What event, historical trend or spiritual signal could reliably indicate the advent of a new divine messenger?
We know, historically, that the advent of those messengers—Christ, Abraham, Buddha, Muhammad, just to name a few—had tremendous impacts on future civilizations.
So the first and most obvious sign for any observer in the modern era would certainly have to be the fact of the cataclysmic change in human society which occurred nearly concurrent with the birth of the Baha’i Faith.
By any metric one cares to look at, something revolutionary happened around the middle of the 19th century. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with science, history and the advancement of humanity can see that just about every aspect of human affairs radically changed during that period.
In just a few short years, scientific, economic, social and artistic changes began occurring at an exponential rate. Within a lifetime, humans went from riding horses to traversing the heavens. In every arena of human life, these radical changes unleashed both wonderful and dangerous forces. Humankind can now realistically end all life on this planet as we know it, or create a paradise scarcely imaginable by our ancestors. Clearly this period of massive change represents the single most important and significant event of human history. The Baha’i teachings say those changes proceed directly from the regenerative power of a new religious revelation brought by Baha’u’llah:
The Call of God, when raised, breathed a new life into the body of mankind, and infused a new spirit into the whole creation. It is for this reason that the world hath been moved to its depths, and the hearts and consciences of men been quickened. Erelong the evidences of this regeneration will be revealed, and the fast asleep will be awakened. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 169.
A hundred years ago, Abdu’l-Baha recognized that event as a “new age of reformation:”
From every standpoint the world of humanity is undergoing a reformation. The laws of former governments and civilizations are in process of revision; scientific ideas and theories are developing and advancing to meet a new range of phenomena; invention and discovery are penetrating hitherto unknown fields, revealing new wonders and hidden secrets of the material universe; industries have vastly wider scope and production; everywhere the world of mankind is in the throes of evolutionary activity indicating the passing of the old conditions and advent of the new age of reformation. Old trees yield no fruitage; old ideas and methods are obsolete and worthless now. Old standards of ethics, moral codes and methods of living in the past will not suffice for the present age of advancement and progress. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 438.
If one seriously still waits for another event of more import to humanity, that wait will be in vain. It would indeed be strange if God didn’t warn us about this event.
But the amazing fact is that the Bible did warn and many Christians did indeed identify the mid-19th century as the time for the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies. Some of the more famous of these predictions came from the lay Baptist minister William Miller, and his calculations of Christ’s return actually coincide with 1844—the year of the declaration of the Bab. The existence of the Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are traceable to the religious fervor of this period, and to the Biblical predictions made by Miller.
Another protestant sect formed in southern Germany, known as the Templars, actually settled in present day Haifa to await the coming of Christ—just shortly before Baha’u’llah was sent there as a prisoner. These facts warrant a much closer investigation by anyone who claims the Christian faith and holds to the belief that Christ’s promised return is a real historical event.
Beyond the timing and similarities with Christ’s first coming, the very nature of the Baha’i teachings themselves clearly prefigure the major issues which would face humanity in the coming centuries: the unity of the human race, the emancipation of women, reconciling science with religion, the dangers of civilization’s impact on the environment, the dangers of religious fanaticism and the fundamental unity of all major religions on the planet. The Baha’i Faith lays out a clear and logical map to guide humanity through this tumultuous age. Already in retrospect over the past 150 years, this guidance has proven its value on numerous questions, from the primacy of girl’s education in development, the importance of collective security in international relationships and the handling of racial, religious and ethnic tensions, just to name a few.
Then there are the explicit prophecies given by Baha’u’llah, many of which came true in dramatic fashion in his lifetime and after. For example, he predicted the destruction of monarchies in favor of republics, and the decline of the temporal power of the clerical establishment. Specifically, the Baha’i teachings prophesied the downfall of Napoleon III, Sultan Abul-Aziz, the collapse of the Caliphate and the prefiguring of World War I and II.
Finally, apart from the timing, the predictions, caliber and character of the Bab, Baha’u’llah and their followers, any observer can see the direct and observable effects which the Baha’i Faith has had on the lives of those who follow its teachings. In the words of Christ, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” Within a generation those families who became early followers of this new religion became some of the most accomplished and influential, a powerful force in the modernization of their country. Before the clerical establishment lobbied to close them, Baha’is built and ran some of the best schools and hospitals in Iran—schools of such renown that the crown prince himself attended. This despite the fact that many originally came from the poor and uneducated classes, and as result of embracing this new Faith underwent severe persecution. However, due to the central importance of universal education in the Baha’i teachings, they championed education in Iran especially of girls, by being the first to build girls schools and making sure their all their children received the best education possible. Outside of Iran, the Baha’i faith’s educational efforts in many developing countries, despite their small numbers, have already had a significant impact. One example is in Columbia, where these efforts have helped millions to access education as documented by the Brookings Institute.
Still, despite the strong Biblical prophetic evidence, the momentous changes in human society, the prescient teachings and the evidence of good works, such a powerful claim ultimately rests on an intangible spiritual force which seekers must observe for themselves. Just as the power of Christ’s first revelation convinced his followers due to the spiritual power of his words as recorded in the Gospel, so too the power of his second coming must be perceived by turning to the words Baha’u’llah revealed as recorded in his numerous tablets and prayers available for all to read.
Ultimately, the effect these words have on me conditions my belief. When experienced in the right way, they can act as a transformative door to pure joy and understanding of a real heaven on Earth.