Editor’s note: Mr Ian Semple wrote his story as a twenty-first birthday gift to his son Michael in 1985. In it, Ian gives details of his family background and upbringing, and his life up to his invitation to serve the Baha’i Faith in the Holy Land in 1961. The following is an abridged version of that story.
I was born on 2 December 1928 in New Barnet, Hertfordshire, the son of Robert Semple and Harriet née Henderson. Our family was traditionally Presbyterian. My parents were very liberal in their religious views, and also profoundly devoted to God. They were both my physical and spiritual parents. When I was about seventeen I came across a book on Unitarianism in the school library and was greatly attracted to it. I had been quite unable to accept the traditional Christian doctrine of eternal damnation. I thereupon called myself a Unitarian, although I remained a member of the Presbyterian Church of England. I first met Unitarians when I was in Northern Ireland during my military service and attended the Unitarian Church in Holywood, near Belfast. I also became a member of the National Unitarian Fellowship, which connected Unitarians by correspondence.
When I was four years old our family moved from New Barnet to Potters Bar. I went to “Linden” kindergarten in Potters Bar from the age of five, and at the age of eight went to Beaufort Lodge School in New Barnet. From there, at the age of thirteen, I went to Merchant Taylors’ School in Sandy Lodge and my parents moved to Northwood. From school, in January 1947, I went to the army to do my National Service. After that I went to Pembroke College, Oxford, from 1949 to 1952, reading German and French. After coming down from Oxford I went into articles with a Chartered Accountants’ firm in the city of London and qualified in 1955.
During my school years, especially during my latter years at Merchant Taylors’, I had become very concerned about the plight of the world and the problem of war. I found it impossible to discover from the Christian teachings whether or not it was intended that Christians should be pacifists. My parents had taught me to reverence all religions, so I already accepted that to varying degrees all religions came from God. From my study of Christianity I came to the conclusion that Jesus had concentrated on the area of the individual’s behaviour and relationship to God, and that He did not expect His teachings to produce peace in the world – for this a further revelation from God was necessary. Thus I came to conclude that the Christian’s duty was to follow the teachings of Jesus to his best ability and always remain alert to accept a new message from God should He decide to send one. There was no point in human beings’ trying to re-establish the original pure Christian religion — that was a task beyond human power, and all one would succeed in doing would be to found yet one more Christian sect. Unless God would send a Prophet I could see no hope for world unity and the abolition of war, but I realized that that was God’s business and all we could do was to work to the best of our ability with the Revelation He had given us, and be ready in case He would act.
Recollections of my early years in the Bahá’í Community in Britain
My introduction to the Bahá’í Faith coincides with my going to study at Pembroke College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1949. I later found that there was a description of the Faith in a book I had bought in London on 16 May 1949 called The Great Unity by Margaret Barr. I had read the book with interest but I have no recollection of having been struck by the passage at the time.
I went up to Oxford on Thursday 6th October 1949. The first Sunday of term, 9th October, I found my way to Manchester College, the Unitarian Theological College and attended the service in the beautiful chapel there, having no knowledge, of course, that ‘Abdu’1-Bahá had spoken in that College. The first days were filled with settling in my rooms in College, getting my tutorials and lectures and deciding what clubs, societies and sports to join. Of all the various tutors I had, the one who had the most abiding influence on me was Miss Gertrude Craig-Houston who lived in Norham Gardens. She was a real teacher and was able to make every aspect of the subject live, so that one came away from a tutorial full of enthusiasm and brimming over with ideas. I had my first tutorial with her on Friday 14th October and noted in my diary on Tuesday the 18th: “She didn’t say much about my essay on Die Räuber but she gave me a lot of new ideas on Schiller and the Sturm und Drang. Apparently Schiller too was convinced that society and humanity could only be perfected by perfecting each individual first. Miss Houston thought it was a grandiose idea. I wish I knew more clearly what I am to do about it, but I suppose I must just be patient until I do know.” I did not have to be patient much longer.
When looking for interesting things to do, I had noticed a placard in the college lodge advertising a meeting in the Town Hall for the evening of Thursday 20th October 1949 on the subject “World Order through World Religion”, and it quoted Professor Cheyne’s comment “If there has been a prophet in recent times it is to Bahá’u’lláh that we must go.” This notice strongly aroused my curiosity and I determined to go to the meeting. As I learned later, it was the first public meeting that the Bahá’ís had held in Oxford, which was one of the goal cities of the Six Year Plan and still did not have its Assembly.
On the Thursday evening I went to the Town Hall, which was quite near Pembroke College, on the opposite side of St. Aldate’s approaching Carfax, and following the notice-board, went upstairs to look for the meeting room. In the corridor I met a very nice-looking woman and asked her if this was the way to the Bahá’í meeting. I learned later that she was Alma Gregory, who was then pioneering, in Northampton I believe, because a number of friends from Northampton had come to support the meeting.
If I remember correctly, Marion Hofman was the chairman and David the speaker. [Louise Semple still has the invitation for this meeting, and notes that David Hofman was the chairman and Marion the speaker. – Ed.] At any event I was enthralled by what was said. When questions were invited I put up my hand and asked whether they aimed to perfect individuals by perfecting society or vice versa. (At that time I had been strongly convinced that one had to perfect individuals first and then a perfect society would follow). As I sat down I thought to myself “That’s a foolish question; it’s clear that they aim to do both at once, each process reinforcing the other.” And, sure enough, that, in principle, was the answer David gave. I don’t remember asking any more questions, nor do I recall any others doing so, but that may just be because my mind was so preoccupied and my heart so full of the realization that the Prophet I had been hoping for had come, and that His teaching was far greater and more far-reaching than anything I had imagined.
Immediately the meeting was over I went to the back of the hall, where Margaret Jenkerson was selling books, and bought Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era. As I turned away from the bookstall I saw a large young man forging towards me down the aisle. It was Philip Hainsworth, and he invited me to come to a fireside at his and his mother’s flat the following Thursday evening. This was the first of a series of visits. We discussed the Faith and he lent me books. I don’t think I can have been a very stimulating contact, because I don’t remember asking much since I accepted the Faith from the very beginning.
Indeed I wrote my original declaration in my diary three days after the meeting. I don’t remember how I communicated the news to my parents, but I must have written immediately or telephoned, because I remember waiting expectantly in my room that first weekend of 22nd-23rd October hoping they would come immediately by car to discuss the wonderful news. I had read Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era rapidly almost immediately and must have sent it home, because when they did come, on the weekend of 29th-30th October, Father had already been reading it.
At first, I think, my parents were quite worried as to what I had got into, but, as ever, they were very wise and reasonable and neither opposed my becoming a Bahá’í nor opposed the Faith itself. Indeed, they read about it, met the Bahá’ís, attended Bahá’í meetings and were very much attracted to the Faith, even though there were some aspects, such as the Guardianship, which long troubled them.
I myself was mistrustful of my own reactions, so decided to wait until I had once again been out of contact with the Oxford Bahá’ís and back in my home environment for the Christmas Vacation before making my declaration official. In the meantime I began to say the Obligatory Prayers, and to study the Teachings more and more. The Hidden Words in particular just enthralled me.
Looking back over the years I can still feel clearly the wonderment of those days. It was like entering a new world. From somewhere I got a photograph of ‘Abdu’1-Bahá and one of the Wilmette Temple (probably out of a book) and framed them. That of the Temple stood on my desk and often, when I was working, my eye would light on it and I would begin to ponder all that was happening in the world as I gazed on that beautiful building, unable to tear my eyes away.
As soon as I returned to college after the vacation I got in touch with Philip and on 24th January 1950 went to the Hofmans’ house in Pullen’s Lane to meet with David and Marion Hofman, Jean Campbell and Philip Hainsworth who had been appointed by the Local Spiritual Assembly to meet with me and discuss whether there were any points in the Will and Testament I wanted to ask about, and so on. I left my declaration with Philip and at its meeting on 26th January the Assembly accepted it.
On 3rd February I celebrated my first Nineteen Day Feast at the Hainsworths’. Philip’s mother was alive then. I knew her for only a very short time but she made an abiding impression on me and I am grateful to have known her.
19th February 1950 was my father’s birthday. He and my mother came to Oxford that day, and on the way back we all went to the Hofmans’ house (I think that by then they had moved to “Roundhill” in Wheatley). We had been invited to meet Hassan Sabri who had come to England (some time earlier I think) from Egypt to help with the Six Year Plan.
