I wrote my official letter of declaration in January 1961 (we didn’t have ‘declaration cards’ in those days), but as far as I’m concerned became a Bahá’í in the late Spring of 1959 after reading the pamphlet The Message of Bahá’u’lláh, and the book Prescription for Living. It was the culmination of a search I had deliberately started three years earlier, when I was 21 years old, after one of the girls in the office where I worked as a Secretary brought in a newspaper with a half-page landscape photograph – fields and cloudy sky. The caption underneath stated that if you stared at this picture you would see the face of Jesus Christ in the clouds. We duly stared, and sure enough eventually found the face, which started a discussion about whether it was really the face of Christ or not. I was sceptical because, to me, it looked like a Renaissance painting of Jesus, long slim features and fair wavy hair, and I’d always felt that if Jesus had really looked like this he would have been so different from His fellow Nazarenes that he wouldn’t have incurred the disbelieving murmurs about who did this carpenter from Nazareth think he was claiming to be the Son of God, sort of thing! Anyway, that was my own pet theory so I remained sceptical about the face in the clouds, but it did set me thinking about what it would have been like to live at the time of a Prophet of God, and would I have recognised Jesus if I’d lived then or would I have cried “crucify Him” like almost everyone else. I didn’t realise, looking at that photograph, that this was a most important moment in my life.
With all the arrogance of youth I made a decision – to investigate “religion”, and if I found God (at this stage I wasn’t sure if He existed!) I would accept it – and if I didn’t then I would give religion away for ever! My parents were Methodists, but apart from Sunday School when we were small my brother and sister and I had never been forced to go to church or chapel, with the result that I gradually stopped going as I got older, except for “special” occasions. I wasn’t quite sure where to start looking for God but assumed that if He wasn’t in the Methodist chapel (at least not from my experience) perhaps He was in one of the other Churches, so decided to try them all one at a time. My happiest experience was the Spiritualist Church, but for the wrong reasons – it was so entertaining. I didn’t feel the presence of God, but was told I had a gypsy spirit guide. It was hard to take it seriously, so I left and went on. At age 22 I became confirmed in our local Church of England – described as High Church, which meant, I understood, that it was closer to Catholicism. You were required to attend confirmation classes, given by the vicar, but I found myself disagreeing with so much of what was said that I had serious doubts early on. Unfortunately, being very shy, and being the youngest adult in class, I felt unsure of how to voice my doubts amongst older people who seemed not to have any doubts at all, so I kept quiet and went through the whole thing, hoping that once I was able to take communion everything would be right. It wasn’t My first communion was disappointing, and after my second I didn’t go back.
This was also the time that Billy Graham was on his crusades to this country, and although I was not at all impressed with him, my brother and sister were. My sister, eight years younger than I, was so concerned at my doubts about God that she prayed for my salvation. My brother had given me one of Billy Graham’s books (‘Peace With God’) to read, and it was whilst reading this at work, and voicing grave doubts about it, that my boss (Brian Dilworth*) walked in. He looked at the book, said to me “there are better books than that you know”, to which I replied that I didn’t doubt that at all, and nothing further was said until maybe a couple of weeks later when the subject of religion came up again. I asked him what religion he belonged to, and he said he was a Bahá’í. I asked “what on earth is a Bahá’í” (thinking it was yet another branch of Christianity), and he briefly explained, mentioning progressive revelation. I was enchanted, told him it sounded just what I was looking for and did he have any books. I read the aforementioned pamphlet and book and became so excited about the Bahá’í Faith that I told everyone who would listen. It was to be the start of 19 months of hostility from my parents, during which time I was sustained by loving letters from John Wade, then secretary of the National Teaching Committee, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the British Isles, and the wonderful Bahá’ís of Manchester. I still have the letters from John Wade, with copies of my replies.
