Read: The First Obligation


A version of this article, with graphics, can be found at the
Centenary of the Bahá'í Faith in the United Kingdom page.
Blomfield's book, The Chosen Highway, is also available online.


Summary: The issues of social progress and development have been central to the activities of Bahá'í communities since the earliest days of the Faith in Europe, however, it was not until the 1920s that Bahá'u'lláh's ground-breaking teachings concerning the education and protection of children both boys and girls, received particular attention, as the plight of millions of children, suffering in the aftermath of the Great War, became widely known and deplored. At the forefront of an international campaign to rally the world's most influential thinkers and ordinary people everywhere to assist these children, was a prominent Bahá'í woman, Lady Blomfield. Encouraged by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, she ensured that the Bahá'í teachings were deeply rooted in the consciousness of the founders of the Save the Children Fund. 'Abdu'l-Bahá Himself addressed the Fund's founders through tablets to Lady Blomfield and offered them specific encouragement and advice about their work. This paper explores the relationship between the Bahá'í Faith and the Save the Children Fund - through the activities of Lady Blomfield - and the impact which the Bahá'í teachings had on its early development.


Sara Louisa, Lady Blomfield - whom 'Abdu'l-Bahá named Sitarih (meaning Star) - is best known to the Bahá'í World as the distinguished, society hostess who generously offered up her London home to the Master on His two visits to Britain between 1911 and 1913. Her seminal account of' those days and the early history of the Bahá'í Faith, The Chosen Highway,1 has remained a popular inspirational text for the past fifty years. However, while many believers of her generation occupied themselves primarily with purely spiritual concerns or made early attempts at organising the Bahá'í movement, Lady Blomfield chose to express her understanding of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation by giving priority to important social causes. Not only was she a promoter and defender of' the Cause in the social circles she frequented but, beyond the emerging community of Bahá'u'lláh's followers, she became a fearless supporter and protector of' the rights of women, children, prisoners and animals, a defender of the oppressed and an ardent promoter of peace and inter-religious understanding.

Lady Blomfield's acceptance of the Bahá'í Teachings in 1907 marked the turning point in a lifelong quest for spiritual truth, a process set in motion by her childhood experiences in Ireland of religious conflict between a Catholic father and Protestant mother - a search which would take her, as it did so many of her contemporaries, through a study, of Theosophy, Eastern traditions and some of the more radical rethinkings of-Christianity which emerged during the closing years of' the Nineteenth Century. Yet with her acceptance of' Bahá'u'lláh came an increased desire to see justice and equality established in the world, a concern expressed in her selfless involvement in all manner of philanthropic causes as well as in direct service to those in need.

When Lady Blomfield passed away, her daughter Mary Basil Hall, who was compiling an obituary article for The Bahá'í World2, wrote that it seemed 'trivial to record worldly episodes and circumstances, for she lived greatly in spiritual spheres above ordinary existence. And yet she was so near the heart of humanity, that she felt keenly the world's suffering, and never relaxed in her efforts for its alleviation.' One such effort was her intimate involvement with the founding of the Save the Children Fund.

From the time of her acceptance of Bahá'u'lláh in 1907, Lady Blomfield's services to the Bahá'í Movement were not exclusively limited to the shores of Great Britain. She had spent invaluable time - for instance - with 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Paris and her copious notes of his many talks and conversations formed the substance of the book, Paris Talks3. It was, however, on 12 February 1912, shortly after arriving in Egypt where He had returned after His exhausting first visit to Europe, that 'Abdu'l-Bahá addressed a letter to Lady Blomfield and encouraged her to establish a Bahá'í centre on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Within one month, she had arrived in Switzerland and received another communication from 'Abdu'l-Bahá praising her for her sacrificial services. 'Thou hast taken in hand a most brilliant lamp and art erasing and dispelling the darkness of ignorance from the heart,' He wrote, 'In every city be it Paris or London or the cities of Switzerland whereat thou mayest arrive, turn to the Beauty of Abha and seek confirmation from the Holy Spirit and open thy tongue. Know thou assuredly that new significance's will flow from thy lips! At every Hotel wherein thou are invited, go, and to whatsoever conferences thou art summoned present thyself. The Blessed Beauty is with thee, rest thou assured."4 Abdu'l-Bahá clearly recognised Lady Blomfield's capacities to inform others eloquently of' His Father's teachings, and in His wisdom saw that her presence in Geneva would clearly be a key to attracting many to the Bahá'í Cause.