On 25th February there was a meeting at the Hainsworths’ in Woodstock Road, to meet Hugh McKinley, Ted Cardell and Alma Gregory. Alma told us all about the martyrdom of Dr. Berdjis, which had occurred some three weeks before.
On 5th March Joan Benfield, who was working in the Town and Country Planning Office, came to visit Oxford and I showed her round. She later married Ernest Gregory and they both served at the World Centre. So many of those friends of my early days in the Faith have remained close friends ever since, and our paths have crossed and re-crossed down the years.
One of the first jobs I was given by the National Spiritual Assembly was to go through the catalogue of the Bodleian Library to list all books about the Faith. I am sure the Assembly cannot have realized what this implied, but actually it was a blessing. Among all the other books, I was exposed to a whole mass of books by enemies of the Faith and Covenant-breakers. Fortunately, seeing them all at once I could see how they all contradicted one another, so, in a sense, this experience armed me against such problems later.
A similar test happened just after I had heard of the Faith. One of the theological students at Manchester College had been a Bahá’í, in fact I think he had been a pioneer to Oxford, but he had left the Faith after learning about the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, which he poured out at me straight away. However, one of the things that confirmed my belief in the Faith was not that all the Bahá’ís were angels – Philip had cautioned me not to expect that – but that all the Bahá’ís whom I felt to be most admirable were the ones that the other Bahá’ís most admired too, and were the ones who had the closest links with the Guardian or ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
On 29th-30th April I attended my first National Convention. It was a thrilling occasion, being the victorious conclusion of the Six Year Plan. The last months of the Plan – my first as a Bahá’í – were incredibly exciting, with weekly bulletins coming out from the NSA or NIC giving information about pioneer moves and the attaining of the goals. The number of Local Spiritual Assemblies in the British Isles had been raised to 24, including Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The thrilling cable the Guardian sent to the Convention not only hailed that victory, but called the British Bahá’í community to launch, after one year’s respite, the Two Year Plan to consolidate the Home Front and to form three nuclei in East or West Africa, and to publish literature in three more African languages. It is difficult to imagine now, what a breath-taking challenge this was at that time. The whole Convention rose to it with the utmost joy.
About this time I had lent George Townshend’s book The Promise of All Ages to Mr. Rae, the minister of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Northwood of which my parents and I were members. He returned it, giving as his opinion that it was “so much bunkum”.
Being now on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Oxford, I attended my first LSA meeting on 9th May 1950 and was appointed to the Feast Committee with Jean Campbell and Mrs Hainsworth. My job was to prepare a summary of world Bahá’í news for presentation at each Feast.
In the University there were some encouraging signs of interest in the Faith. A friend of mine who later became a Roman Catholic, was then a Methodist and invited me to tell the Young Methodists about the Faith on 7th May. On 22nd May the Assembly gave a public meeting at the Randolph Hotel to celebrate the Declaration of the Báb and I had to give my first public talk and lead the discussion. I took two women undergraduates along but neither became greatly interested.
The world at that time was still a pretty unsettled place. The Korean War was in progress and I remember often wondering if I would get through my university course before a world war would break out.
On 9th July 1950 was the world-wide commemoration of the Centenary of the Martyrdom of the Bab. In Britain we had a special meeting at the Bonnington Hotel in Southampton Row. My parents came and were deeply moved.
I had read in Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era (I think) that every Haziratu’l-Quds had a hospice for travellers, so on arriving in Frankfurt I went straight to the new National Haziratu’l-Quds which the German friends had built out of the rubble. Of course they had no hospice, but they were very kind and let me sleep in the basement with a German Bahá’í youth.
The south of Germany was at that time the American zone of occupation and, for some obscure reason, all I had to do was to show my passport on the buses to be allowed to travel free. My German friend and I took a bus from Frankfurt to Darmstadt, had lunch at his home where I met his dear mother and father (both Bahá’ís), and where I saw my first Autobahn and was greatly astonished by it. In the afternoon we took the train to Breuberg, an old castle in the Odenwald, now used as a youth hostel, where the Youth Summer Week took place. We slept in bunk beds in dormitories, and the only washing facility for the boys was a horse-trough in the courtyard (as I remember it). Some Bahá’ís came from the Copenhagen Conference, among them Eleanor Gregory and Perry Mottahedeh, and Beatrice Ashton came to give a course on the Lesser Covenant. Dr Grossmann was also there for part of the time. In those days the German Bahá’í youth used to sing a lot – not Bahá’í songs, there weren’t any – but old German songs. It was a most wonderful experience and tremendously confirming, and I gained a profound love and admiration for Hermann and Anna Grossmann.
A very exciting visitor to the Oxford Bahá’í community early in October 1950 was Mrs. Arna True Perron, who gave a fireside in the Hofmans’ home, and recalled stories of her pilgrimage as a young girl in the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. One story, as it has stuck in my mind, is the following. Arna was a very independent-minded girl and hated dates and mast (yoghurt). One evening at dinner ‘Abdu’l-Bahá put a few dates on her plate saying, “Dates are good for you.” While His attention was on her she ate one, but soon He was talking to others and seemed to have forgotten her, so she left the others on her plate. Finally He left the room after the meal was over, and they all rose. A little later the pilgrims too left the room, but when Arna came to the door she saw beside it a little table and, on it, her plate with the remaining dates! Another evening at dinner ‘Abdu’l-Bahá turned to Arna and said “Mast is very good for you.” By this time Arna had been quite won over by love for the Master and she immediately thought to herself “If He gives me a bucketful I shall eat it!” But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá smiled at her and said “It will not be necessary.”
On 20th October 1950 there was another public meeting in the Town Hall. This time Dick Backwell was the speaker, and I the chairman.
Another prominent Bahá’í visitor was Sami Doktoroglu, whom Philip brought to my room in Pembroke College for me to meet. He was an eminent Turkish Bahá’í who did wonderful services for the Guardian in Turkey, including obtaining the Temple Land and, if I remember correctly, some of the Holy Places, if not all, in Constantinople and Edirne.
At the Nineteen Day Feast of Qawl on 22nd November 1950, David Hofman told us that Lotfullah Hakim, who at that time, I believe, was pioneering in Edinburgh, had been called to Haifa by the Guardian to serve at the World Centre. This set us all wondering what great things might be afoot.
In December Isobel Locke arrived to be a member of the community until she should pioneer to Africa. During the same month my parents moved from Northwood to Hadley Wood.
This move back to the Barnet area which we had left eight years before was a strange experience because I re-established links again with so many of my old friends of Beaufort Lodge School and with old family friends of St. Augustine’s Church to which many of our relations still went. However, the links were never firmly reforged, because so much of the time I was away at Oxford, or studying at home, or off on Bahá’í activities. I regret that I did not do more to keep these friendships alive but, looking back, I do not know if I would have had the time to have done so, for there were so few Bahá’ís and the need for activity was so great that I had little opportunity for anything beyond study and necessary Bahá’í activities. Maybe if I had been less shy and more sociable I would have succeeded, and maybe some of them would have accepted the Faith.
The Teaching Conference on January 6th 1951 was held in the Manchester Bahá’í Centre. The engagement of Hassan Sabri and Isobel Locke was announced – both of them prospective pioneers to Africa – and we also had at that time the Guardian’s tremendous announcement of the formation of the International Bahá’í Council. At last we knew why Lotfu’llah Hakim had gone to Haifa, and we were breathless at the thought that the election of the Universal House of Justice might even be in the not too distant future.
One of my fairly regular activities at Oxford was to attend the debates of the Oxford Union Society. Some were pretty good, but some pretty bad. One I regretted going to was a debate by the well-known philosopher C.E.M. Joad and Randolph Churchill, which was a complete fiasco, and instead of going to that I could have had the privilege of meeting Gladys Aylward, the wonderfully heroic missionary to China. In one debate the speaker made the cutting comment that when he came up to Oxford he expected to find the dons “informed, distinguished and godlike”; instead he found them to be “deformed, extinguished and codlike”.
My parents and I had a brief holiday in Bournemouth in March 1951, and on 7th and 8th April I went to the Hofmans’ for Hassan and Isobel’s wedding.
When I went up to Oxford again for the Trinity Term the buildings were all floodlit for the Festival of Britain. This was a nationwide festival to mark the emergence of Britain from post-war austerity. There was a magnificent exhibition on the South Bank of the Thames. The Festival Hall was built for this, and at the so-called “Telekinema” I saw my first films in 3-dimensions. It was all a breath of fresh air and very exciting.
