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Ambassador at the Court:
The Life and Photography of Effie Baker

by Graham Hassall

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Chapter 3


By 1922, Effie had moved to Beaumaris in Melbourne. Although not a regular churchgoer, she considered herself a good Christian. Her Methodist upbringing had provided her with a sound knowledge of the Christian tradition (at least from the Protestant viewpoint), and her interest in spirituality was on going. Perhaps for this reason she remained open to new ideas in such matters. Ruby Beaver, a good friend who was also involved in craftwork, shared her interest in exploring the many new beliefs and creeds under discussion in Melbourne. Together they attended meetings of the Theosophical Society, the New Thought movement, and other spiritualist groups. Late in the year, they were assisting Dr Julia Seton Seers, a Californian medical doctor who had recently arrived in Melbourne to promote New Thought through her "New Civilisation Centre". Ruby Beaver's chosen role was to stand at the front door to greet people as they arrived for each meeting. For this habit she received from her friends the nick name "Pete", after St. Peter, who is said to greet new souls at the entrance to heaven. The movement known as New Thought originated in North America. It emphasised the power of constructive thinking, and the imminence of a "new age". Although inspired by Christian doctrine, it was a philosophical and mental therapeutics as much as religious movement, and its appeal to many lay in the openness with which it approached discussion of religious ideas - although many matters of belief it left ill defined.

The role of women in church life was coming under increasing scrutiny in the post-war years. For most Australian women, "church work" implied attending services with the family on Sundays, or fund raising through holding bazaars and fetes. Effie was one such woman, who expressed her support for the social good through the sale of arts and crafts. She did not question this. To the contrary, such sales had provided the outlet for her products, and the means for the talents to become more widely known. The spirit of the time, nevertheless, was one that favoured the emancipation of women. It was paralleled, in the field of religion, by women's desire for greater roles of religious authority and responsibility.

Many Australians became disillusioned with their traditional church life. Some had been disappointed by the support given to Australian military involvement in the first world war by the major Protestant denominations, and had now withdrawn from regular church attendance. Graphic accounts of the carnage of the Great War had also created for some doubts as to the supremacy of "western civilisation". Effie's brothers had fought in the war. Jack enlisted from New Zealand, and was repatriated there at the war's end. Jim served in the Australian Light Horse Regiment. The experiences of these brothers as told to their family through letters, and later through first-hand accounts, no doubt alerted Effie and the whole Baker family more forcefully than at any time previously to the horrible realities of war.

Whether it was these influences or others more personal, Effie's encounter with the Bahá'í Teachings through Hyde Dunn late in 1922 proved a turning point in her life. At a meeting in October Effie noted a new face in the audience and remarked to Ruby "Look at that man in the audience, what a light he has on his face." The following week this visitor addressed the audience. Hyde Dunn had lived for many years in California, although he was English by birth. He and had become a Bahá'í in 1905, and about two years later had introduced Clara Holder to the Bahá'í teachings. Clara, raised in Ireland, had married then moved to Canada while still a teenager. The death of her husband in a railway accident had left her with a son, and widowed, at an early age. She later moved to the West Coast of the United States. Hyde had also been married, but he had no children. Some time after the death of his first wife, Hyde married Clara.

The Bahá'í religion originated in Persia, the country now known as Iran, in the last century. Its Prophet-founder, Bahá'u'lláh, claimed in 1863 to be the bearer of a divinely-revealed message that was vital to the renewal of religious faith in the world, and to the accomplishment of world peace. Bahá'u'lláh spoke of the common origin of all the major world religions, of the unity of God, His messengers, and the peoples and cultures of the world. The primary purpose of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation is to educate humankind in the spiritual and social values, which can provide the basis for the inevitable transition of many diverse peoples, social and religious traditions into a harmonious global society.

Bahá'u'lláh, his immediate family, and a number of his followers, were exiled and imprisoned for their efforts. A far greater number were put to death at the hands of fanatic Islamic opponents and despotic government officials. At his death in the Ottoman province of Palestine in 1892, after forty years of imprisonment, leadership of the Bahá'í community passed to his eldest son, and fellow prisoner and exile, `Abdu'l-Bahá. "The Master", as 'Abdu'l-Bahá was known, became free in 1908, and undertook in old age several journeys from Palestine to Europe and to North America for the purpose of advancing the Bahá'í cause.