I was then living with my parents in Culcheth, near Warrington (then part of Lancashire, now in Cheshire) – my nearest community being Manchester, two long bus rides away. The meetings were held in a room (above a shop I think), in Shude Hill. There I met such lovely people as Louis Ross-Enfield, Albert Joseph, Ronnie Bates and dear old Mr Sugar, who looked to me like an Old Testament Prophet. I met Pam and Nuri Sabet – although they weren’t married when I first met them, and Pam was waiting patiently for parental permission – which intrigued me. I first met Ian Semple there when he came to give a talk, and Knight of Bahá’u’lláh Paul Adams on one of his visits back to the UK from his pioneer post in Spitzbergen. The meetings never started on time. I always had to leave before the finish to make sure I caught the last bus home, but they were great times and I cherish the memory of them. We also used to have wonderful meetings at the home of Gitta Chaplin in Eccles, and the many meetings I went to in Manchester introduced me to Pouri and Habib Habibi and family, Bahadur and Shahla Haqjoo, Harold and Betty Shepherd, Kianoush Kouchekzadeh and his brother, and so many more. It is hard to pin down the correct sequence of events, but during this time I was also taken to the Liverpool Bahá’í Centre, which I was told belonged to Dr Miller, by Aldie Robarts who was then a very active Bahá’í. When he picked me up from the railway station in his car he was accompanied by his father, who was visiting from Canada. I wasn’t told he was a Hand of the Cause – if I had been I wouldn’t have known, at that stage, what a Hand of the Cause was. He must have been the guest speaker, but I don’t remember anything about the talk. My only clear recollection of the evening was how charming John Robarts was; the only other person I can remember meeting in Liverpool was Madeline Hellaby and being told, in a whispered aside by someone, that her husband was a Unitarian Minister. It was probably at that meeting that I first met George and Elsie Bowers, but the memory of the evening remains a blur.
It’s at this point that the narrative gets painful for me. My parents who, at first, were quite happy that I was out and about meeting people I obviously liked, started to become hostile when they realised I might be about to change my religion. To be fair it was only my mother who was really hostile – Dad was a very placid person and on the occasions we had private conversations, would agree with my beliefs and would have been happy to let me be, but the moment my mother was around he would be on her side. I was hurt by this and once asked him why this was. He said “you can leave home any time you like, I have to live here”. I understood, but would have appreciated the odd word of support now and again. I loved and admired both my parents and would not have done anything deliberately to hurt them. In fact my mother, at one stage, asked me why I was being so defiant when I had always been so obedient. She was right – I had always been agreeable to their wishes, and was a little bewildered myself at how adamant I felt about wanting to be a Bahá’í, but I knew that this time they were wrong and I was right. I was given a Prayer book containing the Obligatory Prayers, and it was the Long Obligatory Prayer that got me through the very difficult moments – of which there were many. When I mentioned this to a dear Persian Bahá’í friend in Melbourne, many years later, she was astonished. She said I shouldn’t have been given a Prayer book with the Obligatory Prayers in it until I was a declared Bahá’í, and she had never heard of a non-Bahá’í using these prayers, especially a western person. It was my turn to be astonished. Perhaps I shouldn’t have had this Prayer book – I don’t know. All I do know is that I’m grateful that I did.
During this time at home, before I actually wrote my letter of declaration, my mother made strenuous efforts to “bring me back to the fold” as she put it. She couldn’t understand why, when we had been happily Christians for generations, that I should want to change to this “foreign religion”. When I pointed out that Jesus the Christ wasn’t English it was probably the first time that she had given it any serious thought. She tried several other tacks. The Methodist Minister was brought in to talk to me on the basis that he knew something about the Bahá’í Faith. It turned out to be only what he had read in Encyclopaedia Britannica, which at that time wasn’t accurate anyway. He was quite adamant that only Christians would go to heaven and be “saved”, and when I told him that one of the things I liked about the Bahá’í Faith was its good sense and reason, he told me that was proof that it wasn’t from God because religion should be mystical and not logical. He said that Mohammad was the anti-Christ and that to believe in Bahá’u’lláh is denying the teachings of the Bible. He believed in the Oneness of Religion – i.e. the Christian Religion! I asked him what happened to all the people before Christ, or not of the Christian religion, and the gist of his answer was that they were lost souls, which was a shame but there it was. My reaction was that no wonder I hadn’t felt God in the Methodist church – which was unfair to other Methodists, but how I felt at the time. Mum also asked the Church of England Vicar, the Reverend Lee, for his opinion of the Faith, and Dad took a book into work and asked one of his colleagues to read it and give his opinion. When I heard this I sent the Reverend Lee George Townshend’s book The Heart