Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
.
>>   Biographies Essays and short articles
Notes:
This document is no longer available at its original host; mirrored from archive.org.

H. Collis Featherstone 1913-1990:
An Extraordinary, Ordinary Man

by Graham Waterman and Kaye Waterman

published in 75 Years of the Bahá'í Faith in Australasia
Rosebery: Association for Baha'i Studies Australia, 1996
When Collis Featherstone became a Bahá'í fifty years ago, he was the kind of person who, to coin a sporting phrase, took up the ball and ran with it. He and his wife Madge, had a young family, and Madge had been going to afternoon meetings and then coming home and sharing all she had learnt about the Bahá'í Faith with Collis.

Their teachers, Bertha and Joe Dobbins were very vibrant and enthusiastic and equal to the task of providing more and more information for this hungry soul. After reading the initial pamphlets and magazines about the Faith he requested something more substantial, and was given nothing less than The Dawn Breakers - that pre-eminent masterpiece outlining the history of the primary founding figure, the Báb and the early days of the Faith! Heavy stuff you might say, but it was right at the time, for it was the Báb's address to his Letters of the Living, or eighteen disciples, that was the turning point when Collis recognised that this Faith he was investigating was indeed from God. In response to a request for someone to make their home available for evening meetings, Collis and Madge agreed that they would open their home. I think it is appropriate here just to add that some months earlier Bertha Dobbins and Katherine Harcus had stood no more than two hundred metres away from the Featherstone home and prayed that a home would open up!

His Early Search

Since his early teen years, Collis had been a thinker and searcher. There were three main things which set this process in motion.

At 15, Collis was Confirmed in the Church of England. The fact that he had not been Christened or Baptised in the Church earlier was not realized until after his Confirmation; that should never have been allowed to happen! Church authorities at the time, however, were determined he would not forget the error, and he was continually reminded. This rather unforgiving attitude made him somewhat unhappy.

Furthermore, he could not reconcile himself to the Church teachings on the resurrection of the body. Following the death and burial of his dog near a fencing post which was later damaged in a storm and had to be replaced, the decomposing remains of his pet were exposed, only to confirm his misgivings about the logicality of such a belief.

Another striking incident occurred when he was travelling home by train and was so deeply involved in his reading he did not notice the train had stopped at his station. As it was pulling out, he ran to jump off onto the sand which he knew lay beyond the platform between another set of rail lines. He was ready to jump when something told him to get off the other side. It was a split second decision and as he landed he heard an express train roar through, travelling in the opposite direction and on the side he had decided not to jump from only a few seconds before. Had he made the slightest misjudgement in jumping from that side, it should be quite apparent what his fate might have been! Ever afterwards, he wondered what it was that made him change his mind? There had been no time for rational thinking, it all happened too quickly.

These three incidents fuelled his search into spiritual matters.

Collis was born in May 1913 at Quorn, a small railway town in the mid north of the State of South Australia, the eldest son of an average middle class family. His father was a railway man, working his way up to become a station master.

During the thirties, Collis moved to live and work in Adelaide. Almost every Sunday he would attend up to three church services - all different denominations. The Reverend G E Hale of the Unitarian Church, however, was a man Collis never forgot. What impressed him most was the fact that he took parallel quotes from the Scriptures of other great religions, which he found so interesting and appealing that he went off to the Public Library to read more.

Collis established an engineering business, manufacturing small pressed metal parts for radios, cars, the army and the like. In the process of his work to produce an article of very exacting proportions, he had to be able to visualise the finished product, but at the same time, see the various stages and processes, each requiring a separate die, that would be necessary to reach that end. He was a brilliant precision die maker and he clearly adopted this process and vision in all he did as a Bahá'í. He had to know how the Bahá'í World Order would come about and how all the component parts fitted together. He had to have the big picture. It was as though he could see into the future, way beyond the immediate discussions, decisions and actions to the possible long term implications for the Faith.

