Martha Root’s Speeches and Social Discourse: Cosmic Education for a Universal Age

Hand of the Cause of God Martha Root sitting front and center, with a group of women in Melbourne, Australia, c. 1924. Photo courtesy of the Baha'i International Community

A century ago, on July 22, 1919, Martha Root embarked on a 20-year journey to destinations in Europe, Australia, Asia, the Americas, and Africa. These travels were motivated by a desire to share Baha’u’llah’s teachings with diverse audiences through public speaking and writing. Before setting out, she had honed her rhetorical skills during her career as a journalist, performer, and teacher. You can learn more about Root’s purpose-driven life from this earlier Baha’i Blog article.

Root is a role model for participating in the discourses of society; she wrote countless articles and speeches applying Baha’i teachings to a host of issues, including new media (radio), intercultural communication, women’s rights, international relations, and economic inequality. For a research project, I studied 25 of her speeches. I was particularly struck by “Culture and World Peace” (also titled “What Is Culture?”), which she delivered during her final trip around the world. Between 1938 and 1939, Root gave this talk to audiences including college students in India and women’s organizations in Australia. When you read the speech (below), you will observe that she appealed to these audiences by discussing women’s role in society and higher education, among other themes. 

Imagine Root, a woman in her late sixties, frail but filled with purpose, lecturing to a sizeable audience. According to her biographer, M. R. Garis, during Root’s final visit to India, the largest audience numbered 4,000!1 Her electrifying effect is evident from reactions of listeners like the 400 students she addressed at Allahabad University in northern India. Usually she distributed pamphlets about the Baha’i Faith after speaking. In this case, after her talk, the “rush for the pamphlets was such a stampede that the booklets had to be thrown to them from the platform.”2 Even when audiences did not respond with such enthusiasm, Root was ready. During another speech in India, an attendee interrupted her with a protest. Instead of engaging in debate, Root left the platform and embraced the woman. Her unexpected response quelled the interrupter, allowing Root to continue her talk.3

This scenario, giving speeches like “Culture and World Peace” to large audiences and eliciting fervent reactions, Root repeated hundreds, if not thousands, of times. What made her message so compelling? For starters, she quoted often from the Baha’i Writings. But she also drew from secular sources, especially from her interviews with rulers and other luminaries. In this talk, she references one such civic luminary, the president of Columbia University. In addition, she always gave her audiences some peacemaking action to participate in. Here, as in many of her talks, she discusses a universal auxiliary language, Esperanto. She saw learning this invented language and participating in the international community it generated as a way for everyone to contribute to international cooperation.

When she composed this talk, the planet was sliding into a second world war. In fact, Root had narrowly escaped its beginnings in East Asia, the Battle of Shanghai (1937). Although Root was aware of the “Armageddon” on the horizon, this speech expresses her hope that humanity could recover and address the injustices generating war. Today, I often feel that once again humanity stands on the brink of cataclysm. I hope I can emulate Root’s faith in the potential for spiritual transformation.

I share this speech with you for two reasons: to transmit the hope that animated Root, and to suggest an exemplar for our current efforts to apply spiritual teachings to social issues. Please note that I have added headings and made minor edits to enhance readability.

 


CULTURE AND WORLD PEACE

Speech by Martha Root delivered in 1938 and 1939

Transcript held in the US National Baha’i Archives

 

Introduction: How Culture Enables Peace

Dear friends, as the word “culture” has several meanings, I wish to define exactly the sense in which I shall use this word this afternoon. Just as agriculture is the tilling of the soil to produce its best, and horticulture is the training of trees to yield their most delicious fruits and give the greatest shade, so the highest culture of all is homoculture, which is the scientific cultivation of man to his highest perfectibility. The world needs new cosmic education in this universal epoch just opening, it needs and will achieve a universal system of culture in which the distinctive educational expression of each nation will be united with a new cosmic ideal.

I will outline the kind of culture the world needs. Culture and world peace are like the two wings of the bird of humanity, and both wings must be equally strong and equally balanced for the bird of humanity to make its highest, most perfect flight. War is a soul-destroying habit, and we need new international thinking, to train us to realize the patriotism of all mankind. I always say that man is the most cultured nationalist who is a true internationalist.