I had been trying to teach the Faith, with no apparent success and on 5th June 1951 arranged for Professor Zeine Zeine to come to speak on the Middle East and Persia to the Peace Association. We were also carrying on a lot of activity for Africans in Oxford in support of the Two Year Plan and, on 8th June had a Social Evening for Africans at the British Council Gallery. Nothing much seemed to come of all these activities, but maybe we made some friends for the Faith. Since I was to be away for the summer and would be studying for Schools (the final exams) the next year, I resigned the secretaryship of the Oxford LSA on 11 June 1951 and Jean Campbell was elected.
On 18th June Philip Hainsworth and the Banani family flew out to East Africa.
It was a busy summer again, with visits to the South Bank Exhibition, going to Wimbledon for the one and only time; attending a performance of “Tristan and Isolde” with Kirsten Flagstad; seeing the Queen present new banners to the London Scottish, my father’s old regiment in which he had fought in the First World War; and visiting Hassan and Isobel Sabri in Bristol. But the highlight was my attendance at the German Summer Schools.
This time I went to Esslingen and had the bounty of meeting wonderful old German believers like Anna Köstlin and Annemarie Schweitzer, and making friends who have remained close all my life. The school was held at the Bahá’í Heim, known as the “Häusle” in Esslingen-Krummenacker. I slept in a hut down the hill. It was a blissful experience to be with such Bahá’ís.
In the meantime I had been appointed to serve on the Public Relations Committee, with John Shortland, Joan Benfield and Iraj Ayman. Marion Hofman and Connie Langdon-Davies of the NSA attended our first meeting on 30 September 1951 in Northampton, to get us going.
I still had no clear idea of what I wanted to do when I left Oxford. I had virtually given up the idea of becoming a school-teacher because I felt I would be no good at keeping discipline and had no enjoyment in ball-games, which every school-master had to be able to take. I finally decided, with my father’s advice, to take up accountancy.
Teaching Conference in 1952 was a momentous gathering. It was held in Birmingham on 5th and 6th January in the Imperial Hotel and seventy-eight Bahá’ís attended. The Africa campaign was uppermost in all our minds and so we were thrilled to have Marguerite Preston, a Bahá’í from Kenya, speak. Alas she was killed in an air crash not long afterwards. The real bombshell of the Conference, however, was the Guardian’s cable announcing the appointment of the first contingent of Hands of the Cause of God. I don’t know if anyone now can conceive of what this meant to the Bahá’ís of that time. We knew about Hands, of course, from the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and we had known of outstanding believers, like Martha Root and John Esslemont, raised to the rank of Hands after their passing. However, to actually have the possibility of knowing and meeting such precious souls had been beyond our wildest dreams. Now, suddenly, this had become a reality. For me personally the greatest joy and confirmation was to know that Hermann Grossmann was among these Hands, for him I had known and he had aroused my intense admiration and esteem and love.
On 6th February King George VI died, and it seemed that one era had come to an end and another was beginning. He had been greatly loved and honoured, and everyone was wondering what the future held in store now that, for the second time in history, there was to be a Queen Elizabeth on the throne.
In March I attended the first British National Bahá’í Youth Conference, in Nottingham, attended by 25 youth.
Between October 1952 and October 1953 was a Holy Year proclaimed by the Guardian to commemorate the experience of Bahá’u’lláh in the Siyah-Chal, and at Ridván 1953 there were great centenary celebrations which also marked the beginning of the Ten Year Crusade and the successful conclusion of the Two Year Plan. A whole series of plans around the Bahá’í world ended that Ridván and all were won, which was a wonderful start for the Crusade, the goals of which astounded us all.
On 2nd June 1953 my parents and I went up to London with two of my cousins to see the Coronation. It was a thrilling experience, capped by the news of the first conquest of Mt Everest, which came out in the newspapers as we stood awaiting the passing of the procession.
On Saturday 18th July 1953 I caught the boat train from St. Pancras Station to sail on the S.S. “Britannia” to Sweden. There were 23 Bahá’ís from Britain and we sailed to Gothenburg and from there by train to Stockholm where we arrived at 3 p.m. on Monday, 20th July. We were met at the station by Mrs. Etty Graeffe, one of that group of heroic American pioneers who had established the Faith in the Ten Goal Countries of Europe during the Second Seven Year Plan. I remember also being welcomed by Eskil Ljungberg who shortly after became Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for the Faroe Islands and who gave me a copy of The Hidden Words in Swedish.
Stockholm is a most beautiful city on islands between Lake Malaren and the sea. The Conference itself was like a vision of another world – the first big international Bahá’í conference that most of us had ever attended. Fourteen Hands of the Cause of God were there, and a total of 377 Bahá’ís. There were so many Bahá’ís around that one could meet some in the street, greet them and just walk on! An entirely novel experience!
But the most moving moment of all in my memory was the viewing of the Portrait of the Báb. The first to view it was, very appropriately, Hasan Afnan, and among the Bahá’ís who passed by were Guity Khanum, a great-granddaughter of Nasri’d-Din Shah, and Mrs. Dawlatshahi, a grand-niece of the Son of the Wolf.
On the Saturday evening the whole conference attended a unity banquet in the Golden Hall of the Town Hall. It was like a banquet in heaven. I shall always remember the Persian chanting ethereally filling that gorgeous hall after the meal, and the profoundly moving speech made by Dorothy Baker. And then we all wandered out through cloistered arches to a lawn sloping down to the shore of the lake, with a fountain playing and the lights of the city reflected in the water.
Another evening that sticks in my memory is when a few of us, including Professor Zeine, were gathered in Horace Holley’s bedroom, listening to the two of them recalling stories of the past.
So urgent had been the calls for pioneering that I was strongly tempted during the Conference to give up my studies and just go. It was a great struggle, but I realized that I still had no profession, and one of the friends who had had similar thoughts told me that the Guardian had advised him to finish his studies first, so I determined to do the same.
The London Bahá’í Centre in those days was a basement rented in a house at 103 Earls Court Road. On the afternoon of Saturday 3rd October 1953 we all gathered in the Centre to meet Dorothy Baker who was passing through London on her way to the New Delhi Conference. She was the most wonderful and extraordinary woman who just radiated a spirit of love and understanding that seemed to enfold one and lift one up.
On only three occasions in my life can I recall feeling a spiritual power emanating from a person: twice beneficial and once evil. This occasion was the strongest of the three. We had been sitting, waiting for Dorothy when, suddenly I felt overwhelmed by an outpouring of love, as if I were being borne up and floated on a sea of love. I looked round and saw Dorothy standing in the doorway, and I had no doubt that her presence was the cause of that feeling.
The second occasion was some years later. At that time John Ferraby was a Hand of the Cause and I was an Auxiliary Board member. We were both at a summer school in Bangor in Northern Ireland. John, as sometimes happened, was sunk in a reverie of thought, apparently oblivious of his surroundings. At the end of the same room I was sitting with a few young folk who were asking questions. As sometimes happens to Bahá’ís in such a situation I found myself being quite surprised at the answers which were coming into my mind and were apparently inspired. The unusual thing on this occasion was that the inflow of inspiration had a definite direction: it was coming to me from or through John Ferraby.
The third occasion was quite different and distinctly unpleasant. I was sitting in an underground train in London reading a book in one of those sets of seats where two face two. At one station I registered marginally, while I was reading, that two people had come and sat down opposite me. Then, suddenly I felt an intense cold and a feeling of evil coming at me from these two. I looked up in astonishment and saw two women who looked exactly as one could imagine concentration-camp wardresses to look. Of course my feeling may have been entirely misleading, for I had no way of checking, but I was very glad to be able to leave their vicinity.
Before the end of the Holy Year, Beryl de Gruchy, who was by birth a Channel Islander, pioneered to Reading from London and we held the first public meeting there on 12th October 1953, in the lounge of the George Hotel. We then continued to hold fortnightly meetings in the same room and Mrs Gladys Backwell and I used to go down from London to support them whenever we could. One can hardly say that crowds of people came – sometimes there were just the three of us – but in due course they attracted Owen and Jeannette Battrick to the Faith and that was a victory which had wonderful repercussions for the British Bahá’í community and later the Pacific, where Owen served for some years as a Counsellor.
Owen and Jeannette had at that time a restaurant in Reading, though they actually lived in a bungalow in the village of Twyford in what was then Wokingham Rural District. Jeannette’s first husband had been killed during the war. He had been on that terrible Murmansk run. I think she and Owen had met in Switzerland where they were both training to be cordon bleu chefs after the war, and had married. At the time I came to know them they had Ilona Rodgers, Jeannette’s daughter from her first marriage, and their son, Richard – a really lovely family – and later on Sarah was born. They were on fire with the Faith from the start and both extremely capable and hardworking. For some time Owen served on the British NSA and then they pioneered to the South Pacific where they served in New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands until dear Jeannette was stricken with cancer and died in New Zealand.
