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Alexander, Agnes:
70 years of service

by Duane Troxel

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Chapter 2

Agnes Alexander:
Spiritual Victories

The second in a three-part series on the life of the Hand of the Cause of God
Agnes Baldwin Alexander. Originally published in November 1983 Bahá’í News.
Agnes Alexander traveled to Japan six times — twice at 'Abdu'l-Bahá's request and four times at the bidding of Shoghi Effendi.1 Altogether, her pioneering services there totaled some 32 years, spanning more than half a century.

Shortly after her arrival in Japan in November 1914 she traveled to Tokyo where she joined forces with another Bahá'í from Hawaii, Dr. George Augur.2 Together they began the first Bahá'í meetings in that land.

The first Japanese to embrace the Cause in Japan itself3 was an 18-year-old schoolboy. A school teacher had attended a Bahá'í meeting and told his class that a woman in Tokyo was teaching a new religion. When Kikutaro Fukuta heard this, he felt instantly that it was the truth and began attending the meetings. In broken English he worded this touching petition to 'Abdu'l-Bahá:

"O my Master 'Abdu'l-Bahá! How great mercy and benevolence that Thou hast descended upon us through an apostle Alexander! Though I am a base and poor youth in this world, I am being awakened and bathed in the ocean of Thy mercy, so happy that I pity the king and the prince who are wandering about in the dream of temporal variance. Accept, O Master, my deep thankfulness from the bottom of my heart. I am very sorry when I think of our fellowmen who take no thought about real happiness and do not rely upon the warm hand of Thy love. O my Lord! Water me forever with the fountain of mercy; I will never refuse Thy command whatsoever it may be. Forgive my sins, and allow me to awaken my fellow men."4
Not long after her arrival, Agnes joined the Universal Esperanto Association. Through it she met Vasily Eroshenko, a blind Russian youth. He became the "door through which a new world opened to the Japanese blind through the Esperanto language."5 He taught Agnes Braille in English and Esperanto. Using the medium of Braille, she was able to communicate the Bahá'í Teachings to those who possessed spiritual insight. In 1917 she wrote "A Letter to the Blind Women of Japan," which was translated into Japanese Braille. This was Japan's first Bahá'í publication.

'Spiritual brotherhood'

In July 1915 Agnes was visited by a Miss Martha Root who was making a "journalistic trip around the world" to see for herself "how the Bahá'í Teachings were really uniting into one great spiritual brotherhood the diverse races and religions."6 Agnes and Martha instantly forged a deep spiritual attachment to one another. Martha Root was Agnes' inspiration to begin writing for the Cause. Throughout the rest of her life she wrote of the Faith in books, articles, radio scripts, and press releases. For a time she was a contributing editor to the Bahá'í magazine Star of the West.

When Martha left Japan, Agnes said she left behind a bright spot "and certainly sowed many seeds for the Cause."7

Every teaching trip Agnes embarked upon in those days was important in one way or another. But of all the trips she took, the one to Ejiri in the summer of 1916 brought her the greatest joy, for it was on that trip that she gave the Message to a blind student, Tokujiro Torii.8 He later said there came to him one day "a messenger of the Kingdom of Abha and lifted up the veil of my soul. . . . Every word she spoke to me was wonderful and luminous. It dispelled the darkness from my soul, brought fragrances to my heart like the breeze from the green fields, and made my inner sight keener and fresher than ever."9

Miss Alexander left Japan in 1917 after receiving an urgent cable from home. She spent the next two years in Hawaii and on the U.S. mainland. While staying with an aunt in Montclair, New Jersey, she received a Tablet from 'Abdu'l-Bahá containing this astonishing opening: "O thou daughter of the Kingdom! Although your letter has not yet been received, yet we do answer it." He advised her to "hasten back to Japan, for in Japan you will be assisted and exalted."10

Before returning to her post, Agnes attended the 1919 U.S. Convention, held that year at the McAlpin Hotel in New York City.11 It was there that 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Tablets of the Divine Plan were unveiled for the first time. In them He said this: "Consider ye, that Miss Agnes Alexander, the daughter of the Kingdom, the beloved maidservant of the Blessed Perfection, traveled alone to Hawaii and now she is gaining spiritual victories in Japan!"12 Agnes returned to Japan in August 1919.

