In the late 1890’s, while ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh and His successor, was still a prisoner in ‘Akká, a small number of Westerners who were learning about the Bahá’í Faith made journeys to meet with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and deepen their understanding of this new faith.
The Bahá’í Faith came to the United Kingdom as a result of those extraordinary Western visitors who, after spending time with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, returned home and began to share the Bahá’í teachings throughout Europe and America.
Mary Virginia Thornburgh-Cropper, known as “Minnie”, was an American resident in London. She and her mother, Harriet Thornburgh, were the first people in the UK to embrace the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith.
Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper first heard of the Bahá’í teachings in 1898 from her life long friend Mrs Phoebe Apperson-Hearst, the mother of the newspaper mogul William Randoph Hearst. Mrs Hearst was a wealthy heiress and philanthropist who had become aware of the spiritual teachings of the Bahá’í Faith through meeting some of the early American believers. Mrs Hearst wrote to Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper, telling her that she felt her friend would be interested in these new teachings. Soon after this, Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper, quite by chance, also came across some further information about the Bahá’í Faith in an encyclopaedia.
In 1898 Mrs Hearst organised and funded a small group to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá’u’lláh, in Akka where He had been held for many years as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire. Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper, having learned more about the life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh felt inspired to join the group and included her mother Harriet Thornburgh in the turbulent and arduous sea journey.
Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper’s vivid descriptions of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are one of the first visual portraits from a Westerner: “His white robe, and silver, flowing hair, and shining blue eyes gave the impression of a spirit, rather than of a human being. We tried to tell Him how deeply grateful we were at His receiving us. ‘No,’ He answered, ‘you are kind to come …’”
The visit provided an opportunity to learn more about the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, and Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper returned home deeply affected by the experience. She immediately began to share the teachings amongst her social circle, and in particular her good friend Ethel Rosenberg, a professional miniature painter from Bath, who in 1899 became the first native English Bahá’í woman. These women, later joined by Lady Blomfield, laid the essential foundations for the development of the Bahá’í community.
Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper carried out many responsibilities during ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s historic visits to the UK. Most memorably she organised a farewell gathering of 400 people at the Passmore Edwards’ Settlement in Tavistock Place. The occasion is reported to have been a special gathering with “a lofty spiritual tone”, where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá shared some final words in support of unity between the East and West: “I, today, coming from the East, have met in this London of the West with extreme kindness, regard and love, and I am deeply thankful and happy. I shall never forget this time I am spending with you.”
Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper is considered to have been the first active Bahá’í in England and lived long enough to serve on the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’í’s of the UK, the national governing council, which was elected in October 1923. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote an encouraging letter to the British Bahá’í community during this time, particularly mentioning “our beloved sister” Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper, expressing confidence that “her wisdom, her experience, her influence and her unparalleled opportunities” would support the advancement of the spiritual teachings of the Bahá’í Faith in Britain.
Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper passed away in March 1938. Infirmity in later years had prevented her from being active but she was believed to have been a staunch believer until the end of her life.
The first English person to become a Bahá’í was Thomas Breakwell. He was born in Woking in 1872 and emigrated to the United States as a young man.
At the time of his first encounter with the Bahá’í teachings, Mr Breakwell held a responsible and lucrative position at a cotton mill in one of the Southern states. His comfortable lifestyle included visits to his relatives in England each summer and long holidays in Europe. On one such holiday in Paris in 1901, he met May Maxwell, who had been among the first party of Westerners to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1898. Following their discussions, Mr Breakwell embraced the teachings of the Faith, and wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá requesting permission to visit Him in Akka. He holds the distinction of being the first Englishman to make the journey to the Holy Land as a Bahá’í pilgrim.
During his time with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Mr Breakwell confided his feelings of intense guilt regarding the use of child labour in the mill where he was employed. Asking ‘Abdu’l-Bahá what he should do about his situation, Mr Breakwell was instructed to cable his immediate resignation. Mrs Maxwell’s account of this episode describes his feelings of immense relief from this crushing emotional burden.
At ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s request, Mr Breakwell took up permanent residence in Paris where he worked enthusiastically to help develop the community there, sharing with others the spiritual energy that had been stirred within him. In May Maxwell’s words:
‘The rock foundation on which the Bahá'í Revelation rests, "the oneness of mankind", had penetrated his soul like an essence...imbuing him with an insight and penetration into human needs, an intense sympathy and genuine love which made him a hope and refuge to all.’
In 1902, barely a year after embracing the Bahá’í Faith, and only 30 years old, Mr Breakwell fell ill and died in Paris from tuberculosis.
Thomas Breakwell’s gentleness, purity and devotion had a great impact on all who met him and the UK Bahá’í community takes inspiration from his short life.
Heartbroken at his passing, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote an inspiring tribute in his honour:
‘O Breakwell! O my dear one! At all times do I call thee to mind, I shall never forget thee. I pray for thee by day and by night. I see thee plain before me, as if in open day. O Breakwell! O my dear one!