of the Gospel and followed it up with a request to talk to him about it. I still have his letter inviting me to visit the Vicarage to discuss the Bahai’ Faith. It was extremely cordial, and I still have the notes I made of this conversation. He said he would describe Bahá’í as “Christianised Mohammedanism”. He couldn’t see any evil in it at all, and was struck by the similarity of the beginnings of both Christianity and Bahá’í – viz: John the Baptist and the Báb, the martyrdom of early followers, the persecution of Christ and Bahá’u’lláh, and the similarity of Their Teachings. His theory on how the Faith began was that Bahá’u’lláh, being born into a Moslem background, and finding that Mohammad’s teachings did not satisfy Him (as they “appeal to the lowest in people”) decided to teach something that would “appeal to the highest in people” – hence a new religion was founded, resembling Christianity in almost every respect. He recognised that Mohammad had been necessary for the Arab world, but had “ruled by the sword” – and I understood at the time that this was what he meant by the “lowest” in people. He told me that he didn’t think many present-day Christians would have recognised Christ if they had lived in His time. He told me he was reading George Townshend’s book The Heart of the Gospel and seemed impressed that it was written by an Archdeacon. He said that he had found it all very interesting and if Bahá’u’lláh was “the Truth” then there was nothing he or anyone else could do to stop its progress, as “anything of God must survive, however much it is scorned at first”. It was an extremely kind and courteous interview, and I have a recollection of hearing that he had taken the book to a meeting of clergy, put the book in the middle of the table, and asked if anyone had heard of this religion. I can’t verify it because it is not in the notes I made at that time of much of what was said by the Ministers, and my parents. If it were not for these notes on file my recollection of what was said would be much hazier. The colleague in my father’s office? I was never told his name, but Dad said he had enjoyed the book so much he asked if he could have another one! Even my mother saw the funny side of this. I wish I knew who it was, and if he followed it any further, but I was not permitted to know. Things however went from bad to worse. My brother, a newly born-again Christian, was asked to come and talk some sense into me. My father, who had a high position at the Atomic Energy Authority in Risley, was one of the guns she fired at me – namely that the Bahá’í Faith could be a communist underground movement and my association with it could lose Dad his job. I knew this was ludicrous, and unfair, but I also knew that my parents had not long before broken contact with some American friends who had been accused of being communists and indulging in ‘un-American activities’, and this was considered dangerous to Dad’s work so he was forced to sever contact with them. I doubt very much that they were what they were accused of, but such was the hysteria at that time that they lost their academic posts and he ended up working in a Chinese Laundry! What became of them after that I don’t know because I wasn’t allowed to keep in touch with them either, although I had done some typing for them. It was all so silly, but my mother knew how fond I was of Dad and wouldn’t do anything to harm him, so she felt it was a legitimate ploy to try.
In September 1960 my parents made three suggestions: 1) I take three months going to Church and Bahá’í meetings, 2) invite Bahá’ís and Christians home and have discussions, and 3) If I still wanted to become a Bahá’í after that, then so be it. I said OK, on condition that they came to church with me. Shortly before this, and just before they moved to Inverness, Harold and Betty Shepherd had visited my parents’ home and I think Ron Bates and maybe the Haqjoos too. I know that Aldie Robarts came on a separate occasion and showed slides of Canada in the Fall. They liked Aldie. The first meeting seemed to go well, but my mother later wrote a very unkind letter to Harold and Betty, and received a lovely letter back from Betty. I had gone for a holiday in Inverness to stay with the Shepherds, just after they’d moved, and it had been my intention to pioneer there in October 1960, but although disappointed the Shepherds agreed that I should see the three months through – and this was also the advice from the National Teaching Committee. Two Sundays were enough for my mother to go to church, and she said she couldn’t go any more – so I didn’t either. But I waited the three months, then declared my intention of becoming a Bahá’í. I was told that they knew this was what I intended to do anyway, so it would be better if I left home. I then wrote my letter of declaration and offered to pioneer wherever I was needed. After being asked to go to Northampton, and corresponding with Angela Stevens, I was eventually asked to move to Sheffield to save the Assembly which had just become one short. My mother knew this because she had opened my letters. I left without a goodbye from anyone. My dear sister, who was still at school and hadn’t been told I was leaving was oblivious to all the goings on anyway. My father left for work, and my mother didn’t want to see me. I had bought presents for them all but had to leave them on the table and go and catch my train to Manchester, then to Sheffield. I walked the mile to the station, all my possessions in a knapsack on my back, feeling extremely distressed.
