I was born the son of a Methodist minister in 1935. In those days, Methodist ministers never stayed longer than 7 years in any one place. So, born in Birmingham, I moved early, living in Manchester and then Bristol during the war years, and then back in the Midlands before leaving home to go to Leeds University in 1953. Yes, it was a Christian upbringing; I was encouraged to pray with Mum and Dad, and went to Church and Sunday School every Sunday. My father came from farming stock, found theological college difficult, emerged quite undogmatic and soon gained a reputation for his friendliness. I remember when we moved to Shaftesbury in 1953 (as I was about to go to Leeds), after conducting his first service there, he crossed the road to introduce himself to the priest at the Catholic Church there. In those days, that raised a few eyebrows! His sermons were from the heart and, until his dying day, moved me. Mum was his “unpaid curate”. I couldn’t have had better parents.
What an eye-opener going to University was for me! So many people of different backgrounds, nationalities – and religions! On Registration Day there, all the student societies had their stands. There was the Ecumenical Society, the Communist Society, the Humanist Society (or was it the Atheist one?) where I made a good friend, and all sorts of others. Then there was “Meth Soc” which happened to be the largest religious student society, with some 200 members as I recall. I joined them; rather than from deep religious conviction, it was a home away from home for me in this strange, new world.
Meeting all these different people made me realise that the main reason I was a Christian, and a Methodist at that, was that I was born one! Most of the people I was meeting were born otherwise! What basis did I have, then, for believing my religion was right and theirs, if not wrong, less right than mine? It was time my fellow Methodists and I learnt a bit more about those other religions! So, while I was President of Meth Soc (in 1957 or 1958), we organised a whole series of speakers from other religions to address our Sunday afternoon meetings. One was a Bahá’í, by the name of Ian Semple. His claim that all the main religions were divinely inspired really clicked with my way of thinking but at the time I felt the last thing the world needed was yet another religion!
And there the matter lay for the next 50 years or so during which I soon got busy with career and family. My only reminders of the Bahá’í Faith during that time were the books on my bookshelves: David Hofman’s “The Renewal of Civilization” and two others. Nor did I become involved in any other religious group.
Here’s a brief synopsis of those non-Bahá’í years:
I graduated in chemistry at Leeds University, and stayed on for a Masters in textiles. While in Leeds, I met my future wife, Janice, who had also been brought up in the Methodist tradition. Janice and I married in 1959 and our first son was born in 1960. That’s when I started my textiles career, back in Manchester. In 1967, after being made redundant, Janice and I emigrated to the USA now with our two small sons. For most of the time up to 1985, we lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Mark and Richard did most of their growing up. In 1985, still working for the same American company, I returned to head up its European office, first out of London and then Basel, Switzerland, where Janice and I lived from 1991 until retirement in 1999.
Janice and I retired to Dorset in 1999, while our two sons continued to live with their families in and near North Carolina. Not wishing to be totally useless after retirement, we both enrolled with the Dorset Adult Education Service as volunteer tutors in ‘Basic Skills’ (literacy and mathematics) for mature English people with learning difficulties, and foreign students. We attended language classes (Janice in Spanish, I in French). I’m also a volunteer driver for the Helping Hands project of Age Concern in Wareham.
During all those years, I heard hardly anything about the Bahá’ís. But I do remember a visit to Tunisia in the late 1990s; I was working with an interpreter and, over lunch, I asked him if he was a Muslim. “Actually” he said “I’m a Bahá’í”. “Oh” I responded, “I remember meeting a Bahá’í once, a long time ago when I was a student; his name was Ian Semple; he addressed a meeting for us.” “Oh really! You may like to know he is now one of the nine members on our Universal House of Justice in Haifa!” How strange that I could remember Ian’s name then while, to this day, the names of all our other speakers totally escapes me!
It was not until 2004 that I returned to the unfinished business of what to do about the Bahá’í Faith. I traced the Dorset Bahá’ís through the Bahá’í UK website and put some of the questions on my mind to Mike Tempest there.