Agnes always awaited inspiration before carrying out any activity for the Cause. One day in 1920 she was praying, "Then suddenly, like a flash of light, a great joy filled my heart. The inspiration which came was entirely unexpected. It was that I would go to Korea and take His Message."13

In the fall of 1921 she became the first Bahá'í to set foot in Korea. Because the activities of foreigners were then closely scrutinized by the Korean police, Agnes decided to obtain permission to carry out her teaching plans. She went to the official in charge and explained the purpose of her visit. She also presented him with a translation of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's advice to another pioneer, Fanny Knobloch of South Africa. Some of the Master's words were: "It may be that the government of those regions will check thee. Thou shouldst say, 'I am a Bahá'í and a friend with all religions and nations. I consider all to be of one race and count them as my relatives. I have divine love and not racial and sectarian love.'"14 The official was so delighted with the Master's words that he gave Agnes three letters of introduction to important officials in that country — one of whom was the governor of Korea.

En route to Seoul, Agnes said she felt as though she were "going to my family instead of to a strange country," and she was "thrilled with the realization that it was virgin land where the soil was pure and ready for seed sowing."15

While in Japan she had met a Korean named Mr. Oh who told her she should go one day to Korea because the people there were "thirsty for true religion."16 Since then her link with Mr. Oh had been severed. Now she turned to 'Abdu'l-Bahá in prayer, supplicating Him to bring them together. Shortly afterward she was riding in a streetcar when she felt someone grasp her hand. She looked up to see Mr. Oh!

From that point on he became her guide and interpreter. Together they planned Korea's first Bahá'í public meeting. With only one day's lead time, they advertised the talk in the local paper. When they reached the meeting place they were astonished to see about 900 Koreans patiently waiting! Agnes spoke to them simply, holding aloft a photograph of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Afterward, she invited seekers from that meeting to a Bahá'í feast. Each one who came was asked to write his sentiments and name on a card addressed to the Master. These are a few of their comments: "Just now I found the brilliant light of Baha." "The universal supreme mountain of Truth." "Oh freedom! Oh Bahá'í!"17

After a month of successful proclamation and teaching in Korea, Agnes returned to Tokyo. She then received a Tablet from 'Abdu'l-Bahá (delivered posthumously) praising her efforts in Korea. Although they never met, her attachment to 'Abdu'l-Bahá was great. Throughout the remainder of her life she would turn to Him for help in times of need. The strength of her conviction is revealed in her response to His passing. Instead of dampening her ardor, the event seems to have inflamed it still further. In letters written to a Bahá'í friend at that time she says:

". . .let us be very near to each other in spirit in these great days.

"In His great love and mercy He left a Tablet for the new friends of Korea and one to me. Pray dearest sister, that I may fulfil His Hope in Korea and may be selfless at His Door."18

". . .I wish you were here with me in this little house, because with united hearts we could spread a great bouquet of love. We could sacrifice all in love to Him."

'Herald of Truth' in Japan

"It seems I must always stand alone, but dear, He does not forsake His children. We know His Love — that is all we must seek."19 In a Tablet to a Japanese Bahá'í, written in the last year of His life, 'Abdu'l-Bahá called Agnes "the herald of Truth in Japan. Rest assured that she will be confirmed and assisted."20 In later years the Guardian assured her, "The Master is watching over and blessing your historic services."21

Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897-1957) became Guardian and head of the Bahá'í Faith. His first letter to the Bahá'ís of Japan was sent in care of Agnes. In it he recalled a statement of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's concerning Japan, saying: "These were His very words, that still keep ringing in my ears: — 'Japan will turn ablaze! Japan is endowed with a most remarkable capacity for the spread of the Cause of God!' "22

