The Baha’is and the Unitarians have a long history of like-minded belief and loving interaction.
That friendly, sympathetic connection began more than a century ago. When Abdu’l-Baha traveled to North America in 1912, he spoke in many Unitarian churches—in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Palo Alto and Montreal, among others.
Large Unitarian congregations responded by flocking to Abdu’l-Baha’s talks, packing their church pews and responding warmly and receptively. Many Unitarians became Baha’is. Well-known Unitarian ministers like Howard Colby Ives left the ministry and declared their belief in the Baha’i teachings after hearing Abdu’l-Baha speak. In fact, the North American and European Baha’is owe a debt of gratitude to the Unitarians, who openly welcomed Abdu’l-Baha and the Baha’i teachings into their churches and their hearts when other denominations did not.
Unitarians probably reacted so positively because Abdu’l-Baha addressed them with respect and high regard, as he did when he began this seminal talk on the subject of unity in the Unitarian Church in Brooklyn:
This is a Unitarian church, and in the Arabic tongue this day may well be called Yawm-al’Ittihad (“the Unitarian Day”). Therefore, I consider it appropriate to speak to you upon the subject of unity. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 190.
The talk Abdu’l-Baha gave on that day—June 16, 1912—started out with an important rhetorical question: “What is real unity?” He answered the question this way:
What is real unity? When we observe the human world, we find various collective expressions of unity therein. For instance, man is distinguished from the animal by his degree, or kingdom. This comprehensive distinction includes all the posterity of Adam and constitutes one great household or human family, which may be considered the fundamental or physical unity of mankind. – Ibid.
Then he went on to describe some more limited “unities:”
Furthermore, a distinction exists between various groups of humankind according to lineage, each group forming a racial unity separate from the others. There is also the unity of tongue among those who use the same language as a means of communication; national unity where various peoples live under one form of government such as French, German, British, etc.; and political unity, which conserves the civil rights of parties or factions of the same government. – Ibid.
After outlining these various kinds of unity, Abdu’l-Baha probably shocked the Unitarians by proceeding to demolish each of those concepts:
All these unities are imaginary and without real foundation, for no real result proceeds from them. The purpose of true unity is real and divine outcomes. From these limited unities mentioned only limited outcomes proceed, whereas unlimited unity produces unlimited result. For instance, from the limited unity of race or nationality the results at most are limited. It is like a family living alone and solitary; there are no unlimited or universal outcomes from it. – Ibid., pp. 190-191.
In the Middle East, where Abdu’l-Baha lived, the early 20th Century saw the rise of unitarian movements among several different faiths. There, the word “unitarian” simply came to mean a person or a group of people who believed in unity and oneness rather than division and separation.
But when the Baha’i Faith began in 1863, advocating unity among the religions was regarded as heresy. Islamic authorities in Persia and the Ottoman Empire regularly tortured and executed people for professing unitarianism—and many early Babis and Baha’is suffered those fates.
But when the Ottoman Empire fell in 1908 and Abdu’l-Baha was freed from his 40-year imprisonment, he could finally travel to the West and proactively spread the new Baha’i teachings of unity—which he defined this way in his talk to the Unitarians in Brooklyn:
The unity which is productive of unlimited results is first a unity of mankind which recognizes that all are sheltered beneath the overshadowing glory of the All-Glorious, that all are servants of one God; for all breathe the same atmosphere, live upon the same earth, move beneath the same heavens, receive effulgence from the same sun and are under the protection of one God. This is the most great unity, and its results are lasting if humanity adheres to it; but mankind has hitherto violated it, adhering to sectarian or other limited unities such as racial, patriotic or unity of self-interests; therefore, no great results have been forthcoming. – Ibid., p. 191.
The time had come, Abdu’l-Baha openly proclaimed, for human unity to finally bloom:
Nevertheless, it is certain that the radiance and favors of God are encompassing, minds have developed, perceptions have become acute, sciences and arts are widespread, and capacity exists for the proclamation and promulgation of the real and ultimate unity of mankind, which will bring forth marvelous results. It will reconcile all religions, make warring nations loving, cause hostile kings to become friendly and bring peace and happiness to the human world. It will cement together the Orient and Occident, remove forever the foundations of war and upraise the ensign of the Most Great Peace. These limited unities are, therefore, signs of that great unity which will make all the human family one by being productive of the attractions of conscience in mankind. – Ibid.
We’ll explore the rest of Abdu’l-Baha’s important discourse on unity to the Unitarians in the next essay in this series.