I stayed with Ernest and Joan Gregory for a week before moving into a flat of my own. I had arrived in Sheffield one day before Ridvan, and the next day was elected secretary of the Sheffield Assembly. As I was a new Bahá’í, previously isolated and not initiated into the mysteries of Assembly functioning, it was a steep learning curve indeed. During this time we had a visit from Hand of the Cause Leroy Ioas and his wife Sylvia, and as secretary it was my duty to make all the arrangements. I was very nervous in case I got it all wrong, but it turned out to be a wonderful evening – thanks entirely to the warmth and charm of Mr and Mrs Ioas.
My mother, who was really a very loving person, and who couldn’t keep up the silent treatment, had sent me a letter of apology soon after I arrived in Sheffield, with a £1 note in it – not to give to the “Ballyhi’s” as she called us, but to spend on food. Although the hostility to the Faith remained until shortly before her untimely death, at the age of 53, from bowel cancer, our personal relationship became as loving as it had been before the Bahá’í Faith came on the scene. A few months before she died a friend, who had been on holiday in Majorca, had read in the only English newspaper there, a half-page article on the Bahá’í Faith by a Dr Charles Witt (or de Witt) – an American pioneer to Majorca I think. This friend had given it to my mother because she knew I was a Bahá’í, and my mother had read it. She gave it to me, saying “it’s not so bad is it?” I knew that it was an olive branch, and that it would probably be all I’d get, though she did ask me to say some prayers for her because she said Dad didn’t believe in God and he wouldn’t say any. She must have known I would use Bahá’í prayers, so maybe I got a second olive branch after all.
To go now, to the beginning of 1962, when Andrew and I got married. We had met a few months before at a weekend school in Southport, where Shomais Afnan and Amy Hargreaves were the speakers. I was still in Sheffield and he had pioneered to York from Luxembourg. I had seen him previously, briefly, at a weekend school in York when he chaired a meeting but I was with friends, and we exchanged only a few polite words. Andrew’s proposal of marriage, during the Southport School, upset me a little as I felt I was being pressured. He likes to tell the story that he, Malcolm Lee and Brian Whitehead (all sharing a flat) had decided that they needed a married couple in York so that they could invite female contacts without damaging the good name of the Bahá’í Faith. So they ‘drew straws’ to decide who was to get married, and Andrew drew the short straw! It’s a good story, but we’ve been married over 35 years, so it serves him right. We had the civil ceremony at the Registry office in Leigh, a small town not far from Culcheth, but my parents wouldn’t have the Bahá’í Ceremony in their house, nor would they invite any Bahá’ís except Aldie Robarts, who was Andrew’s Best Man. After a “wedding lunch” at the home of my parents we had to catch the train to York for the Bahá’í marriage, given very kindly by the non-Bahá’í landlady of Alan Jones – one of the York Bahá’ís. Andrew’s father travelled with us, and he was the only relative of ours to attend the Bahá’í ceremony. Although we made repeated requests to 27 Rutland Gate for our Marriage Certificate to be sent to us we never received it – and presumably now we never will.
We were a very young group in York, full of enthusiasm, and determined to make Assembly status. We organised what we called a Grand Slam week, a talk every day and a fireside every night. Into this wandered a bewildered Viv Kendall (now Crook) who had seen a sign on the London Underground about the Bahá’í Faith and on arriving back home in York had seen our adverts for a talk that night, given by Farhang Jahanpour. She came in the middle of the talk and couldn’t understand what it was about, but we invited her back for a cup of tea – and it was that, she said, that did it. Anyone who knows Viv and her love of a cup of tea will know what she means. This also brought her sister Christine into the group, and Chris eventually married Khosro Deheim who was also in York. Jack Crook, who came to stay with Andrew and me when we moved from the centre of York to Dringhouses, met Viv and they were married. The first pioneer to York, Golly Sabit, married Alan Jones, and Malcolm Lee met and married Parvin. York became known as the place to go if you wanted to get married! Being such a young community had its pluses and minuses, but we formed the first Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of York and had our photo taken on the steps of the Castle Museum to send down to Rutland Gate. I think they lost it, and we forgot to take a copy, so as far as I know that record has been lost forever. Presumably it has gone the way of our Marriage Certificate. Our daughter Jeanette was born in York, and as far as we are aware was the first Bahá’í baby to be born there. Jeanette was just four months old when we took her to the Bahá’í World Congress in London. She is now working at the World Centre (March 1997).
