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Alexander, Agnes:
70 years of service

by Duane Troxel

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Chapter 3

Agnes Alexander:
Golden years of service

The third in a three-part series on the life of the Hand of the Cause of God
Agnes Baldwin Alexander. Originally published in December 1983 Bahá’í News.
In 1937 Agnes Alexander received the following message: "I would be pleased to meet you face to face at this Holy Spot. Your true brother, Shoghi."1

Her dream had finally come true. As far back as 1914 'Abdu'l-Bahá had given her permission to visit the Holy Land, but world war had prevented it.2 Shortly after the invitation arrived, Agnes received another cable from the Guardian asking her to "extend assistance" to Saichiro Fujita's mother who was ill. Although she had no address, Agnes was confident she would be assisted to find the woman. And of course, she was: "I know this is always true when we arise in His service and respond to His call."3 Mrs. Fujita's hearty laughter explained much to Agnes about the joyous nature of her son.

En route to Haifa, Agnes' ship stopped at Port Said, Egypt, where two excited Bahá'ís came aboard with surprising news: "The Guardian is married, and you'll never guess to whom." Without hesitating Agnes answered. "Mary Maxwell," which was exactly right.4 Her answer is all the more extraordinary when one considers that no one had the slightest intimation that the Guardian was planning to marry at all.

Saichiro Fujita met Agnes at the train station in Haifa and drove her to the Western Pilgrim House where she was greeted by her "spiritual mother," May Maxwell, now a member of the Holy Family through her daughter's marriage to Shoghi Effendi.

Agnes was a favored pilgrim. The Japanese scroll she brought as a gift was graciously accepted by the Guardian and hung in a place of honor at Bahji. She was able to listen to his melodic chanting in the Shrine of the Báb. "In his voice there was a power which was different from all others," she said.5

The Guardian told her, "The immediate future in Japan is very dark. Japan is going to suffer.6 The time is not now for great headway. The Pacific will become a great storm center in the coming war — great suffering. What we require in Japan is the recognition of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh and of His station."7

On the first night of her pilgrimage the Guardian asked Agnes to record her Bahá'í experiences. As a result, "Forty Years of the Bahá'í Cause in Hawaii: 1902-1942" and "History of the Bahá'í Faith in Japan: 1914-1938" [see bahai-library.com/author/alexander] were completed during World War II and copies were gratefully received by Shoghi Effendi. (These manuscripts were not published until the 1970s.)

Agnes was away from Hawaii when Martha Root arrived in Honolulu in June 1939. For 20 years the Faith's "leading ambassadress" had taught at a pitch exceeded only by the Master Himself during His journey to the West. Cancer had all but eaten the life out of her wasted frame, but her spirit was indomitable. From her deathbed she wrote:

"I am so near the shore of eternity ... I do not speak, so late tonight of the glorious side of life after death ... I am glad to go through this terrible agony, for if it came it must have come for a purpose ... If our love for each other has been deepened, if this servant has been able to witness for her Lord, if the ties between India, Australia, New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands are strengthened, then I have not come in vain."
In her final delirium she repeated often over and over, "Shoghi Effendi, Shoghi Effendi."9

Martha Root is buried in Honolulu where she died — a symbolic spot where East meets West, and an appropriate resting place for one who devoted her life to the cause of world unity.

When Agnes learned of Martha Root's passing she wrote the friends in Hawaii:

"She (Martha) was near and dear to me ever since 1915 when she first came to Japan and we met there. . . . Shoghi Effendi said to me when I left Haifa, 'Keep in touch with Martha', so eternally I pray we may all be in touch and helped by her spirit.

"I long, though, from the human point, to once more speak with her. It is eight years now since we parted, or at least it will be the last of December.

"Blessed Martha, the whole world of Bahá'ís mourn her!"10

On March 1, 1940, Agnes' spiritual mother, May Maxwell, cabled her husband from Buenos Aires, Argentina: "SEVERE NEURITIS. BEG PRAYERS."11 A few hours later she was dead. It was scarcely more than a month after she had arrived at her pioneering post.

