I have been a Bahá’í for just over 50 years, living during that time in Chester. I find it quite incredible looking back at how the community in the UK has grown over that period, and the way it grew. It seems only a short time, 50 years, but the Bahá’í community and the world we live in are completely different.
I was born on 13 July 1932 in Bletchley. My father was Baptist (though later changed to Anglican) and my mother C of E. We initially went to Baptist Sunday school but at the age of eleven were given the choice. I was baptised C of E at that point. My father worked on the railway and as a result we moved home fairly frequently, according to where he was based. I was brought up mainly in Chester and Barrow-in-Furness, finishing my schooling in Carlisle where I went into library work. Later I moved to bookselling, where I remained for the rest of my working life, the last approximately 25 years in a managerial position.
Meeting the Bahá’ís
I met the Faith through friendship with the first ‘pioneer’ to Chester. At that time, in the late 1950s, there were established communities in Liverpool and Manchester, and that was all in this entire area (i.e. the southern part of the North West). Nearby in North Wales there were initially no Bahá’ís. Nationally, pioneers would be asked to move to selected places to open them to the Faith. Audrie Rogers (later Reynolds) was the first pioneer to Chester. Audrie and I arrived in Chester about the same time, and while looking for a place to live we shared a room at the YWCA hostel. The Faith at that time was unknown here, and Audrie knew no one, though she had an address for Maurice Stothert who had come across the Faith in Liverpool.
I had moved to Chester from Birmingham through work. I was a very entrenched Anglican with no intention of changing. Audrie and I arranged to share a flat. We would argue fervently about religion. If meetings were arranged by Audrie and a visiting Bahá’í speaker came, I did not speak out, as I thought I had little tolerance. Audrie set about going to groups and societies and advertising the Faith. She had the ability to communicate the principles and make friends. Through her I met people from other faiths and nationalities and I began to appreciate not so much the other actual faiths but what they could teach me about my own. Audrie started weekly ‘firesides’, as was the norm at that time amongst Bahá’ís. Topical subjects of interest would be introduced and discussed, and the Bahá’í input would come out. These went on for some years, and Audrie would invite people she met and sometimes Bahá’ís from Liverpool would join.
I agreed to this taking place in the flat, but initially I had little interest and often went out or went downstairs to play the landlady’s piano. However, slowly over about two years I grew to appreciate the Faith, especially during the visit of some months of Violette Nakhjavani. Her gentle appreciation of my Christian viewpoint meant our discussions were less ‘argumentative’ than those I had with Audrie. So I too began to appreciate and broaden my spiritual attitude. Other Bahá’ís would come to Chester for varying lengths of time to strengthen Audrie’s efforts. And so things developed. I did write a letter to the vicar in Carlisle (where I had lived at one time) whom I knew well, and expressed my quandaries. He was alas not very sympathetic and this of course made me search more deeply for myself.
I declared as a Bahá’í in 1960 and still have the letter acknowledging that declaration from Ian Semple, who was at that time national secretary. The move to being a Bahá’í, even after I declared, was slow and laborious, as much changed in my life. My family did not like the change and although my mother, I think, approved of certain things, it was never discussed in the family or really mentioned. Work colleagues and friends had the inevitable scepticism for an unknown Faith with a strange name. I had puzzled over a few issues, such as the celibacy of Christ and the fact that Bahá’u’lláh was not only married but had more than one wife. I was also confused by the idea of a world government where I perceived that one religion could be considered as ‘lording it’ over others. The issue of celibacy faded as I considered the importance of family in God’s creation and the birth of a new soul into the world. The idea of world government was the last issue to fall, when one day I witnessed after a stormy winter what nature could do if it was God’s will, and how society and the changing ideas of mankind have developed over the centuries. I realised that world government will come into being through the voluntary coming together of the peoples of the world.
Early years as a Bahá’í
I met some of the Hands of the Cause in my early days as a Bahá’í. I remember Bill Sears giving a talk, and I have an old prayer book with an inscription by Mr Jalal Khazeh: “It was a great privilege for me to be with Bahá’ís of the British Isles in the Dublin Summer School and the spirit of love that the friends offered to each other. Be steadfast in the Love of Bahá’u’lláh and that will be the source of your endeavour.” That inscription I think gives his attitude.