Rock-firm in the Covenant, Agnes had no difficulty accepting the Master's successor, Shoghi Effendi, as "the sign of God on earth." Of the first personal letter received from him she wrote, "The words penned by his hand at the end of the letter so affected me that, for several days my heart was filled with joy and inspiration, and a realization came to me of the power with which God had endowed him."23 She was one of those who in later years cheered his heart when disunity and Covenant-breaking drove him into seclusion in Switzerland. He wrote that "her glorious service in Japan" had rejoiced his heart and strengthened his "confidence in the future glories of that far eastern land."24

'Two weeks in Heaven'

Martha Root25 arrived in Tokyo in April 1923. Indefatigable Martha! Agnes arranged a full schedule of teaching activities for this remarkable Bahá'í. Martha spoke to schools, universities, Esperantists, peace societies, YMCA groups and the blind. When the time came for her departure for China she wrote in Agnes' guest book: "I have spent two weeks in Heaven with my precious sister, Agnes. Ya Baha El Abha!"26

Agnes was in Tokyo on September 1, 1923, when a stupendous earthquake rocked Japan. "It shook Tokyo as a terrier does a rat, at noon when all the luncheon fires in the city were lit, and within a few seconds the city was ablaze from end to end."27 Agnes said, "As soon as the first tremor subsided, I rushed into the house and procured my hand bag in which I carried the Prayer for protection revealed by 'Abdu'l-Bahá. . . .When the earth began again to tremble, I read the Prayer aloud. Three times this occurred, and each time quiet came after the reading."28

When it was over, Tokyo, Yokohama and the neighboring villages were utterly destroyed. The death toll exceeded 150,000; more than 100,000 others were injured. From throughout the Bahá'í world Agnes received letters of concern and consolation. One precious letter came from Bahiyyih Khanum, the Greatest Holy Leaf:29 "The Lord has surely kept you safe amid the crumbling walls of that great city of Japan, that you in turn might accomplish the task that lies before you and I never doubt that you are surely worthy of His Grace."30

Homeless, Agnes traveled to Korea and then to China where she joined Martha Root. Only four years earlier 'Abdu'l-Bahá had told some pilgrims, "New China has awakened."31 The white faces of Agnes and Martha were a curious novelty to many Chinese.

Travel was sometimes difficult and dangerous. Seated on the wooden floor of a springless, donkey-drawn cart, they traveled for miles in bitterly cold weather. On another occasion they encountered 13 freshly decapitated heads hung from the gate of a city, proclaiming to all the fate of Chinese bandits who are caught. It could not have been a reassuring sight to three middle-aged women traveling without escort (Agnes' sister, Mary Charlotte, who was not a Bahá'í, accompanied them on the trip).32

After three months Agnes left China to return home to Honolulu. It is surprising to learn that she did not plan to make her home in Japan. "In the future," she wrote, "I will return to China & Korea and of course pass through Japan, but I don't think I will live there again." She intended to visit Korea and make an indefinite stay in China.33

Shoghi Effendi praised her efforts in China, but reminded her of "the sacred interests of the Cause in Japan," saying, "you are that radiant herald who has raised the Call of Salvation in its very heart and to whom it owes a great debt of gratitude."34 On another occasion he wrote, "I feel that your destiny lies in that far-off and promising country (Japan) where your noble and pioneer services future generations will befittingly glorify and thankfully remember."35 And, "Your name will forever remain associated with the rise of the Faith and its establishment in Japan, and the record of your incessant and splendid endeavours will shed on its annals a lustre that time can never dim."36

Agnes accomplished some notable firsts during her Hawaiian sojourn, 1924 to 1928. In May 1924 she completed the maiden travel teaching voyage to the island of Hawaii, traversing the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. She spoke in churches, Buddhist temples, YMCAs and schools. Her talks were published in both the English- and Japanese-language press. In July she sailed for Kauai where she gave the premier presentation of the Teachings to that island. In 1927 she began a Bahá'í children's class "under a spreading monkeypod tree . . ."37 Nevertheless, she had not forgotten the Guardian's wish that she return to Japan. Before returning she collected, and had published, 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Tablets to Japan.