Mrs Backwell too was a wonderful soul and I loved her greatly. She was one of the “old school”. Mr. Henry Backwell had been quite eminent in the colonial government of Nigeria before he retired and had a quiet, unassuming, but confident dignity and capability which was tremendously impressive. Their daughter, Monica, was an active Bahá’í, and their son, Dick, had a wonderfully deep mind and a great capacity for teaching. He and his wife, Vida, pioneered for some years to British Guiana (now Guyana) and really founded the Bahá’í community there.
Teaching Conference in 1954 was held in the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool. It was a quietly purposeful weekend, but during it we were all appalled by the news of the crash of the Comet jet in which Dorothy Baker had been travelling. We had been hoping she would telephone the Conference from London where David Hofman had gone to meet her plane, but instead, her plane had crashed into the Tuscan Sea near Elba. Her loss caused the Guardian great grief and was a terrible deprivation for the whole Bahá’í world.
For some considerable time the best, if not the only, firesides in London had been given by Doris Ballard in her flat on the Edgware Road not far from Marble Arch. She worked, if I remember rightly, at the American Embassy. She was a perfect hostess and, whenever you turned up, she gave you the feeling that you were just the one person she had been hoping to see. At the beginning of February 1954 she left to pioneer in Johannesburg and her fireside was transferred to the flat of Roddy and Bobbie Leedham at the cross-roads by the station in Golders Green, and continued to flourish there.
On Tuesday, 31st March 1954, Marion Hofman came to the Centre in London to speak about her pilgrimage. As usual whenever Marion spoke, it was enthralling. Dan Jordan came too. He was a Rhodes Scholar studying at Balliol College,Oxford. He had just accepted the Faith, to my great delight, for he was the first Oxford undergraduate to do so since I had, four years previously.
A lot of things seem to have happened that spring of 1954. On the 13th I saw Meherangiz Munsiff off to pioneer in Cameroon. At the Convention, on 24-26 April 1954 we learned the news that Dorothy Ferraby and Marion Hofman had been appointed to the first Auxiliary Board of the Hands of the Cause in Europe. This was a great cause for rejoicing, for both were greatly loved and highly respected, and the bringing into being of the Auxiliary Boards opened up to us entirely new vistas of the nature of the Hands of the Cause and their functioning. Of course at that time both the Hands themselves and the members of their Auxiliary Boards continued to serve on Assemblies and committees etc.
On 9th May 1954 John Ferraby who was then the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly, telephoned me to ask if I would take over from Dorothy the secretaryship of the Africa Committee after I had sat my accountancy finals, and to attend occasional meetings meanwhile to familiarize myself with the work. At that time I was already on the Summer School Committee and on the London Local Teaching Committee, and I remember walking up and down in the garden pondering what to do, but of course I accepted and so entered on a fascinating phase of Bahá’í work.
Summer School in 1954 was at Lopes Hall in Exeter and Dr. Grossmann was there, which was a great experience for the British friends.
At this time Enoch Olinga, who had pioneered from Uganda, was building up a wonderful group of communities in the British Cameroons, and on 24 October 1954 Margaret Lloyd consulted the Africa Committee about pioneering to Nigeria. She went to Zaria, a town in the north, and served there for quite some time. She and Betty Reed and I used to pop out to eat Kuchen (fruit tarts) during the Frankfurt Conference in 1958.
The Oxford Centre was a beautiful, fairly large room, at the end of a little alleyway off Longwall Street, not far from the High. It was a tremendous thrill to me to see the Oxford community come so well along in its development. Alas, the following day I learned that Connie Langdon-Davies had died after a long illness. She was one of my earliest friends in Oxford and I had served on the South-West Regional Committee with her. She was at that time, I believe, the Treasurer of the National Spiritual Assembly. A no-nonsense, brisk, but warm and loving person. Uschi Frener (later Mrs Ursula Grossmann – she married Hartmut) had been looking after her. We had a memorial meeting for Connie in London on 2nd January 1955. The Guardian had cabled “Grieve passing staunch consecrated promoter Faith Langdon-Davies. Her services unforgettable. Reward great Abha Kingdom.” That same evening we had a farewell meeting for Philip Hainsworth who was to fly back to Africa the following morning.
One of the major goals of the Crusade for the British Bahá’í Community was to acquire a national Haziratu’l-Quds, and at last one was found in the area where the Guardian had indicated, at 27 Rutland Gate, and on the afternoon of 15th January 1955 it was dedicated. This was combined with a wonderful two-day conference. The Hands of the Cause Leroy loas and Hermann Grossmann were there and Hasan Balyuzi, who was not yet a Hand, spoke wonderfully about the early British believers.
Dick and Vida Backwell left Britain to pioneer in British Guiana shortly after this conference and, in the subsequent by-election I became a member of the National Spiritual Assembly, attending my first meeting on 5th and 6th February 1955. I well remember that meeting. Becoming a member of a Local Spiritual Assembly had been a sobering and inspiring experience – to realize that we nine simple people were responsible before God for all the people of Oxford and were the first glimmerings of the House of Justice of that city. But to be a member of the National Spiritual Assembly, with its tremendous responsibilities, not only for the British Isles, but for widely scattered territories and millions of people in Africa and as far as Hong Kong, was awe-inspiring beyond words, as was the privilege of being able to serve on such a body with those giants of Bahá’ís to whom I had always looked up with the greatest of respect and admiration, such as Hasan Balyuzi, David and Marion Hofman, John and Dorothy Ferraby.
John Ferraby had just been on pilgrimage and he had brought back from Haifa three Tablets to Thomas Breakwell and three receipts for Huququ’llah to initiate the British National Bahá’í Archives, now that we had our own Haziratu’l-Quds.
John Mitchell was another wonderful Bahá’í of that period. He was a medical doctor and had served as Treasurer of the National Spiritual Assembly. He was a wonderful treasurer, not only in keeping track of the money, but in the loving and encouraging little notes he used to send to the friends with their receipts etc., building up a warm and trustful relationship throughout the community. He had pioneered to Malta and while there had developed a tumour on the brain and had to come home. On 13th February 1955 my mother and I visited him in hospital. He was so serene and cheery. He had had a cyst removed, but was still far from well. The tumour had somehow affected the speech centre of his brain so that he would think of one word and say another, but he would hear what he said, and know it was wrong and laugh at not being able to say the right word. He died not long afterwards. Shoghi Effendi had commented to John Ferraby that John Mitchell reminded him of Dr Esslemont.
The British Bahá’ís were struggling hard to advance the Faith on the Home Front. Four Assemblies in particular were absolutely essential, the pivotal centres of Belfast, Edinburgh, Dublin and Cardiff. These, the Guardian said, had to be maintained “at all costs”. Indeed in those days, once an Assembly was formed, the community would move heaven and earth to prevent it lapsing again. Once one of these divine institutions had been brought into being it was regarded as a disaster if it were to be allowed to go out of existence.
By the time of the National Assembly meeting on 3rd April 1955, Cardiff was still in jeopardy and there seemed no way to save it. Then Marion Hofman announced that she and David had decided to go. This was a tremendous sacrifice because they were doing valuable work in Oxford and had bought their house “Roundhill” as an ideal environment for May and Mark to grow up in, but they were willing to sacrifice all that to save the Cardiff Assembly. Had not the Guardian said “at all costs”? This one action alone exemplifies the spirit of devotion that Marion and David have repeatedly manifested. They have loved the Cause with a love that overcomes all else.
The National Convention that year was highly inspiring and seemed to mark a new beginning. Charlie Dunning, the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for Orkney, had just been on pilgrimage and spoke to the delegates. He was a wonderful, courageous, pure soul, but physically rather an ugly little man. However, when he spoke of the Guardian I was astonished and deeply moved to see him transfigured before us. He looked beautiful. It was as if a veil had been withdrawn from one’s eyes and, for a few moments we were privileged to look on the real Charlie Dunning.
By May 1955 news had begun filtering through to Britain that there was an outbreak of persecutions in Iran, and in that month we received a call from the Guardian for all Spiritual Assemblies and Bahá’í groups throughout the world to send messages to the Shah. Of course we immediately responded, from Britain and also from the communities in Africa that were under British jurisdiction. You can imagine the astonishment at some post offices in the African bush when local Bahá’ís went in with cables to be sent to the Shah of Persia.