I heard Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University in New York, that great institution of more than 30,000 students, address them in the autumn convocation and he said that we must have new universal thinking, thinking in the terms of all humanity, and the universities and colleges of the world must take the lead in this new cosmic research. We have come so close together through the aeroplane, the radio and all the other space-annihilating inventions; yes, and through the last world war, that we must learn to live together, or we perish. And the one problem, you and I as individuals, and all nations must solve is this one problem of LEARNING TO LIVE TOGETHER! Whether we wish it or not, we must learn it, and we must bring into solid reality a world plan, or we are lost. When nations and continents are utterly demolished through Armageddon, culture too, will be murdered. We have come into a great new universal cycle and we shall be put to the test whether we can be worthy of it or not.

Baha’i Principles for Global Unity

These principles for peace and culture are from my teacher, a great world educator, Baha’u’llah, who more than seventy years ago, in 1868, 1869, and 1870, wrote to the Rulers of the world urging a Commonwealth of Nations with every country on the planet a member, a World Court, an International House of Justice, and a strong International Police Force to ensure arbitration and non-violence. He said it would not do if some nations disarm and others keep their weapons, they must agree and all lay down arms at the same moment, keeping only enough soldiers for their national police defense force, and their quota in the International Police Force.

President Wilson did not originate the idea of the League of Nations, he studied these principles of the great Persian teacher for two months before he wrote those famous Fourteen Points. The League of Nations is not perfect we know; it has failed because it cannot enforce peace, it has no International Police Force, and it does not have the support of all countries, but the League of Nations has done something never before achieved in history – it is the first organized world political institution to awaken the world’s consciousness to universal peace and arbitration. If you ask yourself, would the world be better off or worse off if there had never been a League of Nations, I am sure you would say it has done immeasurable good to the world.

Everyone Has a Role to Play in Peacemaking

And dear listeners, who is the world? The world is you and I. We are the ones responsible for world peace and culture. If the League of Nations is not perfect, our task is to study and learn thoroughly what a Universal League of Nations can be and establish it, and dear friends nothing but a World Federal State, a Federation of the States of the world, and nothing but mind disarmament and a strong spiritual foundation can ever save our world from complete cataclysm, and our culture from hopeless disintegration.

Why are we sleeping upon our beds, heedless when the Armageddon is at the door of our world? There is a way to peace, God has given us the great gifts of intellect and a potential spirit that can be awakened to take on divine spiritual qualities. In our hearts we know that the only world brotherhood we shall ever have, is spiritual world brotherhood, the only enduring peace we shall ever know must have spiritual foundations. When we have the love of God in our hearts, universal peace, and culture, and politics will take care of themselves.

Universal Auxiliary Language

World statesmen today say that in order to have world culture and peace we must have some kind of an international auxiliary language. A world auxiliary language would add as much to the culture of this planet, and anything we do toward bringing into reality an international tongue, we are doing it directly for the peace of the world. A great means of progress toward the union of the East and the West will be a common language. It will help make the whole world one home and become the strongest impulse for human advancement. It will help the oneness of humanity. It will help to make the earth one universal commonwealth.

Our part is not to choose the language, but to interest our different governments to appoint an International Language Committee, composed of their best language scholars to study this whole question, and either choose one of the present languages or create a language which when it is approved by all governments should be made compulsory in every school in the world as the auxiliary language. This does not take away anything from our own native language, but it will put us into touch with the heart, the soul, the spirit of peoples of every land, for wherever we go, we could understand and be understood…

Empowering Women to Advance Society

When women the world over have equality and equal education with men, it will be a great impulse forward to culture and world peace. Man cannot attain his highest until woman is educated equally with man. In fact, the education of girls is even more important than that of boys, for in time these girls will become mothers, and as mothers, they will be the first teachers of the next generation. Think of children, dear friends, as green and tender branches; if the early training is right they grow straight, and if it is wrong, they grow crooked; and to the end of their lives they are affected by the training of their earliest years…

In this new universal age just beginning, force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, insight and the fine spiritual qualities with which woman is gifted are considered just as important as force; in fact, the masculine and feminine elements of culture are becoming more evenly balanced. I do not say that woman is greater than man, nor that man is greater than woman, sex neither enhances nor diminishes the human quality. That one is greater, be he man or be she woman, who is the greater servant to all humanity.

Spiritual Education

Also, this new universal age requires universal education, cosmic education, and this is a spiritual process as well as the training of the intellect. Universal education is the complete unfolding and perfect functioning of the human soul. In addition to our A.B.C.’s, we must think about the universe and our world and our relation to them both, and think about the oneness of all humanity. As my great teacher said: “we are all the leaves of one tree, all the drops of one sea.” We are all created of the same dust, so that no one can boast himself one over another; we are all the children of one father Adam, we can’t say we come of a superior race, one above another. Our universal education should train us to look upon all the peoples of the world as our brothers and sisters. We should catch the vision of the unity, the interdependence of all human beings. Thus we become world citizens, with capacity to share in and help direct a world civilization, a divine world culture.

