Early British Bahá'í History (1898-1930)
British Bahá'í History (1930-50)
British Bahá'í History (1950- )
The year 1998 represents the one hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Bahá'í community in the United Kingdom. However the connection of the Bahá'í Faith with the country goes back much further than this - indeed it goes back to the Faith's very earliest days,
The founder of the Bahá'í Faith is Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), a title meaning "Glory of God". However Bahá'ís regard their history as starting from the earlier mission of the Báb (1819-1850)- the "Gate" - his forerunner. The first newspaper reference to the religious movement begun by the Báb occurred in The Times of London on 1 November 1845, only a little over a year after the Báb first declared his mission. There was then a British mission in Teheran and it reported the stirring events of that period. In a further connection, Bahá'u'lláh himself commented favourably on the British parliamentary system and commended Queen Victoria for the fact that her government had ended slavery. In April 1890, Edward G. Browne of Cambridge University was granted four interviews with Bahá'u'lláh and left the only detailed description by a Westerner.
Abdu'l-Bahá (1844-1921), the son and successor of Bahá'u'lláh, visited Britain twice, in 1911 and in 1912-13 and was knighted by the British government in 1920. His grandson and successor Shoghi Effendi was in England attending Balliol College at Oxford when, upon the passing of `Abdu'l-Bahá in 1921, he became the head of the Bahá'í Faith. On 4 November 1957, Shoghi Effendi died in London; his mortal remains lie in the New Southgate Cemetery in London. This has therefore become a centre to which Bahá'ís from all over the world come.
The first person in England to become a Bahá'í was American by birth-- Mrs. Mary Thornburgh-Cropper (d. 1938) who lived in London. She became a Bahá'í in 1898 and this year is therefore regarded as the founding of the British Bahá'í community. The second to become a Bahá'í, and the first native person in the country to do so, was Miss Ethel Rosenberg (d.1930), who became a Bahá'í in 1899. Miss Rosenberg became a leading member of the British Bahá'í community for many years. In 1907 Lady Blomfield (d. 1939) joined the Bahá'í Faith, and a small group was thus formed in the London area. Lady Blomfield (nee Ryan) seems to have been the first person of Irish birth to become a Bahá'í. Thomas Breakwell, whom Shoghi Effendi called one of the "three luminaries" of the British Baha'i community, along with Dr J. E. Esslemont and George Townshend, heard of the Baha'i Faith in Paris in the summer of 1901 while on a vacation from the United States where he was working. After a pilgrimage to Akka, he remained in Paris, where he died in 1902 of tuberculosis.
The first Bahá'í in the North of England was Miss Sarah Ann Ridgeway (d. 1913), a silk-weaver from Pendleton, who became a Bahá'í in the United States in 1898. In 1906, living in England again, she was in touch with the Bahá'ís in London. At the end of 1910, Mr. Edward T. Hall became a Bahá'í in Salford near Manchester, in Lancashire. Over the next few years, the Bahá'í Faith developed in the Manchester area and weekly meetings were held from 1920.
The year 1911 was an important one for the British community. In March, Archdeacon Wilberforce mentioned the Bahá'í Faith in a sermon at the Church of St. John in Westminster. Great interest was generated and a Bahá'í Reading Room was opened. Later that year, in July, `Abdu'l-Bahá sent a message to the first Universal Races Congress, which was held at London University.
`Abdu'l-Bahá himself was in England from 3 September to 3 October. On 10 September he made his first public appearance before an audience at the City Temple, London. Between 13 December 1912 and 21 January 1913, `Abdu'l-Bahá returned to the British Isles, visiting Liverpool, London, Edinburgh, Oxford, and Bristol. His visit produced unprecedented publicity for the Bahá'í Faith and resulted in a number of important persons becoming friends and supporters.
There were the beginnings of a new Bahá'í community in St. Ives, Cornwall, when Daniel Jenkyn became an enthusiastic convert in 1911 or 1912 and formed a small group. In 1913, Jenkyn made the first international teaching trip from these islands when he visited the Netherlands. This promising start faded away, however, with Jenkyn's premature death in 1914.
