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Alexander, Agnes:
70 years of service

by Duane Troxel

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Chapter 1

Agnes Alexander: 70 years of service

The first in a three-part series on the life of the Hand of the Cause of God
Agnes Baldwin Alexander. Originally published in October 1983 Bahá’í News.
"Had this respected daughter founded an empire, that empire would not have been so great! For this sovereignty is eternal sovereignty and this glory everlasting glory."
— 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablets of the Divine Plan, pp. 13-14.
In May 1832 a young missionary couple strained at the horizon for their first glimpse of land in months. Out of the sapphire deeps arose "the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in the ocean" — the Kingdom of Hawaii.

In time the family of these newly-weds would become synonymous with the establishment of Christianity in Hawaii. Here they would raise nine children. And among their many grandchildren would appear a timid, sickly child who would in time be praised by 'Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice. She would become the first Bahá'í of Hawaii and the Pacific.

Agnes Baldwin Alexander was born July 21, 1875, during the reign of King David Kalakaua (1874-91), the youngest of five children born to Professor William DeWitt and Abigail Charlotte Alexander.1

By Agnes' own account, she was raised a Christian. "My father and mother were real Christians," she said. "And we always had family prayers every day. But I felt that something was wrong with me, because Christ said we must be born again, and I had never experienced anything like that. So I thought something was wrong with me. It didn't trouble my friends or my sister."2

Shy and sensitive, Agnes was more at ease with cats or horses than with people. Some of her happiest childhood memories were of summer stays with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry on the neighboring island of Maui. There she would ride on horseback into lush tropical valleys, inhaling the balmy air and listening to the distant surf boom against the white sand beaches. But her heart was never completely at rest, for she had not been "born again."

In 1890 she was graduated from Punahou School, the oldest college preparatory school west of the Rockies. That fall she entered Oahu College, graduating in a class of seven students in 1895. Her graduation essay, "Our Poor Relations," urged fellow Christians to show kindness toward animals.

From 1895 to 1897 Agnes studied education at the University of California at Berkeley and at Oberlin College in Ohio. But she did not take a degree. Instead, she returned home to Honolulu where she lived with her parents and her sister, Mary Charlotte (1874-1961). For the next two years (1898-1900) Agnes taught elementary school at her alma mater.

The turning point in her life came in May 1900. A party of islanders was going on a tour of the mainland U.S. and Europe. Although she was not well, and her mother felt she was "hardly strong enough" for "such a rushing trip,"3Agnes wanted badly to go. But who would buy the ticket? At this point kindly Aunt Em and Uncle Henry intervened with words of encouragement and a steamship ticket.

The journey did not begin auspiciously. Upon arriving in England, Agnes learned that her youngest brother, Henry (1868-1900), chronically ill since childhood, had died some days before in Napa, California. She wrote home: "We should all rejoice that Henry is at rest and living in paradise . . ."4

By October 1900 Agnes had visited England, France and Switzerland and was en route to Rome, the "eternal city." As the train approached Rome, she later wrote, "a thrill passed through me, as though I had attained my goal."5 While staying at a pension, she felt herself irresistably drawn to a radiant American woman, Mrs. Charlotte Dixon, and her two daughters.

Overcoming her shyness, Agnes approached Mrs. Dixon in the elevator. Taking the woman's hand, she asked her "what it was she had." Mrs. Dixon invited Agnes to meet her in the back parlor after supper. "That evening, as I sat listening to her," Agnes said later,

"my heart was touched and tears came to my eyes. She gave me a prayer copied in longhand, for printed Bahá'í literature was then very scarce. The prayer seemed to answer all the longings of my heart. After that we met for three successive evenings. She was endeavoring to prepare me for something which was to come, but did not tell me of the Coming of the Promised One. In those early days of the Cause in America the Bahá'í Message was considered too great to be conveyed at once. As teachers were few, God revealed His Message in strange and wonderful ways. The third evening after meeting with Mrs. Dixon, when I retired to my room, sleep did not come.

"That night (November 26, 1900) an overwhelming realization came to me, which was neither a dream nor vision, that Christ had come on the earth. When morning came, I met Mrs. Dixon as she came from breakfast, and together we entered my room. There I turned to her and said, 'Christ is on this earth!' She replied, 'Yes, I can see by your face that you know it.' In a Tablet which I later received from 'Abdu’l-Baha, He wrote: 'By God, the Truth, the Spirit of Christ from the Supreme Concourse doth in every time and aspect announce to thee this Great Good News.'"

