Faithfulness and Rebellion: Ibrahim Khayru'llah and the Early American Baha'is

The story of Ibrahim Khayru'llah is an example of the truth that the higher a person is raised in rank, the greater must become his humility—not only so that he is protected, but so that the spiritual reality of his rank may speak through him and elevate the world. Shoghi Effendi sets forth this principle of humility accompanying rank, in his tribute to the Greatest Holy Leaf, writing of her "quiet and unassuming disposition that served to enhance a thousandfold the prestige of her exalted rank."  

Otherwise, the person may succumb to the promptings of self, and fall greatly; and few falls in religious history are as great, as that of Ibrahim Khayru'llah.

The man who brought the Baha'i Faith to America

Khayru'llah brought the Baha'i Faith to the West. He established the American Baha'i Community, bringing thousands of people into the fold, including the first generation of the greatest American believers. Surely this was due to the influence of Baha'u'llah's prayer for him, which says in part:

To Ibrahim Whom God Confirmed . . . Verily We heard your supplications, and granted them to you, and remembered you with such remembrance whereby the hearts will be attracted to you.
(Baha'u'llah, quoted in Robert Stockman, The Baha'i Faith in America, Volume I, pp. 22-23)
Khayru'llah and some of these early believers accompanied Phoebe Hearst on the first pilgrimage of believers from the West, in 1898, during the days of Abdu'l-Baha. On one of the days of his pilgrimage, he was given the astonishing honor of being invited by Abdu'l-Baha to accompany Him in the laying of the cornerstone of the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel. Rather than being humbled by such honors and by the divine confirmations bringing this success; rather than turning with increasing humility and devotion to the Center of the Covenant, and directing all praise to Him; he chose to follow his own ego. Like every other Covenant-breaker, he threw so very much away, and ended up as nothing, and with nothing.

“The story of Dr Ibrahim Khayru'llah requires detailed examination. It is another tragic tale in the annals of the Baha'i Faith -- tragic but admonitory. Ibrahim Khayru'llah was a Christian Arab from a mountain village in the Lebanon. He received his education at the Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut)... Eventually he moved to Cairo where he came to know the Baha'is. Haji 'Abdu'l-Karim, a merchant originally from Tihran, taught him and helped him to accept the Baha'i Faith. Khayru'llah was honoured with a Tablet from Baha'u'llah. The harshness of Turkish rule, endemic poverty, and dreams of lands of opportunity had already induced increasing numbers of the peoples of the Levant, in particular Syrian Christians, to turn their faces westwards and go out to seek their fortunes and find freedom in the Americas, notably in the United States. Khayru'llah's wish to go to America fell into the general pattern, but his desire was to serve the Cause of Baha'u'llah, to take its message across the Atlantic, to the New World, to a new clime. Haji 'Abdu'l-Karim encouraged him and helped him. Khayru'llah wrote and sought 'Abdu'l-Baha's approval which was given him. He reached the American shore at the close of 1892, the same year that witnessed the ascension of Baha'u'llah.” (H.M. Balyuzi, Edward Granville Browne and the Baha'i Faith, p. 114)

This is a copy of the manifest of the S.S. Suevia. It establishes the date that Ibrahim Khayru'llah arrived on the shores of America.

Portion of the Passenger Manifest of the S.S. Suevia
entering New York Harbor on December 2, 1892
Ibrahim Khayrullah is Passenger No. 9
Obtained from the website of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.
Click Image for larger photograph

Photograph of Ibrahim Khayru'llah taken after his arrival in New York
Courtesy Baha'i National Archives, Wilmette, Illinois USA
Used with permission
Please click image for larger photograph

Khayru'llah's Faithfulness during the Early Days

During these days, Khayru'llah wrote this letter to Abdu'l-Baha:

To the sacred court of my Master and the Master of the entire world . . . may my soul be a sacrifice unto the dust of His pathway: After offering obedience and servitude unto the sacred threshold of my Master, I beg to state that the believers in these regions and I greet the morn immersed in the sea of your bounties, and meet the night with the grace of your mercy which encompasses the East and the West of the earth, because you have turned unto them and unto me the glances of your favour. You have revealed of divine verses three Tablets: one for the believers in America, one for Antun Effendi Haddad, and the last one for your servant, who forever and ever, lowly and poor, awaits the generous dispensations of his bountiful Lord. . . Enclosed with this petition are seventy-four petitions from those who have recently come into the Faith of God, and shall soon send other petitions. Seekers who wish to hear the Word of God and come into the knowledge of truth arrive in large numbers . . .
(Quoted in H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu'l-Baha, the Centre of the Covenant, pp. 271-272)

Khayru'llah's Success in Teaching the Faith

Shoghi Effendi writes:

“He [Dr Khayru'llah] established his residence in Chicago, and began to teach actively and systematically the Cause he had espoused. Within the space of two years he had communicated his impressions to 'Abdu'l-Baha, and reported on the remarkable success that had attended his efforts. In 1895 an opening was vouchsafed to him in Kenosha, which he continued to visit once a week, in the course of his teaching activities. By the following year the believers in these two cities, it was reported, were counted by hundreds. In 1897 he published his book, entitled the Babu'd-Din, and visited Kansas City, New York City, Ithaca and Philadelphia, where he was able to win for the Faith a considerable number of supporters. The stout-hearted Thornton Chase, surnamed Thabit (Steadfast) by 'Abdu'l-Baha and designated by Him 'the first American believer', who became a convert to the Faith in 1894, the immortal Louisa A. Moore, the mother teacher of the West, surnamed Liva (Banner) by 'Abdu'l-Baha, Dr Edward Getsinger, to whom she was later married, Howard MacNutt, Arthur P. Dodge, Isabella D. Brittingham, Lillian E Kappes, Paul K. Dealy, Chester I. Thacher and Helen S. Goodall, whose names will ever remain associated with the first stirrings of the Faith of Baha'u'llah in the North American continent, stand out as the most prominent among those who, in those early years, awakened to the call of the New Day, and consecrated their lives to the service of the newly proclaimed Covenant.
(God Passes By, pp. 256-7

Photograph of Thornton Chase, the First American Baha'i
Courtesy Baha'i National Archives, Wilmette, Illinois USA
Used with permission
Please click image for larger photograph

Khayru'llah's Pilgrimage

Mr. Balyuzi continues:

“At first he took his residence in New York, later moving to Michigan. Then in February 1894 he settled in Chicago. His initial success was formidable. Many embraced the Faith through his assiduous efforts, men and women who served the Cause of Baha'u'llah with exemplary devotion over the course of years. Dr Khayru'llah's work was highly praised. 'Baha's Peter' and 'the Second Columbus' Abdu'l-Baha called him. Chicago was not the only arena of his activities. He taught the Faith of Baha'u'llah in Kenosha, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Ithaca and New York City as well. Mrs Phoebe Hearst, the wife of Senator George F. Hearst, took a party of American Baha'is to 'Akka, to meet 'Abdu'l-Baha. Amongst them were Dr Khayru'llah and his wife. This party was further augmented in Paris and in Cairo, and finally totalled fifteen. They divided into three groups, and the first reached 'Akka on December 10th 1898. 'Abdu'l-Baha accorded Ibrahim Khayru'llah a signal honour by choosing him to be His companion when He laid the foundation-stone of the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel.”
(H.M. Balyuzi, Edward Granville Browne and the Baha'i Faith, p. 114)

Photograph taken on the 1898 Pilgrimage
Courtesy Baha'i National Archives, Wilmette, Illinois USA
Used with permission
Please click image for larger photograph

Back row, L-R: Robert Turner, Phoebe Hearst's Butler, and the first African-American Baha'i (God Passes By, p. 259); Julia Pearson and Anne Apperson, (both nieces of Mrs. Khayru'llah) holding the Symbol of the Greatest Name .
Front row, L-R: Daughter of Ibrahim Khayru'llah from a previous marriage, her name is unknown to me; Mrs. Marion Khayru'llah; Ibrahim Khayru'llah; Lua Getsinger; second daughter of Ibrahim Khayru'llah from a previous marriage, her name is also unknown to me.

