In 1995, having been a Bahá’í for thirty years, I was stunned when visiting the grave of my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather James Blyth (1771-1830) a founding Elder of the first Presbyterian Church of Limekilns near Dunfermline, Scotland. His headstone in Rosyth Old Churchyard reads “WATCH AND BE READY FOR AT SUCH A TIME AS YOU THINK NOT, THE SON OF MAN COMETH”. This hit me like a bolt of lightning. I believe it an astounding confirmation of my belief from a distinguished Christian member of my family. James Blyth was Tutor to the Earl of Elgin (he of ‘Elgin Marbles’ fame) and was Headmaster of Limekilns School. He taught the classics, and navigation to seafarers.
Again I am astounded by my God-fearing Great-Great-Grandfather, Peter Blyth (1815-1905) who in 1841 married Elizabeth Dean, daughter of a Mr John Dean of Ryecroft, Manchester. In the early 20th Century there was a Mr and Mrs Dean who were supporters of the Bahá’í Faith and I believe became Bahá’ís in Manchester. I have yet to check any close family connection.
I was brought up for my first seven years in the town of Marple and in Strines village, Cheshire, and attended Marple High School. From seven to thirteen I boarded at Beech Hall Preparatory School, Macclesfield, and lived in Wilmslow. Here I became Captain of Rugby and Cricket and Head Boy. From thirteen to nineteen I boarded at St Bees, a private boarding school on the remote west coast of Cumberland, and lived at home with my parents in the holidays.
I think the idea of boarding school as a first choice for raising children (a notion still held by some British people) is misplaced and often downright cruel. Under such a regime a child has no access to parental guidance, is excluded from home and community life, and is part of a very brief and therefore ‘non-community’ at school. The damage done to Britain as a whole by the separation of one group of children from their peers in the local community, I would say, is all too obvious.
Becoming a Bahá’í
At daily church services at St Bees School I became used to the constant repeating of stories about the Second Coming of Christ, and about how people at the time rejected His claim to be the Promised One. I believe that this made me sympathetic to such a plight, and determined that I would not walk over impossible-seeming claims and people without first investigating them. My unhappiness, both at boarding school and at home with my parents, whose cares led them into constant dispute, left me seriously looking for answers.
I would be glossing over a major catastrophe in my life by not mentioning my failure to investigate the misery at boarding school and home by not talking to trusted friends and professional counsellors. The result of this failure was that for long periods, over a span of eleven years (1967 to 1978) I was incarcerated in three Victorian mental hospitals scattered across the UK. Though reducing my career chances then to virtually nil, such a long drawn out and terrifying experience gave me a deep understanding of what loss of credibility and personal freedom really means. Today 2015 UK vital statistics show that one in three UK children (and adults) are suffering deep unhappiness (“mental illness”) from the effects of living in dysfunctional families, children’s homes, schools and communities. I strongly urge all to start a Children’s Class and Junior Youth Group without delay, to help rescue these poor children.
After I left school in 1962, two mates from St Bees School, who had come to Manchester University, John Twiname and Ritchie Spencer, invited me to the Bahá’í Centre at 360 Wilmslow Road to hear about the new Revelation they had just discovered, which was my first encounter with the Faith. John became a Bahá’í and I declared in 1965. There were kind and jolly people who attracted me: Pouri and Habib Habibi, Shahram Mottahedeh, Albert Joseph, Ruth and Jimmy Habibi, Shidan and Susan Kouchek-zadeh and Ruhi Shakibai and his wife, as well as Margaret and Gordon Grant and the new, inspired Burnley Bahá’ís, and outstanding Derek Cockshut.
I was attracted to the Faith for its world view, its attention to poverty and world peace through personal transformation and world government, its opening up to me of the knowledge and acceptance of the oneness of religion and the chance to be in an exciting international society. I was also looking to find solutions to personal problems which, with hindsight, were clearly so widespread amongst youth in Britain and evidently much more so now.
At the time of joining the Faith I believe my feelings were along the lines of ‘This is the Faith of the Promised One that I have heard so much about in services and sermons, the solution to personal and international problems. I want to be an apostle like those apostles of the Bible who were so inspirational with their courage, commitment and self-forgetfulness.’