You see, the Faith would require me to regard all the founders of the great religions as essentially equivalent and that, I thought, was a bit too simplistic. How could you put Muhammad, who was said to have spread his religion by the sword, in the same category as Jesus Christ? And what about the Buddha? Although a saintly character, he didn’t seem to mention God at all (certainly not all Buddhists believe in God) – and he seemed to believe in reincarnation, which Bahá’ís don’t. Mike was really helpful in finding answers to my questions and, in so doing, he introduced me to that tremendous research resource: “Ocean”.
With some trepidation, I accepted Mike’s invitation to attend a so-called fireside at Mike and Sally’s home in Poole. About a dozen people were there. After introductions, Mike told me that, as a new enquirer, I was entitled to ask them anything I liked. I think I first asked them why they were Bahá’ís and, in turn, several of them told me their stories. What a variety of tales I heard! What a variety of backgrounds! I think I’d expected a rather cerebral and serious group but I remember telling Janice when I got home “These Bahá’ís are ordinary people, a mixture like you might meet anywhere!” There was no putting on of airs, they were completely natural – and they even had a sense of humour (highly developed in some cases!)
I continued attending those fortnightly firesides, each with its devotional part, then a study section and, finally, refreshments prepared by Sally Tempest. I was also invited to the occasional event where I met other members of the larger Bahá’í community in Dorset. Then, sometime in 2005, and without any pressure from anybody, I felt compelled to decide whether I recognised Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God for this age, or not. It had to be one or the other. There were no great flashes of light; no sudden insights. But I was now 70 years old, I couldn’t put it off for ever! Nor could I expect to resolve all the queries I had;
I would have to accept some things on trust. The weight of the evidence was, increasingly to my mind, that He was who He said he was. So, I declared as a Bahá’í. A seed sown by Ian Semple all those years ago germinated.
What difference has it made to my life?
I’d like to say I’m a better person for it, but I don’t believe I can. (Janice will confirm that my lack of patience is as acute as ever!) I’m working on it! In any case, Bahá’ís are not necessarily better people than adherents of other religions – or of none – are they?
It’s certainly made a difference to how I spend (part of my) time. I still attend firesides, cluster meetings, occasional feasts, Ruhi study groups (having now completed the first 7 Ruhi books and Unit 1 of the proposed Book 8). I took a children’s class for a short time, am involved peripherally in a multi-faith group in Dorchester, and have given seminars on the Faith to student groups in Weymouth.
Most of all, the Faith has given me a view of the world that is profoundly satisfying: the very idea of the ‘progressive revelation’ throughout mankind’s history of God’s unfolding plan for this world, not just the next, culminating in nothing less than the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth that Christians pray for in the Lord’s Prayer.
There are other insights which are a breath of fresh air to me: the idea that work done in the spirit of service is equivalent to worship; the emphasis on avoiding backbiting, and on teaching rather than proselytising; the exhortation to “consider man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value…”; another to “consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship”; that religious truth and scientific truth are the two wings on which mankind can soar; that the present state of turmoil of mankind can be likened to adolescence, and that the Great Peace will happen – but at a rate that depends on us, and so on.
I’m asked to tell of the effects on family and friends of my becoming a Bahá’í.
Most important of course is my wife, Janice. Whilst she does not share my faith and has no allegiance to any named religion, she is most tolerant of my involvement and has become fond of many of my Bahá’í friends.
Other relatives and friends who didn’t already know, became aware of my Bahá’í connection at the time of our Golden Wedding celebrations a couple of years ago, attended by several Bahá’í friends. They have responded variously: with quite keen interest, mild curiosity, bemusement, and (though not to my face) mild shock. Many have responded not at all. Many of them are committed Christians, some Methodist; good people, and I wouldn’t presume to impose my convictions on them. With occasional exceptions, I suppose we practise that very English tradition of not discussing our personal finances, politics, or religion!
Dorset, September 2011