But upon his return to America after his Pilgrimage, Khayru'llah rebelled against Abdu'l-Baha. I have seen several motives suggested. One, that Khayru'llah had at first been the one to whom the believers had turned for spiritual advice. However, once they began to go on Pilgrimage, they met Abdu'l-Baha and began receiving Tablets from Him, and, following the Covenant of Baha'u'llah, turned to Him. Khayru'llah's jealousy was aroused; he had enjoyed leadership. It seems possible to me that another cause of this rebellion may be during his Pilgrimage he met Mirza Muhammad-Ali, the half-brother of Abdu'l-Baha, whose seething jealousy of Abdu'l-Baha knew no bounds. Mirza Muhammad-Ali would invite pilgrims to his residence, the Mansion of Bahji, which was the last residence of Baha'u'llah, and throw feasts in their honor. He would flatter them, indirectly criticize Abdu'l-Baha, and plant the seeds of rebellion. During these days, Abdu'l-Baha had not yet exposed the wiles of the Covenant-breakers to the Baha'i community; that came at a later date.

This is a very great admonition to anyone who would consider ever meeting with, or even reading the literature of, a Covenant-breaker. Imagine—although Khayru'llah had received so much from the hand of Abdu'l-Baha, and had tasted the sweetness of His love and spirit; he was turned away, by the poisonous atmosphere of the Arch-breaker of the Covenant. If such a person, who received so much from Abdu'l-Baha face-to-face, who knew His love, could be turned against Him; how much more should we heed the warnings Abdu'l-Baha gives in His Will and Testament about complete avoidance of Covenant-breakers.

“And now, one of the greatest and most fundamental principles of the Cause of God is to shun and avoid entirely the Covenant-breakers, for they will utterly destroy the Cause of God, exterminate His Law and render of no account all efforts exerted in the past. O friends! It behooveth you to call to mind with tenderness the trials of His Holiness, the Exalted One, and show your fidelity to the Ever-Blest Beauty. The utmost endeavor must be exerted lest all these woes, trials and afflictions, all this pure and sacred blood that hath been shed so profusely in the Path of God, may prove to be in vain.”
(The Will and Testament of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 20)

“It is thus evident that should this man [Mirza Muhammad-Ali] succeed in bringing disruption into the Cause of God, he will utterly destroy and exterminate it. Beware lest ye approach this man, for to approach him is worse than approaching fire!”
(The Will and Testament of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 21)

My purpose is, however, to show that it is incumbent upon the friends that are fast and firm in the Covenant and Testament to be ever wakeful lest after this wronged one is gone this alert and active worker of mischief [Mirza Badi'u'llah] may cause disruption, privily sow the seeds of doubt and sedition and utterly root out the Cause of God. A thousand times shun his company. Take heed and be on your guard. Watch and examine; should anyone, openly or privily, have the least connection with him, cast him out from your midst, for he will surely cause disruption and mischief.
(The Will and Testament of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 21)

For so grievous is the conduct and behavior of this false people that they are become even as an axe striking at the very root of the Blessed Tree. Should they be suffered to continue they would, in but a few days' time, exterminate the Cause of God, His Word, and themselves.
Hence, the beloved of the Lord must entirely shun them, avoid them, foil their machinations and evil whisperings, guard the Law of God and His religion, engage one and all in diffusing widely the sweet savors of God and to the best of their endeavor proclaim His Teachings.