'Kindled with divine flame'

May, whose tender love had been "a guiding star" to Agnes;12 whom Keith Ransom-Kehler called "a gift and evidence lent me by the Master";13 whom 'Abdu'l-Bahá described as "pure in heart and attracted in soul," was now "gathered into the glory of the Abha Kingdom."14

Agnes penned a tribute to May Maxwell which is at once luminous and soul-stirring. These are some lines from it:

"From the time May met her Lord in 'Akka in 1899, and 'beheld the King in His Beauty,' her whole being was kindled with the divine flame. . . . Countless are the souls who have been ignited through her divine love. In every land which had the blessing of her presence they are to be found. . . . A precious gift from God to May was exquisite speech. One was always conscious that what ever she said was the truth. She had true spiritual humility and reverence which increased as she became a member of the Holy Household. . . .

"A thousand loving hearts are now turning toward South America, and Buenos Aires, in longing to attain the spot (at) which our precious mother is laid to rest and there to supplicate her intercession for us all."15

Agnes returned to Honolulu in June 1941. That same year, on the anniversary of the Birth of the Báb, she took part in the dedication of the first Bahá'í owned Center in the Pacific.

Forty-eight days later, on December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, neither Agnes, the friends, or the Center was hurt in the surprise attack. "Shoghi Effendi's thoughts, and mine too," wrote Amatu'l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khanum, "were with you at the time of the raid on Hawaii."16

An indication of the Guardian's close contact with and love for Agnes is revealed in a letter she received from the Archives and History Committee of the U.S. and Canada in 1944, acknowledging receipt of 69 of Shoghi Effendi's letters.

When the guns of war were finally silenced in the fall of 1945, pleas for help were heard — and Agnes answered. From Japan, Mr. Torii wrote: "Dear spiritual mother! Thank God, your heavenly presents reached me safely ... Opening the sugar sack Mrs. Torii doubted her eyes; at first what the white thing is and she tasted it, how sweet it was! Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for your hearty kindness."17

From Germany came thanks for some Bahá'í books: "O dearest, I know you can duly appreciate what this now means to me ... It is like entering a garden in spring and breathe (sic) the fragrance of the most exquisite flowers and feel the cool and refreshing waters watering that garden directly from the Source of Life itself."18

Enforced absence

After an enforced absence of 13 years, Agnes returned to Japan in May 1950. Incredibly, her entire Bahá'í library, which "included hundreds of copies in Japanese of Dr. Esslemont's book, was found intact in a ruined part of Tokyo."19 She transferred her residence from Tokyo to Kyoto, which abounds in magnificent temples and quaint gardens.

In the midst of this splendor Agnes continued her habit of living simply. In her tiny apartment "she cooked and served meals to her guests in a kitchen no larger than a closet, and often on trips to Tokyo would astonish visitors by opening up a large suitcase filled with pots, pans, dishes and a hotplate" and proceed "to cook them a meal."20 Another Bahá'í recalls how Agnes once wore two suits of clothing aboard an airplane flight to avoid paying an excess baggage fee. Though moderate and thrifty in all that pertained to her personal life, she was quite generous where the Faith was concerned.

In 1950 she was 75 . . . old chronologically, but not spiritually or mentally. She wrote to a friend at that time, "You will see that I must take time off to learn to use my (new) typewriter. The trouble is I am always in a hurry!"21

The Guardian instructed Agnes to lay special emphasis on the Covenant in her teaching.22 Instantly she directed the friends to focus on its living embodiment, Shoghi Effendi: ". . . We have to strive to make them (every believer) understand and come closer to our beloved Guardian, as he is 'the ark of safety for every believer'."23

At Ridvan 1954 the Guardian instructed the 15 Hands of the Cause residing outside the Holy Land to appoint Auxiliary Boards. Agnes was one of seven appointments for Asia.24 Three years later, in a cable announcing the passing of the Hand of the Cause of God George Townshend, the Guardian added this:

"Agnes Alexander, distinguished pioneer (of the) Faith, elevated (to) rank (of) Hand (of) Cause. Confident (her) appointment will spiritually reinforce teaching campaign simultaneously conducted (in) North, South (and) heart (of) Pacific Ocean. Haifa, March 27, 1957 Shoghi."25
She wrote of her appointment to a close friend, Auntie May Fantom, the first of Hawaiian blood to embrace the Cause:
"Probably you have heard by now that a great new spiritual life has come to me, that is, to be a Hand of the Cause. It is something I could not have dreamed of, but God works in mysterious ways, and this is His Plan, or it could not come, so I leave all and turn to our beloved Guardian; knowing that he will guide me, and if I keep in the right direction, I cannot fail with his prayers. It makes the beloved Guardian seem so much nearer now."26
Just eight months after Agnes' appointment as a Hand of the Cause came the shocking news that Shoghi Effendi was seriously ill. Agnes wrote,
"How all the hearts of his lovers fly to Haifa in prayers for our glorious and 'sacred' Guardian! whom God in His mercy . . . has bestowed on us!"27
The beloved Guardian passed away on November 4, 1957, and some days after he was buried in London's Great Northern Cemetery, Agnes joined 25 other Hands of the Cause in the Holy Land for a conference. The Guardian's widow, Amatu'l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khanum, told the Hands of his last days. On November 19, they went to the Mansion of Bahá'u'lláh at Bahji. They were in the abyss of despair. The Guardian had not left a will, nor had he appointed a successor. Agnes was one of those who realized that Shoghi Effendi could have no will, "as there was no one the beloved Guardian could appoint in his place as Guardian of the Faith."28

In April 1957 she was elected to the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of North East Asia, and served as a member for six years, during which time she shuttled back and forth between Japan and meetings of the Hands in the Holy Land.

Prophecy fulfilled

In 1963, at the culmination of the Ten Year Crusade, Agnes participated in the long-awaited election of the Universal House of Justice, which was held on Mount Carmel in Haifa. Israel. The nine members of that body were introduced to 7,000 jubilant Bahá'ís who were gathered at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Agnes was present for that event, which gloriously fulfilled Daniel's ancient prophecy of the "1335 days."

The following year, at the age of 88, she represented the new Universal House of Justice at the formation of the first National Spiritual Assembly of Hawaii. On the eve of that election, Hawaii's governor paid tribute to the Bahá'ís and presented Agnes with the traditional flower lei and a kiss.

It was indeed a blessing for Bahá'u'lláh's "herald of the Pacific" to see her spiritual progeny grow from isolated Groups to Local Assemblies, and now to form the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the Hawaiian Islands.

From each of the six major islands in the archipelago the 19 delegates came — Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Samoans, Filipinos, Portuguese, and Haole (white) — all united by Bahá'u'lláh through the efforts of His herald, Agnes Alexander, the Spiritual Mother of the Pacific.

During the Convention she looked backward some 63 years to reminisce about that day in 1901 when, as a timid 26-year-old, she had returned home to the Paradise of the Pacific — as its first Bahá'í. What feelings must have surged within her heart that day! The photographs taken at the Convention portray a supremely happy, confident and radiant soul.

After the Convention. Agnes returned to Japan. In late July 1965. as she was preparing to attend the World Congress of Esperantists in Tokyo, she fell and broke her hip. For the next two years she was confined to a hospital bed in Tokyo; but even in this calamity she perceived His providence: "Dearie, nothing happens by chance," she wrote to a friend. "It is my great hope and prayer that through this accident the hearts of all the Bahá'ís in all Japan shall be so united and love each other with such deep love, it will be felt by all those around us. Then will the words of the Master be fulfilled, that Japan will turn ablaze."29

God's Will was not a metaphysical abstraction to which Agnes paid lip service. It was to her as real and bankable as gold coins. What for others were frustrating and unexpected turns of events were to her opportunities to brine oneself into closer harmony with the Infinite.