Agnes' third visit to Japan began on January 24, 1928. She landed in Tokyo, now completely rebuilt since the catastrophic quake five years earlier. Always thrifty in her habits, Agnes had decided not to ship her car from Honolulu: "This is not the place for a lady to drive an auto. The streets are bad & there are many bicycles & disorder. One can hire an auto within the city for 1 yen fixed price, so it is very convenient. There are 2 men to manage the taxi. One drives, & the other jumps out to inquire the way."38 She later found the drivers quite reckless and often resorted to squeezing her eyes shut whenever things looked dangerous.

Once-timid Agnes continued her public talks, employing a technique gleaned from Martha Root. Before delivering a talk she wrote everything out, keeping as close to 'Abdu'l-Bahá's words as she could. When she finished talking she would hand out copies of the address to the newsmen in attendance, thereby assuring the best chance for full and accurate reporting.

The year of Agnes' return to Japan coincided with the coronation of Emperor Hirohito who succeeded his father, Yoshihito, two years earlier. He was presented with seven specially bound Bahá'í books along with a message from Shoghi Effendi: "May the perusal of Bahá'í literature enable your Imperial Majesty to appreciate the sublimity and penetrative power of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation and inspire you on this auspicious occasion to arise for its worldwide recognition and triumph."39 Aside from Queen Marie of Rumania, the Emperor was the only sovereign addressed by the Guardian.40

Triumphant pilgrimage

At 54, Agnes climbed Mt. Fuji, Japan's highest peak (elevation 12,365 feet), in the company of Buddhist pilgrims. Climbing throughout a moonlit night, she joined her companions at dawn for prayers. "All stood in reverence with heads bared while from under the clouds the glorious sun rose illuminating the mountainside. . . . Looking down the mountain, as far as the eye could see, there was a continuous white-robed procession ascending the winding trail. . . ."41

Martha Root, fresh from a triumphant pilgrimage through Persia, returned to China in September 1930. Agnes left Tokyo and rendezvoused with her in Shanghai. The Bahá'í pioneers residing in that city warmly welcomed the energetic duo. A major triumph of the trip was the spontaneous offer by Dr. Tsao, the president of Tsing Hua University, to translate Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era into Chinese. Martha was so touched by his offer that her eyes filled with tears of gratitude.42

Returning to Japan, the two plunged into an exhausting round of speaking engagements. The crowning event was Martha's talk over Tokyo radio station JOAK on "The Progress of the Bahá'í Movement in the Five Continents." The talk was later published in the Japan Times.43

Inspiration guided Agnes Alexander's life. On many occasions she anticipated by some mysterious intuition spiritually significant events. One of these was the visit to Japan of Keith Ransom-Kehler44 in June 1931. Agnes had never met Keith: "... I had only known her through her writings, yet even before the cable reached me telling of her coming, an expectant joy filled my heart — a joy which came from an unseen source and was not connected with the world about me."45 Keith's intellectual and spiritual brilliance dazzled Agnes and all others who heard her. Agnes credited her with laying the foundation for the formation of Japan's first Bahá'í Assembly — a goal Shoghi Effendi had set for Agnes. One day Keith came into Agnes' room and read aloud to her an article she had just written on "The Station of Martyrdom." "How significant it now seems," Agnes later recalled, "when she herself has attained this high distinction among the American believers and become their first martyr."46

'Exemplary devotion'

The year 1932 was one of victories for Agnes. On March 13 she awoke with the inspiration to form Japan's first Bahá'í Assembly. Eight days later she cabled the Guardian: "NAW RUZ GREETINGS TOKYO ASSEMBLY." He replied, "LOVING REMEMBRANCE SHOGHI."47 That December, the long-awaited translation of Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era into Japanese came from the printers. When copies reached the Holy Land, Shoghi Effendi placed them with his own hands alongside 14 other versions at Bahji, where they would be "a constant reminder" of Agnes' "perseverance," "magnificent efforts" and "exemplary devotion to the Cause of God."48

