Nancy Campbell: artist and Artist

Nancy Cambell (1906 – 1980)

Nancy Cambell (1906 – 1980)

At the end of the last century Ani Difranco cleverly and accurately sang that…

…every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.1

This idea, that most objects and activities – including all sciences and arts – are neutral in value and can be utilized for good or evil, had also been expressed at the beginning of that century by Abdu’l-Baha. He stated:

All things are beneficial if joined with the love of God; and without His love all things are harmful…2

He went on to show how this is particularly true of the arts, stating that:

…a melody sweet to the ear, bringeth the very spirit of life to a heart in love with God, yet staineth with lust a soul engrossed in sensual desires.3

If a woman at the Three Arts Club in New York City had not introduced Nancy Campbell to the Baha’i Teachings in 1938, she may have become just another talented artist, using her skills and opportunities to entertain and distract. Instead Nancy Campbell attended ‘firesides’ (informal presentations of the Baha’i Teachings) at the home of New York Baha’is, Saffa and Carrie Kinney. Three years later upon return to her adopted homeland, Canada, Nancy Campbell sought out the Baha’is and formally registered as a member of that community. She was immediately engaged in direct service to the Baha’i community, and became a founding member of the Hamilton (Ontario) Local Spiritual Assembly.

Addressing an artist a generation before Nancy Campbell, Abdu’l-Baha had encouraged her in the practice of art and also provided her of a lofty vision of ‘True Art’, saying:

Can you paint upon the page of the world the ideal pictures of the Celestial Concourse? The pictures which are in the ideal world are eternal. I wish you to become such an artist. Man can paint those ideal pictures upon the tablet of existence with the brush of deeds. The holy, divine Manifestations are all heavenly artists. Upon the canvas of creation, with the brush of their deeds and lives they paint immortal pictures which cannot be found in any art museum of Europe or America. But you find the masterpieces of these spiritual artists in the hearts.4

Nancy Campbell became a creator of both art and Art. She was blessed with diverse talents as a gifted dancer, artist, pianist and actress. She was most widely renowned as a dancer and teacher of dance. She was also a gifted and well-recognised teacher of the Baha’i Faith, presenting the Teachings in small private firesides, large public gatherings, summer schools, and reserves of the First Nations peoples. She did not limit her teaching to North America but also travelled to Europe, sharing liberally the Healing Message of her Faith.

Her family had moved from England to Canada when Nancy was a child and most of her life was spent in Ontario, Canada. At the age of 52 years, in 1958, Nancy Campbell established her home in Dundas, Ontario. Guided by the Teachings of Baha’u’llah, Nancy Campbell became a well-known and strong advocate for justice, promoting racial unity and the concept that…

the earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.5

She was a leader in the field of the arts as well as an active member of various organisations including the Hamilton branch of the United Nations Association of Canada. For her services to the latter, just two years before her death in 1980, she received a Meritorious Service award. The citation for this award stated:

For many years, racial harmony and internationalism have been dominant characteristics in her relations with people — Miss Campbell found a deep spiritual significance for her art and world-embracing concerns over forty years ago when she discovered the Baha’i Faith.

Born in 1906, Nancy Campbell was 75 when she winged her flight to the Kingdom of Light in 1980. In recognition of this “dynamic speaker who travelled throughout the world giving lectures on peace and world unity” and of her work to “promote the ideal of the oneness of humanity”, in 1994 Breakwell Education Inc. named its Baha’i-inspired school, the Nancy Campbell Collegiate Institute. True to its namesake this school (with its goal of academic excellence within a defined moral framework) includes within its academic programs Performing, Visual, and Media Arts, and a World Citizenship Curriculum.


  1. Ani Difranco, Track: My I.Q., Album: Puddle Dive []
  2. Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Centre 1982, p.320 []
  3. Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Centre 1982, p.320 []
  4. Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Vol. V, Issue V, p.149 []
  5. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1990 pocket-size edition p. 346 []

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Discussion 5 Comments

  1. From Jack Boyd’s memoirs – - -
    Dear Nancy Campbell gave several talks in Niagara on the Lake {early 60′s}, often despite severe pain from arthritis. Nancy was one of the leading ballet instructors in Canada and had taken her training in New York, where she lived round the corner from poet Kahlil Gibran. As a student, Nancy was in the library one day and heard a girl crying at the back of the bookshelves. Nancy asked what was wrong, and the girl said “I’m a Bahá’í and I’m supposed to tell people about it. I cannot find anyone who wants to know, and I feel like such a failure.” Nancy said “Well, you can tell me, dear,”and so began an illustrious Bahá’í career spanning more than fifty years.