The Dixons cautioned Agnes to "tell only the thirsty" but she felt that such wondrous news must be told to everyone.7

Prophecies 'unfolded'

After the Dixons left Rome, Agnes did not meet another Bahá'í for three months. One Sunday she attended church services with her Italian cousins, and afterward told the minister about 'Abdu’l-Baha. He took up the Bible and read to her from the Scriptures to show her that she was misled. Agnes said, "As I did not know the interpretation myself, I could not answer him. In my heart though, I had the assurance I was right."8

Taking God for her Teacher, Agnes bought a Bible. Before reading she prayed for understanding. "Little by little the prophecies of the coming of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá were unfolded to me."

At last she felt she must find others who believed as she did. It was then that she found the address of a Bahá'í in Paris that Mrs. Dixon had given her. "From the depths of my longing heart I wrote," she later recalled, "asking if she could tell me more of the wonderful Message. The heavenly letter which came in reply was so permeated with divine love that my heart was filled with assurance."9

January 28, 1901

"My precious Sister!

"Praise be to God that He has enlightened your heart in these wonderful days of the Coming of His Kingdom, and that He has in His Mercy guided you to the Truth.

"Please God we may soon welcome you in our midst in Paris and that you may then receive the full Revelation, and much help and instruction. . . .

"My Lord appeared to me in a vision twice, two years before I heard the Great Message, and when, by the great bounty of God, and without regard to my unworthiness, I was permitted to be among the first Americans to visit 'Akká — I beheld my dear Lord, I knew Him by my visions. . . .

"I feel by your beautiful letter that God has chosen you to be a servant in His blessed Vineyard, and that you will be greatly blessed.

"I am longing with great love to see you, to greet you in the Truth, that you may enter with your brothers and sisters in this city into the full joy and peace. . . .

"I am your loving and devoted sister in the love and service of our Lord.

(signed) May Ellis Bolles"10

Agnes traveled alone to Paris, arriving March 14, 1901. She quickly made her way to 100 rue de Bac and anxiously knocked on the door. A woman answered. Agnes embraced her warmly, thinking she was May, but the woman did not respond. The awkward silence that followed was at last broken by a statement to this effect: "I think you want to see my daughter."11

'Spiritual mother'

Meeting May Bolles was one of Agnes' most precious memories. "From that day she became my spiritual mother, and through all the years her tender mother love" became "a guiding star in my life."12May "was then very slender and seemed like an angel of light. She gave me some pressed violets which had been given to her by the Master in 'Akká, and a photograph taken of Him when He was a young man . . .The feelings which came over me as I gazed on the photograph cannot be described — in it I beheld my Lord."13

The first time Agnes entered the studio where the Bahá'ís of Paris14gathered, someone asked, "Is she a believer?" Another replied, "Look at her face!" "As I looked around the room," Agnes said, "I saw the same look of peace and light on the faces. They had found their Lord and were at rest . . .Such an atmosphere of pure light pervaded the Paris meetings that one was transported, as it were, from the world of man to that of God."15

One of the great blessings of her stay in Paris was the coming of Mirzá 'Abu'l-Fadl, sent by 'Abdu’l-Baha to teach the Bahá'ís in Paris before going on to America. Agnes said, ". . .he was the most gentle and humble person" she had ever met. He told her, "If in the future there are five believers in the Hawaiian Islands, you will have done a great work."16

During Agnes' stay in Paris a relative from Honolulu, Clarence Hobron Smith, came for a visit. Agnes was eager to teach him the Faith, but the proper words wouldn't come. Unable to hold back, she blurted: "Christ has come!" The next day he came to tell her that "the power of the spirit had been so great" when she spoke the day before "that he had believed at once," thus becoming Hawaii's second Bahá'í.17

When it came time to leave Paris, Agnes received a Tablet from the Master advising her to be "a divine bird; proceed to thy native country; spread the wings of sanctity over those spots and sing and chant and celebrate the Name of thy Lord, that thou mayest gladden the Supreme Concourse and make the seeking souls hasten unto thee as the moths hasten to the lamp and thus illumine that distant country by the Light of God."18

En route home Agnes spent two months as the guest of Sarah Farmer19 at Green Acre in Eliot, Maine. There she met more of the friends and further deepened her understanding of the Faith.

'Strange feelings'

On the morning of December 26, 1901, the S.S. Peru neared Honolulu's wharf. On board, Agnes said she felt "strange feelings" come over her — "alone I was to stand there, the first Bahá'í to touch that soil. The youngest of my family and hitherto extremely timid, God raised me up to carry His Message to these islands of the Pacific."20

After her return Agnes continued to live at home. Letters written to her during this period hint at household tensions her new beliefs must have provoked. In one a Bahá'í promises to be cautious in sending her letters.21 Nevertheless, Agnes was determined to let her actions speak for her: "I had to show through my life and not by words, the great happiness that had come into my life."22Undoubtedly, she reached some accommodation with her parents, for she lived at home until they died, and correspondence between them remained warm and affectionate to the last.