Both Clara Holder and Hyde Dunn were fortunate to meet `Abdu'l-Bahá when he travelled to San Francisco in 1911. The Dunns would have remained in California had they not read, soon after the close of the First World War, his call for the Bahá'ís of North America to spread the Bahá'í teachings throughout the world. The Dunns were among the handful of Bahá'ís who responded to `Abdu'l-Bahá's Tablets of the Divine Plan. Noting his references to Australia, and to the "South Seas", they emigrated in 1920. Bahá'í beliefs had been referred to in Australian newspapers and journals, but active promotion of them in the antipodes commenced with the Dunns' arrival. They had no more than a few pounds in savings, but the intensity of their spiritual convictions soon brushed aside such limitations, and from a condition of near poverty they moved out into the Australian expanse, expending all their earnings, energy, and earnestness in service of their chosen goal. Hyde acquired a position as travelling salesman for the Bacchus Marsh Milk Company (soon after acquired by Nestles). While travelling to various cities and towns on business, he devoted his spare hours to speaking of the Bahá'í principles from public platforms.

On the night of Hyde Dunn's address to the New Civilization Centre in Melbourne in October 1922, Hyde prefaced his talk with both a prayer, and a Hidden Word of Bahá'u'lláh:

O Son of Spirit! Free thyself from the worldly bond, escape from the prison of self, appreciate the value of time for it will never come again nor a like opportunity.

This passage has since been translated as:

O My Servant!

Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more.

Whatever the quality of the earlier translation, it was the idea that arrested Effie's attention. Hyde also referred in his address to the need for individual investigation of truth, and this made her realise that she had never scrutinised the religious teachings that had been passed down through her family. Effie's conversion was sudden and complete. The "humble sincerity and faith" with which he spoke, she noted later in a letter to Bahá'ís in Perth, had convinced her of the truth of the Bahá'í teachings. She fully believed she was living in a "new age", and this realisation had been a crucial factor in her decision. As she put it later:

It suddenly dawned upon me: Why! I was born and christened a Christian, my forbears were Christians for centuries. I certainly have never investigated truth for myself. After the principles, Mr Dunn gave a short account of the history of the Bahá'í Faith and immediately proved to me that the Bab, the forerunner or "Herald" of the coming of Bahá'u'lláh, was the same as John the Baptist who proclaimed the coming of Jesus the Christ. I went immediately and declared myself as accepting the Bahá'í message.

Effie Baker was the second Australian to become a Bahá'í. A short time earlier a Sydney optometrist, Oswald Whitaker, had met Hyde in Lismore in northern New South Wales, when both men were there on business. In an age before television and so many other modern diversions, it was common for travellers to converse at night in the lounges of the hotels in which they were staying. Hyde was an engaging and experienced conversationalist and the encounter one evening with a group of men quite sceptical in matters of religion led to his first success in attracting a soul on Australian soil to his beloved Faith. The sceptics had summoned Mr Whitaker from his room to refute Hyde Dunn's religious ideas, but rather than defeating Mr Dunn, Mr Whitaker found his "clever questions" to be answered, and to the dismay of his fellows, soon professed himself a Bahá'í. By 1923, there were five Bahá'ís in the country: Clara and Hyde Dunn, Oswald Whitaker, Effie Baker, and Ruby ("Pete") Beaver.

Meeting Clara and Hyde Dunn, and declaration of her faith in the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, transformed Effie's life. She absorbed the essential teachings, and learnt also about the system of Bahá'í administration then being established by Bahá'í communities in many different countries under the guidance of Shoghi Effendi, grandson of `Abdu'l-Bahá. Shoghi Effendi had been designated "Guardian" of the Faith in his grandfather's Will, and had assumed this responsibility upon `Abdu'l-Bahá's death in 1921. He was now engaged in establishing the Bahá'í administrative institutions which had been referred to in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá. These included, at local level, bodies known as "Local Spiritual Assemblies", comprising nine members elected by secret ballot from among all Bahá'ís living in a particular city, for the purpose of overseeing that community's affairs. Effie joined the Dunns in urging the Local Assemblies, as they were gradually established in the major cities, to work and consult together, act jointly, and aspire to exemplifying the Bahá'í principles in all their activities.

