Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

Advisor, Translation of the Book of Certitude

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Advisor, Translation of the Book of Certitude: One of the most surprising and rewarding outcomes of my archival research was the discovery of yet another contribution Locke had made to the Faith—one that, in fact, had no connection with race relations whatever. Among the Alain Locke Papers, preserved in the Moorland–Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, were found two letters to Locke, written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi by his secretary at that time, Ruhi Afnan. These letters are dated 15 February and 5 July 1930.754 The first begins: “Dear Dr. Locke: Shoghi Effendi has been lately spending his leisure hours translating the Book of Iqan for he considers it to be the key to a true understanding of the Holy Scriptures, and can easily rank as one of the most, if not the most, important thing that Bahá’u’lláh revealed explaining the basic beliefs of the Cause. He who fully grasps the purport of that Book can claim to have understood the Cause.”755

The “Book of Iqan” is better known in English as the Book of Certitude (Kitáb-i Íqán), and has achieved distinction as Bahá’u’lláh’s preeminent doctrinal text.756 This reference to Shoghi Effendi’s translation work as having been undertaken during “leisure hours” reinforces our understanding of the magnitude of the Guardian’s work load. In efforts to perfect his working translation of the Íqán from Persian to English, the Shoghi Effendi called upon Locke as the person “best fitted to render him [Shoghi Effendi] an assistance” in giving critical feedback on the translation itself. The Guardian requested that Locke “go over it [the translation] carefully, studying every sentence—its structure as well as choice of words—and giving him [Shoghi Effendi] your [Locke’s] criticism as well as constructive suggestions that would make it more lucid, English [sic] and forceful.” He adds, “Shoghi Effendi is fully aware of the many duties you have and how pressing your time is, and had he known of an equally fitting person he would surely have saved you the trouble. Yet he finds himself to be compelled.” The first letter accompanied the first half of the translation which Shoghi Effendi decided to send to Locke. The second half was mailed later. Locke did as the Guardian requested. The Universal House of Justice has kindly provided a substantial excerpt from Locke’s undated letter, postmarked 11 June 1930, to Shoghi Effendi:

As a whole the translation is a triumph of labor and insight into another language. It reads well and euphonically—and for so complicated a sentence structure is unusually clear. I know the need for full and literal translation, and therefore did not dare suggest certain cuts and shortening which would be desirable from the English and American readers’ point of view. It is a difference primarily between the structure of the Eastern language and those of the West. The coordinate phrases give us the impression of prolixity—and the constant repetitions do not always increase the effectiveness of the writing. Perhaps you can consider this question, and obtain some condensation by joining several coordinate statements in subordinate clause constructions or for phrases use the mechanical advice [sic] of hendiadys [sic] occasionally. Still, those who would really be interested in this inspired discourse will not be impatient anyhow. I look forward to the time when we may all see it in print. We shall be ever grateful to you for your devoted labours in making it accessible. May it speed the Cause to the ears of the learned and influential!757

A subsequent letter, dated 5 July 1930, again written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, was sent to Locke to acknowledge his editorial assistance: “Though they were not so many, he [Shoghi Effendi] found the suggestions you gave most helpful.” Moreover, Ruhi Afnan reported that: “Shoghi Effendi has already incorporated your suggestions and sent his manuscript to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada] for publication.” A most interesting comment follows: “It naturally depends upon that body and the reviewing and publishing committees to decide whether it should come out immediately or not.” The potential value of reaching the Western intelligentsia was noted as well: “The most important service that can now be rendered to the Cause is to put the writings of Bahá’u’lláh in a form that would be presentable to the intellectual minds of the [W]est. Shoghi Effendi’s hope in this work has been to encourage others along this line.” At the end of the letter, Shoghi Effendi wrote, in his own hand, the following:

My dear co-worker:
I wish to add a few words expressing my deep appreciation of your valued suggestions in connexion with the translation of the Iqan. I wish also to express the hope that you may be able to lend increasing assistance to the work of the Cause, as I have always greatly admired your exceptional abilities and capacity to render distinguished services to the Faith. I grieve to hear of the weakness of your heart which I trust may through treatment be completely restored. I often remember you in my prayers and ever cherish the hope of welcoming you again in the Master’s home.
Your true brother,


This is a very personal message from the Guardian to Locke. Personal need not always be private. Its publication in this volume will go far in dispelling any doubts about Locke’s integrity as a Bahá’í, or the depth of his convictions. He lived at a time when it was simply “weird” to be anything but a Protestant, Catholic, or Jew—the three religions that dominated America at that time (and, to a large extent, still do). To be a Bahá’í in any public way was to risk one’s professional and social standing. As a Bahá’í, Locke walked that fine line between prudence and valor.