A similar but more enduring development occurred in Bournemouth where Dr. John E. Esslemont (d. 1925) became a Bahá'í in early 1915. A small Bahá'í group was formed from among his friends, colleagues, and former patients. Among these was Sister Grace Challis who was later a member of the British National Spiritual Assembly.
The Bahá'ís present in England had organised themselves into a Committee as early as 1914. Although this Committee lapsed after February 1916, a further national Bahá'í Council was set up on 22 October 1920. A Bahá'í Spiritual Assembly for England (also called All-England Bahá'í Council) was set up in May 1922 and held its first meeting in London on 17 June 1922. On 13 October 1923, in London, the National Spiritual Assembly of England came into being. In 1930 this became the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the British Isles, and in 1972 of the United Kingdom (a separate National Assembly for the Republic of Ireland being established in that year).
After the death of `Abdu'l-Bahá in 1921, the Bahá'í Faith suffered a decline in activities and numbers in the United Kingdom until the mid-1930s. A revival in the community appears to date from an influx of young Bahá'ís, including Hasan Balyuzi who came to England in 1933; Dorothy Cansdale (later Mrs. Dorothy Ferraby) who became a Bahá'í in 1934; and David Hofman, who became a Bahá'í in Montreal in 1933 and returned to his native England in 1936. These three were elected to the National Spiritual Assembly and together with John Ferraby, who became a Bahá'í in 1941, were to form the core of the Bahá'í community's national administration for the next two decades. It was during the 1930s that a Bahá'í theatre group was formed in London, the Bahá'í Journal was instituted (in 1936), Bahá'í summer schools began (from 1936), and the British tradition of a winter Bahá'í conference was established (from December 1937).
The first Bahá'í in Yorkshire was probably Eliza P. Kenworthy of York, who had met `Abdu'l-Bahá in Paris in 1911. The earliest Bahá'í meetings were held in the home of a theosophist, Mrs. Mabel Wilkinson, in Bradford from 1927 onwards. Miss Marion Burgess (later Mrs. Norton), who became a Bahá'í in 1931, and Mr. Arthur Norton, who became a Bahá'í subsequently, formed the nucleus of a Bahá'í community in Bradford.
Mark Tobey, an American artist, who stayed in Britain, 1930-38, held Bahá'í study classes in Dartington Hall, a school in Devon, and lectures in Torquay. As a result of this activity two famous artists became Bahá'ís: Bernard Leach, the world famous potter, in about 1940, and Reginald Turvey, a prominent South African painter in 1936. Mrs. Violet McKinley and her son, Hugh, moved to Ashburton in Devon in 1935. Mrs. Lilian Stevens and Mrs. Constance Langdon-Davies joined the Faith in 1937 in Torquay.
Bahá'ís are organised locally under elected councils called local spiritual assemblies. The first of these in the United Kingdom were elected in 1922, in London, Manchester, and Bournemouth. The next local spiritual assemblies were not elected until April 1939, at Bradford and Torquay.
In 1944 the British Bahá'í community embarked on an ambitious Six Year Plan (1944-50), aiming to increase the number of local spiritual assemblies in the British Isles by nineteen. During the first years of the Plan, wartime conditions curtailed activities, but in 1945, the first people moved to new locations with the specific aim of teaching the Faith and establishing new communities, and, in 1946, the great "pioneer" movement began, which would take the Bahá'í Faith to Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.
By the end of the Plan, sixty percent of the British Bahá'í community had pioneered, a proportion unparalleled in the history of the Bahá'í Faith this century. The resignation of George Townshend from the ministry of the Church of Ireland and his position as Canon at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, and Archdeacon of Clonfert to become a Bahá'í and the resulting publicity campaign occurred in 1947.
The Six Year Plan raised the number of local spiritual assemblies from five to twenty- four, four being in the pivotal centres of Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, and Cardiff.