We were very close to the African friends at that time, continually corresponding from the Africa Committee. I remember that we found the easiest way for the African pioneers to receive their budgets in remote areas was in the form of postal orders, which they could cash at their local post offices (these countries were all parts of the British Empire then). As Secretary of the committee I used to buy these postal orders at the local post office wherever I might be working on an audit, and mail them out. In one small place I bought up the entire stock of postal orders of a particular value and they had to send out for more!
In July 1955 I had the opportunity to visit Brigitte Hasselblatt and Charlie Dunning, the Knights of Bahá’u’lláh in the Shetland and Orkney Islands. I went up by train to Edinburgh and Aberdeen and flew from Dyce airport to Shetland, then back by boat to Orkney and again by air to Aberdeen, spent a night with Sydney and Gladys Barrett in Brechin and home via Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was a tremendous inspiration to be for a while with those two dear souls alone in their remote posts, meeting with hostility and suspicion but gradually sowing the seeds of future communities. I think their mainstay was probably Marion Hofman, who was Auxiliary Board member for the area and who continually kept in touch with them by letter, encouraging and helping them.
Some little time before, at a discussion meeting in St. Augustine’s Presbyterian Church, one of the adherents, Mrs. Rose Wade, had asked a question, upon which my father suggested she might be interested in the Bahá’ís. She and John, her husband, their daughter Christine and her then boyfriend, Paul Adams (who was later to become the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for Spitsbergen), all became interested, and in August 1955 I heard to my delight that the Wades were attending meetings in the Haziratu’l-Quds. Also, other friends of mine, Billie and Madeline Hellaby, who lived in Lancashire, were also showing increasing interest. I had first been in touch with the Hellabys when I was a Unitarian and used to be a member of the National Unitarian Fellowship. Madeline was the secretary, I believe. Anyway we corresponded and she got me to write a couple of articles for the N.U.F. newsletter. Billie was then a Unitarian Minister at Lytham St. Anne’s, where I visited them when Charles and Mark were babes in arms. They studied the Faith intensively, indeed in due course Billie left the ministry and re-trained as a social worker – not in order to become a Bahá’í, but in order to be able to study whether or not the Faith was true, uninfluenced by the pressure of being a minister! That really is a disinterested devotion to the truth such as one seldom encounters.
That summer of 1955, because the persecutions in Iran made the goal of building the Tehran Temple unattainable, the Guardian called upon the British National Assembly to furnish a design for the Kampala one and build that instead. We hastily commissioned one from Maxwell Fry, a famous architect, but Shoghi Effendi did not like it and got Mason Remey to design one instead, which turned out, in my opinion, to be one of the most beautiful of all the Temples and ideally suited for Uganda.
On 6th October 1955 I saw Ethna Archibald off to pioneer in Africa from the Victoria Air Terminal in London. To her alarm she found her luggage was overweight by 21kg so she had to repack in the middle of the floor and we brought away a suitcase of stuff which had to be sent on later. I cannot overemphasize how exciting it was in those days to see these pioneers setting off for service in what were virtually unknown conditions in Africa which had already shown a receptivity to the Faith greater than anything we had dreamed of.
At the Feast of Qudrat, 4th November 1955, the “civil limits rule” was instituted in Britain on the Guardian’s instructions. Hitherto anyone living within a reasonable distance of a town and “able and willing” to be a member of its community had been allowed to count towards its Local Spiritual Assembly. But the Guardian felt that the time had come for the British Bahá’ís to follow the general rule that only those living within the civil limits of a town could be members of that town’s Bahá’í community. This was a tremendous challenge, and overnight many Local Spiritual Assemblies were lost. Newcastle, for example, had only one believer who lived inside the city boundaries. It acted, however, as a spur and incentive to new growth.
In March 1956 I decided to write and apply for pilgrimage. Some time before, my paternal grandfather had given me £100 in Savings Certificates, and this would just about pay for the journey, so I determined to go. And I have never been more grateful for any decision. The immediate reply, as always in those days, was a cable from Shoghi Effendi saying, simply, POSTPONE PILGRIMAGE. One was then put on the waiting list.
In August 1956 I went to the Summer School in Belfast and saw Dan Jordan again. He was rather depressed at having got only a 3rd in Schools, and had just received his call-up papers, so would have to return to the States. He was a real live wire, and the British Bahá’í community was to miss him greatly. I remember one Convention at which a number of friends had been talking all about the great potential that the Guardian had said the British Bahá’í community had, when Dan stood up and protested, saying that we should discuss some constructive action and that we weren’t even sitting back on our laurels – we were sitting back on our potentials!
On 20th August 1956 I left home to live in Edinburgh. On 25th September 1956 Peter McLaren arrived in Scotland to do a postgraduate course in civil engineering at Glasgow University. In those days Glasgow and Edinburgh were the only two Bahá’í communities in Scotland, both perpetually in need of pioneers to maintain their strength, and Peter’s coming was a godsend.
At that time I was still on the Africa Committee and did the correspondence on the little portable typewriter that my parents had given me as a 21st birthday present when I went to Oxford, but at about this time I bought a new, stronger portable. I was also appointed to the Scottish Regional Teaching Committee. My fellow members were James Robertson, Molly Hughes and George Marshall.
On 20 and 21st October 1956 I went to a weekend school in Belfast Castle, going over by boat and flying back. We had by now a room for regular weekly meetings in Edinburgh at 15 Windsor Street and a few contacts who regularly came, and on 10-11 November 1956 we held a Scottish Weekend School in Edinburgh.
At this time the world was still rocking from the Suez crisis and the last flickerings of the revolt in Hungary were being stamped out.
On 23rd-24th February 1957 we held the First Scottish Youth Weekend School at the Shangri La Hotel in Glasgow. It was bitterly cold and we clustered round the fire in one wall of a large room, but it was a good step forward. I had visited my mother and father on 17th February and was greatly encouraged to learn that Father had again refused the eldership of the Presbyterian Church on the grounds that one day he might become a Bahá’í.
In response to my application for pilgrimage I had first been invited for December 1956, but, as this was the busiest time of year for accountants and I had just got the job in order to be able to pioneer in Edinburgh, I knew that I would never be given leave of absence, so I asked the Guardian if I could possibly be given a date in the winter of 1957. His answer was “Welcome second week May”. So I took my courage in both hands and asked for leave. Thus I was granted the inestimable blessing of meeting Shoghi Effendi, which I would have missed had he granted my request to go the following winter.
The pilgrimage was such a tremendously important event in my life that I cannot possibly summarize my impressions. It was from 7th to 19th Jamal 114 (4th to 16th May 1957). I jotted very inadequate notes down each day in two little red notebooks.
On 2nd ‘Ala’ 114 (3rd March 1958) I wrote a postscript to my pilgrim’s notes, from which the following are excerpts.
Whenever I read through the notes of my pilgrimage to Israel, scenes and faces pass before my mind which I have not described in those notes. I meant to type them all out, filling in my memories, but there has been no time. We had no inkling then of the catastrophe which would fall upon the Bahá’í World on November 4th 1957.
I well remember that first lunch in Haifa. I sat to Rúhíyyih Khánum’s left and we had cheese on toast, which she toasted in a little portable grill beside her. We had the same lunch on my last day. I still felt rather nervous and a little unreal.
Much of my first evening at Shoghi Effendi’s table is blank in my mind. He embraced me welcome and sat me opposite him. I am sure I lost a lot of what he said because of the thoughts that coursed through my mind.
More than once in the nights that followed I had a feeling of being with God. I know that, in a way, it is blasphemous to say so, but in Shoghi Effendi I saw God and heard Him speaking. He showed me God as I have never before seen Him, and what I saw filled me with wonderment and tranquillity, and kindled the fire of love in my heart. If I had never even heard of Bahá’u’lláh or ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, I would go to the ends of the earth for Shoghi Effendi.
At Ridván the Edinburgh Assembly had been in danger of lapsing and was saved by the pioneering of Betty Bowd from Reading and ‘Aziz ‘Azizi from London. Also Jeannette and Richard Battrick came for six weeks until Anayat Yazdani could come. Shortly after that, Roshan Aftabi’s sisters, Homay and Dolly arrived.
Roshan Aftabi was a young Indian Bahá’í, Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for Goa, and a great strength to our community. She eventually, years later, married Dermod Knox. Her other sister, Nergez (now Mrs Manocha) also pioneered to Edinburgh while I was there. Anayat Yazdani, also from India, ultimately pioneered to Glasgow.