(The Will and Testament of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 25)

Khayru'llah's Petition: Believers who remained faithful

To return to the story of Ibrahim Khayru'llah, he sought to turn the nascent American Baha'i community to himself, and away from Abdu'l-Baha. He conceived the idea of writing a flattering letter to Abdu'l-Baha, and inviting the Baha'is to join in signing it. This petition contained the request that Khayru'llah would be the head of the Faith in the West, while Abdu'l-Baha would be the Head of the Faith in the East. Many of the believers who signed this petition followed Khayrullah into the wilderness; two steadfast believers who did not, were Charles and Elizabeth Greenleaf.

Mrs. Greenleaf had decided not to sign the letter, though she could not explain why. Her husband disagreed, and this became a source of distance between them. One night Mrs. Greenleaf had a dream, and in this dream she was instructed to tell her husband, “Watch out for the white ram!” She had no idea what this meant. The next evening was the occasion of the meeting called, for everyone to sign the petition. As her husband Charles reached for the doorknob to depart the house to attend the meeting, Elizabeth blurted out, “Watch out for the white ram!” Charles was startled, and his face turned pale. “What do you mean by this?” She said she did not know, only that she was told to warn him. He was very unsettled, and sat down to collect himself. He then recounted a recurring dream he had had about a white ram. He was walking through a beautiful meadow and he came to a deep chasm with rocks at the bottom. There was a narrow footbridge over the chasm, and as he approached it, a white ram appeared. The ram motioned that he should cross the bridge. However, he knew that if he attempted it, the ram would push him into the chasm. Then, as he gazed at the ram, he said, “I saw that it had the eyes of our teacher, Ibrahim Khayrullah!” Mr. And Mrs. Greenleaf remained faithful to the Covenant.

Photographs courtesy, Baha'i National Archives, Wilmette
Used with permission. Please click images for larger photographs

For a fuller discussion of Khayru'llah and the early American Baha'i Community, please see Robert Stockman's The Baha'i Faith in America, Origins 1892-1900 (Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1985).

To show the depths to which he fell, Khayru'llah wrote a letter to Edward Granville Browne some years later, in which he condemned Abdu'l-Baha. (The letter is quoted in full in Adib Taherzadeh, The Child of the Covenant, p. 191) Shoghi Effendi quotes from that letter in his commentary on Khayru'llah:

“ . . . whilst the greedy and conceited Ibrahim-i-Khayru'llah, who had chosen to uphold the banner of his rebellion in America for no less than twenty years, and who had the temerity to denounce, in writing, 'Abdu'l-Baha, His "false teachings, His misrepresentations of Bahaism, His dissimulation," and to stigmatize His visit to America as "a death-blow" to the "Cause of God," met his death soon after he had uttered these denunciations, utterly abandoned and despised by the entire body of the members of a community, whose founders he himself had converted to the Faith, and in the very land that bore witness to the multiplying evidences of the established ascendancy of 'Abdu'l-Baha, Whose authority he had, in his later years, vowed to uproot.”
(Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, pp. 319-320)

The Covenant-breaker who Became a Spiritual Giant

Another great early believer was Howard MacNutt. At first he had followed Khayrullah, but returned to the Covenant. He missed his friends who were Covenant-breakers, but he obeyed the Master and avoided them. Juliet Thompson writes of the trials Mr. MacNutt went through:

On 18 November, at the Kinneys' house, the Master put Howard MacNutt through a severe ordeal, an inevitable ordeal.

Mr MacNutt had been one of the few who, when I first came to NewYork, had taught that the Master was "like Peter" -- just a glorified disciple. But for years he had never mentioned this point of view, and I thought he had gotten over it.

In Chicago there are some so-called Bahá'ís who are still connected with Khayru'llah, the great Covenant-breaker, and last week the Master sent Mr MacNutt to Chicago to see them and try to persuade them to give up Khayru'llah; otherwise he was to cut them off from the faithful believers. He -- Mr MacNutt -- wrote Diya Baghdadi that he had found these people "angels", and did nothing about the situation.