The Gospel for the Twentieth Century”: Without doubt, this was Locke’s finest Bahá’í essay. It is certainly his most mature. It is also the only one in which Locke has quoted Bahá’u’lláh directly. More significant, perhaps, is Locke’s discussion of the relevance of Bahá’í principles to the destiny of America. And of no less interest is the way in which Locke’s presents the Bahá’í gospel of social salvation as the complement and fulfillment of Christian ideals.

The manuscript itself is something of a discovery. The circumstances of its writing are unknown. What occasioned it? What prompted Locke to write it? The very fact that he had written it implies that he had been invited to do so and that it was intended for publication. Despite a long and hard to search to locate it in print, no such citation has turned up. Lack of evidence suggesting otherwise, we are forced to conclude that, for whatever reason, this essay was never published. Although excerpts appeared in a previous article by the present writer, this is the first time that this essay has been published in full. From the first line of the essay, it seems logical and appropriate to title it, “The Gospel of the Twentieth Century.” Locke opens his essay as follows:
The gospel for the Twentieth Century rises out of the heart of its greatest problems,— and few who are spiritually enlightened doubt the nature of that problem. The clashing ominous [n?]est of issues of the practical world of today,— the issues of race, sect, class and nationality, all have one basic spiritual origin, and for that reason, we hope and believe one basic cure.759
Here, the writer’s choice of the term “gospel” creates the expectation of a religious discussion of some kind. This is reinforced by the idea of a “spiritual” cure. A cure for what? Locke identifies “the issues of race, sect, class and nationality” as among the “greatest problems” of the twentieth century. “Gospel” implies a message of importance for the world. In that sense, it is practically synonymous with such terms as “redemption” and “salvation.” Sure enough, Locke says that “only a widespread almost universal change of social heart, a new spirit of human attitudes, can achieve the social redemption that must eventually come.” What is this social redemption? After speaking of the Christian millennial ideal of peace on earth, Locke uses a Christian vocabulary to express Bahá’í ideals:
The redemption of society,— social salvation, should have been sought after first,— the pragmatic test and proof of the fatherhood of God is after all whether belief in it can realize the unity of mankind; and so the brotherhood of man, as it has been inspirationally expressed. “Oneness of humanity” must be in our day realized or religion die out gradually into ever-increasing materiality. The salvation we have sought after as individuals in an after-life and another sphere must be striven for as the practical peace and unity of the human family [in?]here in this.
The reader should bear in mind that this is an unedited manuscript, and so is rough in spots. The message is pellucid, nonetheless. Locke presents “social salvation” as the necessary complement of personal salvation. This rationale is straight out of Bahá’í thinking. One might see here an oblique critique of Christianity when he speaks of the “finest and most practical idea of Christianity, the idea of the millenium [sic],— of peace on earth,” as having lapsed into “a mystic’s mirage of another world.” The social consequence is that the “Brotherhood of Man” has been weakened into a “negligible corollary of the fatherhood of God.” Locke would never directly attack Christianity. It was, after all, a part of his own heritage. Yet an honest appraisal of how religion has largely failed in its mission is needed before people can begin to think in terms of a solution.

In a secular vein, Locke introduces a somewhat novel, although not entirely new, concept of democracy: “Much has been accomplished in the name of Democracy, but Spiritual Democracy, its largest and most inner meaning, is so below our common horizons.” What about America? While materially advanced, it needs to progress spiritually: “America, that has in an economic and material way labored through to the most promising material elements of democracy, is spiritually very far from the realization of her own organic [i]deal.” Or, to put it more bluntly: “The fundamental problems of current America are materiality and prejudice.”

Each of these problems—class and race—has a separate history. Still, they have but one root: “selfishness.” While their outward manifestations are seen in poverty and prejudice, these are simply manifestations of an inner crisis: “And so we must say with the acute actualities of America’s race problem and acute potentialities of her economic problem, the land that is nearest to material democracy is furthest away from spiritual democracy […].” What to do? What solution is there to “the most crucial of all the American issues”— “the race question”? Locke sees hopeful signs in “[n]ew and promising efforts of race cooperation.” A “New South” is emerging, rising above the ashes of an “Old South.”