Two months after her return to Hawaii Clarence Smith came home. Through his efforts, and a visit by Helen and Ella Goodall, Miss Elizabeth Muther (1858-1940) became, in 1902, the first on Hawaiian soil to embrace the Faith. Through Miss Muther, Kanichi Yamamoto (1879-1961) became the first of his race to declare his belief in Bahá'u'lláh. In fact, he accepted Bahá'u'lláh so quickly that Miss Muther was somewhat taken aback. Asked how he knew, Mr. Yamamoto solemnly placed a hand over his heart.

Having no place to hold their meetings, Hawaii's first four Bahá'ís took the trolley to a lookout above Honolulu where they said their prayers. The group included a gardener, a governess, a clerk and a school teacher.

Virtually no public mention of the Faith was made in Hawaii for the next eight years.23 Agnes and her fellow Bahá'ís taught quietly, patiently, person-to-person. In November 1909 that was changed by the visit of two traveling teachers — Howard Struven of Baltimore and Charles Remey of Washington, D.C. 'Abdu’l-Baha had sent the two men on a global teaching trip, the first of its kind. The day they landed in Hawaii, Agnes persuaded her father to let them deliver their first address on his lanai (porch). "Would Unite Mankind" ran the headline in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. Professor Alexander was not amused. He responded with a critical editorial, "What the Bahá'í Movement Really Is."24

Despite her father's opposition, many people were attracted to the Cause. The influx of new believers enabled Honolulu to form its first Spiritual Assembly in 1910 with Agnes Alexander as its chairman. 'Abdu'l-Bahá sent them a message: "From afar! From afar! I entertain the greatest love for them. Because they are so far away, but yet they have promulgated the word of God there. They have heard it from afar, therefore I am attached to them and bear my greetings to all of them."25

Professor and Mrs. Alexander both succumbed to old age early in 1913. Agnes said 'Abdu'l-Bahá's words rang in her ears: "I have a lamp in My hand searching through the lands and seas to find souls who can become heralds of the Cause. Day and night I am engaged in this work."26 She prayed that His lamp might find her.

That fall she sailed to the mainland, and from there proceeded to Montreal to stay with her spiritual mother, May Bolles Maxwell. Then it was on to New York City to spend the winter with relatives. While there she received a Tablet from 'Abdu’l-Baha promising her "Divine confirmations" if she were to travel "toward Japan."27 She sailed to Europe in the spring of 1914. As Italy was "toward Japan," she decided to visit her Aunt Lottie and Uncle Guilio in Milan. Two days before she left Italy a Serbian terrorist assassinated the Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo, precipitating World War I.

Agnes was in Switzerland when the doors of Europe began to close. She couldn't cash her bank drafts. The trunk containing her clothing and other personal effects was in Germany. Her money was running out. And everyone advised her to stay put . . . except One. The Master wrote: "It is now more advisable for thee to depart directly to Japan and while there be engaged in the diffusion of the fragrances of God . . .Today the greatest of all divine bestowals is teaching the Cause of God for it is fraught with confirmations."28

She requested passage on the only available ship to Japan, the Miyazaki Maru, which was sailing from London and would make one European stop at Marseilles, France. Unfortunately, all accommodations on the steamer were taken. Desperate, Agnes wrote to a steamship agent in Marseilles saying she would accept anything if he could only get her on board. No answer. As she was reciting the "Remover of Difficulties" someone knocked on the door. The telegram that was handed to her said there was a space if she would come immediately.

Riding in a third class coach with two wounded soldiers, she crossed war-stricken France, arriving safely at Marseilles where the Miyazaki Maru waited at the dock. The ticket agent explained that he was giving her a German woman's place on board. Since France and Germany were at war he could have the woman arrested if she showed up. Only one other passenger embarked at Marseilles — Mme. Casulli, a Frenchwoman. Coincidentally, she became Agnes' cabin mate, and before disembarking at Hong Kong she became a Bahá'í!29 Unquestionably, "divine confirmations" were attending Agnes' every step.

The Miyazaki Maru steamed cautiously toward Japan, running without lights at night to evade the dreaded German battle cruiser Emeden, which was responsible for sinking many ships. After five perilous weeks Agnes disembarked safely at Kobe, Japan, on November 1, 1914. Unfortunately, the ill-fated Miyazaki Maru was sunk on its very next voyage.30

