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Leroy Ioas, Hand of the Cause of God, by Anita Ioas Chapman, and Lua Getsinger, Herald of the Covenant, by Velda Piff Metelmann:
Reviews

by Robert Weinberg

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 9
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1999
Leroy Ioas, Hand of the Cause of God
Author: Anita Ioas Chapman
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 1998, 397 pages

      and

Lua Getsinger, Herald of the Covenant
Author: Velda Piff Metelmann
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 1997, 414 pages
Reviewer: Robert Weinberg


The writing of a biography is enormously challenging because any one person's life can be interpreted in many ways. Difficult enough as it is for most human beings to make sense of their own existence, along comes a writer who attempts to weave that life into a logical story, understand its events and incidents via a chronological time frame or through recurrent motifs or areas of the subject's life activities. Authors with different viewpoints may attempt to present and interpret the life of another from the perspective of their own sphere of interest – be it historical, psychoanalytical, or voyeuristic. Take any iconic or important figure of the past century – from Winston Churchill to Marilyn Monroe – and one can find literally dozens, if not hundreds, of biographies where the evidence of a life lived is picked over vulture-like time and again from differing perspectives and ideologies.

For a Bahá'í writer, the biographical process presents still further complications. Bearing in mind we still find ourselves in the earliest years of the history of the faith, many of the books about significant figures in Bahá'í history are the first of their kind. This may create a tendency for readers, writers and publishers to see such works as "definitive" when it would be natural to assume that a multitude of books about the faith's central figures, and the likes of Tahirih, Martha Root and Louis Gregory, will be written in the future, each of them approaching their subject from different thematic viewpoints.

Equally, the "heroic" acts of many of the figures under discussion have become the stuff of our sacred history. Therefore questions arise about how "human" a picture should be painted of such heroes. Will revealing certain controversial aspects of their human natures or personal lives diminish their status as role models? Or is there yet more inspiration to be had in the realisation that these people were ordinary human beings who despite tests and idiosyncrasies of their own managed to make a significant contribution? These, after all, are individuals whom devoted believers still name their children after. Some of these characters are remembered affectionately by people still living. And some Bahá'ís today are their offspring or direct descendants.

Two recent publications from George Ronald publishers take very different approaches to this task. A biography of Hand of the Cause of God Leroy Ioas - remembered and loved by many – has been written by his daughter Anita, and an account of the life of the legendary teacher Lua Getsinger, conveyed largely through her own collected letters and talks has been compiled by Velda Piff Metelmann.

Dr Johnson said "Nobody can write the life of a man, but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse with him." In that respect, Anita Ioas Chapman has an advantage over Velda Piff Metelmann in that she was able to observe the life and work of her subject from the most intimate of vantage points. However, even she acknowledges that his workload allowed him little time to be with his children.

Leroy Ioas shines through this biography as a kind of all-American Bahá'í hero - energetic, talented, hard-working, practical, reliable and wise. From the age of 16, when he met 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Ioas was a dedicated servant whose life revolved around obedience to the centre of the faith. Although he was a railway executive for Southern Pacific by occupation, his talents were quickly recognised by Bahá'ís from his election to the national spiritual assembly of the United States, to his appointment as a Hand of the Cause in 1951 and then to direct service to Shoghi Effendi in Haifa as secretary-general of the international Bahá'í council and, after the Guardian's passing, as one of the "Custodians" of the Bahá'í Faith. On Ioas' arrival in Haifa, Shoghi Effendi told him, "You have had a brilliant career in the Cause, now this is the climax of it. Your work was not only satisfactory, but brilliant. Now you are reaching another stage, at the international centre of a World Faith. In your capacity as a Hand of the Cause and member of the International Bahá'í Council, you will be at the very centre – not at its circumference but at its very heart. Being its Secretary-General the work will revolve around you" (161). Ioas combined bullish determination, exhausting activity and unswerving faith to achieve his tasks and relieve Shoghi Effendi's burden of work.

What makes this biography more than the simple conveying of a life is that Ioas' story is recounted against the backdrop of historical events which saw the faith progress through the earliest years of its development in the west. It provides insight into the systematic plans of Shoghi Effendi in raising the administrative order, and how Ioas became his most valued and reliable right hand man. There is much to celebrate in this life and Ioas' daughter has fashioned an inspiring and readable account. She has not ignored the more challenging aspects of his character either. Ioas' intense involvement in activities that kept him away from home "deeply saddened" his wife, because "she almost never saw him" (126). Similarly, Ioas' interpersonal manner seems also to have attracted criticism. "Sometimes it resulted from his riding too roughshod over people's opinions, short-circuiting discussion to get things done. A colleague said he was 'not a great communicator'" (127). Ioas, like all who arise to serve the faith, had his own spiritual battles to fight, especially it seems in developing the virtue of patience. His daughter has done well to highlight quietly his struggle without diminishing the value of his mighty achievements and services.

The main frustration with Velda Piff Metelmann's work on Lua Getsinger is the one-sided account of the story largely owing to the author's almost total reliance on Getsinger's own letters and diary notes. The author has clearly had access to previously unexplored and unpublished sources. Yet some of the questions that inevitably spring to mind when Getsinger refers in her own words to a particular incident or a person's actions go unanswered or unsubstantiated because there is rarely another voice to respond or place a remark in context. This is despite the author's apparent use of Robert Stockman's works on American Bahá'í history that include information which would have given Getsinger's story greater coherence.

Otherwise this is a rich collection of previously unpublished materials charting the teaching expeditions and spiritual development of one of the faith's outstanding teachers. The author's desire to find out more about Getsinger grew from her being asked to deliver a talk on Getsinger at a women's seminar in Holland. She wondered why so little was known about this figure who became known as the "Mother Teacher of the West"[1] and "Herald of the Covenant."[2] She was puzzled that such a figure was called in her obituary by May Maxwell, "a bruised and broken reed trodden and crushed to earth"[3] who died alone, "far from all those who should have loved her and cherished her as a priceless gift from God..."[4] An earlier, inspirational but extremely hagiographic account by William Sears and Robert Quigley, The Flame (Oxford: George Ronald, 1972) did little to answer those questions.

What emerges is the story of a woman who genuinely did become aflame with love for the faith and determined to burn away her life in service to it. But her activities not only reaped marvellous victories, they resulted in her being the target of rumour and gossip, some of it possibly initiated and perpetuated by her increasingly jealous and resentful husband. Through many of these letters, the reader hears Getsinger's version of events or her allusions to hurts inflicted upon her but one wishes for more access to Edward Getsinger's point of view for the sake of balance.

At the beginning of the book, the author issues a disclaimer that "this book does not claim to be a complete biography." While this book has much to recommend it, what it highlights is the need for more to be written about Lua Getsinger. Although many fascinating insights into an extraordinary life have already been unveiled, it will take yet more painstaking research and a more objective arranging of the facts to piece together the more intricate details of Getsinger's later life. To that future enterprise, this publication will be a useful resource and starting point.


End Notes
  1. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1942) 643.
  2. Juliet Thompson, The Diary of Juliet Thompson (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1983).
  3. The Bahá'í World Vol.VIII 1938-1940 (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1942) 643.
  4. Ibid., 642.
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