Following the successful conclusion of the Six Year Plan, the British Bahá'í community was called upon in 1950 by Shoghi Effendi to spearhead and co-ordinate five national Bahá'í communities in a Two Year Plan spread the Bahá'í Faith in Africa. Miss Claire Gung, a German-born Bahá'í who had become a Bahá'í in Torquay left in 1950 to go to Tanganyika. Philip Hainsworth pioneered to Uganda in June 1951. Hasan and Isobel Sabri left for Tanganyika in July 1951. Ted Cardell left for Kenya in October 1951. The Plan was successfully concluded in April 1953, being the first plan involving international co-operation in the Bahá'í world and thus laying the groundwork for subsequent international teaching plans.
In 1955, Shoghi Effendi instructed that membership of a local spiritual assembly should be drawn from those residing within the local government boundaries. As a result, fifteen of the twenty-four Bahá'í communities formed in 1950 dissolved, but by April 1963, fifty local spiritual assemblies had been established, all conforming to the areas of jurisdiction.
Between 1964 and 1973, the number of local spiritual assemblies increased from 50 to 102. With the establishment in 1972 of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Republic of Ireland, the National Spiritual Assembly changed its name to that of the United Kingdom.
The growth of the Bahá'í community in the United Kingdom has been very gradual. There have however, been a number of periods when there has been a spurt of growth. One such period was in the final year of the Six Year Plan 1949-1950; similarly in the last two years of the Ten Year Crusade when there was a 50% increase in numbers. There was also a period of rapid growth in the early 1970s when a large number of youth became Bahá'ís. In the early 1980s there was an influx of Iranian refugees, although many of these eventually went on to the United States, Canada, and Australia.
A Bahá'í centre was opened in London in September 1929 at Walmar House, Regent Street. After several temporary moves, a National Bahá'í Centre was purchased in 1954 at 27 Rutland Gate in Knightsbridge, London. Local Bahá'í centres have been purchased in Scotland and the Scottish Islands, Northern Ireland, Wales, and several in England. There are (1996 figures) 143 local spiritual assemblies in England, 18 in Scotland, 13 in Northern Ireland, and 10 in Wales.
The National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles attained legal status by its incorporation, in 1939, and was registered as a charity in 1967. Bahá'ís were able to obtain exemption from combative military service during World War II. In the autumn of 1990, the British passport office accepted the signature of the chairman of a Bahá'í local spiritual assembly as a validation of the identity of the applicant on a passport application. Bahá'í marriage is recognised only in Scotland (since 1978), and Bahá'í Holy Days are recognised by local education authorities throughout the United Kingdom.
As a "mother community," the United Kingdom's overseas work has raised up "daughter" communities in Central and East Africa (1956), in Guyana (1970), and in the Republic of Ireland and in Cyprus (1972). The British National Spiritual Assembly maintains responsibility for Gibraltar, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man.
Many British Bahá'ís have made important contributions to the Bahá'í Faith. Four members of the British Bahá'í community, Esslemont, Townshend, Balyuzi, and Ferraby, have been named Hands of the Cause (the highest personal station in the Bahá'í Faith); Clara and Hyde Dunn who opened Australia to the Bahá'í Faith were British-born, as was Honor Kempton, the "spiritual mother" of both Alaska and Luxembourg. Numerous other British Bahá'ís were the first to open countries to the Bahá'í Faith during the Two Year Africa campaign, the Ten Year Crusade, and even in later years. "Pioneers" and travelling Bahá'í teachers have gone from the United Kingdom to most parts of the world, especially the countries of the British Commonwealth, for which Shoghi Effendi stated the British community had a special responsibility. In more recent years, British Bahá'ís and especially the youth have been at the forefront of taking the Bahá'í Faith to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is estimated that between 1951 and 1993, Bahá'ís from the United Kingdom settled in 138 countries. It is probable that only the Iran and United States have sent out more pioneers than the United Kingdom, and they have much larger Bahá'í communities.
Because of the central position of London in the world's communications and media network, the British Bahá'í community has been able to play an important role in alerting world opinion in cases of persecutions of Bahá'ís in other countries.
