Miss Florence Pinchon’s Memories of Dr J.E. Esslemont
Herewith I light my little candle on the altar of remembrance to the memory of one to whom I am forever indebted for my knowledge of the Bahá’í Faith.
I remember that it was a sad, grey afternoon during the second year of World War I that I first had the privilege of meeting Dr John Esslemont. I was attending a lecture to be given in the Theosophical Lodge, Bournemouth, as I happened to be a member of this society in South Africa, from which I had recently returned.
But the shadowy room seemed to light up for me when the speaker on the Bahá’í Movement (as it was then called) rose to address us. He was a man in the prime of life, modest but confident in bearing, with a fresh complexion, fair hair, and a carnation in his button-hole.
Speaking simply in a quiet voice, he began to relate the story of the Báb and the dramatic events connected with his brief and wonderful life. The Báb – I was startled, suddenly recalling that I had heard that strange name before in a lecture in Johannesburg, and at the time had been impressed by the amazing courage and devotion which this youthful Reformer had inspired in His followers. But then the story continued with the history of the Prophet – “He Whom God would make manifest” – the life-long sufferings He endured in order to deliver His message of love and unity to men, and also the noble character of His son, the Exemplar and Interpreter of His teachings. All this was new, and the clarity and sincerity of the speaker deeply engraved these surprising facts on my mind. Here were no philosophical theories, however interesting, or cold intellectual arguments. Here were portrayed strong Sons of God, personalities possessing a magnetic power to attract and subdue hearts, and actually create the brotherhood in which I believed. Although no longer adhering to the dogmas and ritual of institutional Christianity, I had still cherished the hope that the Spirit of Christ, as promised in the Bible, might some day come to earth again. That hope had now grown dim. But were not these events worth investigating?
At the close of the meeting I approached the Doctor and going straight to the point questioned: “Do you think this could be what is called the Second Coming?” “I do”, he replied firmly, and then to my surprise, promptly added a warm invitation to “Come and study the subject” with him.
I noticed that in the subsequent addresses given by the Doctor at the Adult Schools, Rotary Club, Fellowship Societies, etc., he was always careful to provide his audience with some adequate historical background, thus relating the teachings directly to their spiritual source and inspiration.
The Doctor’s sunlit sitting-room in the beautiful sanatorium at Southbourne may still be remembered by some of those seekers after Truth, friends from abroad, and casual visitors who were his guests during the following years. The Doctor seated in his favourite armchair, the bright flowering plants at the windows, through which one caught a glimpse of spacious lawns bordered by tall trees. The sanatorium at such a time was, naturally, very full but the Doctor usually had a few hours of leisure in the afternoons, most of which he now devoted to the interests of the Cause. Gladly he would sacrifice his rest to the two or three who came to study the Bahá’í writings, patiently reading aloud from the comparatively few books then available, answering questions, and enabling us to become familiar with the symbolism and ornate language of the East. Regarding certain controversial subjects, such, for instance, as reincarnation, he would offer the Bahá’í explanation, and leave it for us to grasp more clearly as our knowledge of these mysteries deepened, thus avoiding much useless discussion. Meanwhile, if we believed in Bahá’u’lláh we should be willing to accept in faith.
In this studious and prayerful atmosphere it was possible to forget for a while that friends were dying at the front, the austerity of living, the uncertain future, one’s country in grave danger. Here could be found a centre of peace in the heart of the storm.
After tea, which we often shared, the Doctor would take his daily walk, and go to visit someone who might listen to the Message – a former patient, a crippled peddler, a member of some progressive society. With restrained eagerness he seized every opportunity to offer spiritual counsels and, when necessary, practical helpfulness.
Despite my intellectual assent I did not accept the Cause quickly, feeling in great need of some deeper assurance of the heart. Then one day when ill in bed, it came, in the flash as of a shining sword across my closed eyes. The veil was torn from my spiritual sight – I knew, at last, beyond all shadow of doubt. The Doctor received my `declaration’ with a sweet smile and a fervent “Thank God”. Experience has shown how essential is this personal assurance and surrender of the heart, with its ever increasing love for the Manifestation and willing obedience to the Administrative Order. Those who join our Cause without it do not stay the course, or stand the tests of their loyalty.
