To Live to Teach: Keith Ransom-Kehler

Keith Ransom-Kehler (February 14, 1876 – October 23, 1933)

After returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Shrines and the beloved Guardian in 1926, Keith Ransom-Kehler, penned a letter to the National Convention of the Baha’is of the United States and Canada. She had witnessed first hand the terrible burden with which the Guardian was weighed down in the form of hundreds of letters from the American Baha’is expressing criticism of each other. She wrote, “Any one of us is ready to die for [Shoghi Effendi]” and then asked rhetorically, “but can we conscientiously number ourselves among those who are willing to live for him?”

Shoghi Effendi would later write, “The Cause at present does not need martyrs who would die for the faith, but servants who desire to teach and establish the Cause throughout the world. To live to teach in the present day is like being martyred in those early days. It is the spirit that moves us that counts, not the act through which that spirit expresses itself; and that spirit is to serve the Cause of God with our heart and soul.”

Keith Ransom-Kehler would come to be one of those who could indeed “conscientiously number [herself] among those who are willing to live for him”. Thus, though she died quietly in Isfahan, Iran, of illness and exhaustion at the age of 57, she was declared by the Guardian to be the first American martyr to give her life for the Faith. Additionally, on the day after her death, on 24 October 1933, she was elevated to the rank of Hand of the Cause of God. She was the first woman so appointed.

Keith Ransom-Kehler became a Baha’i in May 1921, two years before she would be widowed for the second time. Although she had a daughter – Julia – from her first marriage, the care of this child fell partly to Julia’s paternal grandmother. And though the grief of the passing of her husband affected Keith deeply, she found herself in 1923, in the enviable position of having enough income to support herself, freedom from familial responsibilities, and a deep commitment to the Faith of Baha’u’llah.

She became a renowned teacher of the Faith through her public speaking and writing, as well as a dedicated and highly organised administrator within the United States of America. In 1929 Keith began a series of journeys for the Faith beyond the borders of North America. She taught the Faith and made a significant contribution to the development of the administration as she travelled through the West Indies, Hawaii, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Java, Singapore, Burma, and India.

Despite her extensive travels to remote and challenging locations, her detachment, and willingness to sacrifice the superficial things of this world, Keith Ransom-Kehler maintained a love of beauty, and sophisticated tastes. She continued to present herself in great style, often lugging trunks full of stylish dresses, furs and other belongings across the seas, and never failing to ‘dress for dinner’ even “as a lone passenger on a freighter bound from China to Australia, sailing through tropical seas” .

While in India in 1932 she was summoned to the Holy Land to be prepared for a mission of Shoghi Effendi. Her humble perception of her own contribution to the advancement of the Faith led her to be greatly surprised by the trust he placed in her. Shoghi Effendi, however, saw in Keith courage, strength and audacity. Thus after a brief stay the Guardian and the Greatest Holy Leaf , in the middle of 1932, she departed the Holy Land for Iran. A few weeks later the Greatest Holy Leaf passed away bringing all the more power to her request of Keith that she greet each Baha’i in her name.

Keith travelled throughout Iran for one year. She gave and received much joy from her interactions with the believers in that land and experienced the unifying power of Baha’u’llah’s Teachings to cut through all barriers of language, culture, or background. Her primary mission was however to “ petition Reza Shah Pahlavi (reigned 1925–41) to remove the ban on the entry and distribution of Baha’i literature in Iran and also to secure the lifting of all the limitations that had for years been imposed on the Iranian Baha’i community.”

Though there were moments during her work in Iran when it seemed victory had been attained, and though Shoghi Effendi referred to her “magnificent deeds” and referred to Keith herself as “the intrepid defender and illustrious herald of God’s Cause” the ultimate outcome of countless visits with innumerable corrupt officials, and seven written requests for justice, was a refusal of the Iranian leaders to remove these limitations. “Mission successful” she joyously communicated to the American National Spiritual Assembly of whom she was, on this mission, the official representative. “His Highness Taymur Tash …[provided] the direct unqualified assurance that Baha’i literature would be admitted freely into Persian and permitted to circulate,” she informed them, soon after her arrival in Iran. But these and later promises proved hollow and led to deep and repeated disappointment.

These disappointments and the taxing physical conditions of travel which Keith Ransom-Kehler endured for the closing decade of her life led, on the 23 October 1933, to Keith offering up her life, “on Persian soil, for Persia’s sake.” She was buried near the grave of Mirza Muhammad Hasan and his brother Mirza Muhammad Husayn, the King and Beloved of martyrs, who died for the Faith in 1879.

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Discussion 9 Comments

  1. Her courage in confronting the issue of criticism is matched by her courage to continue trying ( for A DECADE!!!) to open the hearts of the Persian leaders even after multiple disappointments. These examples of audacity, steadfastness and courage are an outstanding example and inspiration for me as I try to live my Faith as well as I try to live my life. Thank you, Melanie & Naysan, for this beautiful and inspiring essay!

  2. Our kids love Melanie’s books and we love her new post in which she depicts Iranian officialdom’s hypocritic treatment of the Faith :

    ‘But these and later promises proved hollow and lead to deep and repeated disappointment.’

    Same as it ever was it seems in the most benighted place on Earth. No change there in attitude among the leaders of religion since the days of the Bab, since the Great Depression when Keith was martyred there and into our day. The UN’s special rapporteur’s very recent update describes the lamentable plight of the friends in the cradle of the Faith:

    bahaiteachings.org/despite-irans-promises-un-says-bahai…

    Baha’i love

    Paul

  3. This is a quote by Keith Ransom-Kehler regarding her time in Iran recorded in ‘The Priceless Pearl’ which I came across recently.. Just beautiful..

    ‘Nothing in the world is meaningless, suffering least of all. Sacrifice with it’s attendant agony is a germ, an organism. Man cannot blight its fruition as he can the seeds of the earth. Once sown it blooms, I think forever, in the sweet fields of eternity. Mine will be a very modest flower, perhaps like the single forget me not, should it ever catch the eye, may one who seems to be struggling in vain garner it in the name of Shoghi Effendi and cherish it for his dear remembrance..’

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