I was born in Cardiff, Wales, on 2nd October 1921. My father was a businessman and was born in Cardigan, West Wales. My mother was, before marriage and during the First World War, a nursing sister in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. Mother was decorated by King George V with the Royal Red Cross medal for her services. Both my parents were practising Christians and of Non-Conformist background.
My maternal grandfather was a minister of a chapel in Aberystwyth and my paternal grandfather was secretary of Capel Ebenezer Caerdydd in Cardiff for over 30 years. As a young man he had joined the Salvation Army in West Wales and had been thrown out of the home by his father who was Church in Wales. The story ended happily as grandmother’s father, a major in the Salvation Army, effected a reconciliation. I remember grandfather telling how the services in the open air had been stoned on several occasions. It would seem that religious feelings ran high in those days in West Wales (towards the end of the nineteenth century).
When I was two, my mother died, and I came to live with my Cardiff grandparents. I was educated in a private school in the city and, not being Welsh speaking, attended an English Congregational church, the equivalent of Capel Ebenezer. My childhood was a relatively happy one, apart from being thrashed once in a while by unreasonable school masters.
As a fairly young child, my grandfather, for whom I had great love, told me that if I read a chapter of the Bible each night before going to sleep, it would please God. I did this, to please both God and my grandfather. To my surprise, some years later I realised that I was nearing the end of the Book of Revelation. As I did so I can remember thinking deeply and coming to the conclusion that, if the Bible was true, then Christ must have already returned. And I had no doubt that the Bible was the Word of God!
In church I used to sit opposite an excellent copy in stained glass of William Holman Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelite painting “The Light of the World”. Perhaps the best known religious painting, it depicts the Returned Christ standing before a door which can only be opened from the other side. The Chapter of Revelation which inspired it starts “Behold I stand at the door and knock..” Bahá’u’lláh, in His Tablet to the Christians, says “Open the doors of your hearts. He Who is the spirit (Jesus) verily standeth before them”. The painting was started in 1851 and was not finished until Hunt had been to the Holy Land in 1853. The Light of the World was in the Siyah-Chal during this time “wrapped in thick darkness”.
In the Sunday School there was a picture of Christ seated with children of many nations around Him. I often looked at it and thought, if only the world could be like that. It was during the troubled years leading up to the Second World War.
Another influence was a book that I had been given called An outline of Religion for Children. In almost 800 pages it traced the history of religion through the ages, concluding with a chapter on the Coming Kingdom. It gave a very fair account of all the major faiths and details for further reading.
So the stage was set but where were the actors? Not for another fifteen to twenty years would I know.
School was followed by a year at the Welsh School of Architecture. My studies were then interrupted for seven years by the Second World War. I had joined the Royal Engineers T.A. and served on the home front on bomb disposals and in Algeria and Tunisia, later crossing the Mediterranean to serve another three years in Italy. During the whole time, I never fired a shot in anger which, to me, was a great blessing. During my time in the army I had ample opportunity to study peoples of different faiths – Moslems, Catholics and other branches of Christianity – and came to the conclusion that they were all heading in the same direction.
After having the opportunity of studying for a few months in Florence, I returned home, completing my architectural training in 1950. I married Audrey Towner in September 1945 and by 1952 we had two children. I designed and built my own house in a pleasant part of Cardiff but sadly, soon after moving in, Audrey developed cancer and died in August 1956.
My first encounter with the Faith was in 1956. I met Dr Ernest Miller from Liverpool, who was working in Cardiff at the local hospital where my father-in-law was General Secretary. I had heard that he belonged to a new religion and was curious to meet him. This moment came and I listened carefully to what he had to say (about spiritual health). I think that my first reaction was to wonder if there was need for another religion. However, he gave me a copy of the yellow pamphlet The Bahá’í Faith. This I read with great interest and recognised the beautiful words from the pen of Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá as being the Word of God. I had then to see how this could relate to Christian expectation. Having read Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era I had little doubt that nothing stood in my way of accepting the Faith. At that time David and Marion Hofman were pioneering in Cardiff and my first fireside was at their home. The very few questions that I asked were answered beautifully and clearly by Marion who gave me a copy of the `Gleanings‘ to read. Within a week or so I attended my first public meeting in the Temple of Peace in Cathays Park, Cardiff. I was immediately impressed by two things: the large number of books that had been published and were displayed, and by the beautiful talk by David Hofman.
As the formal part of the meeting came to a close, I approached the Secretary and told her that I wished to become a Bahá’í. The response was surprising as I was told that I would first have to study the Will and Testament together with the Commentary by David Hofman. I should then apply formally to the Cardiff Spiritual Assembly. The reading accomplished, I made my application and, to my relief, was accepted.