After York we moved to Porthcawl, in Glamorgan, S. Wales, living in a small village called Nottage. We were isolated believers and our first reaction was how lovely to be quiet and no more LSA meetings, etc., but it didn’t take long to get visits from the Bahá’ís in Swansea and Cardiff, and the darling Newman sisters, Bea, Mary and Flo at whose home in Cilfynydd, Pontypridd, we loved to stay. Jeremy and Denise Fox, Joyce and Carl Card, were some of the Bahá’ís in the area at that time. We also met Charles Dunning, not long before he died. We had to cancel our first Pilgrimage at this time because you couldn’t take children under 10 years old with you, and we hadn’t anyone with whom we could leave Jeanette.
After Porthcawl we moved to Warton, near Lytham St Annes in Lancashire, again as isolated believers, but surrounded by Bahá’ís in Preston, Blackpool and others isolated like ourselves. It was here that our son, Jamie, was born, so we now had a Yorkshire and a Lancashire Rose. We then moved into Blackpool, to save the Assembly when Alice Curwen and Pru and Stan Lowe inadvertently moved just outside the Blackpool boundary. Blackpool was one of the oldest Assemblies in the U.K. and it was felt it would be tragic to let it lapse. It became a frantic and difficult time. We had just learned of my mother’s cancer and that she had been given only 10 months to live. Jamie had had a tricky first few months of his life, and I was ill for a while after he was born. I was visiting my mother, and trying to house-hunt in Blackpool in my spare moments. My parents couldn’t understand why we wanted to move at all, especially as we had a much nicer house in Warton than we eventually got in Blackpool. When National Teaching Conference was held in Blackpool Andrew and I offered to look after the Children’s programme, which always seemed to be sadly neglected at National gatherings. I still have a copy of the letter I wrote to the National Spiritual Assembly about the lack of facilities for children at such gatherings, and letters from Betty Reed, then Secretary, thanking us for the work we did. It was very hard work, but well worth it, and the children obviously appreciated it. We visited the Hellabys in Kendal on several occasions, and were there the night that Joe Foster declared. It was that same evening, I think, that Lucy Hall gave us a copy of her father’s (E.T. Hall) account of the early days of the Faith in Manchester. We still have the copy. It was in Kendal, too, that we met Hand of the Cause William Sears for the first time. The second occasion was just after the new Manchester Centre was opened, if I remember rightly. The Bahá’ís in and around Blackpool at that time were Dick and Connie Lancaster, Ada Hilton and Ada Williams, Adbul Noah and his new wife Sandra, the Curwens and Lowes, Mary Shaw and her daughter Alison, and many more. Blackpool was, it seems, a launching pad for Bahá’ís going to Australia. First Pru and Stan Lowe and family, with Pru’s mother Alice Curwen. They returned to the U.K. and eventually settled in Bournemouth. Next to go were Edythe and Bert Tadman and their youngest daughter Pat, and they are still there. Their eldest daughter Jackie, also a Bahá’í, accepted a nursing job in Africa and married there. We were also destined to go to Australia, and stay there for 20 years.
We moved to Melbourne in Australia, in 1970, and in so doing had to cancel a second Pilgrimage date. It was another difficult move, where Andrew was sent out by his Company and I was left behind to sell the house and do the moving, with two small children and no idea what I was in for. When I arrived in Melbourne, three months after Andrew, I found that not only had I been counted on the Blackpool Assembly at Ridván, but the St Kilda community, knowing I was coming out, had counted me on theirs.
