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Australian Women and Religious Change:
Margaret Dixson and the First Melbourne Baha'is

by Graham Hassall

published in Proceedings of the Association for Bahá'í Studies
Sydney: Association for Baha'i Studies Australia, 1988

Women played an important role in the initial spread and development of the Bahá’í Faith in Australia. In doing so, they struggled to break the bounds that traditionally defined women's place in the life, and organization, of a religious community. For women like Margaret Dixson, the Bahá’í teachings provided a worldview, and a value system, which gave meaning to their individual life-struggles, and became the basis of their identity. Through what we know of the experience of Margaret Dixson - one of the first Melbourne Bahá’ís - we can chart the progress of a small community through years of obscurity and struggle.

The Bahá’í teachings were brought to Australia at a time when traditional values were being questioned. The scale of destruction of the first world war, together with the involvement of the churches in actively supporting both enlistment and conscription, contributed to a post-war disillusion with religion.1 Many discontinued church attendance, and occupied themselves with rebuilding their lives, and work. For others, a much smaller number, the 1920s became a time of search. In the various state capitals a sub-culture of 'seekers' emerged, who shifted their attention from the mainline political parties, and Christian denominations, to an intriguing variety of movements -social reform, esoteric, mystical, numerological, and metaphysical.

Hyde and Clara Dunn arrived in Sydney, from California, in April 1920. This Englishman, and his Irish born wife, had decided to spend their remaining years in Australia, promoting the Bahá’í message of universal peace. Hyde acquired a job as a commercial traveller for Nestles, a job which took them to all states of Australia. In his teaching of the principles established by Bahá’u’lláh, prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Hyde Dunn stressed the need for renewal of spiritual values, and for social reforms, in the quest for world peace; and the need for the individual, in investigating the Bahá’í revelation, to escape the blind imitation of traditional values.

The Dunns quite soon discovered that response to their message came most readily from the metaphysical groups, such as New Thought, the New Civilization Centre, the Harmony Centre, even the Radiant Health Society. They were welcomed, in addition, to the platforms of Theosophists and Spiritualist Churches.

Across Australia, the first Bahá’ís came from such groups as these. The first Australian Bahá’í, Oswald Whittaker, was interested in Theosophy, and Effie Baker, the second, heard Hyde Dunn speak at Melbourne's New Civilization Centre. Margaret Dixson met the Dunns, and was introduced to the Bahá’í teachings, at the New Civilization Centre, in November 1923.

The Shanns were a genteel Anglican family. Margaret Bertha Shann, born in 1877, had a good education for a Victorian schoolgirl at the end of the last century, although her life story is one of hardship. Her parents separation, not common at that time, scattered the family, and left Margaret with little family support. One brother, Frank, became headmaster of Trinity Boys College, Kew, while the other, Ted, became Professor of Economics at the University of Western Australia. Margaret went to work as a governess on a farm in northeast Victoria, and later married her employers' brother. By 1916 she was widowed with three children to raise.

All the years she had lived in the country, as a farmer's wife, she missed the city, and longed for the intellectual stimulation Melbourne could provide. She organized musical events at the farmhouse to which she invited townspeople, but mostly, the years in the country were filled with hard work.

Her grand-daughter, Miriam Dixson, has recorded:

My own grand-mother, Margaret Bertha Shann, was a deeply intellectual woman. But because she married a farmer in north-east Victoria, the life of the mind was often denied her, for example, by the need to cook for farm labour during harvest, by tasks such as carrying water to the kitchen (Grandfather was reluctant to 'waste' money needed for capital improvement by piping water to the kitchen) and hand sewing clothes for Dad and my aunts...On Sunday mornings, outside a one-roomed wooden church at Yarroweah in north-east Victoria, Grandpa Dixson used to join the other farmers in discussing money-making, weather and crops.2

Following her husbands' death, she returned to Melbourne, purchased a house on a violet farm at Pascoe Vale, and earnt her living by doing housework, and teaching when she could. What work she could get was not enough, and two of her children, Mollie and Jack, had to leave school rather than continue their schooling. At one time, Margaret earnt her living house-keeping for her niece, Ruby Dixson, an opera singer in Sydney, and, in later years, she earned a small income by conducting a kindergarten.

Even when funds were low, Margaret regularly travelled by tram into the city to attend various meetings. About 1922 she began giving numerology classes at the New Civilization centre, (at the Playhouse, opposite the Princes bridge), which were advertised in the Age and Argus. The New Civilization Centre, established by the medical doctor Julia Seton, was based on New Thought, a philosophical and mental therapeutics movement developed in North America. It was individualistic, and non-liturgical, and emphasised the power of constructive thinking. It regarded God as "universal mind", or "infinite wisdom", and held that a "new age" was emerging.