The next few years would see the whole world embroiled in the most terrible and bloody conflict, a war which directly affected Lady Blomfield and her daughters as they strove to channel their love of humanity into direct service. Lady Blomfield had witnessed first hand the disastrous, initial stages of' the War. When the fighting had broken out, she and her daughters were staying in Switzerland but shortly afterwards, they moved to Paris to assist the French Red Cross in the Haden Guest Unit at the Hospital Hotel Majestic. For Lady Blomfield, the experience was heart rending. 'Any kind of suffering touched my mother profoundly,' recalled Mary Basil Hall, 'but the sight of young men maimed for life, and the new and horrible experiences she had to endure during the dressing of wounds, her mental agony reflecting their pain, tortured her beyond words. After that first heartrending morning in the wards, we were silent as we walked back to the Hotel d'Jena for luncheon. We imagined ourselves unable to touch any food. But my mother's courage and strength of mind prevailed. She said quietly: "We must eat, or we shall be ill ourselves. Then we shall not be able to help."'5

In March 1915, the hospital unit moved away from Paris and the Blomfields returned to London in April. For the rest of the War, Lady Blomfield would offer her services at several hospitals. She served on a number of committees and kept open house for the convalescing soldiers from Australia and New Zealand - the Anzacs. Despite the demands of these humanitarian duties, she never neglected the sparsely attended Bahá'í meetings which were held when and where circumstances permitted and kept in touch with the Master and friends overseas whenever correspondence was possible.

Lady Blomfield had also watched with great interest the unrest developing in her homeland of Ireland as well as the activities of the militant Women's Suffrage Movement. Two hundred thousand men were under arms in Protestant Ulster and the catholic South and the imminence of a civil war seemed likely. Lady Blomfield sympathised with home rule for Ireland but deplored the violence and would not speak much about it. When it came to the behaviour of the suffragettes she initially had admired their militancy and self'-sacrifice but later came to disapprove of their activities burning houses, pouring corrosive acid into post boxes and destroying works of art. However she helped the suffragettes in many ways and was appalled by the way the government treated them. She gave over to the suffragettes a cottage on her small estate and put them up under assumed names and disguises. The village policeman would prowl around the house suspecting their presence but never reported them to the authorities.

Her daughter Mary also took her mother's causes to heart. On her presentation at court, Mary Blomfield with her sister Beatrice standing beside her, came before the King who had been a friend of her father's, dropped on to her knees and, according to Christabel Pankhurst, 'in a clear voice claimed votes for women and pleaded 'Your Majesty, stop forcible feeding.' She was rushed - as the Daily Mirror put it - from 'the Presence' which 'had remained serene'6. Sylvia Pankhurst later claimed that Lady Blomfield had intimated to the Press her repudiation of what her daughter had done. 'Lady Blomfield,' wrote Sylvia Pankhurst, 'had been enthusiastic for militancy of the most extreme kind, so long as it was committed by other people's daughters.'7 Whatever Lady Blomfield's true feelings about this matter, it is apparent that she had dedicated herself to alleviating the suffering of those whom she felt were the victims of injustice. It was a sentiment which would find its greatest expression in the establishment of the Save the Children Fund.

The war over, Lady Blomfield saw the possibilities of Bahá'u'lláh's, Revelation genuinely influencing the work of the League of Nations, set up to promote international co-operation and peace from its headquarters in Geneva. While the League had no power to enforce policies in cases of war waged by important nations, it did achieve some success in settling a few minor disputes between countries, rehabilitating refugees, and solving international labour problems. She returned to Geneva and from her base at the Hotel d'Angleterre, she wrote to 'Abdu'l-Bahá telling him of her arrival and subsequent meetings with individuals who were working to send help to the famine hit areas of Central and Eastern Europe.

Of particular concern was the plight of millions of' children, now orphaned or refugees as a result of the conflict. At this point, Lady Blomfield made friends with Eglantyne Jebb. Jebb (1876-1928) who hailed from a distinguished scholarly family was educated at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and from the age of 24 devoted herself to travelling and philanthropic works. She and her sister - Mrs Buxton - had heard much of the terrible misery in which the children of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe were plunged in the aftermath of the Great War. Their solution was to establish a Fund which would attend to the needs of these children.

They appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, then the free Churches, had an audience with Pope Benedict XV and the Patriarch of' the Greek Church securing co-operation wherever they went. On Holy Innocents' Day in both 1919 and 1920, churches throughout Europe of all denominations collected on behalf' of' the children. Increasing numbers of Jewish and Muslim organisations began to show interest in their work as large numbers of children of their faiths were affected by famine and poverty.

'Abdu'l-Bahá was swift to praise the work of Jebb and Buxton and hoped that Lady Blomfield might influence them in accepting the Bahá'í teachings. 'My hope is that thou mayest be confirmed in the great cause (of saving children), which is the greatest service to the world of' mankind. For the poor children are perishing from hunger and their condition is indeed pitiable. This is one of the evils of the war.'8 In a letter to Blomfield, dated 11 March 1920, He wrote, 'the English Lady who has established this committee is assuredly confirmed by the favours of' the Kingdom. This lady, Eglantyne Jebb and her sister, Mrs Buxton are really serving the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh and thus I beg for them attraction to His teachings.'9 'Abdu'l-Bahá sent two pictures of Himself to give to the sisters and asked Lady Blomfield to say to them, 'Ye are serving the world of mankind and the Divine Sacred Threshold. Ye are glorified by His Holiness Bahá'u'lláh for ye are acting in accordance with His teachings. My hope is that ye may become two resplendent torches of the world of mankind, may serve Divine civilisation, may attain everlasting life and may be favoured in the Divine Kingdom.'10

A month later, on 6 June 1920,'Abdu'l-Bahd wrote to Lady Blomfield praising God that such an 'Association for the education of destitute children and the relief of orphans (had) been formed, in which almost every nation and religion is represented.'11 'My hope is that, through the especial Graces of god, this Association would be confirmed; that it would, day by day, progress both spiritually and materially; that, in the long run, it would enter under the Heavenly Unicoloured Pavilion; that it would be accommodated in the Ship of the Real Existence; that it would be protected from every danger, and the oneness of the world of humanity may (thereby) raise (its) Banner at the zenith of the world.'12

Lady Blomfield thus became intimately involved with the work of the Save the Children Fund and returning to London maintained her friendship with Eglantync Jebb. One major contribution Blomfield made to raising awareness of the Fund's work was the publication of a small booklet entitled The First Obligation in which she called upon the Bahá'ís in particular to support the Fund's work and ideals. 'The First Obligation,' she quoted Bahá'u'lláh, 'is to strive by all means ... to instruct the children. Endeavour with all your soul... to train and educate all children, boys and girls alike; instruction and education are not optional, they are definitely commanded.'13 In terms of organising the work of the Fund, it was suggested that there should be in every country of the world a Committee which would gather together representative men and women of all shades of' thought in the service of' the children and who would undertake the practical task of collecting funds for them. The committees had a dual duty, of collecting funds for the children of their own country as well as for the poorest children of whatever nationality.

From the point of view of the Bahá'ís, Lady Blomfield stated that this duty should consist not merely in giving children food to eat, but in training them to earn food for themselves in later years by their own works. 'Wherever there is impoverishment', Lady Blomfield wrote, 'there is a menace to child-life, and the Save the Children Fund, reinforced by the Bahá'ís of the world, should be the Ark to carry the children safely through this time of stress and strain.'14

'Give to the children a manual profession,' advised 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 'something whereby they may be able to support themselves and others.'15 'Children must receive moral and physical training at the same time and (so) be protected from temptations and vices, for upon the children of today, - whether boys or girls, depends the moulding of the civilisation of tomorrow.'16 'It is for this reason that education and training of children is a SACRED OBLIGATION, and not a matter of voluntary choice. Those who neglect this obligation shall be held responsible and worthy of reproach in the presence of the stern Lord. This neglect is a sin unpardonable, for without training the poor babes are wanderers in the Sahara of ignorance. The babe, like unto a green tender branch, will grow according to the way it is trained. If it is rightly trained, it will grow rightly, if it is wrongly trained, the growth will be crooked and deformed, and thus it will remain until the end of life.'17

'Nothing less than the happiness of every human being is the ideal for the Bahá'í,' wrote Lady Blomfield,' he must not loiter by the way on the road to this ideal, he must: 'Strive and work, work and strive, until all the regions of the earth shall become resplendent.' He must work until the Christian virtues, often found in individuals, shall be manifested in the Institutional, Political, National, and International Life.'18

The international travel-teacher Charles Mason Remey offered to send out large numbers of the pamphlet to the Bahá'ís in America while a friend in Geneva who was attracted to the Teachings offered to translate it into French. Lady Blomfield firmly believed that joining the Bahá'ís with the work of the Fund would give to the world a practical demonstration of the Bahá'í Teachings on child education. The Bahá'í' response is not clearly ascertainable. While the community was not yet strong enough to provide widespread institutional support, some individuals were no doubt moved by her appeal.