In those days, in the mid to late forties, the believers were encouraged to write to Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, with all their news and with any queries they had. It was not long before Collis had a long list of questions for the beloved Guardian. When he received the reply there was this additional note in the Guardian's own hand:

"May the Spirit of Bahá'u'lláh bless and reinforce your efforts, and may He aid you to obtain a clearer understanding of the essentials of His Faith, and to advance its best interests and contribute to the consolidation of its God-given institutions."[1]

In that same letter through his secretary, the Guardian gave these guidelines to Collis:

"The Guardian hopes you, your wife, and the other young people who are so active in the Cause in your neighbourhood will render it many services, promote unity and love in the community, strengthen the administrative foundations of the Faith, and attract many new souls to it."[2]

Bertha and Joe Dobbins were visionaries too, and they encouraged Collis and Madge to set their sights high - to establish an Assembly in their area, to teach, to travel teach, to attend the Bahá'í Summer Schools and National Convention; they rose to all those challenges. With the enthusiasm that was generated by their zeal the Bahá'í community grew. The Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Woodville was formed in 1948, but its realization was no easy task. Why not?

In those days the geographical boundary of Assembly areas was not defined. So who were these young new Bahá'ís to want to break away from the established Assembly of Adelaide. How could they break up the unity of the community! Tall poppies indeed. Without any rancour or ill feeling however, but following Bahá'í procedural guidelines, Collis referred the matter to the National Assembly. That august body decided against the formation of another local body. Again, following procedural directives that are still in place today, since the National Assembly declined to give their approval, Collis wrote, through the National Assembly, to the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith in Haifa, Israel. The Guardian advised that the Local Assembly be formed. He also directed that the local Assembly area should be the same as the local government area, a directive that is also still in place. Today where there are matters of dispute, reference is made to the Universal House of Justice in Haifa.

When the Woodville Assembly was formed the whole National Assembly was invited to attend a special public function marking its establishment. Mother Dunn and eight of the nine National members attended.

Collis made regular visits to Kingston in the south east of South Australia with Harold Fitzner, and Stella Childs and her family are living testimony to the success of their unremitting endeavours from 1946 until 1953. The firesides with lavish suppers continued at home, attendance at Summer Schools and the Convention, as well as membership of the Regional Teaching Committee of South Australia for several years kept Collis and the family on the move.

Undaunted by the lack of Bahá'í books Collis obtained a licence and purchased a large number of books from the United States. Later, when Australia's economic balance of payments difficulties increased, the government would only allow those who had purchased books in the previous year to have an import quota. As the National Assembly had not purchased books in the previous year, they were unable to get a quota. Since Collis no longer needed to purchase books for his own use at that time, he was able to use his import quota to purchase books for them.

At a personal level, and as a result of wanting to do the nineteen day Fast Collis gave up smoking cigarettes. So that he could better present the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, Collis undertook a course in public speaking. The Universal House of Justice calls for individual initiative, and Collis is one to turn to as an example.

In his pre-marriage days Collis had actively served with the St John Ambulance, and whilst it was not practical for him to continue when the family was very young, he was able to serve on the committee of the District and Bush Nursing Society (DBNS) until the family moved to Port Adelaide in April 1953.

The Six Year Plan for the Australian and New Zealand Bahá'ís began in 1947 and provided the impetus for sustained teaching activities which in turn led to the expansion of the Faith. As well as continuing with the trips to Kingston and other towns on the way, Collis and Madge concentrated their efforts on consolidating the Woodville community and on raising the Port Adelaide Group to Assembly status, moving house themselves in April 1953 to raise the numbers. Little wonder then, that so much importance is given in the Faith to having goals. A look at their diaries of that time, gives some indication of the constant Bahá'í activity - deepenings, firesides of their own, supporting the firesides in other areas, public meetings, committee meetings. The believers Australia-wide were excited that all the goals of the Plan were not only achieved, but exceeded.

There has been a continuous sequence of Plans to the present day, though no doubt the most far reaching was the Guardian's Ten Year Crusade from 1953 - 1963. Also from time to time there are intercontinental, international and regional conferences. In 1953 there were a series of four intercontinental conferences, and the Australian Bahá'ís were invited to attend the one in New Delhi, India. Madge and Collis attended this and were also able to go on to the Holy Land for the Bahá'í pilgrimage, and the honour of meeting with the beloved Guardian.