My father and mother, trying to uphold their belief in individual choice, did not unduly obstruct me. I had no particular difficulties in becoming a Bahá’í and I look from time to time at the welcoming and encouraging letter of acceptance from the National Spiritual Assembly, signed by the then secretary Mrs Betty Reed.
I met Hands of the Cause Mr Samandari, John Robarts, John Ferraby and William Sears for brief introductions at different times, sadly not realizing then their station and significance!
Experience in Historical Context
My memories bring thoughts of the excellence of the young Iranian/Iraqi/Indian and British Bahá’í’s I knew in my youth, and so many still undoubted stalwarts setting such a good example. I recall the ubiquitous Manzur Shah popping up everywhere, the unique John (Ball) and the unique David (Mumford), the formidable characters of Meherangiz Munsiff and Dr Ta’eed, and their daughters, Jyoti and Faezeh. I also remember the great character Jane Villiers-Stuart who, out of the blue, generously invited me to her family home on Belfast Loch, some time in the late sixties when I was in difficulties. I met many more interesting types of people new to me then. Pauline and Frank Senior and their daughter Adele were those solid Lancashire folk that surely the Faith could do with in vast numbers. Whenever I was in Manchester they were always there for me.
In about 1965 I went travel teaching quite extensively in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland with Pixie MacCallum, and I served on the National Youth Committee from 1965 to 1967.
In the early 1970’s I pioneered to Stafford and was a member of the first Spiritual Assembly from about 1974-1981. I undertook all my various proclamation, teaching and consolidation efforts there and was Press officer for some time. The Stafford community then consisted of Betty Goode, who was National Treasurer, Sylvia Hodgson, local treasurer and housewife and other stalwart workers for the Faith. The Golmohamad family was also present for a period. Jackie Hutchinson, a local girl who worked for GEC, was enthusiastic and had great potential. Taraneh Holmes (née Afnan) and Richard Holmes were a special young couple who married in Stafford and later, after the birth of their son Elliot, moved to Namibia. Farhad Shahbahrami moved there too and was outstandingly active then, as he is today.
In 1971 I attended the International Youth Conference in Fiesch, Switzerland. That year, and as a result of a chance happening, I found myself collaborating with the greatest Blues-rock superstar of the time, and still. With him I helped to arrange a charity concert to raise money for drug addicts and the homeless. As a result of all the contacts I was making at the time, I was able to get on the famous Pyramid Stage at one of the earliest Glastonbury Rock Festivals. Remembering the Bahá’í prayer that encourages us to “raise your voice in great assemblies …..” I took the opportunity during a music break to walk forward and speak to the assembled thousands in front of me about the Bahá’í Faith! They all listened politely … that’s all the feedback I`ve ever had!
I married my excellent and beautiful non-Bahá’í wife Danielle in 1982. She waived a Catholic marriage so we could have a civil wedding in Llangefni, Anglesey Registry Office and our Bahá’í wedding and reception in the Music Room of the National Trust home of the Marquis of Anglesey. As a courtesy, we sent the Marquis and Lady Anglesey an invitation, but they did not attend this first Bahá’í wedding at Plas Newydd. Danielle is from Mauritius. On several visits there I have contacted the National Spiritual Assembly and invited her large Chinese family to join in activities, which sometimes they have done. When visiting Paris regularly, I also contact the National Centre, trying to encourage several of my wife’s relations who live there to join in Bahá’í activities.
In 1988 I went on Pilgrimage, which for me was the rock I needed to secure firmness in the Faith and increased confidence in teaching.
Since hearing of the Faith in 1962 I have lived in Wilmslow, Macclesfield, France, Coventry, London, New York, Stafford, Mauritius and Anglesey.
I have always seen the principles of the Faith as exciting and visionary, offering solutions to personal and wider problems. Now, additionally, I see the urgent need for the ordinances of the Faith to be rapidly and widely accepted and acted upon, and that our specific and overarching goal at this time is: “the acceleration in the vital process of individual conversion, the reason why the Administration has been erected and the purpose of all Bahá’í activity”. Brick by brick, brick-load by brick-load, I see we are building – and now more clearly – the Kingdom of God on Earth.