In October 1920 'Abdu'l-Bahá urged Lady Blomfield to return to Switzerland 'to render benevolent services and become a kind mother to these orphan children.'19 He asked her to 'convey on my behalf respected greetings to Miss Egiantyne and say "Thou art not serving people, thou art serving God; thou art not taking care of the orphans, thou art taking care of the children of God. This desire is that the Banner of Universal Peace may be raised. This is the first of the Teachings of His Holiness Bahá'u'lláh. I congratulate thee on this aspiration.'20

Lady Blomfield returned to Geneva in May 1921 with Eglantyne Jebb whom she said was greatly encouraged and strengthened in her work by the wonderful Messages sent to her by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in His Tablets. Jcbb and Blomfield, pondering over the Tablet in which education as well as feeding the children is enjoined, decided to concentrate Blomfield's efforts on instituting workrooms in connection with children's establishments where they would be taught manual work and useful trades so that they could earn their own living. Meanwhile these children would receive food and a small wage in return for their work. Lady Blomfield learned of a Hungarian woman, Julie Eve Vajkai who had already successfully started such workrooms in Budapest for the poor children who without them would have been 'wandering the streets in summer's heat or winter's cold, with nobody to care whether they lived or died.'21 A Captain Pedlow, well known for his work in Hungary with the American Red Cross wrote to Lady Blomfield commending the workrooms there. 'Any action,' he wrote, 'which equips the young people, physically or mentally, so that they can earn their own living, is the best means of providing a lasting benefit for the Community.'22 Lady Blomfield established a special appeal called the Blomfield Fund which aimed to finance the workrooms for children and other relief' work of a constructive character.

On 23 July 1921 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote to Lady Blomfield in Geneva, that 'contribution, protection and care of these children are the greatest altruism and worship, and the cause of' satisfaction to the Most High, the Almighty; for these children have no father, no mother, no kind nurse, no home, no clothing and food, and no ease and quiet. In every respect they art worthy of kindness, merit help and deserve mercy and pity. The eyes of every sensitive man are weeping and the heart of every conscientious man is burning. O society, compassion! O concourse of' the wise, attention! O nobles, benevolence! O wealthy people, contribution! and O men of ideals, manliness! So that these helpless ones may obtain some comfort.

'On my behalf, extend utmost affection to Miss Eglantyne Jebb, I am very pleased with her because she strives so much and renders such service to the world of humanity.'23

Lady Blomfield's eagerness to rally the Bahá'í community to assist in the work of the Save the Children Fund was also manifest in an articles she prepared for the Bahá'í magazine, Star of the West, published in February 1924. She wrote:

'It is "an international effort to preserve child life wherever it is menaced by economic conditions of hardship and disaster" without political or sectarian bias. Its purpose is to save from starvation the homeless children of central, eastern and southern Europe and the Near East. It has saved multitudes from starvation, Christians, Muslims and Jews, and started thousands on the path of self-support. Today it is the only hope of many children, fatherless and motherless, who wait day after day in the bitter cold to receive their daily ration'24

In the first two years of the existence of the Save the Children Fund, a million pounds was raised to care for orphans, provide food and facilities to children's hospitals, and establish welfare centres and clinics. Hardly was it started in England when numerous other men and women in other countries arose to support the Cause of the World's children. Switzerland was the first to rise to relieve the famine stricken populations. In consultation with the Berne Committee, the Save the Children Fund discussed the idea of creating a central rallying point in a neutral country for the International Movement for Child Relief. The Pope made a generous contribution which allowed the International Union of the Save the Children Fund to be established in Geneva, thus creating a co-ordinating and networking centre for the different national groups. The International Committee of the Red Cross gave its patronage to the Fund and placed its delegates in war-stricken countries at the service of the Union, who then acted as the International Commissioners of the Fund, co-ordinating and supervising the work at the different centres. From then on it grew into an Organisation which still thrives today and does extensive work in the relief and protection of the world's children.