The Conference itself was an unbelievable experience and to follow this with Pilgrimage! They were overwhelmed. As Madge says:

"If we needed any further confirmation of the power of Bahá'u'lláh's words to transform and bring about peace on earth, we saw it demonstrated by the Guardian, who inspired the Bahá'ís the world over and guided the establishment of Bahá'í Institutions around the world. We were unbelievably happy and uplifted."[3]

Whilst they were with the Guardian, he received news of the arrival of Bertha Dobbins in the New Hebrides, and a few days later, Glad Parke and Gretta Lamprill advised their arrival in Tahiti, both Ten Year Crusade Goals for Australia. The Guardian was so elated with the news.

This is specifically mentioned at this point, because great emphasis had been put on achieving goals and thus bringing joy to the heart of the beloved Guardian who almost single handedly was overseeing, the step by step development of the whole Bahá'í world community.

Collis had a very deep affection and respect for Mother Dunn and when she was appointed a Hand of the Cause early in 1952, he shared with all the believers the great excitement at having a Hand on this continent. When they were on pilgrimage in 1953, the Guardian said that the Dunns were true conquerors because they stayed where they pioneered.[4]

Collis set out to understand more about the role and work of the Hands and talked openly about their exalted station. Because the Auxiliary Boards were being appointed for the first time in April 1954, at Ridván, Collis asked the Guardian how this new development would function in relation to the National Assemblies. The Guardian elaborated on the Institution of the Hands of the Cause and their work into the future for the protection and teaching of the Faith. Little did Collis know that Mother Dunn would appoint him as one of her two Board Members just six months later. This led him to do a detailed study and produce a compilation on the Institution of the Hands of the Cause so that he could be an effective Board Member. Just over three years later, in October 1957, he was himself raised to the rank of a Hand at the age of 44, the third youngest of the fifty souls ever appointed to that rank.

It is evident from reading the pilgrim notes prepared by Collis and Madge that the subjects elucidated by the Guardian formed the bedrock of Collis' action and talks for the rest of his life. Topics included: The role of the Hands and their Auxiliary Boards; God's Plan and the Divine Plan; the relationship between individual Bahá'ís and government; the need for Assemblies to be frank, wise and uncompromising in their relationship with the authorities and to demonstrate to the government that we are patriotic but have nothing to do with politics; the role and responsibilities of the pioneers; Australia and Japan - the two magnetic poles of the Pacific.[5] Collis would be delighted to know that last year one of his grandsons married a Japanese Bahá'í. Collis became even more dedicated to every request and instruction from the Guardian.

Because of their family and business commitments, Collis and Madge were unable to go pioneering overseas, offering instead to support Bertha Dobbins at her post for six months. That financial support, however, carried on for many years.

In addition to Collis's appointments as a Board Member and later as a Hand, and membership of the National Assembly, he became secretary of the Asian Teaching Committee which had been set up to assist the settlement of the pioneers, mostly in the Pacific area. It was not long before the committee realized the pioneers were not only very lonely at times, but were starved of news, so Koala News was produced which became a lifeline for the pioneers

Indeed Collis knew from his own experience early in his Bahá'í life how uplifting it was to have news, and he made a point of keeping up to date and joyfully and enthusiastically sharing news. Being very much in touch with the world through his regular contact with the World Centre of the Faith, his huge correspondence; his extensive travels - several million miles over 36 years, making 529 visits to 108 countries and his use of a powerful short wave radio to keep in touch with world events, his source of news was vast. This sharing of news, gave the friends a global vision as a Rockhampton friend wrote after his passing:

"Being a frequent and extensive traveller, Mr Featherstone would always have exciting news regarding the development of the Faith or some amusing anecdote of his travel experiences. By happily sharing these with the friends on his return he brought the whole world back home with him and helped all gain an insight into the global transformation currently taking place both within and without the Bahá'í world."[6]

During this early part of the Crusade, there were many legal matters that Collis, as a National Assembly member, was involved with concerning Assembly by-laws, incorporation and Bahá'í marriage. The Guardian's secretary wrote to him on April 7, 1955 advising that the Guardian "attached the utmost importance to the Incorporation of the Local Assemblies".[7] In consequence of this advice Collis was unrelenting in pushing for the Incorporation of Assemblies and prior to his passing was deeply concerned that Australia was having so many difficulties in this pursuit. Collis was the first Bahá'í to be a marriage celebrant in the State of South Australia.