Thus I saved two Assemblies at the same time, and I’m not sure to this day if that was ever sorted – or even noticed. We opened up the area of Waverley in Melbourne, an outer suburb bordering on the rural. We eventually helped to form the first Assembly of Waverley, and these were exciting times. Not long after we got there Australia had a visit from Hand of the Cause John Robarts (by this time I knew what a Hand of the Cause was!) The first meeting was at our house, and I remember we had 56 adults and 12 children attending, and even though Australian houses are generally bigger than English, it was still bursting at the seams. Because I was busy with the catering I didn’t hear all of the talk, but I recall very well his opening remark about our lounge reminding him of the room in which Enoch Olinga had declared.
We were just over five years in Melbourne, and we saw it grow and grow. It was one of the most active periods of our Bahá’í life. Apart from the usual Bahá’í activities of firesides, children’s classes and public meetings, I was secretary of the Group, then Assembly, and also secretary of the Regional Goals Committee for Victoria – and for a while also typing the Victorian Newsletter. Jamie, who was still very young, became quite disillusioned with these Bahá’í committee meetings as they seemed to take all my attention away from him, but he loved the children’s classes, and any meeting which included all his Bahá’í friends, so it was a case of taking the rough with the smooth. Andrew was appointed to the Community Development Department, for which I always seemed to be typing, and then he was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of Australia. The monthly meetings entailed flying to Sydney on a Friday night after his work, back again on Sunday night, then work Monday morning. It eventually takes its toll. During this time he was asked if he would consider serving full-time as the National Teaching Committee secretary. This involved moving to Sydney and taking a much lower salary, but after consultation with the family it was agreed. Again Andrew went ahead of me. Jeanette, who was now 13 years old flew to a Conference in Brisbane just before we moved, and then straight to Sydney afterwards, so Jamie and I were left to cope with the removal. After the Removal Van had left we drove from Melbourne to Sydney, the car packed with what household goods I thought we’d need initially, and just enough room on the back seat for Jamie and his guinea pig! We made an overnight stop, and I drove into Sydney on my fortieth birthday. We stayed two weeks in the Pilgrim House in the grounds of the House of Worship before moving into a rented house in Manly, a seaside suburb of Sydney. During 15 years in New South Wales we helped to form the first Spiritual Assembly of Manly, and then the first Assembly of Gosford, 50 miles north of Sydney on the Central Coast, where we lived for six years before returning to Manly (by now a community of nearly 30). Having a Bahá’í House of Worship within easy reach is a tremendous bounty when teaching, and a focal point for so many Bahá’í activities. I had the privilege of serving on the Bahá’í Publications Committee for several years, and for three of those years being the paid Manager of Bahá’í Publications Australia, and was lucky to be serving when the new PA premises were built in the grounds of the House of Worship. Until then the bookshop had been housed in part of the Information Centre, and the move was a mammoth task. The National Spiritual Assembly of Australia gave us a fairly free hand in the interior design of the tuck-room and bookshop, and allowed me to buy the furniture and fittings, and the wall covering for the Bookshop. Obviously it had to be then approved, but it was impressive the way the N.S.A. kept interference down to a minimum! It was in Australia that we had the great pleasure of not only meeting with Hand of the Cause Collis Featherstone, but of having him and his dear wife Madge to stay with us and getting to know them well. We are still in touch with Madge (1997).
Andrew has already mentioned our trip to the Islands of New Caledonia and New Hebrides, in 1973, with a wonderful stay in Tanna in a thatched hut. We hear that Tanna now has a big Bahá’í population, which is great news. We all attended the magnificent 1977 Oceanic Conference in New Zealand, staying with Owen and Jeannette Battrick.
We are now back in the U.K., since February 1990, and part of the Tonbridge and Malling Bahá’í community. We naturally keep in touch with Bahá’í friends in Australia, but it has been so busy since we got back here that there isn’t much time to miss Sydney – except on very cold and gloomy days. We finally made our Pilgrimage in 1994, and have since visited Jeanette in Haifa twice – at least I have, Andrew only went the first time. Dare I say it is one of the great “perks” of having a daughter at the World Centre!
* Brian Dilworth resigned from the Faith; at least that is what Pauline Senior told me years ago – and I was very sad to hear it for I’ll always be grateful to him.
Kent, March 1997
Jean passed away on 9 February 2017 on the Isle of Wight.