The time was interesting as, unbeknown to me, it was within a few days of Ridván. Cardiff was one of the four Pivotal Centres. Roushan Aftabi (now Knox) had pioneered to Cardiff in time to save the Assembly and as soon as I ‘declared’ she disappeared in the direction of Edinburgh, another Pivotal Centre. When I knew what it was all about, I felt that in a way I had helped to maintain both Assemblies. At my first Assembly meeting I was told that I would probably have to be the Assembly Secretary. At the second meeting this became an established fact. I remained secretary for almost all of the nine years we were in Cardiff.
The Welsh community in those days consisted of nine in Cardiff and one lady in Cwm Bach near Aberdare, whose husband would not let her have anything to do with the Faith. The Cardiff community consisted of David and Marion Hofman, Dr Ernest Miller, Joan and Brian Giddings, Jack Gould (a Cardiffian), Bill and Suzanne Czarnecki and myself. Joan and Brian soon left to help form the Canterbury Assembly and the Assembly was maintained by raising the seven left to fourteen by `declarations’. The Cardiff community was, at last, off the ground as it had been formed by eight pioneers and one ‘declaration’.
Soon after my `declaration’ Barbara Simmonds pioneered to Cardiff. She had been working in London and her family lived in Bridgend, some twenty miles from Cardiff. In 1958 we were married.
During the early sixties, Barbara and I asked the National Spiritual Assembly if we could pioneer to Exeter, which was then building up to Assembly strength but were told that we would be of much more use in Cardiff as we were both Welsh. At this time communities were beginning to develop in Pontypridd, Caerphilly, Swansea, Aberystwyth and in Bangor, North Wales. By 1966 there were lots of native believers and we had heard that the ancient capital of England, Winchester, was in need of support as it had dropped to five. This time our pioneer offer was accepted and we moved with our children, Erica and Robert, to our new home. Two other Welsh believers, Beatrice and Mary Newman from Pontypridd, also pioneered to bring the Assembly up to full strength.
The Assembly at that time, apart from the Welsh contingent, was Susan Golden Kilford who was 84 and had been a Bahá’í exactly half her life, Winifred Pratley who had met the Faith in Bournemouth, Gladia Baron, a friend of Richard St. Barbe Baker and a lady from Brassey Road whose name I cannot recall. Neither of the last two attended meetings, except once in a blue moon. In Winchester but just outside the civic limits were Philippe and Linda Victorien and with the boundary changes they came into the Assembly area. Wyn Pratley died at the age of 93. With the influx of the Welsh there was some teasing by the English that they were in the minority.
There was another reason for our move to Winchester. In 1965 the Hands of the Cause in Europe asked me if I would serve as an Auxiliary Board member. After the initial surprise, I agreed to do so. I was told that I would be serving as a Propagation member for the South of England and Wales from a line south of Anglesey to the Wash and for the Channel Islands. When I started my duties I realised that Cardiff was hardly in a central position for such a task. Winchester seemed to be much more suitable, and so it was. I had no problem in finding a job in those days and found myself designing the same sort of buildings as I had in Cardiff.
Most localities were within fairly easy reach, some in evenings and the ones further away, at the weekends. The Isle of Wight was fairly easy to reach and as Kitty Glover had settled there we were able to help her with the formation of the first Assembly in this island. An airport at Eastleigh, two stops on the train from Winchester, meant that we could be in Jersey or Guernsey within 90 minutes from leaving home.
The Hands of the Cause were, at the time of my appointment, Dr Hermann Grossman, Dr Adelbert Muhschlegel, Mr Hasan Balyuzi and Mr John Ferraby. Among the Auxiliary Board members were Mrs Joan Gregory who was for Protection for Great Britain, Eire and the Channel Islands, Ernest Gregory for the Propagation for the North of England, and Dick Backwell, again for Propagation for Northern Ireland, Eire and Scotland. Among some of the other Board members were Dorothy Ferraby, Anna Grossmann, Charles Ioas, Aziz Navidi, Professor Mario Fiorentini, James Holmlund and Dr Eugen Schmidt. To start with, Marion Hofman who was handing over the area to me, attended the first meeting. These were in Brussels.
In 1968 the Institution of the Continental Boards of Counsellors was instituted by the Universal House of Justice. The initial Board for Europe which took over the administration of the Auxiliary Boards was Dorothy Ferraby, Erik Blumenthal and Louis Henuzet. I served with the Board both as Propagation and Protection and as both together at one time, until 1986.
Conferences attended were the Dedication of the European House of Worship in July 1964, an international conference in Frankfurt in October 1967 and further international conferences in Helsinki in July 1976 and in Dublin in 1982. As well as these, the Hands called two conferences in Brussels and the Board of Counsellors called similar conferences which I attended in Luxembourg, Geneva, Hamburg, London, two in Paris and Copenhagen, three in the Hague and five in Langenhain at the European Temple Site.