In a positive vein, I feel less alarmed as my 50 years in the Faith have passed, at the differences in all of us and the unimportance of external semblance as compared with spirituality. I see the need now for each one to be confidently him or herself and I now accept myself as one shape in a mosaic of unique individuals of colorful variety and, as I think Bahá’u’lláh intended, I love this expanding mosaic and its varied individuals more as time goes by.
What has surprised me most about the Faith is the public’s lack of response to it and the apparently large percentage here and on mainland Europe who have not yet even heard of the Bahá’í Faith. Also I cannot find a good reason why the BBC and other respected international media are not constantly referring to its outstanding growth, people, activities and problem-solving abilities.
I have learned a great deal from Bahá’ís about the maintaining of unity in all aspects of community life, and their / our mostly exemplary behaviour. I would say, however, that there seems to be quite widespread resistance or indifference to taking up repeated key guidance from the Universal House of Justice and the Learned Arm, for example, “systematically”, “audaciously”, “imaginatively”, “vividly”, “to tailor their teaching plans to meet the needs of particular social groups” . Terms such as “urgent”, “rapidly extended”, and “…the need for this is critical” come to mind. I feel there is also some typically British antipathy here to many activities associated with the fundamental requirement to teach.
As underlined in the Writings, disunity is overcome by joining together to undertake the fundamental act of teaching, which I have found to be true in practice. For my own part I believe I have a lot of catching up to do but my most satisfying and worthwhile contribution as a Bahá’í is that one way or the other I have kept faith with the Cause of Baha’u’llah for 5o years and ‘kept coming’ through thick and thin.
I think, if anywhere, my most effective areas of service to the Faith have been in contact with local media and willingness on the whole to mention and teach the Faith as I move about. I am generally disappointed, if not appalled, at my own performance, so far.
Since 1997 the outward-looking tide of the core activities has swept in. I think it’s great now to have the perfect tools for laying the foundations of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. This is an exciting process and after I had a transforming week (I think in 2004) of the intensive study of Ruhi Book 7 at the Liverpool Bahá’í Centre, tutored by the wonderful sensitive Soroosh Zahedi, I am enthusiastically attached to the four cores!
Only lately have I understood the even more exciting idea that we are in fact involved in “community building”! Nevertheless I seem incapable yet of passing on this excitement and vision to nearly enough others who are not Bahá’ís. So far this new process in truth has been the most frustrating period of stop-start stop and start again, again and again! Nevertheless, on the Isle of Anglesey we have re-started for the umpteenth time with renewed vigour, again building on past experience and again expecting earth-shattering results!
About six years ago Thomas Rowan moved to North Wales. He has spent his life pioneering in Colombia, Chad, Brazil, Portugal, Sao Tome, and many more places. Thomas was tutoring in the first days of the Ruhi Course in Colombia and has been a four-core rock from which to learn, if not lean upon.
My wife and I, having visited the island of Danielle’s birth more than eleven times over our thirty years of marriage, have developed a second life in Mauritius. Danielle re-ignites with her family and I plunge somewhere into the Bahá’í community. The 50th anniversary of the opening to the Faith of the four islands in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius, Reunion, Seychelles and Madagascar, comprised a spectacular series of events. I was lucky to attend those both for Mauritius and for Madagascar in Antananarivo. The guest speaker at the Antananarivo Hilton Hotel was Jyoti Munsiff, daughter of Knight of Bahá’u’lláh Meherangiz Munsiff, the first Bahá’í to pioneer to this vast country in 1953, fifty years earlier.
In July 2012 we celebrated Danielle’s 60th birthday with a party in the capital, Port Louis, and seventy family guests. We were privileged to have four long standing Mauritian Bahá’í friends, National Spiritual Assembly members and their wives, with us on our table, along with some older family members. Despite everyone’s best efforts and with 8oo registered Bahá’ís on Mauritius (pop 1.2 million, size 35 x 25 miles) there is still, after 50 years, only one Chinese Bahá’í family on the island, out of some forty thousand.
What does the future hold? I hope, as a Bahá’í, for more good adventures, for an enormous upsurge in community building activities and an understanding by people everywhere that in the methods and instruments of Baha’i Plans lie the most potent means for movement towards a better society.
(Ynys Môn) Anglesey, North Wales, February 2015