In 1962 I went on pilgrimage with Audrie. On the way we stopped over in Rome and had the blessing of meeting Hand of the Cause Ugo Giachery. As a still comparatively new Bahá’í, pilgrimage was a very different experience to when I went again some years later. I remember crying my eyes out to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Shrine. While in Israel, we also visited some of the Christian sites as I was still gradually moving through the transition between the faiths. We had the privilege of staying at the old Pilgrim House, when there were fewer pilgrims than now. I remember meeting Fujita the gardener, who had known ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, though I did not appreciate what a blessing that was until later.
At Ridván 1962, the first Local Spiritual Assembly in Chester was formed. Among the members were Maurice and Gilly Stothert. They were brother and sister, local people. Maurice had met Bahá’ís briefly in Liverpool prior to Audrie’s coming. There was Bill Crump, a local Bahá’í who was on the Assembly for some years after Maurice and Gilly died. There were also: John and Viola Herman – pioneers from Canada; Jack Crook, who pioneered to Chester from South Wales; and Habib Habibi who used to travel each day from Manchester where he had his business. And, of course, Audrie and myself. Maurice was retired by then, Bill Crump worked at Van Leer industries in Ellesmere Port, Audrie was a school teacher. Jack and the Hermans were only in Chester temporarily. We had a great deal of help from pioneers over the next few years: Ernest Miller, from Liverpool (who left his house in Liverpool to the Bahá’í community, where it became the Bahá’í Centre and was at one time known as the Ernest Miller Institute) was here for a period, as were Billy and Chris Lee, who later pioneered to Botswana. Audrie married Johnathan Reynolds, an American whom she met at the 1963 World Congress, and she worked in the USA for the Bureau of Indian Affairs with her husband for some years. They later pioneered to Kamchatka in Russia. The community settled down later when we had several young families settling here: Joan and Eric Bowers from Liverpool, Billy and Chris and the Grimshaw family. I must also mention the Nahkjavani family who were here very early on.
I helped at the World Congress at the Royal Albert Hall in 1963. I took a couple of weeks’ holiday and went down to London in advance of the World Congress, to help unpack all the many boxes of books that came from all over the world for display there. Sometimes I worked alone, and at other times friends would come to help. I also helped to man the displays. As a result I did not get in to many of the sessions but was very happy in what I did instead. Such a blessing.
I went to the International Conference in Helsinki. I did wonder about going as I had not got much money at the time, and it seemed rather a luxury. However I was glad afterwards that I had gone, as it gave such a wonderful insight into the worldwide family of the Faith and the tremendous hospitality of the Finnish Bahá’ís. It was, incidentally, Betty Reed who encouraged me to go. I have much in my early days as a Bahá’í to thank her for.
I have lived all my Bahá’í life in Chester. This was not initially my intention. I had never been used to living in one place for a long period, but events and needs in the community led to my staying here. The kind of activities we pursued were all the usual ones of public meetings, firesides, newspaper and bus advertising and, yes, presenting books to the library, though it was sometimes difficult to trace them later – largely due to lack of interest in them locally.
The UK Bahá’í community has of course changed a great deal since I first declared. In the early 1960s we did a lot of travelling. Initially, we would travel to North Wales in ones and twos. Bill Crump used to take one or other of us down to Bangor on the back of his motor bike to support the lone pioneer there, and before that even, to visit the brother of Lou Turner and Pat Brackenridge who lived there, though he did not become a Bahá’í. Later, as communities grew, there was quite a lot of cooperation between Chester and North Wales. Right from the beginning, the Liverpool Bahá’ís helped us – even before the creation of the Chester LSA. We too would visit there, and to the Manchester area. Each community had goal areas, and we would be supporting this and cooperating with other communities. As the Faith grew, regional teaching committees were formed.
I remember we all had more preparation before we declared in those days, and we used to read more of the Guardian’s works. The community being so much smaller, it was perhaps a bigger step to change one’s religion.
Obstacles to unity and teaching are perhaps inevitable in a growing community made up of such diverse people, and one that is trying to establish itself in a sceptical society and is not Christian in the accepted sense of society. Sometimes it does seem as though there are a tremendous number of tests but, again, is that the way the Faith will grow on a firm foundation? I do not know.
I have always loved anything to do with books and have helped with the Book Agency we have run for the Publishing Trust here for some years. I was on the Publishing Trust team for a brief period at the time of the World Congress. By character I am driven by practical and methodical traits that have sometimes been useful and sometimes maybe a hindrance. I am not a talker. I only hope that I have been able to contribute a little.