During 1998 and 1999, Bahá’ís in Britain are celebrating the centenary of the establishment of the Bahá’í Faith in this country. Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, announced His mission whilst in exile in Baghdad in 1863, but it was not until 1898 that the first person in Britain became a believer. This was Mrs. Mary Thornburgh-Cropper, an American lady who lived in London. In the following year the first British person, Miss Ethel Rosenberg, became a Bahá’í. It is these two events which Bahá’ís are commemorating during this centenary period.
In 1907 Lady Blomfield became the first person of Irish birth to join the Bahá’í aith. The first Scottish Bahá’í was Mrs Jane Whyte who enrolled at about the same time. In Northern Ireland Stella Cairns lived in Ballymena in the 1930s. In Wales, however, it was not until 1942 that Mrs Rose Jones became the first Bahá’í to live in the country.
British Connections with the Central FiguresIn the late 1860s, Bahá’u’lláh had written to Queen Victoria announcing His mission, as He did to all the leaders of the time. In His letter He commended her for the abolition of the slave trade and for encouraging democracy to flourish. Unlike most of those who received a letter, Queen Victoria sent a courteous reply. In April 1890 Professor E.G. Browne of Cambridge University visited Bahá’u’lláh in Palestine and left a stirring description of Him and of His words. This remains the only detailed description by a Westerner.
In 1898 Mrs. Thornburgh-Cropper made the difficult sea voyage to Akka in Palestine (now Israel) to meet 'Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá’u’lláh. 'Abdu’l-Bahá had been sent there many years previously with his Father as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire, because the new religious teachings were felt to be a threat by those in authority.
'Abdu’l-Bahá himself visited England during September 1911. On 10th September he spoke at the City Temple, London, in the first of his many public appearances. He returned to Britain in December 1912, visiting Liverpool, London, Edinburgh, Oxford, and Bristol. His visit produced unprecedented publicity for the Bahá’í Faith and resulted in a number of well-known people becoming friends and supporters.
At the end of the First World War, 'Abdu’l-Bahá was knighted by the British government for his humanitarian services to the people of Palestine. 'Abdu’l-Bahá sent his grandson, Shoghi Effendi, to university in Oxford. After the passing of his grandfather, Shoghi Effendi became the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith until his own death in London in 1957. He is buried in the Great Northern cemetery and his grave is now a place of pilgrimage for Bahá’ís from all over the world.
Bahá’í AdministrationBahá’ís are organised locally under elected councils called Local Spiritual Assemblies. The first of these in the United Kingdom were established in 1922, in London, Manchester and Bournemouth. It was not until the 1940s when concerted efforts were made to spread the Faith to all parts of the country that the first Assemblies were elected in Wales, Scotland and Ireland: in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin. At the present time there are about 400 Bahá’í communities in the United Kingdom, part of a worldwide community of about 6 million Bahá’ís.
On 13th October 1923, in London, the National Spiritual Assembly of England came into being, one of the first in the world. In 1930 this became the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the British Isles. In 1972, when a separate National Assembly for the Republic of Ireland was established, the name was changed again, to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United Kingdom.
It was during the 1930s that various other institutions were founded: a Bahá’í theatre group was formed in London, the "Bahá’í Journal" began publication, a publishing company was formed, Bahá’í summer schools began, and the British tradition of a winter Bahá’í conference was established.
By the 1950s the Bahá’ís worldwide were co-operating in a global plan to spread the teachings of the Faith to parts of the world which had not had the opportunity to hear its message. The British Bahá’ís, following the British pioneering tradition, took the Faith to many parts of Africa and to other parts of the world. In more recent years, British Bahá’ís have been at the forefront of re-establishing the Bahá’í Faith in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
In April 1963 the first ever Bahá’í World Congress was held in the Albert Hall in London. This followed the election, at the Bahá’í shrines in Israel, of the members of the first Universal House of Justice, the supreme body of the Bahá’í world. Over 6000 people from all over the world attended the Congress, many wearing their national costumes, a very colourful and arresting sight in the middle of London.
Another area in which the British Bahá’í community has taken a leading role in the Bahá’í world is that of publishing Bahá’í literature. Early in 1937 a Bahá’í publishing company was set up in the United Kingdom. From the 1920s until the present day a steady stream of Bahá’í books by authors from the U.K. and elsewhere have been published in this country, either by the Bahá’í Publishing Trust or by other independent Bahá’í publishers in England.
Legal RecognitionThe 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 chairperson of a Bahá’í Local Spiritual Assembly as a validation of the identity of the applicant on a passport application. Bahá’í marriage was recognised in Scotland in 1978 and Bahá’í Holy Days are recognised by local education authorities throughout the United Kingdom. By the end of this centenary period all the Local Spiritual Assemblies should have achieved charitable status.
The FutureThe general aim of the Bahá’í Faith is to promote unity and understanding among people of different backgrounds. Everything that Bahá’ís do is aimed at this goal of unity in diversity, bringing people together, creating a consciousness of world citizenship and a belief in the interdependence of all nations, with the overall aim of bringing peace on earth. The British Bahá’ís will continue their efforts to spread these principles amongst their fellow countrymen and women and in the wider world until this goal is ultimately achieved.
Published by, and copyright of, the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Warwick.
Approved by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United Kingdom,
27 Rutland Gate, London, SW7 1PD.
All quotations are from the Bahá'í writings.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holders