On March 8th, we celebrate “the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women” and acknowledge the urgency of “accelerating gender parity.” As much as International Women’s Day is a celebration, it is also a monument to centuries of discrimination.
For as long as systemic discrimination has quashed individuals’ potential, some have refused to accept their assigned inferiority. Wherever sexism has caged women, resistance has arisen. Countless such efforts have gone unrecorded, lost to history, leaving humanity only scattered memories of women who spearheaded social transformation.
Yet, stirred by Baha’u’llah’s teachings on the equality of women and men, Baha’is have a tradition of recording women’s contributions. Thanks to the efforts of Baha’i historians, we can enjoy lengthy biographies of groundbreakers: Lua Getsinger: Herald of the Covenant, Martha Root: Lioness at the Threshold, and From Copper to Gold: The Life of Dorothy Baker. We can also read briefer portraits of prominent women like Hands of the Cause Keith Ransom-Kehler and Amelia Collins in collections such as A Love Which Does Not Wait and Portraits of Some Baha’i Women.
Hand of the Cause of God Hasan Muvaqqar Balyuzi (7 September 1908-12 February 1980) Photo: Courtesy of the Baha'i International Community
When I was a graduate student completing an internship in London, I visited the resting place of Shoghi Effendi to offer some prayers. It was a beautiful summer’s day and I had the luxury of time so I walked around New Southgate Cemetery and prayed at the graves of other Baha’is whose names I recognized, such as Hasan Balyuzi. I knew little of the spiritual giant he was and now, having caught a glimpse by reading about him in The Baha’i World, I feel in awe of his literary and scholarly greatness, of his ceaseless efforts to promote the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, and of his undying love for Baha’u’llah’s Revelation. On 12 February, 1980 the Universal House of Justice cabled the Baha’is of the world the following:
With broken hearts announce passing dearly loved Hand Cause Hasan Balyuzi. Entire Baha’i world robbed one of its most powerful defenders most resourceful historians. His illustrious lineage his devoted labours divine vineyard his outstanding literary works combine in immortalizing his honoured name in annals beloved Faith. Call on friends everywhere hold memorial gatherings. Praying Shrines his exemplary achievements his steadfastness patience humility his outstanding scholarly pursuits will inspire many devoted workers among rising generations follow his glorious footsteps.
I wanted to share a few details of his life, and if you’d like to read more I’d definitely recommend you find Volume XVIII of The Baha’i World. Continue reading
Edward Granville Browne (7 February 1862 – 5 January 1926), was a British orientalist who met Baha’u’llah.
You should appreciate this, that of all the historians of Europe none attained the holy Threshold but you. This bounty was specified unto you.
These words Abdu’l-Baha wrote to Edward Granville Browne about his interviews with Baha’u’llah in 1890. From one of these interviews emanated the description of meeting Baha’u’llah famous in the Baha’i community, which you can listen to here.
Foment in the Middle East—the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78—pulled Browne away from the course his family had set for him. Born in 1862 in Gloucestershire, England, Browne was the eldest son among nine children. His father hoped he would pursue the family business of shipbuilding and civil engineering. But Browne’s calling lay elsewhere. In college he studied Turkish, Arabic, and Persian, and in 1882, he ventured eastward, visiting Turkey for several months to pursue his research.