A death in the family in June 1933 prompted Agnes to return to Hawaii. By May 1935 she was back at her post in Japan. The fledgling Assembly she had helped form was scattered. It appeared that the Cause had not progressed during her absence; but this did not trouble her. She was confident that "His guiding power" was leading the way.49

A tragic event during this time was the Toriis' loss of their only son, 17-year-old Akira, whose name means "shining light." Instead of despairing, however, they were happy, and sensed that he was spiritually near. As a memorial to Akira, Mr. Torii translated Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era into Japanese Braille. Perhaps it was a fulfillment of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's wish, expressed in a Tablet to Akira's parents at the time of his birth: "Akira, whose name may be ever blessed for it is quite an appropriate one. . . ."50

Notes

  1. Audio recording of Agnes Alexander in Menlo Park, California, 1961. "Legacies of Service" tape, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois, 1980.
  2. Dr. Augur (1858-1927), a homeopathic physician, had moved to Hawaii from Oakland, California, in 1898. Around 1909 he and his wife Ruth embraced the Faith. He was the first from Hawaii to pioneer, and reached Japan only months before Agnes. 'Abdu'l-Bahá commended him for his pioneering efforts: "A thousand times bravo to thy high magnanimity and exalted aim! . . .Ere long this transcendent Light will wholly enlighten the East and the West!" (History of the Bahá'í Faith in Japan: 1914-1938, pp. 12-13). After his passing, Dr. Augur was designated a "Disciple of 'Abdu'l-Bahá" by Shoghi Effendi (The Bahá'í World, Vol IV, pp. 118-19).
  3. Though the first to declare in Japan, Mr. Fukuta was actually the fourth Japanese Bahá'í in the world. The first was Mr. Kanichi Yamamoto (1879-1961) who embraced the Faith in Honolulu in September 1902. The second was the well-known Saichiro Fujita (1886-1976) who became a Bahá'í in Oakland, California, around 1905. (Japan Will Turn Ablaze!, p. 18). Mr. Fujita served the Master, the Guardian, and the Universal House of Justice as a gardener at the World Centre. The third Japanese Bahá'í was Mr. Kenzo Torikai of Seattle, Washington.
  4. Helen Bishop, "His Japanese Witnesses," The Bahá'í World, Vol. X (1944-46), p. 686.
  5. Agnes Alexander, History of the Bahá'í Faith in Japan: 1914-1938, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Japan, 1977, p. 20.
  6. Star of the West, Vol. 14, No. 4, p. 898.
  7. Agnes Alexander, History of the Bahá'í' Faith in Japan, p. 17.
  8. Mr. Tokujiro Torii (1894-1970), whose surname means "gate," was described by Martha Root as being "lovable like St. John" (Bahá'í News, No. Ill, October 1937, p. 4). Keith Ransom-Kehler stayed at the Torii home in 1931 and said she had "never known such kindness." (Star of the West, 24:12, p. 374). He translated into Japanese Braille such works as the Kitáb-i-Iqán, The Hidden Words, and The Seven Valleys. The Emperor decorated Mr. Torii for his services to his blind countrymen (History of the Bahá'í Faith in Japan, p. 109).
  9. Tokujiro Torii, "The Bahá'í Movement in Japan," The Bahá'í World, Vol. IV (1930-32), p. 490.
  10. Alexander, Japan, p. 30.
  11. Also present on that historic occasion were Agnes Alexander's "spiritual mother," May Maxwell, and "the incomparable" Martha Root. Martha arose immediately after the Convention to take the Message to every major city in South America. Shoghi Effendi said she was "the first to arise, in the very year the Tablets" were unveiled to put the Plan into action. (God Passes By, p. 386).