Abdu’l-Baha’s Teachings on Education

Religion in its finest essence too, is the cause of infinite progress and culture. I should like to quote to you what Sir Abdu’l-Baha Abbas of Haifa, Palestine, said to some students of Beirut University, Beirut, Syria, about the kind of education which our colleges and universities should impart. He said there should be first,

“Whole-hearted service to the cause of education, the unfolding of the mysteries of nature, the extension of the boundaries of pure science, the [elimination of] the causes of ignorance and social evils, a standard universal system of instruction….

“Second, service to the cause of morality, raising the moral tone of the students, inspiring them with the [sublimest ideals of ethical refinement], teaching them altruism…

“Third, service to the oneness of the world of humanity, so that each [student] may consciously realize that he is a brother to all mankind, irrespective of religion or race….”4

Unlearning Prejudice

One of the hindrances to culture and world peace is national, racial, religious and political prejudices. Young men and women who come out of colleges and universities with all these old, worn-out prejudices and superstitions are not truly cultured and truly educated, no matter how many degrees they may have acquired. To quote my teacher again:

“[Concerning the] prejudice of race; it is an illusion, a superstition pure and simple, for God created us all of one race… In the beginning also there were no limits and boundaries between the different lands; no part of the earth belonged more to one people than to another. In the sight of God there is no difference between the various races…. The only real difference lies in the degree of faithfulness, of obedience to the laws of God…. The lovers of mankind, these are the superior men, of whatever nation, creed or color they may be.”5

Conclusion: Why We Need Religion

You know, dear friends, culture and civilization have been built upon our primitive emotions, evolved through religion and inspiration. When religion is removed from our human motives, our culture perishes. It has been like this, down through the ages, and now in this mid-twentieth century, let us not deceive ourselves—an unspiritual humanity cannot save itself from Armageddon. Only the spiritual forces can save civilization and culture. Only divine love, spiritual love to our fellowmen and kindliness and service to all humanity can establish the World Plan, the World Order, and bring an enduring peace and a high universal culture.

And with it all, we have more than one world to think of: we are on this earth-plane perhaps thirty, forty, sixty or even eighty years, but we shall spend millions of years in Higher Worlds. On this earth-plane we are in the womb-life of the Life Eternal, and we must develop here the spiritual qualities ready for use in the Heavenly Kingdom. Those qualities are a knowledge of God, radiance of spirit, and love and loyalty and faithfulness. These are the highest cultural fruits of our lives, and these qualities are the spiritual foundation for an enduring peace and a universal world culture.


To learn more about Root’s life, I recommend the biography Martha Root: Lioness at the Threshold by M. R. Garis.

You can find speeches by Root in the compilation Martha Root: Herald of the Kingdom by Kay Zinky, in the appendices to “In Search of Martha Root” by Jiling Yang, and in the Martha L. Root Papers of the US National Baha’i Archives.

To learn more about my research on Root, please refer to “Martha Root’s Interwar Lectures: Cosmic Education and the Rhetoric of Unity” in Peitho: The Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric & Composition.


 

  1. M. R. Garis, Martha Root: Lioness at the Threshold, Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1983 []
  2. Retrieved from: https://bahai.works/Bahá’%C3%AD_World/Volume_8/Articles_and_Reviews []
  3. Garis []
  4. See http://bahai-library.com/nsa_foundations_spiritual_education []
  5. See http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/o/BNE/bne-133.html []

About the Author

Layli Miron

Layli and her husband Sergey moved to central Pennsylvania so she could pursue her dream of earning a PhD in rhetoric and composition. In the moments when she’s not writing or grading papers, she most enjoys spending time with Sergey. They collaborate on projects of a local nature, to serve the region’s Baha’i community, and of a global scope, expanding their knowledge through watching documentaries and traveling.

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Discussion 1 Comment

  1. I am very happy about this photo. Martha was a wonderful Baha’i. But she has been able to work so wonderfully through journalism all over the world. She was a very brave woman. At that time, there were wonderful Baha’i women and men. I only thank Baha’u’llah for allowing Shoghi Effendi to work with Martha Root and 100% relying on Martha for faith. I always think about that

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