He had just returned to New York and was to meet the Master at the Kinneys' house that evening, 18 November, for the first time since his unfruitful trip. I was in the second-floor hall with the Master and Carrie Kinney when he arrived. The Master took him to His own room. After some time they came out together into the hall.

An immense crowd had gathered by then on the first floor, which is open the whole length of the house.

I heard the Master say to Mr MacNutt: "Go down and tell the people: 'I was like Saul. Now I am Paul, for I see.'

'But I don't see,' said poor Howard.

'Go down and say: 'I was like Saul.'

I pulled his coattail. 'For God's sake,' I said, 'go down.'

'Let me alone,' he replied in his misery.

'GO DOWN,' commanded the Master.

Mr MacNutt turned and went down, and his back looked shrunken. The Master leaned over the stair rail, His head thrown far back, His eyes closed, in anguished prayer. I sat with Carrie on the top step, watching Him. This is like Christ in Gethsemane, I thought.

We could hear the voice of Howard MacNutt stumbling through his confession: 'I was like Saul.' But he seemed to be saying it by rote, dragging through it still unconvinced. Nevertheless when he came upstairs again, the Master deluged him with love.

By that time the Master was back in His room and as Mr. MacNutt appeared at the door, He ran forward to meet him. Our Lord was all in white that night and as He ran with His arms wide open He looked like a great flying bird. He enfolded Howard in a close embrace, kissed his face and neck, welcomed with ecstasy this broken man who, even though bewildered, had obeyed Him.

The next night . . . The Master sighed. 'I immersed Mr MacNutt in the fountain of Job last night,' He said. (The Diary of Juliet Thompson, pp. 369-372)

For his obedience, and for severing himself from the friends he once loved, for a greater Love and for the peace of the world, `Abdu'l-Baha bestowed on him a very great honor: The collection and publication of the transcripts of His addresses in America. These were published as The Promulgation of Universal Peace,” and at the Master’s instruction, Mr. MacNutt wrote a Foreword that will be forever associated with this book. Here is a photograph of Howard MacNutt--his favorite photograph, taken at the grave of Thornton Chase, in Inglewood, California:

Courtesy, Baha'i National Archives, Wilmette, Illinois, USA
Used with Permission
Please click image for larger photograph

Shoghi Effendi named Mr. MacNutt among the nineteen greatest Western "Disciples of Abdu'l-Baha."  Surely this is among the greatest proofs that Covenant-breakers can be forgiven if they sincerely repent; and if they choose to, they can rise to the heights.


  1. I have never heard, or read, the story of Mr. McNutt and I found it had a strong effect on me. Actualy it confirmed my daily saying prayers for firmness in the Covenant. In my years as a Baha'i I have, at times, found myself on the edge of the CB activities, and one day while attending a lecture on healthy foods, I recognized the speaker as one of their adherents. It was hard for me to accept I should remove myself from the room - but I did.
    The lightness I felt when I walked out the door is similar to what I felt reading this article.

  2. I can see why Mr. MacNutt's story resonates with you.
    That sense of lightness you describe is a confirmation. I felt it once in a very different context, but it was also a matter of spiritual self-preservation. As soon as I committed to the right decision, my soul took wings.
    One of the gifts Baha'is give to the world, is unity; and this shunning of Covenant-breakers is an essential part of that gift. Unity is really Baha'u'llah's and Abdu'l-Baha's gift to humanity, and these are the terms under which they want it given.
    I'm very moved by your comment; thank you for posting it.

  3. IThank you for your remarks, they fit well with my experience. I don't mean to play coy, I tried to send with my own name, which is Jean, but I don't know what my URL is and got confused.

  4. Thank you for sharing these stories, especially that of Howard McNutt. May these remembrances help the loved ones of God be firm in His Covenant and Testament.


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