  12. Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablets of the Divine Plan, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois, 1959, p. 13.
  13. Alexander, Japan, p. 64.
  14. Ibid., p. 65.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., p. 67.
  18. Letter from Agnes Alexander, April 11, 1922, National Bahá'í Archives, Hawaii.
  19. Letter from Agnes Alexander, April 23, 1922, National Bahá'í Archives, Hawaii.
  20. Japan Will Turn Ablaze!, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Japan, 1974, p. 27.
  21. Ibid., p. 53.
  22. Alexander, Japan, p. 58.
  23. Japan Will Turn Ablaze!, p. 45.
  24. Star of the West, Vol. 4, No. 6, p. 184.
  25. Martha Louise Root (1872-1939) was on her fourth trip around the world when she passed away in Honolulu in September 1939. Shoghi Effendi said, "posterity will establish her as (the) foremost Hand (of the Cause) which 'Abdu'l-Bahá's will has raised up (in the) first Bahá'í century." (Messages to America: 1932-1946, p. 30).
  26. Alexander, Japan, p. 46.
  27. Laurens van der Post. A Portrait of Japan, London: The Hogarth Press, 1968, p. 15.
  28. Alexander, Japan, p. 48.
  29. Bahiyyih Khanum (1846-1932) was the daughter of Bahá'u'lláh, and His companion throughout His years of exile and imprisonment. Bahá'u'lláh revealed a Tablet in which He said of her: "Verily, We have elevated thee to the rank of one of the most distinguished among thy sex, and granted thee, in My court, a station such as none other woman hath surpassed." (The Bahá'í World, Vol. V, p. 171). Shoghi Effendi said she was "comparable in rank to those immortal heroines such as Sarah, Asiyih, the Virgin Mary, Fatimih, and Tahirih." (God Passes By, p. 347).
  30. Alexander, Japan, p. 49.
  31. Ibid., p. 55.
  32. Letter from Mary C. Alexander, January 3, 1924, National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu, Hawaii.
  33. Letter from Agnes Alexander, October 27, 1923, National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu, Hawaii.
  34. Alexander, Japan, p. 60.
  35. Japan Will Turn Ablaze!, p. 1.
  36. Ibid., p. 51.
  37. Agnes Alexander, Forty Years of the Bahá'í Cause in Hawaii: 1902-1942, published by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the Hawaiian Islands, 1970, rev. ed. 1974, p. 32.
  38. Letter from Agnes Alexander, February 2, 1928, National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu, Hawaii.
  39. Alexander, Japan, p. 77.
  40. On November 9, 1930, at the request of Martha Root, the following cable was sent by Shoghi Effendi to the Emperor: "Kindly transmit his Imperial Majesty, Tokyo, Japan, on behalf of myself and Bahá'ís world over, expression of our deepest love as well as assurance of heartfelt prayers for his well-being, and prosperity of his ancient realm." (The Bahá'í World, Vol. IV, p. 433).
  41. Agnes Alexander, "The Pilgrims of Mount Fuji," Star of the West, Vol. 20, No. 9, p. 286.
  42. Alexander, Japan, p. 61.
  43. Alexander, "The Pilgrims of Mount Fuji," p. 286.
  44. Keith Ransom-Kehler (1878-1933) died of smallpox while on a special mission to Persia to appeal to the Shah to remove the ban on Bahá'í literature. "American believers grateful and proud of the memory of their first and distinguished martyr," wrote Shoghi Effendi. Her "international services entitle her to an eminent rank among the Hands of the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh." (The Bahá'í World, Vol. 5 p 398).
  45. Agnes Alexander, "Keith Ransom-Kehler in Japan: A Tribute," Star of the West, Vol. 24, No. 12, p. 372.
  46. Ibid., p. 374.
  47. Alexander, Japan, p. 84.
  48. Ibid., p. 87.
  49. Ibid., p. 90.
  50. Ibid., p. 94.
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