Notes

  1. Professor Alexander (1833-1913) was one of Hawaii's most distinguished citizens. He was the eldest son of the Rev. William Patterson and Mary Ann Alexander who were in the fifth company of missionaries sent to Hawaii from the U.S. in 1831. Professor Alexander was the Kingdom's first Surveyor General (1870-1901); a member of the King's Privy Council; president of Punahou School and Oahu College, and a prolific scholar on a broad range of topics. Mrs. Abigail (Baldwin) Alexander (1833-1913) was the daughter of another famous missionary couple, the Rev. Dr. Dwight and Abigail Charlotte Baldwin. She was born in a grass hut on Hawaii and reared on Maui. As a young woman she accompanied her father on horseback to the villages where she would help in his ministrations to the Hawaiians. In 1850 she sailed to the U.S. with her brother where she studied at Oberlin College. Ten years later she was married to William DeWitt Alexander.
  2. Audio recording of Agnes Alexander in Menlo Park, California, 1961. "Legacies of Service" tape, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois, 1980.
  3. Abigail Charlotte Alexander Journals, Hawaiian Mission Children's Society Library, Honolulu, Hawaii.
  4. Letter from Agnes Alexander, September 8, 1900, National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu, Hawaii.
  5. Agnes Alexander, Forty Years of the Bahá'í Cause in Hawaii: 1902-1942 (Honolulu: National Spiritual Assembly, rev. ed., June 1974), p. 7.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Notes of David Ned Blackmer taken October 15, 1959, in Rome, Italy. National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu, Hawaii.
  8. Agnes Alexander, Forty Years, p. 7.
  9. Ibid.
  10. May Ellis Bolles (1870-1940), later to become Mrs. William Sutherland Maxwell, was taught the Faith by Lua Getsinger in 1898. In December of that year she was in the first party of Western pilgrims to visit 'Abdu’l-Baha and wrote a moving account of that experience in An Early Pilgrimage. She is the mother of Mary Maxwell, who became Amatu'l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, the wife of Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith (1921-57). 'Abdu’l-Baha once said of May Maxwell: "Whoever meets her feels from her association the susceptibilities of the Kingdom. Her company uplifts and develops the soul." (Quoted in Star of the West, 10:13, p. 247). She died in 1940, only a month after reaching her pioneering post in Buenos Aires, Argentina — the second American to be designated a martyr by Shoghi Effendi (the first was Keith Ransom-Kehler).
  11. Alexander, Forty Years, p. 8.
  12. Audio recording of Agnes Alexander in Honolulu, Hawaii, April 1964. National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu, Hawaii.
  13. Ibid.
  14. The Paris Bahá'í community of 1901 was the spiritual heart of Europe — the favorite stop-over of "God-intoxicated pilgrims" (God Passes By, p. 259) recently returned from the presence of 'Abdu’l-Baha. The Master once wrote to them: "All men are asleep; you are awake. All eyes are blind; yours are seeing. All ears are deaf; your hearing is clear. All tongues are mute; you are eloquent. All humanity is dead; and you are full of life, vigor and force through the benefits of the Holy Spirit." (The Bahá’í World, Vol. XIII, pp. 878-79).
  15. Alexander, Forty Years, p. 8.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., p. 9.
  19. Sarah Farmer (1847-1916), a disciple of 'Abdu’l-Bahá, was described by Agnes in a letter home as "a woman with a soul that could hold the world. She is always ready to take in & help anyone. It matters not what their past may be. Her only aim is to help humanity." (Letter dated September 22, 1901, in National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu. In 1900 Miss Farmer met 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Haifa and became a Bahá'í. The Green Acre School in Eliot, Maine, is her legacy to the Faith. (World Order magazine, July 1946, pp. 105-09.)
  20. Alexander, Forty Years, p. 10.
  21. Letter from Charles Mason Remey, dated December 22, 1905, in National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu.
  22. Alexander, Forty Years, p. 10.
  23. It should be noted that Agnes Alexander took a steamship trip to Alaska between July 19-27, 1905. She visited Ketchikan, Wrangell, Tonka, Juneau, Treadwell, Skagway, White Horse, Haines, Hunter's Bay, Hillinore and Sitka. It is not known what mention, if any, she made of the Faith in those places. Nevertheless, it earns her the distinction of having been the first Bahá'í to set foot in that land. (Letters of Agnes B. Alexander dated July 19, 22 and 25, 1905, in National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu.)
  24. Professor Alexander remained unsympathetic to the Cause to the end of his life. Two years before his death he wrote to a Christian clergyman charging that 'Abdu'l-Bahá "permits himself to be worshipped by American women, who believe him to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ"; that "Bahá'ísm aims at superintending Christianity, whose cardinal doctrines it rejects . . .Long after Bahá'ísm shall have died out, Jesus Christ will be Lord of all." (Letter from William D. Alexander dated October 9, 1911, at Cooke Library, Punahou School, Honolulu.)
  25. Alexander, Forty Years, p. 22.
  26. Ibid., p. 24.
  27. Agnes Alexander, History of the Bahá'í Faith in Japan: 1914-1938. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Japan, 1977, p. 8.
  28. Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Vol. 7, No. 5, p. 35.
  29. Alexander, Japan, p. 11.
  30. Audio recording of Agnes Alexander in Menlo Park, California, 1961.
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