I must have been taken off the Africa Committee at Ridván, because I find from my diary shortly afterwards that I was secretary of the National Teaching Committee. Indeed, the Africa Committee may well have been dissolved now that there were independent National Spiritual Assemblies in Africa.
In August of that year I received the good news that John Macdonald was proposing to declare as soon as he would be 21 in November. He had been an articled clerk who had worked with me at Nevill, Hovey, Gardner & Co., the only person who was really attracted to the Faith there. He showed extraordinary perceptiveness of the importance of the Faith as soon as I mentioned it to him. He said to me one day that this message was so significant that, having heard of it, he had no choice but to investigate it to find out if it were true, and, if he found it were true he realized he would have no choice but to accept it.
Also in August I visited Cambridge with my parents, and went on to visit the Bahá’ís in Loughborough (lan and Pat Sinclair who lived in a houseboat at that time) and so on to Nottingham. Also in August I attended the Edinburgh Festival Tattoo, which was a thrilling event, and visited Belfast and Bangor. I think I spoke very little about my pilgrimage on these visits because so many friends from Britain had been on pilgrimage in recent months, especially Marion Hofman who made copious and fascinating notes.
On 7-8 September I went to the Summer School in Liverpool and heard the long, thrilling letter from the Guardian dated 30 August 1957 in which he foreshadowed the destiny of the British Bahá’í community in the Pacific Ocean.
During that October the whole world was electrified at the news that the Russians had put the first sputnik into orbit. I later heard from Rúhíyyih Khánum that the Guardian was intensely interested in it.
On Saturday, 5th October 1957, I went down to London for an NSA meeting and received the thrilling news that Hasan Balyuzi and John Ferraby had been appointed Hands of the Cause of God, and later during that month the Guardian’s message arrived announcing the appointment of eight Hands and the calling of five intercontinental conferences. This was the message in which he referred to the Hands as “the Chief Stewards of Bahá’u’lláh’s embryonic World Commonwealth”.
On the morning of Wednesday, 6th November 1957, I found with my mail a telegram from John Ferraby: “Please phone me urgent. John”. I took it to work and phoned John at about ten o’clock and he broke to me, as gently as he could, the news that Shoghi Effendi had died in London and that the funeral was to be on Saturday in London at 10.30 a.m. Somehow I got through the rest of that day’s work and we all met at James Robertson’s place for what was scheduled to be a Local Spiritual Assembly meeting, but we were all so utterly heart-broken that we could just pray and read and talk.
The following day I worked out of the office at North Berwick and on Friday Gwen Thompson saw a group of us off on the Talisman, an afternoon express train to London, which got us in at 10.30 p.m. Dr. M.A.K. Javid and ‘Aziz ‘Azizi had caught an earlier train, so we were Roshan, Homay and Dolly Aftabi, Mrs. Aghdas Javid, Mr. Robertson and I. We were met at Kings Cross by Mrs. Samiheh Banani, ‘Abdu’l-Husayn Banani and Dr. Javid.
My parents both wanted to attend the funeral and we drove up to the Haziratu’l-Quds, being delayed by heavy traffic, and arriving only at 10:30. I was told to join all the NSA members immediately. Father stayed to look after the Haziratu’l-Quds so that all the Bahá’ís could go to the funeral.
There was a cortege of over 50 hired cars lined up in the Park. We drove in our car and arrived at the Great Northern London cemetery ahead of the main procession and waited outside the chapel until the others arrived. I was shocked when I saw Rúhíyyih Khánum, her face was worn with grief and, although she was obviously trying to remain calm she again and again burst into tears during the service.
The crowd filled the Chapel and overflowed outside. After the ceremony, at which the Hand of the Cause Abu’l-Qasim Faizi chanted the Prayer for the Dead, we followed the coffin in procession to the grave, where prayers were read and chanted and where Rúhíyyih Khánum stood for well over an hour while the friends filed past the coffin to pay their last respects, many of them weeping inconsolably.
Finally the coffin was lowered into the grave, more prayers were read and the people dispersed, the Hands and NSA members returning to seal the grave.
In the Haziratu’l-Quds we mingled and talked and at about 7:30 met for prayers in as many languages as possible.
The following day, Sunday, my parents and I set off to London again after lunch, going to the cemetery on the way. The grave was a sea of flowers and it was extremely beautiful and peaceful. We stood for a while and said a prayer, and all three of us were weeping as we came away. Mother and Father left me at the Haziratu’l-Quds at about 3 o’clock. We all gathered in the Parvine Room and on the stairs and then, continent by continent, the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies went up to the National Assembly’s meeting room to see Rúhíyyih Khánum. When she met us Europeans she was weeping continuously. Then we all sat and exchanged a few words until Ugo Giachery and Eleanor Hollibaugh joined us, and finally Rúhíyyih Khánum decided to go downstairs and speak to the friends who, in the meantime, had been spoken to by various Hands of the Cause.
After Rúhíyyih Khánum’s talk, of which I heard little, being outside on the staircase, we all filed past her and she annointed us with attar of roses.
Later on, Marian and Mickey Mihaeloff, Joyce Lee, Betty Bowd and I went for supper to the Shangri La, a Chinese restaurant on Brompton Road almost opposite the Oratory. It was a favourite place for meals during National Spiritual Assembly and committee meetings.
As NTC secretary I had to make arrangements for some teaching engagements for some of the prominent Bahá’ís who were present, and then I spent an hour with Dr. Grossmann because, that morning, John Ferraby had rung up to tell me that I had been appointed to the Auxiliary Board for Propagation. Dr. Grossmann stressed various aspects of the work that were important and then emphasized the importance of not forming any preconceptions of what would happen next in the present situation.
It is difficult now, looking back, to convey the tremendous uncertainty and sense of loss of those days. All the Bahá’ís had lived all their lives in the Faith under the guidance of Shoghi Effendi, some there still were, who remembered ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and a tiny handful from the days of Bahá’u’lláh. But always there had been a clear, firm hand at the helm of the Cause of God, always someone to turn to. And this not an abstract, remote, figure, but a person who inspired the greatest love and loyalty and admiration. Of course for some time some friends had been uneasy and curious about the Guardian’s apparent lack of a son. Some people even thought that there might be a son who was concealed to protect him from the Covenant-breakers. I remember Marion Hofman telling me that she had asked Rúhíyyih Khánum, who had replied “There are no secrets in this house, Marion”, which was sufficiently ambiguous to leave Marion still wondering. In any case we were all serenely confident that the Cause was in the hands of God and that the Guardian would give us the necessary guidance. Then, suddenly, the Guardian had been taken from us at the early age of 60 and we suffered not only the crushing blow of separation from Shoghi Effendi whom we loved so deeply, but the uncertainty of a future for which we could only hope there would be some clear guidance.
On the weekend of 30 November – 1 December 1957 the National Spiritual Assembly met and Hasan Balyuzi who, if I remember rightly, was still Chairman of the Assembly as well as being a Hand of the Cause, joined us during the Saturday morning, having arrived from Haifa the previous evening. He brought with him the proclamation issued by all the Hands of the Cause after their meeting. In my diary I recorded my reactions when Hasan read this epoch-making document to us:
“When he read the words ‘…broke the seals’ I felt a flood of relief at the knowledge that Shoghi Effendi had left a will, because Dr. Grossmann had indicated to me that there might not be one. Also Dorothy said that Rúhíyyih Khánum had mentioned something extremely confidential to Dr. Grossmann. In spite of this indication I had not allowed myself to think of the possibility of there being no will, because otherwise how could the Covenant be preserved? And I was confident that God would preserve it. Therefore when Hasan continued: ‘…placed upon the beloved Guardian’s safe and desk and made careful examination of their contents. These same Hands, rejoining the other Hands assembled in the Mansion of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji, certified that Shoghi Effendi had left no Will and Testament’, I was momentarily numbed and bewildered.
“Nor was my mind eased until Hasan came to read the paragraphs beginning ‘In our capacity of Chief Stewards…’ and ‘As to the International Bahá’í Council’. Then the realization dawned upon me of the miraculous way the Covenant had been preserved. I looked across the table at Marion and she smiled at me, her eyes shining.
“Hasan finished reading the proclamation and then spoke to us of many things which he said were for the ears of the National Spiritual Assembly alone. He described the anguish of the Hands at the tremendous responsibility placed upon them, of their seven days of prayer and deliberation which culminated in complete unanimity and the painstaking formulation of the proclamation.