Effie had found in the Dunns two intimate friends. She was in her forties; they were a generation older (Hyde was born in 1855, Clara in 1869). She called them her "spiritual parents" and when writing to them, signed as their "loving daughter". The Dunns had only recently begun the enterprise of introducing the Bahá'í teachings in Australia, and were seeking ways to expand the community. Its numbers did not rise dramatically, but those who did join were close-knit, sharing friendship and the privileges and responsibilities of being Bahá'ís.

To Effie, religion was a practical matter. Happily, the circumstances in which she now found herself gave her the opportunity to express her religious ideals in practical terms. She grasped the universal vision of the Bahá'í ideals, and then expressed them tangibly in her relationships with others. She had been a private person, and quiet, but not necessarily shy. She was interested in people, and had the capacity to relate well with others, whether young or old. Before becoming a Bahá'í Effie's friendships had centred on her work in art, craft, model making, and photography. Now the small but growing community of Bahá'ís in which she found herself expanded her circle; and her position as one of the first members on the continent thrust her into the unaccustomed role of mentor, and advisor.

The elements of Effie's belief are recorded in her letters written to fellow Bahá'ís for passing on Bahá'í principles and laws that she had learnt from the Dunns. She described `Abdu'l-Bahá, the Centre of Bahá'u'lláh's "Covenant", as her spiritual guide and helper. She spoke of firmness in this Covenant and obedience to Bahá'u'lláh's laws and commands as the best method for uniting hearts, and achieving brotherhood and sisterhood, and for eliminating all prejudices. Bahá'u'lláh's revelation made this a "wonderful age" to live in, she wrote, an age in which the outpouring of the Holy Spirit had produced a light which flooded the universe. Bahá'u'lláh was likened to a physician whose medicine, if taken, could cure the ills of the world, and the Bahá'í teachings were described as a method for freeing one's self from worldly bonds. A "pure, kindly and radiant heart" would best attract the power of the word of God. It was important for Bahá'ís to put the Bahá'í principles into action, to reflect them in their daily lives, rather than to merely talk about them. Effie then reminded her correspondents that since Clara and Hyde Dunn sacrificed so much to bring this potent message to Australia that was important for all Bahá'ís to work harmoniously with them toward the establishment of a new world order.

The "Bahá'í life" required spiritual exercises, in addition to concern for social reform, and Effie was much influenced by the act of prayer, as practiced by Clara and Hyde Dunn. In writing from Hobart to "Pete" Beaver, Effie shared the advice they had given her regarding prayer during the period of the Bahá'í fast:

Father says that we are to sleep but engage in prayer as much as possible. You have to rise in time to first say the prayer then Mother says say the prayer for Remover of Difficulties 95 times (this takes over 20 minutes) then the Greatest Name 95 times, then breakfast before sunrise. Mother says you say the Remover of Difficulties prayer for the 19 mornings and on the last morning offer up the petition for the difficulty you want removed - say we want this movement to establish peace and unity amongst mankind - ask for it, and that all difficulties to prevent it be removed.

These exercises suggested by the Dunns took the practice of prayer beyond the formal requirements, and show the personal preferences, which they were free to adopt. No doubt, Effie learnt later, whether during pilgrimage or beforehand, that the only obligation on Bahá'ís with regard to prayer is that they choose one of three "obligatory" prayers to say once in every 24 hours. Following recitation of the longest obligatory prayer is the repetition of the "Greatest Name" 95 times. Effie's letter to Miss Beaver early in 1924 is indicative of her earnestness at even this early stage to share with her friends insights into Bahá'í teachings and practices - an activity she continued to the great advantage of the Australian Bahá'ís when she later resided in Haifa.