Here, a few clues are found that might shed light on when this essay was written. Locke speaks of “the new movement for the equalisation [?] of public school expenditures, health and public welfare measures” that have “only recently begun.” Locke also mentions “the great industrial migration of the Negro away from the South, which has led to ameliorative measures to retain this economically valuable but hitherto socially mis-valued group, and the increasing self-esteem and direction of the New Negro.” The “Great Migration” took place from roughly 1910 to 1960. So this historical reference is not very helpful for the purpose of dating Locke’s essay. The “New Negro” movement, however, is easier to place. Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson go so far as to say that “Alain Leroy Locke founded the ‘New Negro’ movement in the mid-1920s.”760 The more common dating is from 1925, when Locke served as guest editor of the “Harlem issue” of the Survey Graphic, which Locke recast into a book, The New Negro, later that year. The resulting Harlem Renaissance is typically dated from 1925 to around 1939. Based on this information, and with no reference to either World War or to the Great Depression, a tentative date of circa 1928 may be assigned to this essay.

Locke goes on to contrast “uniformity” with “reciprocity” or “spiritual reciprocity.” Here, Locke transitions into philosophy. He explicitly praises “the philosophy of the Austrian Holzapfel, with its professed basic principle of the ‘Pan-Ideal,’ where universal values, the point of view of all mankind is to be substituted for the narrowing and hopelessly conflicting scales of value that race, class, nation and sect have made almost chronic defects in our thinking.” Rudolf Maria Holzapfel and his notion of a “Pan-Ideal” is now quite obscure and has fallen off of the philosophical map. The significance of Locke’s mention of Holzapfel, in a Bahá’í essay, is simply that Locke was speaking as both a philosopher and a Bahá’í. In Locke’s view, there is something in Holzapfel’s philosophy (and also that of Josiah Royce, whose work Locke refers to in “Unity Through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle”) that resonates with Bahá’í values. One sees here an attempt on Locke’s part to harmonize, however briefly, some of the more progressive developments in philosophy. Because Locke was a philosopher, naturally he would speak like one.

To resume, what ultimately is needed is “a revolution within the soul.” Collectively, the aggregate effect of people’s change in attitudes towards a more positive valuation of diversity will eventually lead to what Locke calls the “salvation of society.” While philosophy provides an important adjunct to this shift in values, it is probably in the sphere of religious influence that the greatest change in social attitudes will likely occur. Relatively few people listen to, much less are persuaded by, what philosophers have to say. This is probably why Locke ends his essay on a religious note. (He is, after all, writing for a largely religious audience.) Leading up to his conclusion, he writes:

And we must begin heroically with the great apparent irreconcilables; the East and the West, the black man and the self-arrogating Anglo-Saxon, for unless these are reconciled, the salvation of society in this world cannot be. If the world had believingly understood the full significance of Him [Jesus Christ] who taught it to pray and hope ‘[“]Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven” who also said[,] “In my Father's house are many mansions’[”], already we should be further toward the realization of this great millenial [sic] vision.
To a Western audience, the language of “salvation” pertains, first and foremost, to the doctrinal vocabulary of Christianity. To be “saved” is to become a Christian. Locke transfers this idea to the Bahá’í worldview. As the depth psychologist Carl Jung once observed, world religions may be viewed as salvation-systems. This is certainly true of the Bahá’í Faith. Now what Locke has done in the above passage makes more sense: He is using the Christian ideal of salvation as a bridge to the Bahá’í teachings, which, in principle, fulfill the Christian millennial vision. This is how Locke concludes his essay:
The word of God is still insistent, and more emphatic as the human redemption delays and becomes more crucial, and we have what Dr. Elsemont [Esslemont] rightly calls Baha’u’llah’s “one great trumpet-call to humanity”: “That all nations shall become one in faith, and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled […] These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and family.[” ]
This quotation comes from the Cambridge Orientalist Edward Granville Browne’s historic interview with Bahá’u’lláh in 1890. It is a fitting way to end his essay. It’s a shame that it was never published until now. Perhaps it is all the more timely that it should appear in print, for the first time, in this volume.

Conclusions: Like his philosophy, there is nothing in these Bahá’í essays that is exceptionally brilliant or revolutionary, except to say that the interracial unity that Locke was advocating was quite radical by the prevailing standards of his day. Locke’s Bahá’í essays are really the first effort by a Western philosopher to represent the Bahá’í principles on a par with contemporary philosophy. True, it was not a systematic effort, and, in that respect, not a serious effort. What we should take very seriously is the fact that Locke brought his own philosophy to bear on the great social issues of his day. Except for some legislative milestones that have punctuated American social history between then and now, the issues of race, class and gender, not to mention nation in the context of international relations, remain pretty much the same.