Although Eglantyne Jebb passed away in 1928, and Lady Blomfield's international activities became more limited as old age set in, she remained active in the work of the Save the Children Fund until shortly before her death on the last day of 1939. In her last years she served on the Council of the Save the Children Fund in Britain and was for a time its vice-president. Just two months before her passing she attended a Council meeting having offered earlier in the year to give up her seat to make way for a younger candidate. The other Council members pressed her to remain a member until after the Second World War. During the January 1940 Council meeting, affectionate tribute was paid to her memory. In the March 1940 issue of the World's Children, the official organ of the Save the Children Fund, one and a quarter pages were dedicated to an obituary tribute to her.

With the passing of Lady Blomfield, it was written, the Save the Children Fund was 'deprived ... of a devoted and inspiring friend..... she gave herself to a variety of humanitarian causes with an ardour which persisted to the last days of a long life. With a personal courage which had led her to give active service to the movement for the enfranchisement of women in its least popular days, and an invincible faith in the inherent good in all men which made her oblivious of all the sundering distinctions of race and creed and 'colour', she found deep spiritual affinity with the teaching of Bahá'u'lláh, the Persian mystic. She remained a loyal member of the Church of England in which she was nurtured (her husband's father was the famous Bishop Blomfield of London), but what came to be known as the Bahá'í movement had in her one of' its most faithful disciples. She was proud to recall that she entertained its leader the late 'Abdu'l-Bahá during his visits to London and Paris before the Great War, she cherished the name; 'Sitarih Khanim' (sic), by which she was known in the community, she published many of the prophet's words in English and the Bahá'í Centres in London and in Geneva (where she lived for many years) owe much to her self-denying generosity...

At the funeral service at Hampstead Cemetery on January 4, the chaplain said this friend, to whom 'Jesus was the inspiration of her life' had 'left behind her an example of hard-working beneficence to the end of her days, a wonderful kindliness of spirit and breadth of sympathy.'25

The wide range of Lady Blomfield's sympathies was expressed at her funeral by the presence of representatives of not only the Save the Children Fund but also the Hampstead Auxiliary Fire Service (to whom she had offered accommodation for the care of children found straying during air raids), the Animals' Defence and Anti-Vivisection Society and the Bahá'í community, two leaders of which read special prayers after the Church of England service.

'Lady Blomfield', concluded the tribute, 'will always be remembered, not only for her uncompromising devotion to the causes which she espoused, but - on the more personal side of life - for a singularly beautiful, deep voice in which she loved to declaim passages from her favourite prophet and from Holy Writ, and for a warm maternal sympathy which took under its wing all sorts and conditions of men.'26


Written by Rob Weinberg for the U.K. Bahá'í Centenary and distributed by the Bahá'í Information Office, 27 Rutland Gate, London SW7 1PD. phone 0171-584-2566 / fax 0171-584.9402 / e-mail isp@iol.ie

References:

1. See Blomfield, Lady, The Chosen Highway. London, Bahá'í Publishing Trust 1940.
2. See Basil Hall, Mary, Sitarih Khanum, a brief account of her life and work by her daughter, Mary Basil Hall. United Kingdom Bahá'í Archives.
3. See 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks. London, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1967.
4. Letter from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Lady Blomfield, 29 March 1912, provisional translation.
5. As reference 2.
6. See Pankhurst, Christabel, Unshackled. Cresett Women's Voices 1987.
7. See Pankhurst, Sylvia, The Suffragette Movement. London, Virago, 1977.
8. Letter from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Lady Blomfield, 11 March 1920, provisional translation.
9. As reference 8.
10. As reference 8.
11. Letter from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Lady Blomfield, 6 June 1920, provisional translation.
12. As reference 11.
13. See Blomfield, Lady, The First Obligation. London, Caledonian Press, 1921.
14. As reference 13.
15. As reference 13.
16. As reference 13.
17. As reference 13.
18. As reference 13.
19. Letter from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Lady Blomfield, October 1920, provisional translation.
20. As reference 19.
21. As reference 13.
22. As reference 13.
23. Letter from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Lady Blomfield, 23 July 1921, provisional translation.
24. See Star of the West, Volume 14 Number 11, February 1924.
25. See The World's Children, March 1940.
26. As reference 25.

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