Three Pilgrimages were made in 1965, 1975 and 1991. All were different and all very inspiring. The first time we slept and ate in the Western Pilgrim House and spent two nights in the Mansion at Bahji. The second Pilgrimage was completely different with many more pilgrims and the most recent allowed the wonderful views of both the Seat of the Universal House of Justice and of the house of ‘Abdu’llah Pasha which has been beautifully restored. The work on the development to the lower terraces, extension of the terrace of the Shrine of the Báb and the excavations for the Centre for the Study of the Sacred Texts had begun. The appearance of the site of the Shrine of the Báb looked completely different from previous visits.
In 1963 we attended the First World Congress and this year (1992) we are hoping to go to New York. The London Conference was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Ever since I became a Bahá’í I had heard the expression `See you in Baghdad in ’63’. We were trying to see how we could get there when it was announced that it would be in London due to the prevailing circumstances in Baghdad.
Arriving at the Royal Albert Hall I dropped Barbara and our children off and went to find a parking place. On my return, there was no sign of them and so I climbed the steps of the Albert Memorial hoping to see them on the way up. When I arrived at the top I still couldn’t see them. The sight was magnificent – a multi coloured throng of beautiful people. As I looked, a voice in my ear said “What is it?” I looked to see who it was and found that I was alongside a Welsh clergyman. Foolishly I said, with a note of pride: “It’s the Oneness of Mankind.” He responded: “I can see that, but what is it?” So I told him and he was most impressed. There were so many in traditional costume, it was a most beautiful sight. The atmosphere inside the Royal Albert Hall was so sanctified and elevated. It was an experience that I had never witnessed before and rarely after.
When I first became a Bahá’í, Marion Hofman took great care to instil in my heart an understanding of the station, and a love for, the beloved Guardian; a kindness for which I shall be ever grateful.
When, shortly after my ‘declaration’ the Cardiff Assembly organised a Weekend School in Porthcawl, Marion suggested that I should write to Shoghi Effendi to ask for his prayers and blessings. This I duly did and received an inspiring letter in reply. The footnote, in the Guardian’s own writing, was signed “Your true brother Shoghi”. I was, and still am, deeply impressed by such a salutation.
Within a year, the whole Bahá’í world was devastated by the unexpected and shocking news that the beloved Guardian had passed away. Apart from the grief, there was much speculation about the future of the Guardianship and there was little doubt that, in the course of time, a new Guardian would appear. However, the Hands of the Cause, within the terms of the Covenant, set the whole Bahá’í World on a new course and brought the Ten Year Crusade to a successful conclusion, enabling the Universal House of Justice to be established.
The last letter dated October 1957, increased the Hands to twenty-seven and referred to them as the ‘Chief Stewards of Bahá’u’lláh’s embryonic World Commonwealth’, setting out their twin functions of Protection and Propagation of the Faith and creating a second Auxiliary Board to divide these two functions. The second Board was specifically to watch over the security of the Faith.
The funeral of Shoghi Effendi was another tremendously moving experience for all who attended. The cortege, which wound its way through the streets of London, from 27 Rutland Gate to the Great Northern London Cemetery, was said to have been over a mile long. Apart from the British believers, Bahá’ís came from all over the world to express their love for their `True Brother’ and the depth of grief clearly showed their great sense of loss. The moving service in the Chapel and the scene of devotion at the graveside are such as I shall never forget.
Just over a year after `declaring’ I had been appointed onto the NTC (National Teaching Committee) and, in London for a meeting, I was asked by Hand of the Cause John Ferraby if I would assist with the preparation of drawings for the Memorial at the Guardian’s resting place. I agreed and was taken to meet Hands of the Cause Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum and William Sears. I was at once greatly impressed with Rúhíyyih Khánum’s serenity under such circumstances and by her sense of purpose as far as the memorial was concerned. She had prepared a set of sketches which made the nature of the beautiful design abundantly clear. All I had to do was to prepare working drawings so that the paths, walls, balustrades and steps could be assembled. The marble steps, column, globe and eagle were all in the capable care of Hand of the Cause Dr Ugo Giachery. The work included the inestimable bounty of accompanying Rúhíyyih Khánum to choose materials and resolve any outstanding details. The bricks were chosen because of the Guardian’s liking for those on St. Paul’s School in London and the red tile paths similar to those he had chosen for the gardens in Haifa and Bahji after he had visited Babbacombe in Devon. Having chosen the bricks, there was the question of the pointing between the bricks. I asked about this and a twig was picked up and I was told that Shoghi Effendi would surely like this colour. All the time I had a profound feeling that the love of the beloved Guardian was generating the beautiful ideas connected with the design of the Memorial.