Locke’s Bahá’í essays are remarkably unapologetic. If anything, he spent more time writing for the benefit of Bahá’ís than for non-Bahá’ís. For whichever audience he wrote or spoke to, Locke never lost sight of the whole question of values and their impact on society. To effect social change was to advocate a paradigm–shift in our social values. Values are, at heart, the secular counterpart of beliefs. Religion makes values sacred. For there to be social salvation in the secular world, religion needs to promote “unity through diversity” and all that it implies in terms of public policy and individual behavior. One can never say that Locke’s faith or philosophy began and ended in “mere words.” Quite the contrary.

Without being a man of the cloth, Locke was a preacher. His gospel was one of social salvation. It was a universal message unencumbered by any particular religious affiliation. That is probably one reason why Locke never mentioned the Bahá’í Faith outside of a Bahá’í context. Imagine, had he done so, how much that would have compromised his effectiveness. By submerging his Bahá’í witness, he converted a great number of Americans to what could be thought of as Bahá’í principles. He just didn’t put that label on them. He was thoroughly non-sectarian. Locke was truly universal. And in trying to save society from its cardinal sins of racial injustice, poverty and the like, his faith and philosophy fused into a message that continues to be relevant today.

Locke published other articles in Bahá’í publications as well. In his unpublished essay, “The Gospel of the Twentieth Century,” Locke wrote:

America, that has in an economic and material way labored through to the most promising material elements of democracy, is spiritually very far from the realization of her own organic [i]deal. […] The fundamental problems of current America are materiality and prejudice. […] And so we must say with the acute actualities of America’s race problem and acute potentialities of her economic problem, the land that is nearest to material democracy is furthest away from spiritual democracy,— unless, as we have said, the heart of the solution is to come out of the crux of the problem.
Strange to say, but, in a strictly secular context, arguably the most important element of Locke’s philosophy of America is his discussion of its need to become a “spiritual democracy.” The next chapter explores Locke’s philosophy of democracy, treating it in nine dimensions, ranging from concepts of “local democracy” to “world democracy.” Although he never presented a comprehensive, polished view of it, the present writer has undertaken to more or less synthesize its various elements to see how Locke’s various statements on democracy cohere into a meaningful whole.

Chapter Ten

Alain Locke’s Philosophy of Democracy:

America, Race, and World Peace

Bahá’í Principles and the leavening of our national life with their power, is to be regarded as the salvation of democracy. In this way only can the fine professions of American ideals be realized.—Alain Locke, “America’s Part in World Peace,” Bahá’í Congress at Green Acre, April 1925.761
Alain LeRoy Locke was, at once, the elder statesman of his race and yet a statesman for America as a country. Locke forged a dynamic linkage between race relations at home and international relations abroad. His vision was truly world-embracing, reflective of his religious convictions as a Bahá’í. In widening the horizons of democracy on a world scale, Locke wanted to “Americanize Americans”762 so that America might help democratize the world. In other words, Locke wanted to make democracy in America more democratic. America, after all, was “a unique social experiment.”763 In certain ways, the experiment had failed. Locke dedicated his life to making that experiment succeed. By giving a “thicker” description of democracy, Locke gave greater breadth and depth to the concept of democracy. Democracy is not merely political. And an ideal democracy is something quite beyond the adversarial democracy of a party system. It also transcends tolerance and demands something more. It also calls into question the assimilationist paradigm of the “melting pot.” Democracy is much more. In fact, Locke speaks of at least nine dimensions of democracy, which this chapter will present by collating his various essays and public talks on the topic and categorizing them under the various rubrics that he commonly, although unsystematically, used. The reader should know, therefore, that the way this chapter presents Locke’s views on democracy imposes an order on them that amounts to a typology or systematization of what really does seem to be a deep structure within Locke’s philosophical thought.

By pen or typewriter, from lectern or microphone, Locke discoursed on democracy. Over the airwaves, from station KMYR in Denver, on 6 August 1944, Locke spoke on America’s position in world affairs in relation to race.