“He spoke of the commemoration of the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the feeling of tragedy that overcame him to realize that not one member of the Master’s family was present. As he described these events I could not restrain the tears. The Master once said that if Muhammad-‘Ali had not broken the Covenant the pilgrim kings would have made the pilgrimage in His own lifetime. What then must be the effect upon mankind of this subsequent Covenant breaking which had, for a number of years, deprived mankind of its source of Divine Guidance? And how great the suffering inflicted upon Bahá’u’lláh to see this outcome.
“Hasan told us of a dream one of the Persian believers had last summer. He saw the Shrine of the Báb cloven from top to bottom. Out from it walked Bahá’u’lláh and the Master. Bahá’u’lláh said ‘Send for the Chosen Branch’ and Shoghi Effendi came to Them. They took his arms and walked away.”
During the course of the following six years many of the friends were to be shaken by the tests of these events, but the overwhelming majority stood firm in their Faith, trusting in the care of Almighty God, gave their wholehearted allegiance to the Hands of the Cause of God, and arose with a new spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion to win the goals of the Ten Year Plan.
A great consolation to all the friends was the holding of the five Intercontinental Conferences called by the Guardian in his last message: Kampala (23-28 January 1958), Sydney (21-24 March), Wilmette (2-4 May), Frankfurt (25-29 July), Singapore (21-29 September). Ernest Gregory invited Joan Benfield, Betty Reed and myself to go with him to the Frankfurt Conference in his little Standard 8. But before I get onto that I must back-track a little.
In February 1958, the 16th and 17th to be exact, I paid my first visit to Switzerland. The European Hands had called a conference of Auxiliary Board members in Berne. I took a cheap over-night flight from England to Basle airport with Hasan Balyuzi.
On 14th-15th June 1958 there was a conference of the National Teaching Committee with all the Regional Teaching Committees, and we all met at the grave of Shoghi Effendi in London for prayer and meditation before the conference began.
In July Ernest, Joan and Betty came and picked me up for the journey to Frankfurt. We crossed to the continent by an “air bridge” from Southend to Belgium. It was a funny little plane, but we crossed without mishap. Ernest and I took turns to drive, and in Belgium I met with my first “flashing yellow” light. None of us had the foggiest idea what it meant. So we stopped and waited, and, when it just kept on flashing we drove slowly on, hoping for the best. We did the journey in a comfortable, leisurely, manner, stopping for coffee in Brussels and spending the first night, I think, in Aachen. We stopped in Cologne for lunch and a bit of exploration, and finally reached Frankfurt, where I stayed with a very nice family, Mr and Mrs Jürgens. It was a very wonderful Conference, with Milly Collins as the Guardian’s Representative. I am told that when she knew she was to have this honour she was concerned that she would not have the strength to stand for long enough to anoint with attar of roses the friends who would file past the portrait of Bahá’u’lláh. So she got into training by standing for long periods day after day, in spite of her agonizing arthritis.
After the Conference was over, Ernest, Joan, Betty and I drove south through Heidelberg, and on to Stuttgart. There we spent the night with the Haug family and, when we left, Gunter and Anneliese Haug, accompanied by Mahin Tofigh (Mahin Humphrey) and another Persian girl, drove with us part of the way into the Black Forest.
After two weeks back at work I went over with 11 other Scottish friends to a Summer School at Bangor in Northern Ireland. It was a tremendously inspiring occasion, and on the Sunday afternoon a crowd of us went for a sail in the Villiers-Stuarts’ yacht. During the Christmas and New Year holiday period, I went to Brussels for a conference of Hands, Board members and NSA members on 27th-28th December 1958. This did not involve quite as many people as one might suppose, because in those days Hands and Auxiliary Board members were often, if not usually, NSA members as well. For example, the British NSA members that year were: Hasan Balyuzi (Hand and Chairman), John Ferraby (Hand and Secretary), Dorothy Ferraby (ABm and Assistant Secretary), Marion Hofman (ABm), David Hofman, Ernest Gregory (Vice-Chairman and Treasurer, if I remember rightly), Louis Ross-Enfield, Betty Reed, Ian Semple (ABm and NTC Secretary). The Conference was a wonderful experience, and each successive one seemed to show increasing maturity.
The following weekend, i.e. 3rd and 4th January 1959, was a meeting of the National Spiritual Assembly. There was so much remaining to be done towards attaining the goals of the Crusade that the Hands of the Cause had decided to marshal all resources and had offered to support one, or possibly two, full-time teachers in each country. The National Assembly discussed the matter and had decided to put forward my name for Britain. This was accepted by the Hands, and so I left my job on 13th February 1959.
The Edinburgh community had grown by this time. We had a wonderful new believer Elizabeth Laidlaw and two close contacts, Don and Sheila Cooper, who later declared, and new pioneers had arrived, Liz Albrow and Mehraban and Parivash Firoozmand with their young sons Farhad and Shahram.
I moved back from Edinburgh to Hadley Wood, making my base with my parents. At Ridván I ceased to be a member of the National Teaching Committee, but I remained on the National Spiritual Assembly, so at least once a month I would return home from my travels to attend an NSA meeting, and I carried on my Auxiliary Board correspondence both when I was at home and during my travels because, of course, there were considerable periods during each day when everyone was at work so my opportunities for doing actual teaching work then were limited.
I shan’t try to list all my travels, but there were certain events which I think I should record: March 1959 my first visit to Dublin; April 1959 a weekend school at Ogmore-by-Sea in South Wales, where the Faith had begun to spread up the valleys; and Convention of course.
On 18th June 1959 I went to Copenhagen for another of the Hands’ ABm and NSA conferences. Ruhiyyih Khanum was there and infused a wonderful spirit into the gathering. There were also a group of Norwegian friends, with Paul Adams, the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for Spitsbergen (which was in my Board territory), determined to return there for another winter. My territory, by the way, was the north of England, Scotland (except for the Shetlands, Orkneys and Outer Hebrides), Norway and Sweden.
On 1st August 1959 I went to Echternach in Luxembourg to attend the first European International Youth Summer School. It was a profoundly important gathering, bringing together youth from the different European countries who had very different ways of teaching the Faith and approaching their work, and greatly needed to learn from one another. I remember a meeting between Dr Grossmann and a young Catholic priest who had asked about the Faith. I was tremendously impressed by the way the discussion, being between two profoundly spiritual men with a great insight into human problems and character, went immediately to really important issues, ignoring all the minor quibbles which I was used to hearing people raise against the Faith. After the Summer School I went on a travel-teaching trip in Luxembourg and Belgium before returning home, visiting Luxembourg City, where Geertrui Ankersmit (later Bates) was then pioneering, Esch-sur-Alzette, Charleroi, Brussels and Courtrai. In Antwerp Lea Nys and I met Frances Wells off the boat. She had come from Alaska to pioneer in Luxembourg and ultimately, years later, died at her post. She was a vivacious and loving person, with bright red hair, and was a wonderful addition to the community.
At the end of August 1959 I went to my first summer school at Coleg Harlech in Wales, a truly inspiring experience. That was when the old building was still standing.
John Ferraby had been suffering terribly under the great strain of all his work and as an aftermath of the Guardian’s passing, and in October 1959 the doctor ordered him to stop work, at which the Custodians ordered him to go to the continent for a rest. So the NSA appointed me acting secretary for the duration of John’s absence, and John made me his deputy for his work as a Hand.
A memorable visitor to London during that period was Agnes Alexander who showed me what it really means to seize every opportunity to mention the Faith. Marian Mihaeloff and I took Agnes to the Kenya Coffee House for lunch. We sat at a table for four. During lunch three other people, one after the other, occupied the 4th seat, and to each of them Agnes mentioned the Faith! Bill Sears also passed through London but I was away at the Scottish weekend school.
Jackie Thomas (now Jackie Mehrabi) had not long since pioneered to Aberdeen, and on 29/30 October 1959 I went up to take part in their first public meeting, in the Music Hall, to which 16 non-Bahá’ís came.
The National Assembly decided at its meeting on 7-9th November 1959 to convert its accounts to the double-entry system so as to better be able to control its funds. Thus, in between various travels, I spent from 10th to 13th and from 16th to 17th November in Leicester at the home of John and Vera Long re-writing all the cash books from 21/3/59, posting to a ledger, and getting out a set of accounts as at 1/11/59.
As from 6th December 1959 I was made Acting Secretary again because John Ferraby had been made one of the Custodians and would have to go to Haifa. Dorothy Ferraby and Hasan Balyuzi also resigned from the National Assembly.