On 30 July 1886, Browne discovered a movement that would absorb his attention for the decades to come: the Babi Faith. He stumbled upon an account of the revolutionary religion in Count Gobineau’s 1865 Religions et philosophies dans l’Asie Centrale. In the words of scholars Sir Edward Denison Ross and John Gurney, “He was spellbound by the story of the courage and devotion shown by the Bab and his faithful followers, and at once resolved to make a special study of this movement.” He wrote admiringly of the Bab’s “gentleness and patience, the cruel fate which had overtaken him, and the unflinching courage wherewith he and his followers, from the greatest to the least, had endured the merciless torments inflicted on them by their enemies.” In the Bab’s Revelation, he recognized, as he put it, “the birth of a faith which may not impossibly win a place amidst the great religions of the world.” Browne resolved to extend Gobineau’s account, which ended with the 1852 massacre of Babis. Continue reading
William Sutherland Maxwell, November 14th, 1874 - March 25th, 1952 (Photo: courtesy of the Baha'i International Community)
William Sutherland Maxwell was a distinguished soul whose life is best summarized in the words of Shoghi Effendi. The Guardian cabled the following obituary to the Baha’is of the world on March 26, 1952:
With sorrowful heart announce through national assemblies that Hand of Cause of Baha’u’llah, highly esteemed, dearly beloved Sutherland Maxwell, has been gathered into the glory of the Abha Kingdom. His saintly life, extending well nigh four score years, enriched during the course of Abdu’l-Baha’s ministry by services in the Dominion of Canada, ennobled during the Formative Age of Faith by decade of services in Holy Land, during darkest days of my life, doubly honoured through association with the crown of martyrdom won by May Maxwell and incomparable honor bestowed upon his daughter, attained consummation through his appointment as architect of the arcade and superstructure of the Bab’s Sepulchre as well as elevation to the front rank of the Hands of Cause of God.
Ellen Tuller Beecher known affectionately as "Mother Beecher" (1840-1932)
In 1844 Siyyid Ali Muhammad, known to the world as the Bab, spent a quiet evening in His home, with Mulla Husayn. That evening, outwardly unnoticed, signified the birth of a new dispensation, era, and cycle in humanity’s history. Four years earlier, in the United States, a woman was born who was destined to become one of the spiritual progeny of the energy released into the world from that momentous conversation.
When, at the end of the 19th century, Ellen Tuller Beecher declared her belief in Baha’u’llah as the Manifestation of God for this Day, she was nearly 60 years old. At the time she was one of only several hundred individuals in the United States who were registered members of the Baha’i community. She immediately entered into correspondence with Abdu’l-Baha. Some of the letters from Him to Mother Beecher, as she came to be known, contain many well-known passages from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha regarding the importance of unity: Continue reading
Queen Marie of Romania (29 October 1875 – 18 July 1938)
O Queen in London!… We have been informed that thou hast forbidden the trading in slaves, both men and women. This, verily, is what God hath enjoined in this wondrous Revelation. God hath, truly, destined a reward for thee, because of this.
This passage is part of a Tablet that Baha’u’llah addressed around 1867 to the “renowned” Queen Victoria, “whose sovereignty” Shoghi Effendi characterized as “[extending] over the greatest political combination the world has witnessed.” Baha’u’llah likewise praises Queen Victoria for having “entrusted the reins of counsel into the hands of the representatives of the people,” and even includes in His Tablet advice on how the members of her Parliament should represent the people, should be trustworthy and just. What distinguishes this Tablet and another, written about the same time to “the omnipotent Czar of the vast Russian Empire,” Alexander II, from others Baha’u’llah addressed to the political and ecclesiastical rulers of His time, including Napoleon III, Pope Pius IX, William I, Francis Joseph, Abdu’l-‘Aziz, and Nasiri’d-Din Shah, is His commendation of acts the British and Russian monarchs had each performed during their reigns, directly or indirectly, that He indicated were well-pleasing to God. Continue reading
Emogene Hoagg (September 27, 1869 - December 15, 1945). (Photo: courtesy of the Baha'is of the United States, https://www.bahai.us/)
Henrietta Emogene Martin was born in 1869 in California. When her father died early and her mother remarried, Emogene was sent to live with her uncle and aunt. Despite her family’s indifference to matters of religion, Emogene engaged actively with her local church from a young age, and she would later teach her mother, sister and brother-in-law about the Baha’i Faith.