[I]t is indeed a privilege for me to be talking with you this evening about America’s position in world affairs in relation to race; new vistas suddenly open before us; the question is, are we going on with the THEORY or the PRACTICE of democracy? […]

America must continue to be a laboratory on racial issues; what nation can better set the example than America? We must continue to solve our own racial problems in order to keep the confidence of all other nations. There are problems we must solve in So[uth] America and in the Caribbean area, as well as in our own loved land. Democracy implies the equality of all races, Oriental, Jewish, Negro, a[nd] [w]e must have poly-racial freedom for all races. What, after all, has made America great? It is that we have a common denominator, which is, loyalty to our ideals. Yes, we must continue to be a world example. Here is the great new world of the Pacific area opening up; we must demonstrate to those living within that sphere what democracy really is; all impediments must be removed; we must show both the Orientals and the Negroes what democracy really can accomplish.

It is true that Russia practices democracy, having more nationalities within her borders than America, but America can compete with Russia; both nations will, from now on, be concerned with international as well as national racial issues. Yes, the United Nations will become a moral as well as mechanical arsenal, and work on the problems of all minorities. In our own country, north, south, east, mid-west, and west, all of us must be working on these problems that arise from time to time.764
This was but one instance of Locke’s taking his philosophy of democracy to the people. It is interesting that Locke, in this radio broadcast, referred to Russia as a “nation without prejudice” and to China as “a non-white nation as a principal in the struggle on the democratic side.”765 From the context, it appears that Locke is more concerned with the demographic fact of “democracy” as a metonymy for what today would be called “diversity.” Communism, under both the Russian and Chinese forms of it, was antithetical to the American system of governance. Therefore this part of Locke’s talk was unexplicated.

As a public intellectual, Locke gave similar speeches on this topic before live audiences, in civic and university settings, lecture halls and town halls, as well as in the broadcast studio. As an art and literary critic, Locke worked with artists and writers within “an arena of gladiatorial struggle,” as “the champions of democracy.”766 As educator and national leader in adult education, Locke supported “an organized campaign for teaching American youth the principles and the attitudes of democracy.”767 In 1947, Locke himself taught a course in “Philosophy of Democracy” at Howard University.768 In all these venues, Locke sought to expand popular and scholarly thinking about democracy, and what this meant for America. He challenged his audiences to reflect on the jingoist and largely unreflective public assumptions about democracy. Locke’s philosophy of democracy proceeds from the problematics of American society, at the heart of which is the question of race.

One could say that Locke’s entire life was a discourse on America, democracy and race, whether as a philosopher, cultural critic, or educator. Race was central to this discourse for the simple reason that the color-line, at that time, defined America. Locke’s ideal vision of America was in living color, in the peacock splendor of interracial harmony; but his nightmares were in black and white. If America was a democracy in principle, it was not so in practice. As Leonard Harris observes: “American democracy for Locke was hardly a finished social experiment, especially since it excluded most of the population from participation.”769 Locke was not alone in this pejorative view of America. Langston Hughes, in his celebrated poem, “Let America Be America Again,” suggests that America was never truly “America” since it had never lived up to its egalitarian ideals in the first place. Songwriter Leonard Cohen, in his song, “Democracy,” expresses a similar, but optimistic sentiment in his refrain: “Democracy is coming to the USA.” Indeed, much of American literature has focused on the idea of America itself. In this venerable tradition of an arts-and-letters focus on America, Alain Locke spoke and wrote at length about America in terms of democracy. For this “unique social experiment” of democracy to succeed, America will have to solve its racial problems.

Ardent supporter of democracy in principle, yet a trenchant critic of it in practice, Locke’s vision of America transcended politics. He expanded Americans’ understanding of democracy by adding breadth and depth to the public conception of it. But what was Locke’s philosophy of democracy? A survey of his essays and speeches reveals a more complex and richer approach to democracy than has been described in the previous literature.770 While he did not formalize his philosophy of democracy in any systematic way, one can say that his conception of democracy was both evolutionary and multi-dimensional. In the notes on his lecture, “Concept of Democracy,” delivered on 10 Dec. 1947,Locke spoke of how the “[i]dea of democracy has evolved.”771 The present study will present a typology of Locke’s philosophy of democracy in nine dimensions, with special reference to Locke’s vision of America and the relation of this vision to parallel concepts of the destiny of America as propounded in the Bahá’í Faith, with which Locke was affiliated and the principles of which he sought to secularize in order to promote them. An inventory of these nine dimensions will serve to more fully represent the profundity of Locke’s philosophy of democracy in relation to his vision of America. What, then, are Locke’s principles of democracy? And how do Locke’s principles inform his vision of America? But before attempting to say what democracy is, it is important to state what democracy is not.

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