From 11th to 14th December 1959 I visited Anneliese Haug who was pioneering in Stornoway. This was a very difficult post, both because it is an island and very conservative, and because Geraldine Craney, the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh, had married an Islander and left the Faith, but was still living there. Anneliese and her two brothers were old friends of mine. Gunter pioneered to Austria and has long served on its National Assembly. Rolf became the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for Crete, while Anneliese later moved from the Hebrides to Greece, serving on the National Assembly there.
At a meeting of the National Assembly in January 1960, I was elected Secretary, and on the 18th set off for a teaching trip in the Benelux countries.
I felt very over-awed and tremendously privileged to be teaching in Luxembourg among such outstanding pioneers. Honor Kempton was in Esch, Virginia Orbison in Dudelange and Frances Wells in Differdange, three small very provincial, very materialistic and very Catholic industrial towns. They were all three famous names in the pioneering field; Honor and Virginia in particular were almost legendary, and one could feel their spirit and magnetism just being with them. Geertrui Ankersmit (later Geertrui Bates) was living in the National Haziratu’l-Quds and working at KLM.
Back in England again I combined work in the National Office with various teaching trips around the country. On 8th January 1960 I met Arthur Weinberg for the first time at Bobbie Leedham’s fireside in Golders Green. On 5th and 6th March there was the first weekend school in Aberdeen. Jackie Thomas had by now married Daryoush Mehrabi and joined him in Kirkwall, but she came back to Aberdeen for the school, also Anneliese Haug from Stornoway, Lilian McKay from Lerwick, Harold and Betty Shepherd from Inverness, and a whole group from Edinburgh.
On 7th April 1960 I was in Scotland again for the first public meeting in Inverness, where the Shepherds had established a wonderful centre.
A new procedure was tried for the National Convention that year, with much freer consultation, and it seemed to be a great success
Convention must have been held early in Ridván that year because it was past by Tuesday, 26th April 1960. When I picked up the afternoon mail from inside the front door of the Haziratu’l-Quds that day I found a letter addressed to the National Spiritual Assembly by Charles Mason Remey. Somewhat surprised I opened it and was profoundly shocked to find that it purported to be a proclamation to the Bahá’í World from “Mason Remey, the Second Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith”. It was a pitiful document. One reading sufficed to show it was utterly baseless. Greatly distressed at such a downfall of one who had served the Cause so long with such distinction, and desperately anxious to take the correct steps, I said the Tablet of Ahmad and then telephoned John Long and John Wade, the other two members of the National Assembly’s emergency sub-committee. We decided to immediately write to the Custodians affirming our loyalty and to inform the other members of the National Spiritual Assembly. On the following Friday a cable came from the Custodians announcing what had happened, and on Saturday this was circulated to all the British friends in a covering letter.
Not long after this, Hasan Balyuzi telephoned me to say that I should hold myself in readiness in case the European Hands decided to send me to France because, to everyone’s utter astonishment, the French NSA, with the exception of Sara Kenny and Colonel Barafrukhtih had accepted the proclamation and circulated it to the French national Bahá’í community with their verdict. “But what on earth is Joel doing?” I said to Hasan, surprised that the Hands would think of sending me to France when Joel Marangella, another Auxiliary Board member was on the spot. And then Hasan said that Joel was one of the ringleaders. It seems there was reason to believe that five members of the French National Assembly, especially Joel Marangella and Bernard Fillon, might have been behind the whole thing and had translations of the proclamation in French ready to be sent out as soon as they heard from Mason Remey.
However, as soon as the Covenant-breaking occurred, ‘Aziz Navidi went straight to Paris and then the Hands sent Hand of the Cause Abu’l-Qasim Faizi from Israel to France, who was able to win round all except a few of the NSA members and then organized an election for the new National Spiritual Assembly.
Over the weekend of 4th-5th June 1960 the European Hands called a conference of the European Auxiliary Boards and National Assemblies in Brussels. It was a profoundly moving conference and everyone was tremendously encouraged by the presence of the newly-elected French National Spiritual Assembly. The love and strength and wisdom of Mr Faizi was an inspiration. I remember particularly his telling us all to prepare ourselves to accept without hesitation whatever the Universal House of Justice might decide about the Guardianship once it was elected, and to guard ourselves against forming any pre-conceived ideas, for, if they should be different in any way from what the House of Justice would decide they would be a test to us.
In August 1960 I attended two summer schools: one at Buxton Spa in Derbyshire, where I had the great pleasure of coming to know Ramsey Zeine, who, in the succeeding years has been one of the outstanding Bahá’ís in Lebanon. The second summer school was at Coleg Harlech, and this time my parents came too.
In November 1960 I passed through Luxembourg again. By then Ron Bates, Andrew Gash and June Ritter were also pioneering there. I think the Battricks were also there for a while about this time. This visit was on my way to the Conference called in Frankfurt for the laying of the foundation stone of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in Langenhain.
On the Friday evening there was a conference for the Auxiliary Board members with Dr. Giachery, Dr. Grossmann, Dr. Muhlschlegel and, towards the end, with Hasan Balyuzi and ‘Ali Akbar Furutan from Haifa.
On the Saturday Milly Collins arrived and we were joined by the NSA members. Not once did Milly complain during the whole weekend, though she must have been in great pain from her arthritis all the time.
On the Saturday evening David Hofman and Ruprecht Kruger addressed a public meeting, and on the Sunday morning (which was wet, cold and very muddy) we all went out to the Temple Land for the laying of the foundation stone by Milly Collins. The newspapers reported an attendance of 1,000. In the afternoon there was a teaching conference at the Gesellschaftshaus im Zoo.
Back in London after the Conference I met Collis and Madge Featherstone who were on their way back from the annual conclave of the Hands. Collis let me read his copy of the message in which the Hands urged the members of the Auxiliary Boards to concentrate on their functions of protection and propagation. As a result of this call Marion Hofman and I decided to resign from the National Spiritual Assembly at the next meeting, and I wrote to the European Hands asking them where they would like me to live. At the meeting Hasan advised Marion and me not to resign completely, so I resigned as Secretary of the Assembly, but remained a member, and Betty Reed was elected as the new Secretary due to take over at the end of January 1961, but with me to stay on and help until the end of February to help her settle in.
I did not leave for Scandinavia till March, arriving in Bergen by boat on Tuesday, 21st March 1961, so I was able to attend the Naw-Rúz gathering in the home of Ella Pedersen, one of the old Bahá’ís of Bergen, who was then Secretary of the Local Spiritual Assembly. During the following month I visited various cities in Norway, Sweden and Finland. In those days, all three countries, together with Denmark, constituted the area of jurisdiction of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Scandinavia and Finland.
Overnight from Friday to Saturday 28-29 April 1961 a group of us travelled by boat from Turku to Stockholm for the National Convention. It was terribly stuffy and hot below decks and bitterly cold on deck, so we spent much of the night moving up and down, sleeping only fitfully, and so I was able to watch the sun rise as we steamed towards Stockholm through the islands of the Swedish Archipelago.
The Convention was to be held in the Swedish YMCA and the friends began to gather there. John Nielsen asked me to take some letters to the post office to send off by express post to newspapers and when I got back Modesta Hvide, the Protection Board member for Scandinavia, drew me aside in great excitement. We went out onto the staircase and she gave me a cable from the Hands in the Holy Land informing me of my election to the International Bahá’í Council. Fortunately the cable from the Hands to the National Assembly announcing the result of the election did not arrive till after the Convention, so I was able to get through the Convention and leave Stockholm before anyone other than Modesta Hvide and John and Lotus Nielsen knew, and so gradually get used to the idea.
I arrived home on 3rd May and on the evening of 5th May we were sitting quietly in the dining room when Mother and Father told me they had decided to declare their faith in Bahá’u’lláh. It seems they had been talking about it for some time and had decided to take the step before I left for Haifa. For so many years they had been friendly to the Faith and the Bahá’ís and had supported me in all my work that I could hardly realize that at last they had actually become Bahá’ís. It opened up such wonderful vistas for us all, and especially for them, for Father was on the verge of retiring.
During my travels of the previous year I had several times been to Cambridge, among other times to attend the Cambridge Societies’ Fair and we had all been thrilled at the group of wonderful young people who had accepted the Faith: Louise Gloor, Denise Giraudo and Jeremy Fox. It was a really live community, and on Saturday 6th May I went there again to attend the wedding of Ray Humphrey and Mahin Tofigh, two very dear friends.
On Saturday, 17th June 1961, my parents drove me to Victoria Station to catch the boat train. I was to travel by train via Paris to Marseilles and thence by the S.S. “Theodor Herzl” to Haifa, arriving there on the evening of Thursday, 22nd June 1961.