The night Hyde Dunn spoke to the group, in November 1923, four women became Bahá’ís. Just one month before, Hyde had written of the Melbourne Bahá’ís as being "two strong, the others weak".3 The Bahá’í administrative system was in its infancy in the 1920s, and even Hyde Dunn was unsure of the details. All that was known was that, because the Bahá’í Faith had no clergy, administration of the religion was the responsibility of the community's members. Thus, those who became Bahá’ís soon became involved in helping organize Bahá’í affairs. The administrative structure had more than merely local consequences, however, for it was on the basis of local Assemblies, once established, that National Assemblies could be elected; and on the basis of National Assemblies that the international administrative body could be elected. By December, 1923 there were enough Bahá'ís in Melbourne to establish an Assembly, complete with office bearers.

The election was held at Margaret Dixson's home, on 9 December, at 82 Leopold Street, South Yarra.4 She had recently taken a two years' lease, and her home became the Bahá’í centre for Melbourne. It was a time of much excitement for the small group, as they prepared for the visit of Martha Root, the celebrated Bahá’í speaker, world traveller, and Esperantist. Hyde Dunn described the Melbourne Bahá’ís as "a wonderful little nucleus, the first fruits of this continent."5

The seventeen people present at the formation of the assembly were mostly women. Few were married, most were single, or widowed, and all had been involved to some extent in one or other movement. Mrs Harris, the first "president", was "really like an angel".6 Mrs Stanton invited Hyde to speak to a group of twenty-two people at her home about his "peace religion".7 Mrs Dixson was, felt Hyde, "a fine type, clever and a good firm character, all that will go to make up a fine Bahá'í."8 The Dunns stayed with Margaret at Leopold street before moving on to Tasmania, where they were joined in a "Bahá’í home" by the misses Effie Baker and Mabel Hastings. Hyde had hopes that Margaret's house would continue to be a centre for Bahá’í activities in Melbourne.

The Melbourne Bahá’ís met together, but no public meetings were held. Thus the visit there by Martha Root provided a shining example of what a woman could achieve, in addressing the public. Following an 'extravagant welcome'9, Martha Root gave 25 talks in Melbourne, including one at Dr Charles Strong's Australian Church, scene of his 1904 lecture on Abdu'l-Bahá.10 Margaret was greatly enthused by Martha Root's example, and wrote to Shoghi Effendi of her wish to follow it:

As a result of her example and the study of the Divine Plan, I feel that I can no longer remain here living in comfort and tranquillity while there is [sic] such immense efforts needed to bring the message to the rest of the world. So I earnestly desire to be a travelling teacher in this Cause, giving all I have of means and ability to help further the Cause of the Kingdom of Abha.11

Margaret had expressed her hope to the Guardian that she might be able to travel within Australia, and later overseas, and to finance her travels by the sale of some land, and later, with money from her late husband's estate. These plans evidently came to naught, as Margaret stayed in Melbourne until November 1925, when Clara Dunn, suffering illness, sought her assistance in Sydney. During the almost two years Margaret, John and Molly, spent in Sydney, she acted as secretary for the Sydney Assembly. It had been formed just as she arrived, in November 1925, and meetings were held in the flat occupied by the Dixsons and the Dunns in Avoca Street, Randwick. Later, the Sydney Bahá'ís contributed to the rental of a room in the city.12

The Dunns' Randwick home was, wrote Margaret, 'an outpost in a desert of unbelief and materiality'.13 She remained close friends with the Dunns, even when they moved on to live in Brisbane, and later, Adelaide. In December 1926, she accompanied Clara on the S.S. Canberra to Melbourne,14 and in 1927 she was to travel with the Dunns on a pilgrimage to Haifa - a pilgrimage which, for some reason, Clara Dunn eventually made on her own.15 Before returning to Melbourne in August 1927, Margaret described the Sydney group as a "handful of followers" with little to show for their efforts, except a bond of unity, a spiritual love in their hearts, and undying devotion to Clara and Hyde Dunn, their "noble teachers".16 Later, she described a visit to the Dunns in Adelaide as "An Australian Pilgrimage to the Australian Pilgrim House".17