One day the Doctor remarked that the Cause was in great need of some comprehensive survey of its history and teachings; and it soon transpired that he had already begun to collect notes for the book that was to make him known throughout the Bahá’í world, and which is still regarded as the standard work on the subject. It took five years of patience and perseverance and a financial outlay to accomplish the task. But now Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era constitutes his finest and lasting memorial.
Meanwhile the Doctor’s energies were expended in many other directions. Fired with the idea of an international auxiliary language, he mastered Esperanto in a remarkably short time and, determined that our little group should do the right thing also, announced his intention of starting a class. So a small room was rented and he mounted the platform in the role of instructor. Later his knowledge of the lingvo and his services to the British Esperanto Association in translations accorded him the FBEA (Fellow of the British Esperanto Association).
Visitors and helpers began to arrive. Dear Dr Lotfu’lláh Hakím spent some holidays here, forming with Dr Esslemont a deep bond of friendship. Mrs George came to help with firesides and addresses.
Major Tudor Pole brought his family to Southbourne during the war years, and kindly allowed us to conduct a little Sunday school class in his home. Also we were now and then enlivened by the arrival of a few Persian students during their holidays. But the Doctor welcomed his most distinguished visitor in the person of Shoghi Effendi, then studying at Balliol College, Oxford. How little we imagined then to what immense responsibilities and high spiritual destiny this radiant youth enjoying a summer afternoon on the river at Christchurch would soon be called!
In spite of his initiative and energy, the Doctor’s health was precarious, as he suffered from the same disease of which he was a specialist – tuberculosis. Now and then he would be obliged to remain for a few days in bed. On such occasions we felt, with a little sinking of the heart, the force of his favourite quotation: “Behold a candle how it gives its light. It weeps its life away drop by drop in order to give forth its flame of light.”
Dr Esslemont’s departure on pilgrimage to Haifa was naturally the cause of much excitement. I dimly surmised that so momentous a journey would presage changes, and that our beloved leader would hereafter belong to a wider world. When saying goodbye to me he said humbly: “Pray for me. You know this is going to be my test.”
In his vivid and detailed diary, the Doctor has recorded this – the highlight and deepest experience of his life.
After the Doctor’s return from Haifa, I was very much preoccupied and so can only recall a few glimpses of the course of his activities.
I remember a beautiful silken Persian rug with a mihrab design that appeared on the wall of his room – a gift, I believe, from friends in Persia.
On one occasion we received a visit from Mr Louis Bourgeois with his brilliant blue eyes, fascinating sketches of the Temple at Wilmette which he had designed, and wonderful stories of its inception. He told us of how he had been conscious of receiving, during the unfoldment and progress of his work, inspiration from the spiritual world. “Bahá’u’lláh was the Creator of this building,” he said, “to be erected to His glory.”
The passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on November 28th 1921 was a profound shock. When the Doctor called to bring me the grievous news he found it difficult to speak. Even his health was for a time affected. It was also a deep disappointment that the Master, therefore, only had time to revise the earlier chapters of his book.
Shoghi Effendi, summoned at once to Haifa, paid a very brief farewell visit, but was able to address us at a hastily arranged meeting. Even in such distressful circumstances he sought, like the Master, to cheer and encourage us. We must not consider the smallness of our numbers. To illustrate, he related the story of how a very small, bent and wrinkled old woman asked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s permission to introduce her three sons. Whereupon three tall stalwart young men came forward and stood around her. “Behold”, exclaimed the Master smilingly, to the believers present, “from how tiny an acorn these mighty oaks have sprung”!
In the autumn of 1923 came the heartening news of the publication of the Doctor’s precious book. Glad as we were that this, his masterpiece, had at last been achieved, we could hardly then realise how great a future lay before it, or how invaluable would prove to be this gift to our Cause.
Events moved quickly. Finally, owing to change of ownership, the Doctor’s appointment at the sanatorium terminated. His career in Bournemouth where he had become so well-known and highly respected came to an end. For us, the little group of Bahá’ís, it seemed as though a light had gone out. Yet we took comfort from the realisation that the light would not be dimmed, but maybe shine all the brighter now, and “the destiny of His servants is in his hands.”
An obituary of Miss Florence Pinchon appears in Bahá’í World, Vol. XIV.