The Dunns had not intended to remain permanently in Melbourne, and made plans to journey to New Zealand in December 1922. Response in Auckland far outstripped that found previously in Sydney and Melbourne. On the second evening following their arrival the Dunns met Sarah Blundell, an English-born woman from a devout Christian family who had heard of `Abdu'l-Bahá's travels in Europe and who had long considered herself a Bahá'í. Sarah Blundell's daughter Ethel had read in 1912 about 'Abdu'l-Bahá's visit to London, published in The Christian Commonwealth. Through Mrs Blundell, the Dunns met Amy Stevenson, who had also heard about Abdu'l-Bahá's visit to London. Others met during this visit included Emily Axford, Margaret Stevenson's sisters Lilias and Amy, and Bertram Dewing and his mother Amy Dewing - each of whom contributed significantly to establishing the first Auckland Bahá'í group. Clara Dunn remained with the New Zealand Bahá'ís for three months while Hyde returned to Melbourne in January 1923 to resume work commitments.

Following the Dunn's successful visit to New Zealand there were now Bahá'ís in Sydney, Melbourne, and Auckland. In the next two years, additional communities were established with Effie's assistance, in Hobart and Perth. By April 1923 large Bahá'í gathering were held in Melbourne on Friday nights, with up to one hundred and fifty people present. Most who took the step of identifying with the Bahá'í "movement" (as it was then called) were women: Mrs Margaret Dixson, Mrs Harris, Mrs Richards, Mrs Culbert, Mrs Potter, Mrs Withers (who was Effie's cousin), Mrs McLeod, Mrs Thornton, Mrs Laws, and Miss Hastings. Near the close of 1923, on 9 December, the Melbourne Bahá'ís elected the first Local Spiritual Assembly in Australia.

Effie was naturally closely involved with establishing this Assembly, but the circumstances of her life were changing, and she began to travel. This may have been on medical advice. Effie was now in her forties. Over many years of painting, she had accumulated dangerous levels of lead in her body through the habit of wetting her brush with her tongue rather than with water. Her health had deteriorated to the extent that she could no longer work constantly. A change of scenery, and rest, were required. In hindsight, we observe that she got the change of scenery. In the first half of 1924, Effie travelled with Clara and Hyde. They were in Hobart from January to March, and in Perth from April to July. Then, together with Bahá'í traveller Martha Root Effie then visited Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand, and the Australian cities of Sydney, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne and Adelaide.

The first adventure, in January 1924, was to Hobart. Effie, Clara and Hyde rented a cottage at Sandy Bay. Fellow Melbourne Bahá’í Miss Hastings joined them. Hyde kept busy by day with business, and by night spoke about the Bahá'í Faith from public platforms, or else met new friends in their homes. There were several expressions of interest in the Bahá'í message, notably from Gretta Lamprill, a Hobart nurse. She, like some of the first New Zealand Bahá'ís, recalled press reports of ’Abdu'l-Bahá's travels from her childhood. On hearing that Bahá'ís were meeting in Hobart Miss Lamprill made sure to attend. She, like Effie, embraced the new Faith unreservedly and swiftly, and formed a close friendship with Clara and Hyde Dunn. Later she was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly for Australia and New Zealand, and in the 1950s travelled to the Pacific Islands, taking the Teachings of Bahá'u'lláh to Tahiti.

These were special days; each one lived to the full, each adding to the store of treasured memories, which sustained Effie in the many years of service that followed. After two months in Hobart she, Clara, and Hyde, departed by train for Perth. The journey to the west coast took five days, about which Effie wrote to Ruby:

We had a lovely trip over and the journey wasn't at all wearying and it is very interesting. Saw a few blacks at some of the stations crossing the desert. It wasn't at all dreary as I imagined it would be. The soil is reddish in colour and covered with a little shrub of bluish colour (salt bush) and mallee scrub, etc. The train trip is fine. Meals good, sleeping accommodation fine. We weren't a scrap tired when we landed and mother was fine all along the journey. I sent you a 'gram from Kalgoorlie.

They lodged at the Hotel Esplanade overlooking the Swan River while searching for a suitable house to rent. On securing one in Havelock Street, West Perth, the three recommenced the routine familiar to them from their Tasmanian days. Hyde engaged in business by day, Clara made new friends, and Effie worked at her craft. They organised a series of Bahá'í meetings in the "Blue Gum Tea Rooms", which they advertised in the Perth newspapers. Martha Root, an American Bahá'í who was travelling the world promoting the Bahá'í Teachings, had notified the Dunns that she was about to reach Australia, and Hyde shared this news with his "Tea Rooms" audiences. For Effie, meeting Miss Root was another vital strand in her unfolding adventure.

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