high political positions, acquiring wealth rivaling the nations where they resided, dominating education, and in the process ensuring that a purely secular life became almost impossible.
However, at the same time, the Roman Catholic Church clergy in their quest for power and wealth became famously corrupt. In the 15th century, Martin Luther and other Catholic clergy attempted to reform the Roman Catholic Church but were rejected, and as a result, Lutheran and other Protestant churches were established. In the ensuing years, wars and battles between religious leaders and kings dominated most of Europe and killed millions of people. Finally, in the 17th century, with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, the era of religious wars passed as Catholic, Protestant, and national leaders staked out their separate domains and learned to live peacefully together – at least for a time.
Throughout this period, individuals in all walks of life started to think independently, and slowly began to shift their primary allegiances from the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches to the nation where they resided. As national governments became the sole sovereign power within their increasingly fixed borders, their citizens gradually turned from their church to their national governments to decide what was right or wrong, which in turn led to widespread secularism, atheism, and materialism.
In the 1800s, even in countries that considered themselves religious, the forces of secularism, nationalism, and materialism became dominant. Ancient religions lost their spiritual and creative energy to transform humans and humanity: Judaism was 3,000 years old; Christianity was almost 2,000 years old; and Islam was over 1,000 years old. It was time, the Baha’i teachings say, for God’s religion to be renewed:
The world’s equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System – the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 136.
Baha’u’llah claimed that the ills of the world were so overwhelming and so deeply ingrained in all of the world’s societies that no man made solution was feasible – that the only cure for society rested with a divinely-revealed message, calling for profound changes not only at the level of the individual but also in the structure of society:
Is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself, both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 240.
The Baha’i teachings describe the ensuing events after the coming of Baha’u’llah as a simultaneous process of disintegration and integration. As the old world started on its path of disintegration, a new global society began to emerge – with startling results in both the material and spiritual aspect of our lives.
On the material side of that emerging integration, humanity’s growth continues to accelerate toward an eventual and inevitable global civilization. We increasingly realize and recognize our inherent unity and oneness, just as Baha’u’llah promised we would.