While Margaret was in Sydney, the Melbourne Bahá’ís had continued to meet. An assembly elected in 1926 included Olive Richards, Mrs Potter, Major McLeod, Mrs Laws, Amy Thornton, and Mabel Hastings. With her return to Melbourne, meetings were once again held in Margaret's home. The group was planning to have a "sale of gifts to augment funds".18 It had previously sent money for Bahá’í flood victims in Iran,19 and sent also a contribution toward the purchase of land on Mt Carmel.20 A little later, the group sent donations to the American Temple fund, and to Effie Baker in Haifa, as well as subscriptions to Star of the West and Herald of the South.21

Although the group was not very active during 1928 when the Dunns were in Queensland, it had placed several books in the Melbourne Library, and received from Shoghi Effendi a copy of the first Bahá’í Year Book. Clara Dunn had recognized Melbourne's problem early, when she described it to Gretta Lamprill as "a little timid and no husbands and wives to work together - they lack men there and both are needed for good work".22

In October the group hosted its biggest meeting ever, with 42 people gathered to hear the Dunns, who were in Melbourne for just one night.23 Actual membership, however, was declining, and no LSA was elected in 1929. By the late 1920s, Margaret was secretary for the group, which met in a rented room "centrally located in the city".24

Melbourne re-formed its Assembly in 1931, when enthusiasm was mounting for Keith Ransom-Kehler's visit to Australia.25 This American traveller spoke, as Martha Root had done, at many organizations in Melbourne, including the Theosophical Society, the Unitarian Church, and at Mrs Hangers' Spiritualistic Church. Margaret organized for her an impromptu meeting with a group of girl guides. Mrs Ransom-Kehler's main concern, however, had been to establish Bahá’í administration, on the basis of loyalty to the "Covenant" - dedication to the authority of the Guardian, as outlined in Bahá’í scriptures, as a protection against some future usurpation of religious authority, and an assurance that the community grew as a world-embracing, single organism.

For some Melbourne Bahá’ís, the transition of a 'movement' to an organised religion was not easy. For Amy Thornton, the task was to try to set an unfailing ideal in which all can unite... not as a system, creed or observance, but as a stimulus to a perfect life, because there is a deadness in things conventional...26

Margaret Dixson had felt, similarly, the need to "attain to perfect unity as a group" before they could hope for "greater usefulness further afield".27 Yet, for the Melbourne Bahá’ís, the harmony had been sought at the expense of clarity. Members had continued their previous affiliations, in addition to their involvement in the Bahá’í Assembly, the result of which was little unity of thought, belief, or action. Mrs Ransom-Kehler recorded of the situation

In the evening I spoke to a group at Mrs Richards and to my intense amazement I am discerning that the people who are serving on the so-called Assembly are not Bahá’ís at all; they have all sorts of reservations ... it has been a most amazing experience. It transpires that Mrs Richards wants good orthodox people working in their churches to be of just as much value in establishing the Kingdom of God as Bahá’ís...

The Bahá’ís (now decimated to Dixson, Hastings, Stevens, E Millar, Richards and Sindrey) want to discuss the Tablet of Ahmad tomorrow...28

Far from being merely the expression of noble ideals about future civilization, the Bahá’í administrative order sought to establish a practical basis to the community's activities. The utopian notion of 'perfect unity' held by the Melbourne Bahá’ís had clearly been impractical. Refusing to move forward until they felt themselves to be in complete agreement had only led to disillusion. Awareness that individual differences matter, and are properly resolved through consultation rather than a necessary consensus, was slow to develop.

A later meeting convened by Hyde Dunn to determine whether the Melbourne Bahá’ís were prepared to give their allegiance to Shoghi Effendi, as Guardian and head of the Bahá’í Faith, revealed that, of all the long-standing Melbourne Bahá’ís - Mrs Wheeler, Miss Hastings, Alice Culbert, Margaret Stephens, and Emily Millar, only Margaret Stephens and Emily Millar (who spoke also for Margaret Dixson who was away in the country) were prepared to give it.29

No doubt, the groups' members were influenced by their backgrounds in the metaphysical movements. Having previously rejected ecclesiastical religion, they resisted the evolution of religious authority within the Bahá’í community, and hoped it might remain an informal gathering of people interested in progressive thought. Hesitancy to give full allegiance to the Bahá’í cause may also have come from pressure to conformity from family and friends. Emily Miller and Margaret Stephens, were among those treated harshly by their families upon becoming Bahá'ís.30

For some, the Bahá’í teachings were coupled with a keen interest in esoteric subjects such as numerology and astrology. Margaret Dixson continued her study of numerology. While staying with the Dunns in Sydney she had attended regularly the sessions of Ernest Wilby, astrologer and numerologist. Her belief in the appropriateness of his ideas must have been strengthened when she, together with Clara Dunn, introduced Emily Millar to the Bahá’í teachings at a meeting of Wilby's. Several years later, in 1934, Emily Miller and Margaret Dixson were the two Melbourne Bahá’ís present at the formation of the National Spiritual Assembly in Sydney.