  2. What a thoughtful contribution on Miss Nancy Campbell, who dedicated her life in service, especially for the youth of the world, whom she loved so deeply and the oneness of mankind! May we all rise to be so civilized and release the latent potential for such service in each other!

  3. Back in the early 1950s, when my parents and I began our association with the Baha’i Faith in Canada, at a time when there would have been only about 300 believers in all of that country, Nancy Campbell was a significant part of the influence on our Baha’i experience. Nancy continued to influence my Baha’i life as both a home-front pioneer(1962 to 1971), and in the international field(1971 to 2014), both before her passing in 1980, and, some may find surprisingly, after.

    I will not write any eulogy here, for I have already done that for a committee of the NSA of the Baha’is of Canada which has collected a wealth of information about this wonderful Baha’i who had an important influence on the early development of the Cause, as far back as the late 1930s and early 1940s, at a time when there were less than 100 Baha’is in all of Canada.

    For readers of Baha’i Blog, the sociologist Will C. van den Hoonaard has written a fine history of the Baha’i community in Canada from 1898 to 1948 which I recommend to all with an interest in the slow evolution of this Faith over the last 116 years.

  4. I can still feel the tiny righteous sting on my right shoulder from the back of Nancy’s fingers. I was a teenaged Baha’i in the ’70s, learning from Nancy Campbell in her immaculate apartment. Chances are that we were studying ways to understand the New Testament from a Baha’i perspective, using the ideas developed by Ruth Moffat. I watched Ms. Campbell (always ‘NancyCampbell’ or ‘ma’am’, never ‘Nancy’, for a kid like me) like a hawk, fascinated by her erudition, her precise speech and copious knowledge, and for the characteristic way she kept her hair up in a complex braided “bun”, not a hair out of place. She was generous, loving and *tough*. The well-deserved thwack came when I got up to grab a cookie from the plate she’d set on a side table. “Always serve others first, then yourself,” she quietly asserted. I don’t think anybody noticed except me, and boy, did I notice and remember!

  5. Thanks to Jay’s post today and his account of that “sting” to which he referred, I will add a comment which is intended to help those in the Baha’i community who have to deal with the personalities of other Baha’is, personalities which are, to use Jay’s word, “tough.”

    The history of the Baha’i Faith has had many “tough” individuals in its 170 year story, to say nothing of tough individuals in the history of the Babi Faith, and the lives of that Faith’s two precursors going back into the late 18th century. Shaykh Ahmad, Hujjat, Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, Horace Holley, one could list several, indeed, many more who were not always the easiest people to get along with.

    The Baha’i community is, if nothing else. highly heterogeneous. In my more than 60 years of involvement in Baha’i activities I have met and interacted with many a “tough” and many a “tender” personality, and everyone in-between on the tough-tender spectrum, to say nothing of the many other spectrums of personality in relation to all sort so other behavioural, attitudinal, dispositional, and temperamental personality orientations.

    Nancy Cambell certainly had a “tough” side; like Jay, I witnessed that side many times in my nearly 20 years of interaction with her. I thank God, now, for Nancy because she helped me deal with what is often “the hot crucible” of community interaction, an interaction which is often enough to test the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon.

    Nancy helped me deal with the many difficult Baha’is who have crossed my path in the more than 50 years since last meeting with Nancy in a quiet one-to-one conversation in some now forgotten restaurant in the early 1970s before I left Canada.

    In addition, and finally, my tender young self at 15, has developed its own tough side some 55 years later at the age of 70. It’s all part of the transforming affects of Baha’i community life over a lifetime. Part of the heat in that crucible of transformation is discomfort and pain. It is not always an easy ride: Baha’i community life. Nancy taught me this, first, far back in my adolescence over dozens of meetings in her home. It has been one of my most useful lessons, my most important learning experiences. It is, though, a lesson I have had to learn and relearn as life’s tests with difficult people continued on my path, and as they continue with most Baha’is who stick-around for the long haul.

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