"It's God's Plan," was her confident response to all the vagaries of life. A young Bahá'í in Honolulu who tried to help her cross a street was told, "Dearie, do you think my Lord does not guide my step?"30 And when His inscrutable Will snatched "the beloved of all hearts" from this plane, she said, "Our beloved Guardian is now freed from his cares and is very near to us all . . . As for myself, I know that I am here because it is God's Plan. And when He so wills, then the next step will be shown, so I have no care but to 'turn' and do my best to serve."31

On September 10, 1967, Agnes was brought back to Hawaii by her nephew and was housed in an apartment in the Arcadia Retirement Residence. Ironically, from her window she could look down on the site of her birth.

Living in a retirement home did not stifle her sense of humor. On the occasion of her 93rd birthday a young Bahá'í couple visiting from Africa presented her with a hand-carved ebony cane. She took the cane and eyed them sharply. "Who is this for?" she asked.

"W-why, it's for y-you," one of them stammered.

Agnes threw back her head and laughed. "Hah! As soon as I'm well," she said, "I'll be running up and down the hall!"32

Somewhat later the young man inquired as to whether she ever had any dreams of 'Abdu'l-Bahá.

"No," said Agnes, "I am not a dreamer." And she smiled sweetly.33

Preoccupied with teaching

Most nonagenerians are preoccupied with medicine and hot water bottles, with rocking chairs and reminiscences. Not so Agnes Alexander. Teaching was her preoccupation. And deepening. At the age of 94 she told a visitor that she tried to read the Tablets of the Divine Plan as often as she could because "they are full of spiritual food."34

Shoghi Effendi once told her, "Your reward is indeed great and glorious in the world to come for all your endeavors and exemplary services to the sacred Threshold."35 At 1 p.m. on January 1, 1971, the "cage" was broken, and the spirit of dear Agnes Alexander winged its long-awaited flight to the Abha Kingdom. She was 95.

But the story does not end there. It was the desire of Miss Alexander's family to have her interred in the graveyard of Kawaiahao Church, Hawaii's Westminster Abbey. Many of the most distinguished missionaries including Agnes' grandparents are buried there. Unfortunately, space was at a premium, and the officials decreed that her remains could not be buried in the family plot unless they were cremated — a condition unacceptable for a Bahá'í burial.

Faced with this dilemma, Hawaii's National Spiritual Assembly cabled the Universal House of Justice to ask for guidance. Meanwhile, Assembly members invited the friends to join them in an all-night prayer vigil at the grave of Martha Root. Clustered beneath umbrellas, the friends prayed at the unlit grave throughout a dark and rainy night.

Early the next morning a long-distance call from the House of Justice advised a direct appeal to the executors of Miss Alexander's estate. The appeal outlined her exemplary services to the Faith and described the esteem in which she was held all over the world. This approach proved successful, and dear Agnes was laid to rest only a few miles from her beloved spiritual sister, Martha Root.

From the Holy Land, the Universal House of Justice cabled:

"Profoundly grieve passing illumined soul Hand Cause Agnes Alexander longstanding pillar Cause Far East first bring Faith Hawaiian Islands. Her long dedicated exemplary life service devotion Cause God anticipated by Centre Covenant selecting her share May Maxwell imperishable honor mention Tablets Divine Plan. Her unrestrained unceasing pursuit teaching obedience command Bahá'u'lláh exhortations Master guidance beloved Guardian shining example all followers Faith. Her passing severs one more link Heroic Age. Assure family friends ardent prayers holiest Shrine progress radiant soul request all National Spiritual Assemblies hold memorial meetings and those responsible hold services Mother Temples."
Agnes Alexander's 70 years of certitude to the Threshold of Bahá'u'lláh are almost without parallel in the West. In her memory, the National Spiritual Assembly of Hawaii inaugurated, in 1975, the "Agnes Baldwin Alexander Award for Service to Humanity." To date, six outstanding citizens of the state have received this prestigious award at a banquet held annually on December 26, the anniversary of her arrival in Hawaii as a Bahá'í.

The Bahá'ís of Hawaii and the Pacific, of Korea, Japan and China, and all others whose spiritual inheritance derives from the services of Agnes Alexander are the denizens of that "spiritual empire" spoken of by "Abdu’l-Bahá: "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."