Following the two great traumatic events of his life, his appointment as a Hand and a month later the passing of the beloved Guardian, Collis' life entered a new phase. As one of the "Chief Stewards", who had the responsibility for the Bahá'í World on their shoulders, the scene had suddenly changed dramatically. It was necessary for him to make changes in the management of his business to enable him to travel extensively throughout the Australasian region and beyond, not only to visit Bahá'í communities, but to present the Faith to dignitaries and government officials wherever he went. How he did all of this as well as run his engineering business, continue an ever growing correspondence with his Auxiliary Board members, individuals and institutions, and look after his family, is difficult to imagine.

The Hands of the Cause in the Holy Land called for someone of their rank to visit the Maoris. Collis used his annual Christmas vacation period in 1958/59 to go to New Zealand. Again in 1961, when ill health prevented Hand of Cause John Robarts from travelling, Collis went in his stead to Central America. Unfortunately he too became very ill, but apart from a few days enforced rest and loss of weight, he carried on with his gruelling itinerary. However, he was so run down at the end of the journey it took him six months to recover.

It was obvious from little things Collis said that being a Hand weighed heavily on him. How could he live up to and fulfil such an exalted and demanding role. He was someone, just like you and I, a member of the community, however, I can assure you that there were many times when he was, what I call, in full Hand mode, and there was never any doubt in my mind - he was clearly inspired with great insight and vision and spoke with authority, almost majestically, and even the tone of his voice changed.

His dedication to exact and precise detail is also manifest in his devotion to the very extensive Holy Writings of the Faith; the letters and works of the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, and the communications of the Universal House of Justice. These were his source when speaking or answering questions on any subject. He was well known for his large book of quotations that was always with him and his well worn and highlighted copies of The Will and Testament of both Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá and The Tablets of the Divine Plan of 'Abdu'l-Bahá.

From the very early days Collis kept historical records of Bahá'ís and events. He collected and subsequently had bound, copies of the early Bahá'í magazines, Star of the West, the Australian Bahá'í Quarterly (now the Australian Bahá'í Bulletin), the American Bahá'í News, the Herald of the South, to name the main ones. Furthermore, he not only collected photographs, but became a keen photographer, developing the films and making the prints himself by converting the kitchen into a photo lab from time to time. When he travelled to India and the Holy Land he made two 16 mm silent colour movie films the first of which he titled "East Meets West" and the second, as suggested by the Guardian, "Bahá'í Holy Places in Israel" and used both extensively for teaching upon his return. This was all in pre-TV times in Australia and so the impact was significant.

In November 1954, Collis made a tape recording of Mother Dunn relating her experience of meeting 'Abdu'l-Bahá in San Francisco in 1912. One 16 mm colour film he made at the Conclave of the Hands at Bahjí in November 1958, is the only such record of this period of the Hands, and shows the 25 Hands who were present; Corinne True and Clara Dunn were too frail to attend. Collis would tell the friends everywhere he went: "You are making history now." He was very conscious of this, and kept vast and detailed records, including correspondence, programmes, itineraries, and reports of all his travels which he put together in volumes and bound himself.

Many of the friends have expressed their joy in being with him, of feeling the love and radiance he gave out constantly, and being instilled with a new confidence and vision. He was the essence of detachment, as if floating above the material world, and always in tune with the spiritual side of life. The first full blood aborigine to embrace the Faith said he decided to become a Bahá'í after meeting Collis.

Collis's enthusiasm, zeal and love were obviously contagious for they are recalled by so many who met him. It was always with this great love and enthusiasm that he exhorted the friends everywhere to pursue and practise the innumerable exhortations in the Writings both individually and collectively in all facets of their lives.

Collis often said: "Only the best will do for the Cause". How true. But at the same time, Collis was never extravagant, always conscious of cost and getting good value for money expended. One good example of this is the story told by more than one travel agent of how they were amazed at his knowledge of routing and sectors, and how he quite often showed them the most economical way of doing it, particularly in the complex area of island hopping in the Pacific. He lived simply and frugally for himself, but when something was needed for the Faith the money could be found.