Wilby's thought, that "a great hidden principle exists, which reveals the true and scientific relations of all types to each other", impressed Margaret Dixson. She felt it may have been one of the new sciences, that Bahá’u’lláh said would one day appear, and wrote to Shoghi Effendi to enquire if he thought it a good idea for her to earn her living by writing about the subject. Although discouraged in this,31 she wrote, in November 1926, to the North American National Assembly, to enquire whether its members might know of a publisher for Mr Wilby's work "Harmony and the Zodiac".32

In 1928 she established a class to study Wilby's astrology, and in 1929, wrote letters to overseas Bahá’í communities seeking support for a special commemoration of the next armistice day, as it was to be held on the 11th hour of the 11th month of the llth year of the signing of the armistice ending the first world war.33

If numerology did not gain wide acceptance among the early Bahá’ís, Esperanto did. Margaret commenced learning the language soon after becoming a Bahá’í, and perhaps after meeting Martha Root. Esperanto was also enthusiastically taken up by the Adelaide and Auckland Bahá’ís, and regular lessons were included in Herald of the South, the Bahá’í magazine begun in New Zealand in 1925. Amy Thornton contributed to it an essay, "The Value of a Universal Language".34 Six months after beginning to learn the language, Margaret established a small class, and hoped to eventually translate Bahá’í writings. Several years later, she conducted correspondence in Esperanto with a Czechoslovakian Bahá’í, Vuk Ecktner.

In the early 1930s there were no more than 5 or 6 Bahá’ís in Melbourne. Margaret was living at 14 Avoca St South Yarra, Miss Hastings and Sindrey in the same suburb, while Mrs Wheeler lived at Ascotvale, Margaret Stephens, the secretary, at Malvern, and Miss Emily Millar and Harry Hepburn both at Montague St, Moonee Ponds.35 The small group met on alternate Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Margaret Dixson's home, to study the Dawnbreakers. 36 Emily Millar was invited to give several addresses to Mrs Smith's spiritualistic church, at the Henry George Club.

Because the Melbourne community had not grown sufficiently by 1934 to re-establish its Local Assembly, its members were not involved in the formation of the National Spiritual Assembly, (apart from having Adelaide Bahá’ís stay with them when travelling to and from the first convention).37 However, Margaret and Emily Millar attended the first convention in Sydney. Emily Miller travelled second class, borrowing the money to do so, and Margaret travelled third class. Her record of convention, possibly the only personal account extant, shows clearly her appreciation of the event, with the key points of each talk, and discussion, being noted. In her first diary entry, dated 28 January 1934, Margaret had written

I shall try to set down faithfully hereafter all the Bahá’í events that transpire in the hope that some day they will be of historical value.38

She took her writing seriously, and her published passages, while few in number, are autobiographical, and reveal, as intended, her character. Following her study of Nabil's Narrative she wrote an account of Shaykh Ahmad for Herald of the South.39 Another article written for Herald of the South, "The Four Causes: A Bahá’í Story for Children" (April-May 1927), began with Molly and her mother sitting at breakfast in their Sydney flat, and described a mother's attempt to explain a concept from Abdu'l-Bahá's Some Answered Questions.

Two further articles demonstrated Margaret's identification with the spiritual purpose animating her faith. The theme of her 1935 Herald of the South editorial (January-March), "SEVERENCE - OBEDIENCE - SERVITUDE" reflected on her own circumstances:

Those who have heard the Call of God reverberating through the Bahá’í Message, and hearing, have turned to investigate for themselves, and investigating, have found that which has strengthened the mind and filled with joy the heart, are privileged to send an answering message to the storm-tossed ones who realise their need for help...

The article goes on to describe the journey of a soul, having entered the protective "ark" of the Bahá’í revelation, if it wishes to perfect itself for service to its' Lord.

A second, undated essay, entitled "Scintillating Jewels", meditates on two passages of Bahá’í scripture:

O Son of Spirit,

Ye are my treasures, for in you I have treasured the pearls of My mysteries and the gems of my knowledge...Bahá’u’lláh

and,

While you are in the possession of scintillating jewels, why do ye attach your hearts to crockeries? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

The essay features a conversation between a woman (autobiographically, Margaret) and a male companion. The two sit on the grass in a park while the woman explains to her friend the gems she possesses, a diamond, a ruby and an opal. The diamond, she explained corresponded to joy; the ruby, love; and the opal, understanding. Having explained these gems, her companion did not reciprocate, by answering whether he had any such jewels of his own:

"Nay, dear, not today. That is another story."