Notes

  1. Agnes Alexander, History of the Bahá'í' Faith in Japan: 1914-1938, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Japan, 1977, p. 96.
  2. Star of the West, Vol. 7, No. 5, p. 35.
  3. Alexander, Japan, p. 96.
  4. Ibid., p. 99.
  5. Ibid., p. 101.
  6. In 1911 'Abdu'l-Bahá met Japan's Ambassador to France in Paris. The Master told him, "There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily, undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered bv science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower material nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth." (World Order magazine, June 1946, p. 68). And in 1920 He said, "In Japan the divine proclamation will be heard as a formidable explosion, so that those who are ready will become uplifted and illumined by the light of the Sun of Truth." (Ibid., p. 67).
  7. Pilgrim notes of Agnes Alexander. May 1, 1937. National Bahá'í Archive. Honolulu, Hawaii.
  8. Bahá'í News, No. 209, July 1948. pp. 6-8.
  9. Letter from Kathrine Baldwin, October 8, 1939, National Bahá'í Archives. Honolulu.
  10. Letter from Agnes Alexander. October 8. 1939. National Bahá'í Archives. Honolulu.
  11. Letter from William Sutherland Maxwell. March 1940. National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu.
  12. Agnes Alexander, Forty Years of the Bahá'í Cause in Hawaii: 1902-1942, National Spiritual Assembly of the Hawaiian Islands, rev. ed.. June 1974. p. 32.
  13. Marion Holley. "In Memoriam: May Ellis Maxwell," The Bahá'í World, Vol. 8 (1938-40), p. 638.
  14. Shoghi Effendi. Messages to America: 1932-1946, Bahá'í Publishing Committee, Wilmette. III. 1947. p. 3S.
  15. Papers of Agnes Alexander. "Tribute to May Maxwell," undated, p. 6. National Bahá'í Archives. Honolulu.
  16. Letter from Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum. February 12. 1942. National Bahá'í Archives. Honolulu.
  17. Letter from Tokujiro Torii. August 5. 1947, National Bahá'í Archives. Honolulu.
  18. Letter from Elsa Grossmann. January 1". 1948. National Bahá'í Archives Honolulu.
  19. Eunice Braun. From Strength to Strength. Bahá’í Publishing Trust Wilmette, 1978. p. 31.
  20. Elena Maria Marsella. "In Memoriam: Agnes Baldwin Alexander." The Bahá'í World, Vol. 15 (1968-3). p. 428.
  21. Letter from Agnes Alexander. May 12. 1952, National Bahá'í Archives. Honolulu.
  22. Japan Will Turn Ablaze. Bahá'í Publishing Trust. Japan. 1974. p. 54.
  23. Letter from Agnes Alexander. January 3, 1951. National Bahá'í Archives. Honolulu.
  24. The Bahá'í World. Vol. 12 (1950-54). p. 40.
  25. Bahá’í News. No. 315, May 1957, p. 1.
  26. Letter from Agnes Alexander. April 16. 1957, National Bahá'í Archives. Honolulu.
  27. Letter from Agnes Alexander. November 6. 1957. private collection of Mr. William Smits. Makakilo. Hawaii.
  28. Letter from Agnes Alexander. December 1, 1957, National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu.
  29. Elena Marsella, "In Memoriam," The Bahá'í World, Vol. 15, p. 429.
  30. Roger White. The Witness of Pebbles, George Ronald, London, 1981, p. 9.
  31. Letter from Agnes Alexander, January 31. 1958, National Bahá'í Archives, Honolulu.
  32. Light of the Pacific, Hawaii Bahá'í News. No. 29. September 1957, p. 1.
  33. Personal notes of Dr. Duane K. Troxel. August 15, 1968.
  34. Beth Mckenty, Bahá'í News, July 1974, p. 5.
  35. Agnes Alexander, Japan, p. 70.
  36. Personal notes of Mr. Tracy Hamilton, March 1980.
  37. Light of the Pacific, Hawaii Bahá'í News. No. 61. January 1971, p. 2.
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