Before becoming an Auxiliary Board member I had served on the South West Regional Teaching Committee, the Welsh Teaching Committee and on the National Teaching Committee. After, on the Bahá’í Properties Committee, sometimes as its lone member and sometime, as at the present, as secretary.
As an Auxiliary Board member, my connections with the NSA were as a “Prop and mainstay”, supporting the work of the National Spiritual Assembly and from time to time representing the Hands and Counsellors at national gatherings in this country and in Scandinavia. The work of the Board varied between Protection and Propagation and called for a greatly varied approach both to bodies and to individuals, and was always full of interest and challenge. I was often called upon to give talks and address public meetings, especially in goal areas.
Obstacles to unity, thank heavens, were not often encountered and when found were usually overcome by finding the exact cause and then consulting both with individuals and the Local Assembly concerned. I found that individuals were more ready to discuss problems with someone with a detached viewpoint before consulting with the assembly, which was the next step. One of the more common problems was that of believers who disrupted the regular fireside and were considered an obstacle to progress. This was usually overcome by inviting new enquirers to meet with those of similar background and when the time was right, then introducing them to the whole community.
As Protection Auxiliary Board member I had sometimes to deal with direct attacks on the Faith and this called for a much more exact approach, using the Writings and the words of Bahá’u’lláh and the Master to make the points I wished to make. I was also told, by those more knowledgeable, that there were some problems that would probably not be solved on this earth.
The Faith has grown so much in the last 36 years and the whole perspective has altered. For some years we were told that the doors would close and now the days when work and accommodation could be found easily are gone.
The first Conventions and Teaching Conferences that I attended, saw appeals for pioneers by Marion Hofman and Adib Taherzadeh result in a good proportion of those present going forward to offer, with quite a good chance of success too.
Today, there is an entirely different dedication. It would appear to me that the country is more knowledgeable and responsive to financial appeals and generally, despite the times, ready to give both time and money to the furtherance of the Cause.
The general awareness of both the station of Bahá’u’lláh and of the greatness of this Day, especially as set against the failings of the old world order, has given the Bahá’í community a sharper definition of the urgent and sacred work which has to be done now and which also lies ahead of us.
I feel that the future looks good and that the long awaited development in this country cannot be too far away. The Master said that every seed sown will ultimately bear fruit. How many seeds have been sown over the last decades and what a glorious harvest waits to be garnered in?
The general awareness by the public at large has resulted in one’s being able to mention the Faith without a blank look appearing on the listener’s face. When I first told my colleagues at work that I had become a Bahá’í, I was greeted with “Do you believe in God?” and on replying, yes, was told “Not our God”! Perhaps that was the half-way stage between my Grandfather’s experiences and today’s apathy towards religion.
Finally, one of my fond memories was being asked to chair the last meeting of the beloved Hand of the Cause Tarazu’llah Samandari. This was in Oxford Town Hall in 1968. He had visited this country attending Convention and was returning to the Holy Land to be in time for the celebrations of the Centenary of the arrival of Bahá’u’lláh, Whose presence he had attained during the last year of Bahá’u’lláh’s life. The large Assembly hall, which was a very long room with the platform at one end, was packed with believers who had come from many parts of the country in order to hear him.
A small, frail figure, attended by his grandson, Dr Samandari, approached the platform as everyone stood to greet him. My immediate thoughts were for his health and his ability to speak for long. Dr Samandari said that he would translate for his grandfather and asked for a glass of warm water to be brought. Having made, what to me was a totally inadequate introduction (what would have been adequate?), I sat down. The beloved Hand rose to his feet. My fears were immediately dispelled as his clear, ringing voice travelled down the length of the hall and, echoing, returned back to us. He spoke at length, expressing in beautiful terms his great love for Bahá’u’lláh, the Master and Shoghi Effendi, all of whom he had seen pass on to the Abhá Kingdom. Tarazu’llah Samandari had wished to die in the Holy land and, while attending the Commemoration, he passed away in November 1968 just a few months after having spoken so beautifully in Oxford.
Winchester, July 1992
On David’s passing in June 2009, the Universal House of Justice wrote:
“The Universal House of Justice was grieved to learn of the passing of dearly loved David Lewis, a devoted follower of Bahá’u’lláh. Over decades of tireless service to the Cause of God, including time spent as an Auxiliary Board member in the United Kingdom and as a pioneer to Malta, he demonstrated nobility of character and highly refined spiritual qualities. Of particular note is the responsibility he had for planning and supervising the erection of the monument at the Resting Place of Shoghi Effendi and his subsequent association with its preservation as well as the beautification of the surroundings. Kindly convey to his family and friends the loving sympathy of the House of Justice, assuring them of its prayers in the Holy Shrines for the progress of his illumined soul throughout the divine worlds.”