Ethel Jenner Rosenberg, a painter of miniatures and portraits, was born into a family of artists in Bath. Her work and social connections brought her into contact with a network of society ladies that included Mary Virginia Thornburgh-Cropper, from whom she learned of the Bahá’í Faith. Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper and her mother Harriet Thornburgh were American Bahá’í’s living in London, and had been among the first group of Westerners to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Akka in 1898. Ms Rosenburg accepted the Bahá’í teachings in 1899 and, together with these two women, founded the first Bahá’í community in the UK.
Ms Rosenberg dedicated her life to promoting the Bahá’í Teachings. She wrote and edited publications, organized meetings and visited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Akka on three separate occasions. She was also instrumental in coordinating His visits to London. In later years, she acted as a secretary for Shoghi Effendi and, having learned Persian, assisted with His translations of the Bahá’í Scriptures into English. Ms Rosenberg also served on the earliest Bahá’í administrative institutions of the United Kingdom.
Having spent extensive periods with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on her travels to Akka, she played an essential role in facilitating the understanding of Bahá’í Teachings for Western believers. Despite her modest and unassuming nature, Ms Rosenberg’s weighty contribution to the establishment of the Bahá’í community in the UK is most evident and well documented.
Ms Rosenberg died in 1930 in London. Shoghi Effendi sent a cable to the Bahá’í world, expressing his deep grief and urging the community to hold befitting memorials for this exceptional woman: “The memory of her outstanding services will never die…” (Shoghi Effendi)
Lady Sara Louisa Blomfield was born in Ireland to a Catholic father and a Protestant Mother. She married the noted Victorian architect Sir Arthur Blomfield and spent much of her adult life in London. Lady Blomfield’s acceptance of the Bahá’í teachings in 1907 marked a turning point in her lifelong quest for spiritual truth. An accomplished writer and humanitarian, her commitment to her new Faith brought an increased desire to see justice and equality established in the world. She was a fearless supporter of the suffragettes, a protector of the rights of women and children, and a promoter of peace and inter-religious dialogue.
By the time ‘Abdu’l-Bahá travelled to the United Kingdom, a small group of Bahá’ís, many of them women, had formed in London. During both His visits in 1911 and 1913, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a guest at the home of Lady Blomfield and her two daughters, Mary Basil Hall and Ellinor. During this time Lady Blomfield warmly opened her home to strangers and friends alike, and arranged for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to meet with hundreds of visitors including philosophers, poets, clergymen, politicians, suffragettes, academics, and journalists.
Lady Blomfield served the UK Bahá’í community until her death in 1939. Amongst her tireless efforts to consolidate the UK community, she called upon her friends in British parliament to defend the persecuted Bahá’ís of Persia. Lady Blomfield was also instrumental in supporting Shoghi Effendi during his days as a student in Oxford. She later accompanied him on his journey back to the Holy Land after the sudden news of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing.
Although perhaps best known today for her involvement in the establishment of the Save the Children Fund in the aftermath of the first world war, Lady Blomfield is also remembered fondly by the name given to her by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Sitarih, which means Star.
Sarah Ann Ridgeway was a silk-weaver from Stalybridge who later settled in Pendleton, near Salford. In the 1880’s she emigrated to the United States, where she came across the Bahá’í teachings. On 3 September 1899, she wrote a letter to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, declaring her faith in the Bahá’í religion. Miss Ridgeway returned to the United Kingdom around 1903/4.
She had a passion for education and learning, and wrote numerous articles focusing on religion. Together with a handful of others, she helped develop the emerging Bahá’í communities in Greater Manchester. Miss Ridgeway died in 1913 and was buried in the same plot with others of limited means, in Agecroft Cemetery, Salford.
The local community of the Bahá’ís of Salford has dedicated a bench on this spot, in honour of her memory.
Jane Elizabeth Whyte of Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, was the first Scottish Bahá’í. She was the wife of the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. She met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on a visit to the Holy Land and embraced this new Faith. After returning to Scotland she invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to visit Edinburgh, which He did in 1913. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave public lectures, met leading figures in Scotland and received extensive coverage in newspapers, including the Scotsman who wrote about Him as a ‘Prophet of Peace.’ As a result of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit, other Scots soon learned about the Bahá’í Faith and followed in Mrs Whyte’s footsteps.
It was to Mrs Whyte that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote a Tablet describing the future progress towards world unity. Using the metaphor of "candles", ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:
Dr John Ebenezer Esslemont, born in Aberdeen, was an accomplished medical doctor and linguist.
Whilst working as the medical superintendent at a tuberculosis clinic in Bournemouth, Dr Esslemont took an active interest in proposals for a national health service and was one of the founders of the State Medical Service Association that was to become influential in determining government policy in this area.
It was in connection with his work on the executive committee of the State Medical Service Association that Dr Esslemont first heard about the Bahá'í Faith in 1914. The wife of his colleague on the executive committee had met `Abdu'l-Bahá when He had visited London, and she talked to Dr Esslemont about the new religion. He immediately took up the Bahá'í teachings with enthusiasm.