And saying this he left her ... alone.

Ending the essay, Margaret allows her mind to drift back to

the experiences through which she gained her gems:

she saw... A silent house ... a darkened room ... a woman bowed with sorrow, entering the room alone, creeping to a bedside and laying aside the coverlet, she looked, with burning eyes at he, who lay there, so calm and yes ...ah, yes...so beautiful.

As she gazed long and silently at his face, she marvelled at the changes death had wrought in that it revealed what life had hidden, calmness, nobility and peace. After years of strife, weariness and pain here, at last, was Peace, and kneeling there she felt that same Peace enter her soul and knew that after much searching she had found her Pearl ... a pearl of great price indeed ...the Pearl of Peace.

If not for a series of illnesses, Margaret Dixson would have written more, and played a more prominent role in the Melbourne Bahá’í community. She spoke of her religion when ever the occasion arose: to a Jewish gentleman, Mr Wineburg, at the entrance to a crowded meeting for Krishnamurti; to Joseph Lamb, a young man met on the boat journey to Sydney; to fellow patients during her several stays in hospitals and nursing homes.40 She took a year to recover from a heart attack, suffered in July 1937, and so was unable to do much for a special teaching campaign in Melbourne in 1938, organised by the National Assembly. (see E. Wheeler letter on Dixson illness, 19/12/38 at 0302/0110.)

A decade earlier, when in Sydney helping Clara Dunn recuperate from her illness, Margaret herself suffered a tumour, and took several months to recover. Shortly after writing a paper to be presented at the Yerrinbool Summer School in January 1939, Margaret suffered a 'kidney fit'. Unable to attend the school, the paper was read by Hilda Gilbert, on her behalf.41 She was able, however, to attend some of Martha Root's engagements during her second visit to Melbourne, February 27 - March 20, including a supper given by Martha for sixteen guests at the Tudor City Lounge:

We passed a most heavenly and enjoyably evening and I have felt immensely strengthened and refreshed all day, by the contact with this pure soul. She spoke to us of many personal experiences in China and of the bombing which took place while she was in Shanghai.42

On 29 May 1940 Margaret recorded in her diary "Moved into little room. Nook of my own to study and prepare. At last, evidently I was not ready sooner." She died one month later, on 26 June 1940 (Mrs Wheeler says 17 June), and was interred in Springvale Cemetery. The service was conducted, as she had wished, by Rev. Bottomly, a Unitarian minister who had attended Martha Root's Melbourne lectures.43

Through nearly two decades Margaret Dixson was absorbed in seeking to understand, and to promote, the Bahá’í principles. As one of the first Australian Bahá’ís, she endured consciously the loneliness of the pioneer. As a woman, she struggled to move beyond the traditional Christian world-view, with its' subordination of the female to the male, in the family unit, the church and in Australian society generally. She did this a generation before attempts by the women's movement to reform institutional Christianity in Australia began in the late 1960s.44

By 1940, the Melbourne Bahá’ís had only taken small steps forward. The Melbourne Assembly was barely established. It's members were mostly poor, marginalized women. Their promotion of the Bahá’í principals was hindered by poor health, and lack of finances.

Even so, it was on the basis of the spirit, resources, and energy of this handful of women, that the Melbourne Bahá’í community was established. The New Thought movements, and the popular ideas of the 1920s and 1930s have either disappeared, or greatly diminished in the post-war years. For Margaret Dixson, a life of hardship and personal disappointments was transformed into one of inner contentment through religious belief. How appropriate were the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, placed by Margaret in the front of her diary:

Behold a candle how it gives its light; it weeps its life away drop by drop in order to show forth its flame of light


ENDNOTES

Footnotes have been lost in this online edition.

In writing about Margaret Dixson, my thanks go to her daughter, Mollie Cox, for an interview (with Jane McLachlan-Chew) 12 September 1987; and to her grand-daughter, Miriam Dixson. Thanks to Dicy Hall for typing out "The Diary of Margaret Dixson", and to Jane McLachlan-Chew for her paper "The Early History of the Bahá’í Faith in Melbourne (to 1940)".

Source materials from the following archives have been referred to: National Bahá’í Archives of the United States (USA); Australia (Aust); New Zealand (NZ); the San Francisco Assembly Archives; as well as the Department of Archives, Bahá’í World Centre (Haifa), and the Victorian State Library (La Trobe Library), Melbourne.

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