History of the Baha’i Faith in Oxford

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The association between the Baha’i Faith and the city of Oxford extends back almost a century.

The most significant event in this association was the visit of Abdu’l-Baha to Oxford on 31st December 1912. At the invitation of Canon T.K. Cheyne, D.Litt, D.D, he spoke to a large and varied audience in the library at Manchester College (now Harris Manchester College). The title of his talk was “Aspects of Nature and Divine Philosophy”, and he spoke about the two branches of human knowledge, science and religion. Science had begun to enable mankind to escape from the physical constraints imposed by nature, and religious knowledge and understanding now needed to catch up. The fundamental basis of religion was love, but this had been forgotten. Religions must unite to create peace.

The lecture, chaired by Dr Eslin Carpenter, Principal of Manchester College, was extensively reported in the Oxford Times of January 3rd 1913 and in the Oxford Chronicle the following day. After the event, Abdu’l-Baha took tea with Canon and Mrs Cheyne at their home at South Elms, Parks Road, and then took a train back to London. A month later Canon Cheyne wrote to an acquaintance, John Craven:

Why I am a Baha’i is a large question, but the perfection of the character of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha is perhaps the chief reason…I am one of the Baha’is who remain in their mother church.

Other distinguished theologians were also affected by Abdu’l-Baha’s visit. Dr Carpenter wrote in his 1913 book Comparative Religion,“Has Persia, in the midst of her miseries, given birth to a religion, which will go round the world?” In the same year the Master of Balliol College, Dr Benjamin Jowett, told his colleague, Professor Lewis Campbell, that the Baha’i Faith was “the greatest light that has come into the world since the time of Jesus Christ”.

Abdu’l-Baha was, in turn, impressed with Balliol, choosing the College for the undergraduate studies of his grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, who came up to Oxford in 1920 to study the philosophy of politics. His personal tutor was AD Lindsay, who was to stand in the famous “Appeasement” Oxford by-election of 1936 and who later served as Keele University’s founding Vice-Chancellor. Shoghi Effendi impressed his fellow undergraduates by his enthusiasm for well-written English prose, and by the care he put into translating his great-grandfather’s writings. These skills, honed at Oxford, were to serve him well when Abdu’l-Baha, who died unexpectedly in 1921, named the young man in his will as “Guardian” of the Baha’i Faith. One of Shoghi Effendi’s contemporaries, future Nobel Laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, later served as the first Senior Member of the Oxford University Baha’i Society, although not a Baha’i herself.

Oxford has continued to be an important centre of Baha’i activity since that time. The first Irish believer, the Archdeacon of Clonfert, George Townshend, was an undergraduate at Hertford. The local Baha’i community was strengthened during the late 1940s by the arrival of families, such as the Hainsworths and Jenkersons, and individuals, such as Constance Langdon-Davies, an artist who was an associate of arguably the two most important Western artists to embrace the Baha’i Faith during the 20th century, Bernard Leach and Mark Tobey. The city’s first Baha’i Local Spiritual Assembly was elected in 1949, and Oxford’s first Baha’i Centre (unhappily now closed) opened in December 1954. Many of the world’s most prolific Baha’i writers have studied here, and when the Universal House of Justice was first elected in 1963, two former Oxford residents, David Hofman and Ian Semple, were among its nine members.

Oxford has also sheltered a number of Baha’i refugees from persecution in other states. The University has indeed played a distinguished part in ameliorating such persecution. Prof. Gilbert Murray made an appeal to save Baha’is in Iran from mass executions and forced conversions planned for 1955, while in the early 1980s almost all the Heads of Oxford colleges wrote to the then UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, urging the world body to intervene in the wave of persecution of Baha’is that followed the proclamation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.