Dr Esslemont was a keen linguist; in addition to English, he knew French, German, and Spanish, and was a keen Esperantist. After he became a Bahá'í, he also began to learn Persian and Arabic. Through his friends in the Esperanto, Theosophical, and spiritualist circles, he was soon able to help create a Bahá'í group in Bournemouth
Shortly after becoming a Bahá'í, Dr Esslemont began to write an introductory book about the Bahá'í Faith, entitled “Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era”. This book was published in 1923 and has since been translated into over 60 languages.
In June 1924, Shoghi Effendi invited Dr Esslemont to make Haifa his home and to assist with the Bahá'í work there. Dr Esslemont immediately agreed and set about improving his Persian so as to help Shoghi Effendi with the translation of the Hidden Words and the Tablet of Ahmad. By February 1925, Dr Esslemont was acting as Shoghi Effendi's English-language secretary.
Sadly, ever since medical school when Dr Esslemont had contracted tuberculosis, he suffered from ill health. On 21 November 1925, after having just recovered from a further bout of tuberculosis, Dr Esslemont suffered a stroke and passed away. Shoghi Effendi stayed by Dr Esslemont’s side during this last night, and felt his loss acutely. He had been a close friend as well as an invaluable colleague: “To me personally he was the warmest of friends, a trusted counsellor, an indefatigable collaborator”.
In a moving letter written on 30 November, Shoghi Effendi paid tribute to Dr Esslemont: " His tenacity of faith, his high integrity, his effacement, his industry and pains-taking labors were traits of a character the noble qualities of which will live and live forever after him.”
Shoghi Effendi went on to appoint Dr Esslemont posthumously as a Hand of the Cause of God in acknowledgement of his many services to the Bahá'í Faith. Individuals had also been named as Hands of the Cause during the time of Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá. These distinguished believers were entrusted with the task of propagating and protecting the Bahá'í Faith as it grew and developed. Dr Esslemont was the first Hand of the Cause to be named by Shoghi Effendi.
George Townshend was a well-known Irish writer and clergyman.
In 1918, Mr Townshend started correspondence with Abdu'l-Bahá. Shortly after he become a Bahá'í and went on to author numerous books, including, “The Heart of the Gospel” and “The Promise of All Ages”. In 1926, Shoghi Effendi, who greatly admired Mr Townshend’s scholarly capacities and spirit of devotion, invited him to act as his literary advisor. Mr Townshend assisted in the editing of all Shoghi Effendi’s major publications.
Much of Mr Townshend’s own publications were devoted to highlighting the deep love and respect that the Bahá'í Teachings hold for Christ and Christian beliefs. Mr Townshend frequently referred his readers to the example of `Abdu'l-Bahá, who “was able to give many a Christian enquirer explanations of the Gospel which had the authority, not just of their own reasonableness and beauty but also the authority of His own true love for Christ, and his life of Christlike righteousness”.
In 1947 after a distinguished career in the church, which had culminated in Mr Townshend becoming Canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, he resigned from his position and renounced his orders to the Anglican Church. Shortly after leaving the church, Mr Townshend wrote a pamphlet to all Christians under the title “The Old Churches and the New World Faith” that was sent out to 10,000 people in the British Isles.
He spent the remaining decade of his life in Dublin, assisting with the establishment of the first Dublin Local Spiritual Assembly. In 1951 Shoghi Effendi designated Mr Townshend as a Hand of the Cause of God.
In the prologue to his last book ‘Christ and Baha’u’llah,’ dictated to his children Una and Brian due to his declining health, Mr Townshend states: “This book is directed especially to the Christians whose age-long prayer, given by Christ Himself, is Thy Kingdom come’”.
Richard Edward St. Barbe Baker was born near Southampton and came from a family of clergy members and dedicated tree planters. Mr Baker’s own life was distinguished for his dedication to his Faith and his outstanding commitment to the environment.
After having lived in the UK and Canada, Mr Baker travelled to Kenya in 1922 where he set up a tree nursery and founded an organization with the Kikuyu people, to carry out reforestation in the region. The local society was called "Watu wa Miti", which translates to “Men of the Trees” in the regional dialect. This local society formed the foundation for what was to become an international organization, the “International Tree Foundation”, which is still active today in many countries around the globe.
In 1924, Mr Baker left Kenya for England. After giving a talk at the First Congress of Living Religions within the Commonwealth, he was approached by Claudia Stewart Coles, who introduced him to the Bahá'í Faith. Baker studied the Faith and embraced it shortly after.
Over the next six decades, Mr Baker dedicated his life to sharing the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith and fearlessly promoting the need for humanity to respect nature, and to be the stewards of God’s earth. As one of the foremost environmentalists of the twentieth century, he was responsible for planting billions of trees around the world.
According to Richard Burleigh's assessment in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “St Barbe, as he was affectionately known to many, was a practical man of exceptional vitality, motivated by an unwavering belief in the need to reverse the destruction that had been wrought from the earliest times upon the forests of this planet. The combination of his ideals, backed by his religious convictions and blended with his agreeable personality, his ability to relate constructively to everyone he encountered, and his tireless energy, culminated in the vast contribution he made to pioneering the saving of the world's forests. He was always the first to declare that what had been achieved was the outcome of teamwork, but there can be no doubt that he was the indispensable catalyst.”
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