In 1889 she married John Ketchie Hoagg. Nine years after her marriage Emogene Hoagg became the first Baha’i of California, learning of the Faith through Phoebe Hearst, Lua and Edward Getsinger. Although there is no record of his formal enrolment in the Baha’i community, it appears John was financially and morally supportive of his independent wife and her extensive travel for the sake of the Faith. Abdu’l-Baha would refer to him as His son-in-law – the husband of His ‘daughter’ Emogene. Continue reading
Curtis Kelsey (1894 - 1970). (Photo: courtesy of Carol Rutstein)
Curtis Kelsey was an American Baha’i who served in Haifa during the final weeks of Abdu’l-Baha’s lifetime and who installed the lighting equipment that first illumined the Shrines of Baha’u’llah and the Bab.
Curtis was born in 1894 in Salt Lake City. He was a simple, happy-go-lucky, pure-hearted and easy-to-laugh fellow who only had a grade 8 education. Like many others, Curtis became a Baha’i because of a profoundly spiritual experience. His mother, Valeria, was a Baha’i and she tried to share the teachings with her family but they weren’t interested. Confined to his bed by typhoid fever and its accompanying severe headache, Curtis was cured when he heard orchestral music from an unseen source. Curtis called for his mother and asked her what he had just experienced. She turned to the few Writings in her possession. Curtis couldn’t rest until his experience was explained – he even left his work in order to “camp out on the doorstep” of every Baha’i and study the Writings. While an answer was not immediately found, his examination led him to the Faith. Abdu’l-Baha later explained that he had heard the music of the celestial kingdom and that it had awakened him spiritually. Continue reading
Leonora Holsapple Armstrong (June 23, 1895 – October 17, 1980) on board the S. S. Vasari bound for Brazil in 1921. (Photo: courtesy of Kristine Leonard Asuncion Young)
“Leonora, what are you waiting for? Go!” Those were the words of May Maxwell to Leonora Holsapple Armstrong. Leonora wanted to go pioneering to South America but her resolve weakened in the face of her friends’ and family’s concerns.
Leonora, like Dorothy Baker, learned of the Faith from her grandmother and she attended the 1919 Baha’i Convention in New York City when the Tablets of the Divine Plan were unveiled. She wrote to Abdu’l-Baha, expressing her wish to pioneer and be of service. In His reply, He “expressed the hope that she might become a ‘spiritual physician,’ and this hope of His became her highest aspiration.” Martha Root encouraged her to go to Argentina and she began studying Spanish but a contact in Brazil interested in the Faith made her change her plans. Continue reading
Laura Dreyfus-Barney (30 November, 1879 - 18 August, 1974) and Hippolyte Dreyfus-Barney (12 April, 1863 - 20 December, 1928). These portraits of Laura and Hippolyte were done by Laura's mother, Alice, and the images are courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In the year 1900, Laura Clifford Barney and Hippolyte Dreyfus met on the threshold of the Paris home of May Ellis Bolles. Laura was on her way to the visit the Canadian Baha’i in order to find out more about the Faith – which she accepted immediately, an unquenchable fire having been sparked in her heart. Hippolyte was departing May’s company. In the months that followed, Hippolyte became the first French Baha’i and in the years that followed he and Laura would both render priceless and invaluable services to the Cause. In honour of Laura’s passing which occurred 42 years ago on August 18th, I’d like to share some facts I’ve learned about them.
Laura was born on November 30th, 1879 in Cincinnati, Ohio to a wealthy family of artists and industrialists. She and her sister Natalie lived in luxury and privilege but owing to their parents’ strained marriage, they spent their childhood in both Paris and the United States. She studied the dramatic arts and sculpture, loved the theater and wrote 25 short stories and at least two plays. Laura was keenly intelligent, serious, inquisitive and insightful – qualities for which we are all grateful.
Between 1904 and 1906, Laura travelled to Akka multiple times. She was unmarried and in her twenties and the Master was still a prisoner of the Turkish government. Dr. Youness Afroukteh (whose wonderful recollections Memories of Nine Years in Akka is a delight to read) recorded these words: Continue reading