Another quote from a Rockhampton friend gives an insight into Collis's natural ability to relate to everybody:

"His warm greeting and cheery smile gave all who came in contact with him an instant closeness and familiarity as though one was talking with a brother, a father or a grandfather."[8]

Even when addressing a large audience, he had a way of making immediate contact and gaining their avid attention by telling an appropriate joke or story. His instinctive use of intonation of voice and body language gave an added dimension and clearly displayed the deep sincerity and passion with which he conveyed his message. By standards of recent times, his education was minimal and yet it appears to have been no hindrance to him. In his travels everywhere he always met with the top people to inform them of the Faith and its standing and recognition with United Nations and governments throughout the world. He gave literally thousands of press, radio and TV interviews; nothing fazed him in his life's work. He was equally at home with indigenous peoples and villagers in the most remote areas of the world and left his mark and remembrance. In the words of Howard Harwood who travelled extensively in the islands of the Pacific: "One thing I soon discovered was that wherever I went, no matter how remote, Collis had been there ahead of me. He was very well known and respected everywhere."[9]

Two quotations from the Bahá'í Writings come to mind, which I feel can be said to be mottos, if you like, that Collis lived by, namely: Bahá'u'lláh wrote: "Let deeds not words be your adorning" and 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote: "Where there is love, nothing is too much trouble and there is always time." One example of a way in which the latter quote was exhibited in his life was his huge correspondence with people all over the world; he was so well known by Australia Post that a letter addressed to Collis Featherstone, Australia, was known to have reached him. He not only answered the person's letter, but always had something extra to share or enclose that he felt would enthuse them or make them happy. Being very precise he had his own postage scales, book for recording all letters and a huge book of stamps like the Post Office uses. By weighing everything and stamping them himself, he could go to post letters late at night to reach the mailing deadlines. If more weight could go for the same postage, something extra would be enclosed. It is quite impossible in this paper to give you a full picture of Collis's contribution to the development of the Australian Bahá'í Community, which of course, went in tandem with the contribution he made at an international level. However, in conclusion I would like to quote what some friends have written about Collis Featherstone, which adds quite succinctly to this picture of the man.

"Collis Featherstone was a humble man, genuinely humble, and consequently this humility enabled him to see the possibilities, the stature and potentialities of others. Others grew in his presence, their self-esteem was enhanced and they felt more capable of carrying out what they were called upon to do for the Faith. The Hand of the Cause gave them confidence and what they did, they did more cheerfully."[10]

And again:

"When Collis came into a meeting or a conference people stood for him. It embarrassed him because of his genuine humility. He wanted to be accepted as an ordinary person, which, of course, he was. With the men he could talk man to man. With women he talked person to person on matters of concern. But he was also an extra-ordinary man. He was extra-ordinary because he had touched the lives of every person in the conference. They recognised him as their own special friend, concerned for them and their families. A true person with whom they could relate, whose values were evident for all to see. A person who was awed by the magnitude of the Cause he represented, who loved the Faith and who loved Shoghi Effendi and the Institutions brought to a reality as the Heart of the Covenant unfolded. People rose for Collis because of what he represented but they also rose in love and respect for a man who knew them and had faith in them."[11]

And finally:

"Who can adequately portray the unique qualities of such a man? He exemplified spirit in action. He was holy, active and practical, pure and radiant. He possessed authority, he inspired confidence, he showed love. He had the power of attraction. He had no peer in this region. Only future generations will realize the fullness of his achievements."[12]

References

1. Shoghi Effendi's letter to Collis Featherstone, 26 Oct 1945

2. ibid

3. Featherstone, Collis and Madge, Pilgrim notes Nov 1953

4. ibid

5. ibid

6. McDougall, Robert, Glad Tidings for the Bahá'ís of Central Queensland, October 1990, "A Tribute to Collis Featherstone"

7. Shoghi Effendi letter to Collis Featherstone 7 April 1955

8. McDougall, op cit

9. Howard Harwood letter to Madge Featherstone circa 1992

10. Ray & Nance Meyer letter to Madge Featherstone March 1993

11. ibid

12. Hassall, Dr Graham, Australian Bahá'í Bulletin, October 1990

Back to:   Biographies Essays and short articles
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
 
.
. .