One of the areas in which the British Bahá'í community has taken a leading role in the Bahá'í world is in the area of the publishing of Bahá'í books. Early in 1937 a Bahá'í publishing company was set up in the United Kingdom, as an arm of the national spiritual assembly. Starting out in a warehouse in Manchester, it became the Bahá'í Publishing Trust in 1939, and is now based in Oakham, Rutland.
From the 1920s and 1930s until the present day a steady stream of Bahá'í books by authors in the U.K. and elsewhere have been published in this country, either by the Bahá'í Publishing Trust or by independent Bahá'í publishers such as George Ronald (Oxford, established in 1943) and Oneworld Publications (Oxford, established in 1986). There are probably more Bahá'í titles published in the United Kingdom than in any other country in the world.
The first native Bahá'í in Scotland seems to have been Jane Elizabeth Whyte (1857-1944), the wife of Rev. Alexander Whyte, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Free Church of Scotland. She visited `Abdu'l-Bahá in Akka in 1906 and invited `Abdu'l-Bahá to Edinburgh in 1913. She appears to have held Bahá'í meetings in her home in Edinburgh and she was in later years a member of the London Bahá'í community, but it is difficult to be certain from what date she considered herself a Bahá'í. Another early Scottish Bahá'í, although not resident in Scotland was a Mr. A. P. Cattanach of London, who became a Bahá'í before 1913. He donated a large collection of early Bahá'í publications to the National Library of Scotland. No Bahá'í community existed in Scotland, however, until several Bahá'ís moved to Edinburgh as part of the Six Year Plan. The first of these was Dr. M. Said of Egypt in 1946, who was joined in 1947, by Isobel Locke (later Sabri) and John Marshall, a native Scot who had met `Abdu'l-Bahá in 1911. The first to become a Bahá'í in this period (in March 1948) was Dr. William Johnston, who had met `Abdu'l-Bahá in Edinburgh in 1913. The first local spiritual assembly was formed there in 1948.
The first Bahá'í resident in Wales was Rose Jones who married and moved to Cardiff from London in 1942. In 1947 she was joined by Joan Giddings. In 1948 the first local spiritual assembly of Cardiff was formed. In 1961 Pontypridd formed the first local spiritual assembly composed entirely of native Welsh Bahá'ís. The first Bahá'í literature in the Welsh language was published in 1950.
Although there had been a Bahá'í, Stella Cairns, in Ballymena in the 1930s, and Philip Hainsworth, while in the army, had held the first Bahá'í meeting in Helens Bay, County Down, in 1940, there were no Bahá'ís in Northern Ireland by the late 1940s. The first Bahá'í pioneer to Northern Ireland was Charles Dunning, who came to Belfast in March 1948, followed by Ursula Newman (later Samandari) in 1949. Other pioneers followed and a local spiritual assembly was formed in Belfast in 1950. Robert Sloan was the first to become a Bahá'í in Northern Ireland in 1949. Co-operation and regular contact between the Bahá'í communities of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been steady, both before and after the establishment of a National Spiritual Assembly for the growing Bahá'í community of the Republic in 1972.
UPDATE- While this remains substantially true of recent Bahá'í history in Northern Ireland, further research has uncovered much earlier roots. It seems that the first person of Irish birth to become a Bahá'í was a Belfast man - Dr Frederick D'Evelyn, in the United States, in 1901. For this and other information visit the page The First Irish Bahá'ís.
The off-shore islands of the United Kingdom were opened to the Bahá'í Faith in 1953 by the following Bahá'ís: Channel Islands (Jersey): Miss Evelyn Baxter, a retired school teacher, and Mr. Diyá'u'lláh Asgharzádih, a retired carpet merchant; Orkney Islands: Mr. Charles William Dunning (1885-1967); Shetland Islands: Miss Brigitte Hasselblatt (later Lundblade), a midwife; Western Isles: Miss Geraldine Craney, an office clerk, and Miss Anneliese Haug, a German-English translator.
This paper was researched and written by Dr Moojan Momen and made available for the U.K. Bahá'í Centenary by the Bahá'í Information Office, 27 Rutland Gate, London, SW7 1PD. A more detailed presentation can be accessed from the links page.
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